Alesis M1 Active 320 USB ($100, pair)MANY BIG, COMMERCIAL RECORDING studios boast scrupulously tuned control rooms, massively expensive monitoring systems, and extremely comfortable listening environments. These joints are things of beauty. Your home studio … not so much.
But even if your personal studio is set up in a garage, bedroom, home office, or closet, it doesn’t mean you’re forever cursed to produce bush-league mixes. A good monitor system—along with a few placement and listening tips—can ensure accurate-enough sonic assessments that can help you craft professional-sounding mixes.
WHAT EXACTLY IS A STUDIO MONITOR?
Ah, well, in these days of hype-above-all-else, anything that calls itself a studio monitor just might be a studio monitor. But beware— good studio monitors are designed to provide a relatively uncolored view of a sonic spectrum, so as to allow you to make accurate decisions on frequency tweaks, panning, level adjustments, and so on. This is why an old set of Montgomery Ward stereo speakers isn’t a great choice for your studio. Those babies are likely hyped in the mids, lows, and/or highs to impress potential buyers who wanna rock the house. They are not designed for flat response or accurate reproduction. They are candy-coated demons. Do not be seduced! Seek monitors from companies noted for manufacturing studio-quality speakers used by pro engineers, producers, and deejays—such as JBL, Yamaha, KRK, Mackie, Alesis, M-Audio, Peavey, Fostex, Tannoy, Genelec, etc.
Desktop-sized monitors are your sonic salvation, because you want to listen as close to the source sound as possible — hence the term “near-field.” Stay away from monsters that are best left on the floor, or hung on the wall. You’re not looking for party speakers. You are seeking accurate reproduction of the frequency spectrum.
Behringer TruthB3030A ($400, pair) THE SWEET SPOT
Near-field monitors can place you within a listening “sweet spot” that allows you to hear sounds as accurately as possible. To devise this sweet spot, most audio books advise placing the monitors three-feet away from each other, and at a distance from your head of three feet, as well. Picture yourself at one tip of an equilateral triangle with the speakers at the other tips. This close-monitoring position diminishes the effects of a less-than-stellar listening environment. You shouldn’t be bedeviled by standing waves, room reflections, echoes, slapbacks, and other gremlins that make it difficult to truly hear what you’ve recorded.
KEEPING IT CLEAN
Needless to say, you can tank the effectiveness of your monitoring sweet spot if you pile magazines, clothes, action figures, effects pedals, rack gear, preamps, direct boxes, and soft-drink cans atop the mixing desk like some kind of unrepentant hoarder. You want the sound produced by the monitors to reach your ears as directly as possible. You don’t want the sound reflecting off Coke cans and ping-ponging past your eardrums with a series of flutter echoes. If desk clutter stops you from seeing the speaker cones from just three feet away, move the impediments aside.
POWERED VS. PASSIVE
Studio monitors can be powered (a power amp is included within the speaker) or passive (an external power amp is required). Two advantages of powered monitors are significant for home-studio musicians: they’re space savers, and the internal amps are matched to the design, efficiency, and frequency range of the speakers. Oh, and one more thing: You can plug the powered monitors right into a laptop and have yourself a groovy mobile recording studio. However, if your studio already has a separate power amp that you dig, passive monitors are absolutely fine.
PORT OF CALL
KRK Rokit Powered 8 ($500, pair) Obviously, desktop near-fields are housed in small speaker enclosures that may not reproduce low-end sounds very well. To deal with this challenge, speaker manufacturers can devise a bass port that “tunes” the enclosure so that it resonates at lower frequencies than the woofer itself might reproduce. Ports can be almost any shape, and can reside on the front or back panel of the speaker enclosure. A lot of acoustic science goes into this process, but some engineers still don’t feel the extended bass response is an accurate and trustworthy reference of your source sound’s low end. There can also be trepidation that a rear-firing port can cause bass frequencies to reflect off a nearby back wall, and further skew low-end perception. While I would try to keep the ports from blasting towards reflective surfaces, I don’t think there is much cause for concern. Throughout the years, tons of hit records have been mixed on ported monitor systems.
THAT ONE LIFE-SAVING MONITORING TIP…
Electro-Voice S-40 ($215, pair) Whatever near-field monitor system you choose, the best way to ensure the mixes you do in your home studio translate accurately to other playback systems (car stereos, mp3 players, boom boxes, hi-fi audio) is to reference your tracks against several of your favorite commercial releases. Comparing your mix levels, panning, and frequency spectrum to professional albums can be tedious and frustrating, but it will keep you from making rookie mistakes such as producing muddy bass, searing highs, and cranky mids.
Simply play your mix, and A/B it to, say, Esperanza Spalding’s Radio Music Society CD. Are your highs as clear and clean as hers? Does the low-end match up? Are the mids as transparent and articulate? How loud is the snare compared to your track? What about the kick, guitars, percussion, bass, keyboards, and lead and background vocals? Using acknowledged audio masterworks as critical comparisons is a genius move for getting the most out of your monitor system, your ears, and, ultimately, your tracks.