Reference Monitors

finland_beach_3.jpgOne of the most important tools you have in your studio is your reference monitors. If the monitors are muddy, your mixes are muddy. If they colorize your mixes in a strange way, your productions sound strange.

When you are looking for purchasing reference monitors, try to spend as much as you could, close to hurting the budget. There’s a reason good monitors are expensive, they sound and work well. Also, you will have this set of monitors for a very, very long time. The reason is that you need to learn how the monitors work, and based on that you know how they behave. Then, while mixing and mastering, you know how the characteristics, and you could compensate when you intuitively know from past experience how it will sound in other environments, a car, iPod, TV and so on.

You should never purchase reference monitors via mail-order, unless you have already listened to them, and know how they sound. One of the best ways is to purchase them from a store where you could do A/B testing. Burn an audio CD with material you really like and know inside out, and use this one to hear how various monitors sound. Some are very accurate, but it might sound tiring, others colorize the sound so you could work for a long time without ear fatigue, but then that impacts the exactness of the sound. The nice thing with a store with a decent return policy is that you could always return them back in case they don’t sound that well in your studio environment (more about that later).

There’s a lot of advice out in the forums about what monitors are the best. My only advice is, listen yourself and do not just assume. There are so many parts in a monitor, where some might like a certain sound, others not.

I would read qualified reviews online for particular monitors I’m interested in. Any source that has a decent to good test environment and tools would be good resources. For example, Sound on Sound has very good reviews, and they could point out if a certain monitor has flaws, or if the marketing info is from — let’s say they claim the monitor could go down to 40Hz, while in a lab test it was clear that the monitor could only handle 60Hz.

I would look for the following additional features in a monitor. As I work with dance music, the low end is important. The reference monitor should be able to go down to 35-40Hz so I could check out the bottom end. That means that the main cone should be 8″. Some claim sub-woofers are the way to go, but I prefer not to add that in, as it’s hard to over or under-compensate with different setups. For hip-hop where the sub-woofer in a car environment is a must, then that’s a big exception.

Balanced inputs! In this world of more and more electronics causing all kinds of nasty electrical fields, that is becoming a must. It’s also good if the front has a volume knob and power buttons. You might want to adjust the volume on the monitors in order to avoid those sudden huge volume peaks in case your computer setup wants to suddenly have max volume (happens now and then). As for the power button, it’s good to save energy today.

Some of the new reference monitors today have built-in DSP electronics to figure out the acoustical environment and adjust the output based on that. It’s a good idea, but usually such monitors are expensive. At least the monitor should have some kind of adjustment for the environment so you could do fine tuning of the output — however, this usually requires external tools so you could see on a computer screen how settings change the output, don’t just trust your ears.

As for placement of the monitors. There’s a reason they are called near-field monitors. Unlike the old-fashioned way of placing huge, expensive monitors in the wall in front of the mixer, these should be placed as close to the ear if possible. It means that you need to go with practicality compared with how it looks like in the studio. Sometimes you could find the sweet spot by moving around with your head, or placing the monitors around until it feels you are inside this huge world of music only.

Unless the manufacturer states that the monitors should only be placed standing, you could place them standing or lying by the side. This is how I have it just now in my studio. Whatever you do, don’t place them straight to the desk, the vibration will cause all kinds of subtle odd sounds. You could purchase somewhat expensive loudspeaker isolation mats, but you could get creative by checking out what’s in your kitchen and use similar material that is very cheap.

I would neither place the monitors on anything wobbly, such as high stands, this as I live in earthquake country, or if you have small kids navigating through your studio, or dogs…

The acoustical environment in your studio plays a big role in how the monitors sound, even with near-fields that try to eliminate some of these issues. This is often why the monitors sound good in the store, but nasty back home. I give you an example of the worst possible environment: a square room, with no damping material in the walls, no book shelves, sofas or anything to dampen, and a wooden floor. The square part means that the sound waves will bounce back and forth creating all kinds of funky new sound waves.

Remember that the total chain of audio has a weakest spot. If your monitors are excellent, but the D/A converters are not good, that’s where the quality levels will decrease. Fortunately most of the Firewire-based audio interfaces are very good today. Even the audio output from a Mac sounds really good, too. Also beware of too-long audio cables, or home-made audio cables with weak soldering. I would not go and get platinum-plated super-expensive cables, but it’s good to have something very solid cable-wise.

Some wonder if they could use studio monitors for private parties, sure, most modern reference monitors handle a lot of high volumes for a long time. However, party people tend to do odd things when they are intoxicated, so I would not risk to use expensive monitors in a party.

So what about the Yamaha NS-10 monitors? Well, long time ago the trick to get a balanced mix was to use those, as the mid-range in those sucked big time, and if you got the mix sounding good in those, they sounded good in most other places. The problem is that it’s a drag listening to production work with NS-10s day after day. You want to enjoy the music you are working with. You could set them up as an additional monitor, or use any old stereo monitors you have back home, or a set of computer loudspeakers. It’s always good to have a second set of monitors for A/B listening purposes. I still think that you need to do tests with iPod-like ear-buds, as the majority of music is listened to through such environments today.

This posting might be updated and annotated now and then, as I will start using it as my contribution on forums on postings where someone asks what monitor to purchase, and what to look for.