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Recording Mythology, Pt. 4 / Headphones and Monitors

Let’s clear up a few more misconceptions:

1) You do not have to pay big money to a hot-shot producer and use his state-of-the-art studio to obtain good sounding, radio ready professional recordings, and
2) you can make great sounding recordings in your den or bedroom, provided one can accurately hear what is being recorded and mixed.

I’m not going to apologise for the length nor the technical aspects of this article. Parts of it may become overbearingly boring, but the serious artist who is hellbent on perfecting his or her craft will want to know everything which I am about to disclose. It doesn’t matter if you are a budget-conscious beginner or an artist with their sights set on the stars (good luck, by the way), knowing the basics of recording will go a long way toward realising one’s goals as an artist.

Since I have been writing these notes for those with little or no firsthand knowledge of home recording, I’m going to discuss the primary elements of getting a good recording as well as a great mix. Many artists whose work I have listened to have very good ideas, but it seems that getting the finished product to sound like what they have imagined it should sound like is quite a different matter. Mixing takes time and patience and its importance cannot be over-emphasised.

Many artists (myself included) have determined that they have neither the space nor the resources to invest in a full blown layout as one might find in more professional settings. It has been said that good recording cannot be obtained unless one employs the services of such a studio, and I have witnessed many bands and individuals throw good money into big-time production, and many times the results have left them wanting. It goes without saying that the artist must first know what they want. There is no producer or engineer alive who is capable of peering into the artists’ psyche and rendering the desired production, otherwise there would be a well worn path to their door. Unfortunately for us, they’d always be booked. As individuals, it is important that we know how to hear music. It is only in this manner that we can get some idea of what we are striving to achieve as well as knowing what to avoid.

I like to refer to recording music as slight-of-ear. We aren’t simply recording a vocal or an instrument the way that it actually sounds, rather the way we want it to sound. This involves many laborious processes, but usually begins with knowing how many tracks we want on the finished product. Will there be one acoustic guitar and a lone vocal, or will there be three separate guitar parts, consisting of acoustics as well as electrics? Will there be backing vocals? The approach to recording each track will differ depending on the answers. It isn’t enough to just stick the microphone in front of the performer and hit the record button whilst they begin to wail. Again, listening is not so much the objective here as is hearing.

The first thing that the artist must do is own a good set of headphones. By good, I mean those costing at least $100. US. This is an area where we can’t afford to skimp. Studio headphones, in particular, are what we are looking for: Closed, sealed-back, and ‘flat’, or ‘linear’ response are the key words we are looking for here. Terms used to describe the headphones such as DJ, open, or vented-back, or anything with “mega-super-bass-boost” represent the types we are wishing to avoid. “Audiophile” headphones are usually high-end consumer grade units and are made for listening to pre-recorded music. These, nor “wireless” will do for the musician interested in studio recording. Sealed-back headphones are especially important for the home recordist. How can we reliably hear what is being recorded if we hear the guitar amplifier in combination with the mix through a set of open-back headphones? We are, after all, wanting to hear what the microphone is hearing. Besides, vented headphones can be downright dangerous when used by a vocalist. Generally, a singer stands in close proximity to the microphone. If, while monitoring with a set of these headphones in front of a live microphone, the singer turned their head 45 degrees, that is to say to turn their ear to the mic, the mic would “hear” itself through the headphone diaphragm. This is what is commonly referred to as “feedback”. If the headphone gain is cranked up enough, hearing loss could result. And the only deaf musician I’ve ever heard of was Beethoven.

Everyone’s ears are slightly different, and, bearing this in mind, one set of headphones are going to have better replication of sound than another. However, we are going to be interested in the set that renders realistic properties, these being the closest thing to what our ears actually hear. My suggestion here may be unorthodox, yet I allow it to stand nonetheless: Take along two CDs when you go to the retail outlet you intend to purchase your headphones. One of these CDs should be one that you are completely unfamiliar with, such as a full range symphonic orchestral recording. The other should be a recording with which you are wholly familiar and which reflects the style of music that you are planning to immerse yourself in writing and reecording. Try out all of the headphones that are in the price range which you have predetermined. Do not allow the sales associate to talk you into listening to those outside your price range. You will want to listen to the symphonic recording first through all of the headphones within your budget. Listen to quiet, as well as loud passages, at a moderate volume, but do not spend too much time doing so. Ear fatigue is a very real issue. Don’t get caught up in comparing and re-comparing, as this technique only makes the process harder. If you spend half the day listening to music through headphones you are going to leave confused and frustrated, or end up making a purchase that you may later regret. Decide quickly whether or not you feel that the sound is authentically reproduced. The goal here is to listen intently to the instruments and how realistically the headphones reproduce these sounds. Are the strings or brass too harsh? Are the bass frequencies over-emphasised? Once you have determined which pair sounds most natural, pop in the familiar CD. Nine times out of ten, you will agree that this CD sounds better through those headphones than you have ever heard it sound.

I am of the opinion that the next most important item in the signal chain is the last, and although the philiosphies vary from one engineer to the next, it is universally agreed upon that if one cannot accurately hear what one has recorded it then becomes impossible to effect the end result, therefore a pair of studio monitors are indispensible. Monitors are not merely ‘speakers’, thus, a pair of consumer grade stereo speakers will not suffice in this critical area. Monitors are designed to reproduce recorded sounds as accurately as possible, with as little coloration as physically possible. This property is referred to as being ‘flat’ or linear. Monitors, as a rule, are not inexpensive. An inexpensive pair of the dual-driver sort may start at around $250. US and can easily climb to stratospheric proportions. Here again, our budget will limit our purchasing power. However, most retail stores, unless equiped with a proper listening room (unlikely), offer little in the way of an ideal listening environment. A few people have voiced concern over the lack of frequency response of dual-driver monitors, that is to say, those having only a bass cone for the low freqs and a dome or folded driver for the high freqs. Back when speaker drivers were less efficient, many manufacturers included a midrange driver, especially in consumer stereo speakers, but with today’s designs and materials, the dual-driver design overlaps nicely, the main concern with experienced listeners being that of the crossover frequency.

This is an area where research pays off. Reading reviews in online merchandise retailer sites is paramount as are articles in magazines dedicated to audio recording. Many times, articles addressing ‘shootouts’ between various manufacturers models within a specific price range can be extremely helpful. Recording Magazine is an especially good publication in this regard. If you are serious about home recording, I strongly recommend a subscription to this magazine or one similar to it.

For the first time buyer, shopping for monitors is a stressful foray. He or she, being inundated with opinions, specifications, aesthetics, and brand-association, can become confused rather quickly. It becomes easy to begin wondering why monitors are necessary at all. “Why make the investment only to turn around and convert my music to mp3s that are going to be listened to through earbuds 90% of the time?” one may ask. The answer is simple: You have to hear it accurately in order to mix it accurately, and a good reference is essential, otherwise it will end up sounding like crap through earbuds. Besides, music is a self-fulfilling activity. The satisfaction that one gets from listening to a job well done is hard to beat, even if you happen to be the only person who ever hears it so clearly.

Once we are capable of hearing our work via microphone, headphones and monitors, we will be well on our way to being able to control and manipulate our recordings to sound as good as many made in a professional studio.

Johnny Nowhere is a songwriter and composer who believes that since our ears are analogue and stereo, that is the way that music should be recorded and heard.


About Johnny Nowhere

Johnny Nowhere is a songwriter/composer and owner of Hell Paving Company, music publisher. Johnny doesn't really exist outside of the music industry and Facebook. He is simply a figment of my imagination.

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