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Recording Mythology, Pt. 20 / More Thoughts on Studio Monitors

I’m going to get back on topic now and discuss the home recording situation a bit more.

I’m aware that the selection of studio tools can be quite daunting and that the retailers of this equipment can be downright useless in their recommendations in helping us sort through the mess. When the specs sheet for any given pair of monitors suggests that those particular monitors are perfect, it leaves one wondering why there are so many to choose from, and why there is such a variation in price from one brand to the next. Every piece of equipment which we encounter boasts different and unique features and, more times than not, we may find ourselves walking out of the store empty-handed, confused and bewildered.

What piece of equipment should one acquire first? I would first define how much I intended to sink into the studio altogether. Now, divide that figure by five, as there are that many primary components in the production chain, those being: microphones, cables, outboard gear, recording system and monitors. I am addressing those of you particularly interested in recording onto a DAW or such device. As mentioned in a previous post, many DAWs come with a full compliment of on-board effects, instrument and mic inputs, etc. This may be advantageous in that the money that you would generally appropriate toward building an outboard effects rack could then be redistributed among the other four component divisions. Perhaps you’d be able to buy two mics instead of one. I like to have more mics than anything else because using the same mic for every application can become time consuming, in that we find ourselves constantly moving the one about, first pressing it into service as an amp mic and then as a vocal mic and then as an acoustic guitar mic, not to mention having to reset the preamp levels, the compression ratio and the EQ each time. And, contrary to common belief, you don’t have to rob a bank in order to obtain a decent mic. Some rather cheap mics can sound surprisingly good, but in this regard, it comes down to the luck of the draw, as most manufacturers of mass produced units do not have the strictest quality control standards. It all boils down to what you’re after. I’ve heard a couple of killer recordings wherein the vocalist was singing through a Shure 520 DX. I don’t believe I’m giving away any trade secrets here. The 520 DX, or ‘Green Bullet’, as many refer to it, was intended for use as a harmonica mic, and it really sounds dirty, but in a really cool way.

I’ve always felt that it made sense to start at the monitors and work my way back toward the mic. My reasoning is this: if we first find a set of monitors that are neutral to our ears, we are more easily capable of setting up our baffles, gobos and/or wall treatment in order to attain the sound which we are in pursuit of in the area or room which we have designated as our studio space.

There are two major types of monitors: Active and passive. Active monitors are designed with an amplifier built into each cabinet so that they may be hooked up directly to a deck or DAW or computer. They cost more than those that are passive, being the type that require the addition of an amplifier to drive them. If you are looking at passive monitors, then the price of a power amplifier will come into the funds designated towards outboard equipment: You’ll be able to get better monitors but less in the way of outboard gear. It can quickly become a delicate balancing act.

If you decide on monitors employing a bass driver of less than 6 inches in diameter, you will be sacrificing bass response. If this is the case, you may find your mixes becoming bass heavy when listened to on larger systems. This will be because you are attempting to compensate for the frequencies which your monitors cannot reproduce, thus being those which you cannot hear, although they are present. Keep in mind that the bass response should at least go down to 70Hz. This is just below the second harmonic (or the first overtone) of the low E on a bass guitar and will be suitable in most acoustic recording situations but if you are using six string bass or keyboards that reach down to A3 you’re going to need something beefier than a monitor which employs an 8″ driver. Cost will likewise be affected. Three way systems, which employ a monophonic bass cabinet in addition to the typical stereo setup, have become pratique commune. Lots of big time engineers will tell you that if you don’t go with a three way system, you’ll be missing lots of low-end information in the mix, and that is true. However, my approach is merely to create a cut-off frequency at around 30Hz on my programme EQ when I do the mixdown. Unless you’re recording the aforementioned sourcing, a subject which, is beyond the scope of this article, you aren’t going to require critical listening down yonder, anyhow.

We can’t expect that a retail outlet will have the ideal listening setup for each pair of monitors that we want to try out, and this is unfortunate, as it makes it impossible to compare stereo imaging and countless other factors. But it will go a long way to bear in mind that we are efforting to hear the sounds that they are emitting.

The night before making a trip to the store to shop for monitors, you’ll want to give your ears a rest. If you’ve played a gig or gone clubbing, or gone to a movie and exposed your ears to a bunch of racket, they’re still going to be compressed the next morning and this is not a good time to be carrying out aural discriminating. Likewise, you don’t want to wake up the next morning and crank up your stereo in your home or car. I suggest that you not listen to anything. This may seem a tad extreme, but if you’re going to plop down at least $500. on a couple of boxes with drivers, you’ll not want to deal with regrets later on. It goes without saying that the best time to go monitor shopping is in the morning. If you arrive at the store as they open, no one else will be there, the store associate will be able to give you the required attention, and they’ll also be in a better mood.

I want to say a word or two about retail outlets. If you walk into the store and they have music pumping at an unbelievable volume and lights flashing all around, this is usually not a good sign. It may even be worth your time to scope out these stores ahead of time to find the ones who have isolated monitor rooms in which you can do your critical listening. If they expect you to select a pair of monitors while Angus Young Jr. is wearing out a Marshall amp twenty-five feet away, they aren’t interested in the customer or the sale. If the salesman doesn’t seem knowledgeable about the equipment, you’ll want to go elsewhere.

Before listening to your music selections, you’ll want to listen to the room. With no sound coming over the monitors, as you talk to the salesman, listen to his voice and be aware if there is any reverberation in the room. His voice should sound warm, but dead. Clap your hands and listen for any slap-back echo. If the salesman is savvy, he won’t look at you as if you’re an idiot. If he does have to ask what you are doing, he doesn’t understand the sale.

Inform the associate what you are prepared to spend and don’t allow him to up-sale you. If he or she tries to get you to “listen to these first” (the ones that are $1600. apiece), tell him no thanks. Only listen to what you can afford. Ask him to put on the first CD and to turn all of the EQing flat, that is, with everything set the same, with no subwoofer involved and get yourself situated in the “sweet spot”, in other words triangulate yourself between the monitors so that you are positioned at a point to where you and the monitors in question form a triangle. They should be at or about ear level. Ask that he turn up the volume gradually to a comfortable listening level. Hear the instruments and make a mental note as to how natural they sound and how well they project. The store associate should not be attempting to talk to you at this point. You only want to listen to about thirty seconds or so to one pair before having the salesperson switch to the next pair. Listen for minute differences, especially in the presence of the mid-range frequencies. If there are any, they should be readily apparent. Two-way monitors all have varying cross-over freqs, and depending on where these parameters are dialed in, the response curve in the mids is going to be affected. Next, pay especially close attention to the bass and the treble frequencies. You’ll be looking for tightness and clarity respectively. Have the associate switch to the next pair and do the make the same comparisons.

You should already know at this point which ones you like the best.

Have the associate put in another CD and then repeat the process in the same order. Go with your gut and don’t start getting lost in tiny details. Your ears will become fatigued quickly when you are listening in this fashion. If you try to compare more than three of four pairs, you’ll become confused. If you find yourself saying, “I can’t decide..” then don’t. Go back another day and make the same comparisons. Perhaps you could take a friend whose taste in music you admire. If he or she agrees with you concerning a particular pair, it is a done deal. If they happen to think that pair A sounds better but you like pair B, go back yet another day (alone this time), and listen to those two again. Once you decide on which pair that you like the best, buy them. It is so easy to get lost in the process, but if, to your ears, one pair stands head and shoulders above the rest in sound reproduction, there’s no sense in seeking anyone else’s advice.

Johnny is a songwriter and composer who spent two years deciding on monitors. He’ll never get that time back. Don’t be a Johnny.

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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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