Tech Tip:Monitor Speakers: Studio VIPs :Size, Power, and Placement Matter



Monitor Speakers and their Habitats

The most important part of your studio, bar none.



In real estate they say the three most important things are location, location and location. In recording, it's monitors, monitors and monitors.



Think about it: if you don't know exactly what is on your recording, you cannot possibly know what to do with it. At best you'll be guessing, which could lead to some interesting accidents, and at worst you'll be completely deluded about what's really there on tape. Sorry, but your home stereo speakers are not up to the task. As with all recording equipment, money talks, and a solid monitoring system is going to carry a price tag. The good news is that solid, well-controlled monitors are cheaper than they have ever been. Competition in the home and small studio market has forced manufacturers to come up with new, inexpensive designs that mimic top-dollar units. Why can't you just use your stereo speakers or your computer's speakers, or just a set of decent headphones? If they are good enough to listen to pro CDs on, why not hear your recordings the same way? And why drop money on speakers when other gear is more fun? We're not here to empty your wallet, honest. Let's look at monitors a little closer and see what really matters.



Size Matters
Below a certain number of cubic inches of speaker cabinet volume, you will not be able to hear the kinds of bass frequencies we have all come to crave. Even if you're making vintage-sounding surf records, you still need to know if some huge rumble is lurking around in the depths of 20-70 Hz, making your otherwise thin, peppy record sound like a farting hippopotamus with a guitar solo grafted to its head. Ideally, look for monitors that offer flat (accurate) response down to 55 Hz or so. All near-field monitors will taper off below this, but you want at least this range to hear bass guitar and kick drum frequencies. Woofers at about 8" diameters are the rage, and they will come with large-ish cabinets, on the order of 10"x10"x14". All the near-fields are two-way, meaning they contain a woofer and tweeter only - no mid-range driver. This setup reduces cost and more importantly reduces phase problems between the drivers and also weird artifacts from the crossovers (the electronics which divide the signal into bass for the woofer and treble for the tweeter). High-frequency response is easy to come by -up to 20,000 Hz (usually written 20 kHz) - and tweeters come in all shapes and sizes, from 1" cloth-covered domes to 3"-long ribbons. They all work well, so use your ears to determine which are best according to your taste and requirements.



Power Matters
Yeah, we know - your home stereo amp sounds great and only puts out 15 Watts. But we're making records here, folks. They will be played on all kinds of different systems around the world, from a system like your own home stereo to massive DJ rigs to megabucks audiophile things that look like furniture. Again, you need to hear what's on tape as objectively and realistically as possible - that is, with no coloration from a particular system's "sound." For near-field monitors, which small studios and home studios typically rely on, you'll need no less then 120 Watts of continuous power per channel. If it says the speakers are 120 Watts peak power, just walk away; this would translate to about 30 Watts continuous or RMS. That's just not enough juice to cut you loose.



Placement Matters
The best speakers in the world, when poorly placed, will sound like dreck. Don't place them across the room cattycorner from each other, facing the ceiling, too high, or on the floor. Near-field speakers should be at ear level,four to six feet in front of you, at roughly a sixty degree included angle (see figure 1). Approximate an equal-sided triangle among Speaker Left, your head, and Speaker Right. This is at least where to start. Depending on your room, you may have to fudge things a bit. In a very bright, small room (say, 10'x12' with plaster or sheetrock walls and not much damping by way of soft stuff on the walls.... Did I just describe your bedroom?), like most of our home studios, you may want to set speaker height so that the tweeters are aimed just a bit above your ears. High-frequency signal from the tweeters is very directional; sending them above your ears cuts down some of the direct treble from the speakers to your ears. Any high-end lost by doing this is easily made up by the frequencies bouncing around your room.




Figure 1.
click to enlarge!




Your Room Matters
This is the stickiest problem we face in small studios. Rooms have frequency response, and the room's response will very likely conflict with the speakers' response. Acoustics is a very shaky science, so you can't just hire an expert to come in and tell you what to do. Small rooms are plagued with two main problems: uneven bass response and jangly treble response. That just about covers it, eh? Two simple ways to improve the problem:



·Put a couch in the room against the wall facing the speakers. This acts as a bass trap which will even out response in the 180-300 Hz range and can actually give a bit of a boost to sub-bass sounds around 50 Hz.



·Put up some heavy curtains on the wall behind the monitors. This will help to control the high frequencies bouncing back and forth without destroying all the natural response of the room. Most people don't want to work in an acoustically "dead" room (which you'd get if you wrapped all the walls in velvet and fiberglass), and this setup will give you a reasonable place to start.