Your monitoring is meant to be accurate, not flattering. It should clear away the fog to reveal what you have recorded in all it’s glory – or awfulness. Make sure you have the best performing monitors you can afford, and put them in a space where they perform well themselves.
Monitor is a term for the complete unit of amp and speaker, whether physically housed together in one unit or not.
Monitoring (as a verb; to monitor) is the act of listening to what you are doing, and, from an engineer’s perspective, it is critical listening skills that you need to develop so that you know what you are hearing.
Monitoring (as a noun; a monitor) is whatever you use to listen to the audio. This includes using headphones.
Monitoring on headphones is far from ideal. It has it’s advantages, though, since it allows you to hear little details such as, say, guitar fret noise or heavy foot-taps by the microphone stand much more easily than listening on standard speakers at a distance. The main disadvantage is that they give a completely different impression of most sounds, especially bass sounds.
You should check your work on both speakers and headphones, since each reveal different aspects of the audio.
The monitors you use to listen to music can be seen, to brutalize a few analogies, as a microscope for viewing the fine details or as a vast canvas on which the big picture is painted.
They do not work in a vacuum, literally – they work by moving air, and that air travels around the room, bouncing off things and losing energy each time it does so. The speakers interact with the room you are in, and the materials it comprises – any walls, ceilings, upholstery, carpet, wood, glass, anything.
This interaction colours the sound you hear, and the further you get from the speakers the more it does so. This is because a very important ratio is changing, that of room sound (reflected sound) to direct sound (the audio playing through the speakers).
ACOUSTICS OF YOUR LISTENING SPACE
In a room where the walls are nearby, the reflections will be stronger, and you will need to damp them down a bit if you can with acoustic treatments such as absorbent materials (quilts and duvets, heavy curtains and blankets) or diffractive materials (a full bookcase). Commercial products that do these tasks more effectively for relatively low cost are available from companies like RealTraps and Auralex.
Research acoustic treatments for home studios online, and you will find a lot of information about how to deal with issues. Typically, a home studio will deaden the rear wall with some absorbent materials or diffuse things with a bookcase (the wall the speakers are firing towards). They will not do this behind the speakers.
On the side walls, diffusion boxes can be mounted on the wall (inexpensive products from various manufacturers) and these can be removed later when you move to a new home. You should form a “listening triangle” where the speakers are set up in front of you symmetrically, with each speaker pointing at your ear on the appropriate side of your head. Left speaker to left ear, and right to right, with the speakers about a metre apart if possible. You would work at a distance of one metre perpendicular from the centre point of an imaginary line drawn between the left and right speakers, so that your head is the third equal angle of a triangle formed with the two speakers – an equilateral triangle. This listening position is called the “sweet spot” in the trade. you hear the stereo image accurately while you stay here. Lean left, it changes, and lean right, that also changes. Try not to stray too far from the sweet spot when making decisions, and never when panning sounds.
The idea is to place diffusion materials at that place. Again, bookshelves make great diffusers if you use lots of different size books at different depths into the shelf. All helps to break up sound waves and diffuse their energy and reflection patterns. you don’t want to focus sound when it bounces around the room, you want to diffuse or absorb it where possible.
Adding a bass trap or two in the corners of the room helps enormously to make the bass sound focused and clear. Counter-intuitively, bass sounds seem louder in a room where bass room nodes (overly loud bass in certain parts of the room) are being adequately absorbed. This is money really well-spent.
The speakers are best mounted on stands at ear height, or at least so the tweeters are pointing at your ears from whatever height you had to settle for. Mounting them on a console meter bridge or a shelf is not ideal, because there is acoustical coupling with the bridge/shelf. This causes a change in how loud bass and low-mid frequencies may seem, and also may resonate the attached structure, the shelf, causing rattles or buzzes.
If you spend a little cash on a Recoil Stabilizer or similar product, you will get an instantly obvious improvement in bass accuracy and solidity. You put one under each speaker, a sort of platform with heavy mass. This decouples the speaker from whatever you stood it on previously, and cleans up the lows.
There are all sorts of designs in the world of monitoring, so do some exploring online. It is personal preference to some degree, but there are well-regarded models out there that most of us use.
WHAT MONITORS DO I USE?
For mixing my home projects, right now I use powered ADAMs for my big monitors (full-range with ribbon tweeters and plenty of bass for loud playbacks), Avantone Passive Mixcubes with a Yamaha power amp for mono compatibility checks and balancing tasks, powered Genelec 2029B’s for a window on a popular but hard-edged sound (revealing on vocals and other mid-range sounds), powered Event ASP8’s for alternative big speakers that sound a bit different in the midrange and lows compared to the ADAMs, and Yamaha NS-10M’s with that Yamaha power amp again (it’s a 6-ch amp), just because I have them and know them.
Variety is very informative, since the goal is to make a mix that will “transport” well. The only downside of more speakers is that they take up space, and they can interfere with each other’s sound if stood too close to each other, since acoustical coupling can occur between the two cabinets due to air and shelf vibrations and physically being in the path of some of the sound-waves leaving a speaker.
That means, it will translate on different systems in a way that remains flattering and effective. Easier said than done. This is why we need lots of options for monitoring in a professional environment. At home, a songwriter should do their best to have one good set of speakers with at least a 6″ woofer, preferably 8″. They should sound as neutral as possible, colouring the music as little as possible tonally. This means they won’t sound especially flattering, and that is the point. You want the ugly truth so you can deal with it.
These things are for critical listening tasks, not for listening pleasure. Pick carefully and treat the acoustics of the room as best you can!
The next blog in the series is called “Headphone Monitoring” – see you then.