Posts Tagged 'acoustics'

For the Price of Cheap Monitors

When it comes to choosing a first pair of monitors, today’s producer is spoiled for choice. The number options around the £250-£350 mark is almost overwhelming. When I was getting into production again a couple of years ago, I thought that a pair of monitors was one of the first things I had to have, so rushed out for a pair of KRK Rokits.

They did the job I suppose. The bright yellow cones certainly gave my ‘studio’ as it was then some gravitas; but now, with hindsight, I’m not certain that was the best way to spend the money… While I’m well aware that all of this advice is subjective, and that five people may well give you five different answers, I’m tempted to say this: If your budget is under about £300/$500, don’t buy monitors, buy headphones.

Now, as with all rules, there are exceptions. If your room is already acoustically treated, or it’s full of soft furniture, irregularly stacked book cases and heavy curtains, you might be fine to go and spend your whole budget on monitors, but, with my room at least, coupled with the fact I needed to know how far down the low end of that kick drum went, I wouldn’t have gone with small monitors, I’d have bought a pair of Sennheiser HD650s from the outset.

Yes, headphones have their shortcomings: they exaggerate the stereo field for example, you might pan more conservatively than you would on speakers, and reverb decisions might be different as you won’t get the benefit of your room reflections. Plugins like 112 dB’s Redline Monitor can help, as can a headphone amp like SPL’s Phonitor or 2Control, which can feed some of the left signal to the right, to simulate the ‘crosstalk’ you would get from speakers. Although, with the amount the SPL units cost, you could invest in some good monitors and acoustic treatment! Still on my wishlist for late night production though.

A set of monitors will make your studio look more like a studio, but you need to be aware of the limitations of cheap monitors in untreated rooms: limited bass extension, problems with flutter echoes and reflections, peaks and troughs in the level of various frequencies across the room. All those things can be compromising your mixing decisions. Now, that’s not to say that you can’t get around some of these limitations by spending a lot of time listening to commercial mixes and learning how your room sounds. In my, albeit humble, opinion, however, at low budgets headphones have fewer cons than monitors. Try out a pair of HD650s or Beyer-Dynamic DT-880s one day and see how you get on…

This post was first published as a news item for NowThenRecords.

Of Monitors and of Monitoring…

So, you’ve been producing on your headphones or some old hi-fi speakers, and you’re ready to go out and get yourself a new pair of studio monitors. This is going to be the addition to your studio that really changes your productions: you’ll be able to hear all those little details you couldn’t hear before; you’ll eq better, compress better and pan better. You’ve got a budget of, lets be mathematical about this and say £x, so you go out and buy a new pair of monitors that cost exactly £x, the best pair of monitors you can afford. Is that the right thing to do? In most situations, probably not.

It might be easier if you think of your budget not as how you have to spend on your monitors, but how much to spend on your monitoring. Being able to hear what is going on in your mixes is perhaps the most important thing to get right when trying to make informed decisions about your productions and making mixes that translate well to other systems. What you hear isn’t just a function of your monitors, but of a whole chain, from the DA conversion in your soundcard, through any monitor controllers, the monitors themselves, how the monitors are placed and what the rest of the room is like. You may well find that you get the best monitoring environment if you apportion a, sometimes not insignificant, part of your budget to some of these other variables, rather than blowing the whole lot on the monitors themselves.

As you might guess, this is a pretty big topic, and so there will probably be a few posts on more specific aspects of the subject. I’ll try and give a bit of an overview here of some of the things that have worked for me, which don’t cost a huge amount of money and, hopefully, don’t require that you rearrange all your furniture to get yourself a decent monitoring environment.

The first thing, that has probably made the biggest difference for me, is to try and get rid of any hiss and hum that might be emanating from your speakers. Ground loops can be a big problem here. If you can, get hold of a power filter/surge protector (the latter is a good idea anyway) with multiple outlets. These don’t have to cost an arm and a leg and can help get rid of some ground loops. Different power outlets can often be at different potentials, leading to current flow when different bits of gear are plugged into different outlets. By plugging computer, soundcard and monitors into the same outlet, you can sometimes get rid of some problems, just make sure and count up how many amps you’re drawing! If you’re using a laptop, sometimes disconnecting the power and running on the battery can make a huge difference. For critical mixing tasks, this can sometimes be a big help.

Try and mount your monitors on proper stands with as much mass as possible, some can be filled with sand for this purpose. If your monitors are just sitting on your desk, you can get problems as the sound from the speakers bounces of the desk and mixes back in with the sound coming at you directly, this can cause comb filtering. Additionally, placing some foam ‘wedgies’ –the type with the pyramid patterns are good for this, and not too expensive- at the acoustic ‘mirror points’ on the side walls to try and break up as many reflections as you can is often a good first step on the road to more thorough acoustic treatment.

Additionally, if you’re using stands, it can sometimes be easier to achieve a good monitor placement. You’ll want to try to get the monitors forming an equilateral –or sometimes isosceles!- triangle with your head, pointing in slightly (if you can’t really see the sides of the monitor cabinets, that’s usually pretty good) with the tweeters at ear level or the monitors tilted slightly so a line coming straight out of the tweeters is aimed at your ear height.

If you can, try not to have your setup with speakers tightly in the corners of rooms or against a wall, although sometimes this is unavoidable. If your speakers have ‘placement correction’ controls –they often high pass filter the bass or allow cut or boost of the low and/or high frequencies- experiment with those to try and find the best settings. To do this, you’ll want some reference material. One easy way to test things is to draw an ascending chromatic scale in your DAW playing back a sine wave in a soft synth. Sit in your monitoring position and hit play, the notes should sound at equal volumes. If you hear louder or quieter notes –due to interference creating room nulls and resonances- you can adjust the settings, or at least be aware of which notes are problematic and make informed mix decisions. The excellent Sound on Sound has a bass staircase mp3 here. Additionally, playing back some tracks you know well can be a big help and never underestimate the power of listening to your mixes on as many systems as possible!

That probably covers it for the quick and easy fixes for now, but chances are good that we’ll revisit a lot of these things in future posts. If anyone has some more easy solutions and suggestions to improving your monitoring, I look forward to hearing them!

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