Saturday, February 28, 2009

FFW05: Choosing monitors

As I learnt more about sound engineering and got over the pathetic obsession with knob-twiddling and plug-in piddling that afflicts most engineers, I realised that the most important parts to get right were those that involved the interface with air: microphones and studio monitors. Although the correct placement of either may seem mysterious, its foundation lies in physics and there's really no mystery at all. More about that later...

This First Word, written in early 1999, offers simple advice for choosing studio monitors. A companion piece was published as First Word in AudioTechnology #07, and includes practical advice for setting up studio monitors (see 'FFW07: Lessons in coupling & isolation'). This stuff will always be relevant, although my recommendations of reference recordings may require updating...

Choosing Monitors
For our previous issue I took on the task of reviewing a pair of JBL’s new LSR32 studio monitors. I say ‘task’ because the review that appeared in the magazine was one of numerous versions I’d written in my attempts to explain precisely how good those monitors sounded, and who they would appeal to.

Reviewing monitors can be difficult, but deciding which monitors to buy is even harder. Magazine reviews can be helpful but they’re ultimately someone else’s opinion. Choosing the right monitors is like choosing prescription lenses without the help of an optometrist – the monitors that bring my hearing into focus may not work for you. So where do you start? Try the following approach:

(1) References
To test the overall accuracy and fidelity of monitors, you need a recording that contains nothing but real acoustic instruments recorded in real acoustic spaces, with no EQ or processing. A good pair of monitors will reproduce those instruments with a lifelike reality, from the attack of a xylophone to the end of a natural reverb tail. For this, you can’t go past a minimalist direct-to-stereo recording from a high fidelity audiophile label. I recommend The Ultimate Demonstration Disc from Chesky Records because it contains some truly excellent acoustic recordings, each highlighting a particular aspect of high fidelity performance, and each accompanied by a narrator explaining what to listen for - a real education and a great tune-up for your ears. (Don’t confuse this disc with The Ultimate Test CD from Essex Entertainment Inc., which is not recommended.)

While it’s important for a monitor to provide good high fidelity performance, you’ll also need to establish how it performs in a close-miked multitrack recording situation. Can it handle the repetitive ‘thud thud thud’ of a kick drum in solo mode? Or the challenging uncompressed attack of a raw snare? For those day-to-day studio sounds, it’s hard to go past Alan Parsons’ and Steven Court’s excellent Soundcheck 2 CD, which contains everything from drums and guitars through to strings and woodwinds; all recorded by one of the world’s leading sound engineers without any EQ or processing. Close-miked sound doesn’t get much better than this! Soundcheck 2 also contains numerous test and alignment tones and, like The Ultimate Demonstration Disc, has great educational value. (With a score of four, Soundcheck tops my list of ‘most stolen CDs’. Don’t leave it lying around when other engineers and recording musicians are present.)

For a personal context, you’ll need a well-recorded disc of the style of music you prefer to work with. Something recorded and mixed in a major studio by a top engineer, with good production values, is the requirement here. Every musical genre has a handful of top acts who use the best engineers in the best studios, and sometimes they release an album that is both musically and technically satisfying. That’s the kind of recording you’re after. For example: Quincy Jones’ Q’s Jook Joint (R&B/vocals); Metallica’s Black Album (heavy metal/rock); Yello’s Flag (electronic/dance); Garth Brooks’ Sevens (country/western); James Horner’s Glory (orchestral/film score).

Finally, you might want to take along a disc of something you’ve recorded and mixed, but only if you can be objective about it. If you’re a well-established engineer with numerous albums under your belt, that shouldn’t be a problem. But if you’ve spent less than 10 hours of your life listening to a professional mastering engineer telling you what’s wrong with your mixes, then you may find it hard to be objective. So if your recording sounds like crap while the others sound great, don’t blame the monitors. In fact, monitors that highlight the differences between your recordings and others are definitely worth considering.

(2) Familiarisation
Before auditioning any monitors you need to totally familiarise yourself with your reference discs, and the best way to do that is to carefully listen to them through headphones. I don’t advocate using headphones for mixing because they over-exaggerate the small details in a recording, but that’s exactly why they’re good for this process. Once you learn where those all-important little details exist in your reference discs – and what they sound like – you’ll find them much easier to focus on when listening without headphones. That’s a powerful skill for judging a monitors’ low level resolution and accuracy.

(3) Room Effect
You need to understand that no matter how good a pair of studio monitors are, the acoustics of the room itself will have a major impact on the sound you hear from them. For example, a good pair of monitors should have a ‘flat’ frequency response (±2dB or less) throughout their usable range, yet the room’s acoustic behaviour can cause deviations exceeding ±18dB! These effects vary depending on the dimensions and materials of the room itself, the locations of the monitors within the room, and your listening position. By the way, the notion that near-field monitoring overcomes these room problems is comforting but not totally correct.

(4) Use Before You Choose
People often choose studio monitors as if they’re choosing speakers for their hi-fi system, by playing some favourite CDs and buying the pair that sounds best. That approach overlooks one of the fundamental requirements of studio monitors, which is to monitor and mix. Before choosing a pair of monitors, you need to spend time recording and mixing on them, and playing those mixes through various systems to see how they translate to the real world. Remember, the goal is to find the monitors that work best in your studio, not necessarily in your hi-fi system. You also need to find out whether you can listen to a pair of monitors for extended time periods without suffering hearing fatigue.

Shooting it out…
Make a list of the monitors in your price range, find out where you can audition them, and book a quiet time to do so. Using your reference discs, make a shortlist of the monitors you prefer. Now, considering points (3) and (4), you need to get the shortlisted monitors into your studio before you can make a final decision. You need to experiment to find the right placement in your room, and you need to do some complete sessions on them. This is a crucial and unavoidable fact of buying monitors, and something that every responsible salesperson understands. You may have to pay a security deposit, but, whatever you do, don’t buy a pair of monitors until you’ve tried them in your studio.

For more monitoring information, see Michael Stavrou’s Mid Tuning Your Loudspeakers and my Strategic Monitoring, both in AudioTechnology #01. Remember that the right pair of monitors is the single most important and long-lasting investment in your sound recording future. So be methodical, avoid impulses, and listen carefully.

The closing paragraph of this First Word mentions Michael Stavrou, otherwise known as 'Stav'. He's somewhat of an engineering legend - in Australia, at least - and is also the brains behind the Smart AV console. I had always admired Stav's engineering abilities and insights, and wanted to include an interview with him in our premiere issue. I visited him in studios and I visited him at home, all the time snapping pics and keeping my Sony ProWalkman in record mode in the hope of capturing some pearls of wisdom. But they just weren't forthcoming; although being highly obliging, he seemed reluctant to talk and the interview was going nowhere. Eventually he confessed that he didn't want to give too much away in an interview because he was planning on writing a book. I suggested that writing a regular column for the magazine would be a good way to get the book started: it would force him to write a regular installment every two months, it would prime readers for his forthcoming book, and the columns themselves could be considered as first drafts for the book. Fortunately he agreed, and thus was born the regular column Stav's Word - a wonderful part of AudioTechnology, full of great advice and unusual ways of thinking about sound engineering. Stav published his book, Mixing With Your Mind, a few years ago, and it has been a hot seller ever since. And it all started with a frustrated attempt at an interview...

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