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.

14 Comments:

  1. Nice one Kent. Nice one indeed!

    Keep’em comin’.

    Have a great week…

  2. This post came in just the right time. I just bought myself a pair of Behringer Truth B2031A’s. Now I just have to buy a pair of cables and re-think the placing of the monitors. The tweeter should bw at the level of producers ear – right?

  3. Nice post. Up until recently I would have agreed with your comments regarding Sub Units however a recent need for new monitoring lead to the purchase of a set of Blue Sky Media Desks and associated sub. I can’t recommend this product highly enough. Great true sound and not at all tiring on the ear. Sorry didn’t maen for this to be a commercial for Blue Sky but the quality of their product merits it. Thanks for an excellent blog.

  4. I’ve heard a lot of good things about Behringer Truths.

    Anyway, what I did was to move both the monitors, as well as my head placement, and I found this really cool sweet spot in one place where I could immerse into the sound arriving directly to both ears at the same time, very close. This all might also be very personal, so it’s best to check out various positions. Anyway, for very critical listening, it’s important to really hear as much nuances as possible.

  5. I’ve been using Yamaha NS10Ms since 1996. A few times I’ve tried switching to something Active but I end up feeling lost. However I would not recommend anyone buying them to start off with. I’m just personal so used to them but a new guy should check something nicer on the ears like Dynaudio.

    Usually more expensive monitors cost more because they have more powerful amps in them. You want that power… it’s vital.

    Also I’d suggest even for dance music work at a low volume and only turn it up every now and then. I get better mixes that way.

    Good post… I like the lake! I wish I was there now!

  6. I went thru a good deal of mid/near field monitors last year when i set out to buy my “final” monitor. I eventally ended up buying EVENT ASP8 and im very happy with my choice. Smooth and warm is how would describe them, and very easy on the ears, never gets me tierd (unless i mix with to much trebel) and the bass goes way down to the basement, i mean really low but still defined. They are quite big tough, so if space is a dilemma, theres smaller version ASP6. And also, they play VERY loud, louder then you would ever need, but for a short test if youre kick is really gettin thru this is vital. even if you play loud they still sound clear and defined. i recommend these monitors // Max

  7. Nice article.! Thumps Up!

    I totally agree, you must go out and listen yourself what you are going to buy.
    Nearfield monitors are like your shoes, your bed or your Sofa you are going to spend a lot of time, and I mean A LOT of time listening to them, so its also a bit of taste( and budget!).
    I remeber reading almost every possible review I could found about nearfield monitors on the net before I bought mine. I was even close to buy a pair based purely on reviews, Thank God I did not!.
    I was almost convinced to buy a pair of Events TR8XL which fitted my budget, but after listening to them live in a Shop,with CDs I took with me (I totally recomend taking one of your own productions and music you really know to the store) I was not that convinced anymore, not that they sound bad, they are brilliant speakers as well the ASP,but I dont know… something was missing, they were not really my taste of Sound, My friend who was with me freaked out with the Events and bought them straight away, he is very happy with the purchase. I decided to take a shot on ADAMS A7 and felt absolutly in Love inmediatly. No fatiguing, extremly clear sound, a bit short on the Low end (6.5 ” Cone) I agree on the other hand with Kent, choose an 8″ cone for dance or hip hop, or you will have problems mixing your Low Ends. Its a bit more complicated with a smaller cone but not impossible. And remember do not always trust your ears after many hours listening, a spectrum analyzer is a good companion ;) //Osgaldo

  8. Thanks for your article…clear and verifiling for me.

    I am curious about the testing on the i-pod like ear buds….or custom earphone molds?

    I am currently in school for audio. My neighbor often decides randomly (in the middle of the day even!) that my music is to loud, calls the landlord and bangs on the floor. I have been considering purchasing custom earphone molds for mixing live shows, but would they be an appropiate substitue for home studio mixing?

  9. I think that custom molded ear buds are good for stage use, for studio purposes I would recommend getting any good closed headphones as you want to take them on/off quite a lot. Not that M-Audio has a nice suite of in-ear monitoring ear-plugs, too. You get very good bass response with a closed in-ear buds, that’s for sure.

  10. Hi Kent ! Just wondering : I have a pair of KRK V8s (Mk II). They are positioned approx 1.1 m (approx 4 ft) from my head. Should they be standing when this close to mye head (ears) or should they be horizontal ? And should the tweeters be outer or inner ? Any suggestions ?

  11. There are different schools of thought. Experiment and see if there’s a difference — somehow I doubt it makes a difference unless the manufacturer explicitly tells to keep them standing. I think the more important part is to keep the monitors at ear height so there’s a direct flow of air from the monitors into your ears (i.e. near-field monitors.)

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