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Tips: Recording Studio Audio Monitors

What types of monitors are there?

There are two types of audio reference monitors, they are the room monitors and near-field monitors. A high end studio will own at least one pair of room and near-field monitors. The reason for this is there are two types of monitoring setups which both have weakness's which the other type solves. The pros and cons of both near-field and room monitors are covered below to assist home studio owners to choose the right audio monitors from the wide range available at their local music store.

Before diving in and comparing different types of audio reference monitors, a few basic facts about sound need to be covered to give those with little to no theory the info they require to understand where this article is Coming from and to provide some sound proof that what is written here is based on facts and not a sales person giving a pitch. The common trend these days by miss informed consumers is to TRY and purchase one set of speakers which do everything. Of course the market responses to market demand and most of the studio monitors available in shops are designed to sell in large numbers and not provide the correct balance of features a studio needs. For example a consumer walks into a shop, listens to all the speakers and purchases the ones that sound the best in the shop and have the most bass. I'll explain below why this is not the best idea and what you need to look for if your looking for the best audio monitors that assists you in making the correct judgments on your recordings.

Its a known fact that all rooms sound different. I'm sure you have noticed that your own voice sounds different when your standing in a small bathroom or shower to when your standing in a kitchen. Not only the size of the room but the materials and shape of the room all add up to the coloration a room adds. This is why near-field monitors are used in studios, to give the engineer an accurate picture of the recording without the room effecting the sound too much before the sound reaches their ears. Near-fields are used probably 80% of the time by the engineer and are the first type of audio monitors that a studio should purchase.

The second fact about sound is that inside a room, it takes space and room for sound to develop. Low bass can have a wave-length of a few meters, which in a small control room a fundamental bass note may not fit in the room giving it time to develop and properly form. Also smaller rooms without bass traps and correct bass treatment tend to have problems with the bottom end as the notes resonate in the room. Aside from the size and room acoustics, near-fields are used close to the engineers ears and this does not give the bass time to correctly develop. This is one reason why near-fields are small speakers and should not try to cover all frequencies.

As the average control room has bass build up problems or is simply too small, you don't want to have a speaker creating the room to resonate and muddy up the mix. Bass has long been known to cloud and muddy up a mix, yet its an essential part of most music especially modern dance music which is based around bass. The following advice may sound weird to some at first but read through if you want to make the right choice for your studio monitors. If your speakers create too much bass then your going to mix bass light and not add enough for the average listener on radio, car speakers, television and the average hi-fi. It wont take long before you realize this is true if you have done recordings and played them back across different systems.

Near-Fields with Sub woofers

This may sound like a contradiction to what I have just written above, but nearfields coupled with a quality sub woofer thats setup correctly is a very powerful combination which eliminates the downfalls of the standard near feild. Discussed above is the fact that bass needs space to develop, having a seperate sub woofer allows it to be placed further away to give the bass room and also keeps the monitors close to the engineers ears which reduces the effects of the room on the sound of the speakers. Near-Fields with a sub can take the role of both near fields and a set of room monitors IF set up correctly and the sub can be muted leaving the left and right speakers un touched. This of course depends on where the cross over frequency is set as they may then end up lacking too much bass with the subs turned off. Having the subs cross over frequency too high can also shift the stereo image, so its essential to choose the right pair and also set them up correctly which is equally important. Setting up subs correctly is quite a difficult taks for swithout the right knowledge and can ruin the whole sound. Genelecs are one pair of high end monitors which is an example of near-fields with a sub setup. The price of them is quite high compared to other near-fields however they may save you from purchasing a set of room monitors. The power amp you use to power the monitors is as important as the monitors them selves ! Some of the powered monitors don't have good amps built in to lower the price down, a separate amp is an excellent idea as you can purchase a high end amp and use it for both the near-fields and the room monitors.

What to look for in studio monitors

When looking for a near-field audio monitor you want to look for.

  • Clear mid range as 80% of the quality of the sound lays in the mid range.
  • Crisp and smooth top end which is comfortable to listen to for long periods.
  • Flat bottom end. Yes that's right, lacking the low down bottom end, yet have some warmth and give an accurate idea of the correct balance between bass, mid and treble. read above for reasons why.
  • Sound good, whilst still giving you all the warts in the music. If the monitors expose the faults in the sound you can then hear the problems to begin fixing them.
  • Be balanced across the frequency range. The monitors should not sound too bright because of the flat bass.

To help you to listen for the above points, I recommend you make up a cd of your own recordings to take to the shop for listening tests. Take tracks that you have created that have...

  • Too much bass
  • Not enough bass
  • Smooth top end to look for any harshness in the tweeters

Take any tracks that sound good on your exsisting speakers yet dont sound good on other systems. Then when in the shop look for the speakers which tell you the truth and expose these problems.

Room Monitors

Room monitors are used to cover the areas that near-fields fall down in. As bass takes time and space to develop room speakers are always much further away and most times mounted on the wall or mounted flush inside the wall. Of course the control room needs to have bass traps and correct treatment for room monitors to work their best, although as the near-fields take over this role its not that critical to have a perfectly treated room. Room monitors should show you how low the bass extends and if that low down bass is just a mess of rumblings noises or nice tight controlled bass. Room monitors give a powerful and hi-fi commercial sound which is great for giving the band a listen to the last take and blowing them away. Having both types of monitors is the best solution, however the near-fields are critical for mixing engineers and no expense should be spared on the purchase. Room monitors whilst used around 10% are not as critical and you'd be surprised at how many pro studios use PA speakers for this role or large HI-Fi speakers that have a low bass extension. A sub woofer with the room monitors is essential for engineers that work on dance and club type music that requires a lot of attention in this area. Radio and album mixes tend to have less low down bass and more bass in the areas which sound better on the average system that the end consumer will be listening to the mix on.


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