Choosing Monitors For Your Recording Studio
Kristin Pinell & Kurt Reil
June 14, 2011
The ultimate goal in selecting studio monitors is to find a pair that will give you an accurate representation of your recordings.
Your mixes need to translate well to a variety of other systems (in the car, an ipod, a home stereo system) not just your own. Home stereo speakers are not meant for critical listening applications. They tend to flatter the sound and accentuate low or top end.
For accurate recording and mixing you’ll need a set of dedicated near field monitors. With these and an understanding of how to control the acoustics in your listening environment you’ll be able to produce mixes that consistently sound balanced and musical wherever they’re heard.
What do I Need? Near field? Mid-Field?
In most home or commercial studios today you’ll find a set of small loudspeakers known as near field monitors. These reference speakers are designed for close listening situations and allow you to evaluate your mixes with the least room effect as possible. The best sound or “sweet” spot is usually only about 3 feet away so they are perfect for use in an average-sized room.
These monitors don’t exaggerate any particular frequency and you can mix at a reasonably low volume to avoid a lot of unwanted sound reflection. Near fields have become the standard for recording studios today because their features compensate for the shortcomings of a smaller room and lack of acoustical treatment.
Mid field monitors are not suitable for these rooms. They are larger and require more air space and volume to be heard accurately. They are designed to work better in conjunction with acoustically treated professional studios.
Active/Powered or Passive/Unpowered
All studio recording monitors need power to drive them. Active/powered monitors have an enclosed power amp that is perfectly matched to the speakers by the manufacturer. Frequently you’ll see this feature listed as a “2 way/bi-amp” which means the speaker comes with both a woofer and a tweeter that are individually powered.
Active monitors are connected directly from the line outputs of your recording setup which greatly simplifies your signal flow and connections. Many include gain or frequency controls and even some kind of built-in protection that keeps the speakers or amplifier from being overloaded. They provide a convenient, compact listening package. Passive monitors are strictly speakers with a crossover in an enclosure. An external power amp is necessary to drive them. There are pros and cons to each.
Active vs. Passive—Pros and Cons
What you gain in the convenience of using Active monitors you might sacrifice in quality and flexibility compared to Passive monitors. You’ll need to consider the trade-offs.
• If you have passive monitors and a separate power amp, the quality of each of the components is usually better...but you will have the added expense of buying two things.
• Some sound engineers say that speaker cabinet acoustics are compromised by attaching a power amp to the rear.
• High-end power amps can be really heavy, so manufacturers generally put lighter, cheaper amps inside Active speaker enclosures. Otherwise it would make them too big and heavy.
• Having a separate amplifier allows you to power multiple sets of speakers at a time. At our studio we have two sets of speakers for listening. We frequently audition a mix on both for comparison.
• If you have a problem with active monitors it may not be as easy to isolate it. You can’t switch out the component and continue working.
• From our experience speakers tend to outlast power amps. If the amp in your active monitor fails you many end up replacing the entire unit even though the speakers may still be in good condition.
There are clearly a lot of sonic advantages to using Passive monitors but in today’s home studio where ease of use and saving space or money are more important Active monitors may be your best choice.
Do I Need a Subwoofer With My Speakers?
Getting a balanced bass sound that works well in multiple listening environments can be one of the hardest things to achieve with smaller speakers. Near field monitors usually come with woofers that are only 3”-8”in diameter. In general, a larger woofer or low frequency driver extends the bass response of your speaker so if you opt for a smaller “bookshelf” monitor with a 5” woofer you’ll most likely need a subwoofer to accurately monitor low frequency in your mixes. We can’t emphasize enough the importance of auditioning your bass frequencies on more than one set of speakers or with a subwoofer if you are using near field monitors.
Quick Tips On Using A Subwoofer
The best placement of a subwoofer really depends on the unique acoustic characteristics of your listening room. Place it directly on the ground and not under something where misleading low end rumble can build up.
As a rule you shouldn’t be able to hear the bass coming directly out of the subwoofer. It should blend into the mix coming out of the speakers on each side of you. Be careful of your volume levels. You don’t want the bass to be really loud. This may cause your final mix to actually be “bass light”. You’ll be hearing way more bass in the room than is actually present on the track.
Ported or Unported?
Near fields all vary in their cabinet design. They can be ported or unported, which means they may or may not come with an air vent built in either the front or back for acoustic resonance or ventilation. If you are locating your monitors close to a wall you should avoid rear ported speakers because they can artificially extend low frequencies. This will cause you to compensate in the mix and you’ll be missing low end when listening on other systems. You can opt for monitors with front-ports or no ports.
What Does Paying More Get Me?
As the price of the monitor goes up more care is taken in the acoustical design. You’ll get more accurate stereo imaging and better frequency response with controls that let you fine-tune the speakers to your room. There may be additional connector options and a larger internal amp for more power. These features make it easier to achieve a more accurate mix.
What’s Out There Right Now?
There are quite a few manufacturers out there like Tascam, Mackie & JBL designing great monitor sets for under $200.
JBL’s C2PSs (above) and Mackie’s MR5MK2 5” Reference Monitors (left) are active near fields that have well thought out designs, decent amp power and frequency control..
For slightly more money ($300-$350) you can go for something like Tascam’s VL-5s (photo at top of article) or JBL’s LSR2328Ps and get a deeper cabinet design, increased amp power, additional filters and extended frequency range.
For their value any of these make great additions to DAWs and home project studios.
After completing your mixes you always have the option of taking them to an outside studio for the final mix and mastering. Many people working out of home studios get their rough mixes to a certain point and then pass them off to a more experienced mixing engineer.
But How Do They Sound?
It all comes down to personal taste. You really need to like the overall sound of the monitors you buy since you will be the one listening to them for extended periods of time. The sound needs to be accurate yet comfortable so you won’t get ear fatigue.
It’s best to audition several pairs of monitors before you buy. Listen for differences in high and low end, boxiness and midrange. Referencing music you know can help you develop your listening skills.
There will be a learning curve associated with whatever speakers you choose as you begin to understand how their unique characteristics affect your recordings, so be patient. As long as you can adapt your listening decisions to their strengths and weaknesses, you will be able to make great sounding music.