Our new monthly look at what you really need in your recording setup – and sometimes what you don’t. For this first installment, we’re looking at possibly the most important item of all, and why you really need great monitors in your studio…
Honesty is the best policy
The best monitors boast the flattest frequency response. They might not even sound ‘the best’ to untrained ears – flat response monitors can even be wearing – but the truth is, they are the truth! What you are hearing through a pair of honest monitors is your mix in all of its glory, warts, and mistakes and all. And actually hearing the mistakes is the most important aspect of an honest playback. If you can hear that over-hot recording, bum note, or clashing bassline, you can do something about it. If you can’t hear the mistakes, they will find their way to your final mix – not good!
Some, often cheaper monitor speakers, might well be colored to make them sound better. This might be in the bass region, often the case in small monitors. If you are hearing an enhanced bass, the chances are you will overcompensate for it in the mixing process. You will likely turn the low end down and it will translate with too little bass onto your reference system and everywhere else. In fact, it will only sound good on the original colored monitors you mixed with!
Does honesty cost?
Until just a few years ago we’d have always answered this question with a resounding ‘yes’! Speakers with flat responses used to cost well into four figures. However, over the last five years or so, driver technology has improved and component parts have come down in price – as knowledge and design principles have gone up. You can now, therefore, get very decent-sounding speakers for far less cash, as we prove in our roundup here.
Generally speaking though, the more you pay, the more accurate your monitors are. If you go to the next budget level you will get this accuracy, although it is not now proportional to the extra cash. Spending high four figures might only get you another 2% accuracy. Whether you think this small gain is worth the extra bucks is something only you can decide.
Many pro speaker manufacturers publish the frequency responses of their models on their websites. These will span the frequency range, say from 40Hz to 20kHz, and are listed with a plus or minus decibel figure. This gives you an indication of their possible variation from the flat level across that range. The lower this value, the better (less than 3dB is ok). Look out for this figure and any peaks or troughs, as this highlights the frequency areas where you may have to compensate when mixing.
A good range DOES cost
As well as a flat response, you also want the frequency range that your monitors can handle to be wide. The human ear can detect 20Hz to 20kHz so your ideal speaker range will cover this. Cheaper and especially smaller speakers don’t reach down into the depths of this range – most in our roundup get to a respectable 35Hz, though. You should therefore consider adding a subwoofer to get that low-end detail.
You might be surprised at how high the frequency range on some speakers is – sometimes up to 35kHz – and question whether this is really necessary. Current research says the higher the better and that these top-end frequencies will still affect the playback of lower audible frequencies, even though only your dog can quite detect them! (There are also fascinating theories about how the human body can react to different frequencies, outside of the audio spectrum – but that’s another feature!)
Either way, the frequency range should be as broad as possible and this is where you will have to shell out more cash. It might be for those subwoofers we mentioned above, or for bigger speakers that can deliver a better low end, or on 3-way speakers. Our budget monitors are all 2-way and deliver the goods, but again if you want that extra small percentage, then 3-way speakers offer a mid-range driver to join up the dots between the bass-end woofer and hi-end tweeter. Expensive 2-way speakers can deliver a great response but 3-way speakers generate a better picture. They also reduce phasing issues that might creep in with a woofer and tweeter’s overlapping (crossover) frequencies.
Sweet spots are getting better
Another consideration for your studio monitors is the ‘sweet spot’ that they deliver. This is the area in which you, the listener, can sit and enjoy an accurate playback. It’s usually equidistant from each speaker. Shift left or right out of this spot and the sound from the monitors will reach you at different times. This is not good as it causes ‘off-axis lobing’ and a decrease in accuracy.
Manufacturers are, however, getting pretty good at designing waveguides around tweeters to disperse higher frequencies over a larger area to increase this sweet spot. These give you a more flexible listening position, allowing for more than one listener or a larger room for monitoring. Many of the options in our budget roundup boast wider sweet spots, so this is definitely something you should consider (and can afford) in your speaker purchasing.
Another reason why you really need great monitors in your studio is that your speakers should be able to handle fast transients. Very simply that’s the time between a voltage passing through them and the cones reacting. The quicker the reaction, the better. A monitor with a tight transient response will follow the mix accurately – although you don’t want an overreaction either as that might cause distortion. The transient response of a speaker depends very much on the material of the drivers and the cabinet design. As you might expect, the better the material – be it tough and sharp – the more expensive. Again though, prices are coming down and design thinking is getting much better.
Another factor in the cabinet design is resonances at certain frequencies or vibration caused by the speaker positioning. Speakers often now also come with decent acoustic isolating feet to cut down other vibrations (if not consider third-party pucks made of rubber which do a similar job).
Finally, consider the AI speaker
There’s one factor not covered here that is of equal importance to your monitors and that is your room acoustic. Even if you have the greatest monitors, they can be undone by having a terrible room. Near field monitoring, to a certain extent, negates the effect of the room. This is because you are listening close to the monitors so the effects of any reflections are lessened. However, there is a new breed of studio monitor that ‘listens’ to your room and self-adjusts its frequency response. This counters any peaks and troughs caused by the room, essentially delivering a pseudo-flat response tailored to your space.
Monitors like Genelec’s The Ones, and at the other end of the price scale, IK Multimedia’s iLoud MTMs, send a test tone out that covers the frequency range. They then analyze the results, which are picked up by a connected microphone, to detect anomalies. If the response has, say, a peak at 3.5kHz, they adjust their response accordingly by introducing a dip to counter it. What you are hearing is still flat, but adjusted for your room, and you know what? This technology works! The Genelecs cost, the IK’s less so, but this tech is well worth considering. It’s almost essential if you are a producer who has set up a studio in a non-perfect acoustic space.
We’ll have a separate feature on room acoustics soon. For now, make sure that the speakers you are mixing on really reflect the music you are listening to. It’s why you really need great monitors in your studio. The truth can hurt, but at least honest monitors will let you to hear it and do something about it!