How To Become A Professional At Monitoring

Studio monitors are something that many novice producers and gear-heads tend to overlook somewhat. And it's not hugely surprising – in the general list of exciting kit available, monitors will always be trumped for fun and inspiration by a good analogue synth or a drum machine. But that's a big mistake – obviously we need good sound sources, but without good monitoring it could all go to waste as you struggle to come up with a decent mixdown. So don't forget about this vital part of the production process!

The Importance Of Monitors

Why are monitors so important then, and how can they mess things up? Well, most producers get started with whatever they have around. Usually their hi-fi speakers, headphones, or some old speakers they've borrowed from somewhere. The problem with these types of speakers is twofold. First, and most important, they're designed for a different purpose than producing. Instead of aiding an engineer, they try to flatter a track as much as possible. Which is great for the listener, of course. But for the producer, it means that there could be great big problems in your mixdown that your speakers are papering over. If you've found that your tracks seem to sound OK at home but muddy in the club, this could well be the reason. Ideally, you need a clear speaker with a flat response that will show your mix warts and all. It's frustrating at first – nobody wants their stuff to sound ropey. But if it actually IS ropey, then it's something you'll have to deal with at some point; so it's best in the long run that you've got something that will tell you honestly.

Quality

The other problem with the kind of speakers you often find in home setups is simply that they're low quality. If you've borrowed your speakers from a hi-fi system, then if the system cost £300, the speakers probably only accounted for perhaps a quarter of that. The same goes for iPod docks – get some dedicated speakers and you'll be getting something much better suited to your task,

It's not just a load of received wisdom, either. As a young producer, your author struggled on with hi-fi speakers for as long as possible, but an investment in decent monitors was the single most beneficial thing for my tracks. It's like the windscreen has been cleaned and you can suddenly see what's going on. It turns out that what you needed wasn't that sparkly new synth after all, just some more attention paid to the important parts of the mix!

So, assuming you're convinced, what next? Do you have to lay out a huge sum of money to get something worthwhile? What about acoustic treatment, bass traps, egg boxes and all that stuff?

Placement

Well, as far as acoustic treatment is concerned, a little goes a long way. Don't put your speakers (or your listening position) in a corner, for a start. They should be away from a wall, if possible, hopefully facing down the long axis of the room, and should form an equilateral triangle with your head at the third point. They should also be at roughly the same height as your ears.

As far as egg boxes go – well, these have been superseded by diffusive foam these days, but the point remains: you should have something to diffuse the sound and prevent any echoes. Thick curtains, foam, hang up a carpet (even a bookshelf full of stuff is better than nothing) – anything that can stop a large flat wall creating too many reflections. Bass traps are a step up in terms of complexity – most small studios don't really need them, and a bed or sofa is often a reasonable starting point anyway. Which many novice studio setups tend to have!

It's also cheering to note that good quality monitor speakers have really come down in price over the last couple of decades. You don't need to spend too much; budget monitors would be anything between about £150 - £400 a pair and the quality of what you can get for that money has really improved lately. Here are a few of our favourites at the lower end of the price spectrum:

 

M-Audio BX5 D2

Now available for around £150 per pair in the shops, these are a real bargain. They're not perfect, and the low end can struggle a touch with transients, but M-Audio certainly know what they're doing in the world of studio kit, and these perform remarkably well for such a low price. Definitely worth a look.

KRK Rokit 5 G2

This reboot of the old Rokit 5 was launched in 2008 and has become one of the most popular speakers for small studios and bedroom setups in the UK. Now available for around £220 a pair, these are cheap, effective, and weighty enough for most dubsteppers and junglists out there too.

 

Adam A3X

Adam were some of the earliest manufacturers to feature a ribbon tweeter rather than a cone tweeter, and they made a big splash because of it. That's because ribbon tweeters are difficult to do well, and as such tend only to feature on more expensive speakers. Their competitors were the Samson Rubicon series, which were excellent and surprisingly cheap – but have since been discontinued, unfortunately. Although they're well worth looking out for on eBay. Anyway, the A3X's are clear and detailed, if not the weightiest speakers around, and are on the streets these days for around £350 a pair. A very strong contender.

You may notice that all these speakers have a number in the name. That usually refers to the size of the main driver and there will usually be some more speakers in the range with larger drivers – for instance KRK also do the Rokit 6 and Rokit 8, with 6 and 8 inch drivers respectably. The differences here are that a larger driver will produce a larger (and louder) sound, and will be better able to handle bass frequencies. It also means that the speaker itself will be larger, and thus possibly not so well suited when space is at a premium!

Ultimately, the best thing you can do is get down to a music hardware store, bring an iPod with a few tunes you know really well, and ask to preview two or three sets of speakers. Then pick the ones you think you can work the best with. Not the ones that sound the nicest, but the ones that give the truest account of what you put into them!

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