What to Listen for in Recording Monitors
One thing people often take for granted when they first put together their home, project or pimp studio is the importance of great recording monitors. Most folks, when they start recording on their own, worry about what software they’ll use. Next, you fret over the recording interface. Soon, before you know it, you’re strung out on getting more and more microphones. All the while, you are just using speakers from a Craigslist find – 1997 monitors that were cheap back in 1997.
I’ve made this mistake, for far too long. Every few years, I’d make a small upgrade from the previous pair. With each new monitor pair, I increasingly began hearing what was truly going on. One day you’ll get to a point where you are comfortable with your monitors – you’ve “learned them.” There is a lot to be said for “learning your monitors”, it’s crucial. But, what does this mean really?
Firstly, don’t just use a pair of computer speakers leftover from the days when you were strung out on Soldier of Fortune II. Consumer speakers lie to you. They are built to lie to you. They are made to make the brilliance of high end more brilliant. Consumer speakers (bookshelf, computer speakers, etc) are, especially, meant to lie to you about the low end. We want sparkly highs and boomin’ lows, so consumer speaker manufacturers give us that in spades. Guess what happens when you hear a ton of bass coming from that subwoofer under the computer desk? We grab the fader on screen that reads “bass” or “kick” and pull it down because it seems a bit much. But, you don’t really know how much low end is honestly on your recording. Thus, you need a recording monitor.
After you’ve become aware that there are special speakers for tracking, mixing and mastering music, you are then looking for the “recording monitor.” Of course, the mere fact you’ve moved on to a recording monitor means you know all you need to. Or, so you think. Actually, from monitor to monitor, in any price range, there are vast differences. What’s unfortunate about affordable monitors (those under $1000 a pair) is that they are similar to consumer speakers insofar as they lie to you as well. Some overemphasize the vocal range. Some overemphasize the low end. Some get close to giving you a balance of all and some sound like they have a built in smiley face eq curve. They have colored the sound of the monitor to wow you and make you fall in love with them. But, any monitor that overemphasizes any area of the sound spectrum is bad for your health and the health of your mixes. And, thus, we really need to learn our monitors.
With any pair of monitors, you have to learn what you are hearing. It just takes longer to learn the personality traits of affordable monitors. It can take many months until you know, for instance, when you start to hear the clicky-click of the guitar pick slapping the strings that it really only means you’ve got a nice subtle high-end sound for your song when played on anyone else’s speakers. You might figure once you hear the bass guitar get too boomy and not well defined that it’ll sound even worse in someone’s car. So, do just that. Get in the car with an MP3 player or burned CD and listen to what your mix sounds like there. Then, send mixes that you think you know what they sound like to friends and get their feedback. Some times you’ll think you have a good mix and three people get back to you saying, “I can’t hear the vocal” or “is there supposed to be a bass line?” After several months of this, you’ll finally have learnt your monitors. When you get to the point that you understand your monitor’s habits and deficiencies, it’ll take you, say, only 3 mix versions to get the mix right and not 30.
So, what do you get for the $1500 pair of monitors? For one – a much shorter learning curve. For another – you’ll hear complete separation of every element in a song – no smearing. After you’ve learned your monitors you can hear the difference between a saxophone (as an example) that “sounds slammin’” and one that “sounds distorted.” That might be two different ways to describe what you are hearing from the same pair of monitors. When you are new to listening critically, you think everything sounds good. After a while you start to hear distortion in crash cymbals and not just “crash!”
A mix isn’t just about how loud or soft the voice is versus the drums and versus the bass and versus the synths. A mix is a whole audio picture. There is truly a “stage” to a “sound stage.” For instance, you may not realize it, but most pop music puts the voice out of the speakers. If you can picture the music we hear today (and put it in generalizations), the voice hovers dead center between two speakers and it sits out in front of them. The bass tends to go down towards the floor and the high, shimmering things, like ride cymbals, tend to climb towards the ceiling.
This also reminds me of something else we look for in good monitors – a “stereo image.” The better the image is, the less you can discern the left from the right. If you are hearing everything kept neatly in one or the other speaker – you have poor imaging. Producers and engineers mean to paint a whole musical image – present a sound stage before you. The broader that feels from left to right and the better singular image you are hearing (seeing?) in front of you – the better these monitors are.
So if a product review tells you that a pair of monitors has “tight low end” – what does that mean?
It means that you’ll be able to hear the actual attack or first instance of a kick drum strike or bass note. This is crucial if you are concerned with rhythm. I am rhythmically challenged. If I were to work with speakers that give more “woof” (or bass tone) and less punch to them, I would miss the fact that my bass playing was behind the beat, perhaps, or just plain awful. Tight bass is good for discerning the beat and hearing your mids. Mushy or just plain too much bass, detracts from the mids and suddenly gobbles up guitars, synths, trumpets and vocals for instance. But, if you are working on hip hop music and bass lines are crucial, you may want a monitor that isn’t as tight on the lows so that you can hear more nuance within bass tones.
So if a product review says that a pair of monitors are very “mid-rangey” – what does that mean.
There are a lot of monitors that can be big on the mids. A monitor that is described as such can be a good monitor to use if you are working on, say, country music and the vocal and lyrics are crucial to the story within the song. This pair of monitor may well be great for hearing compression and eq on guitars and vocals better than the pair of monitors you favor in making beats. The downside on a monitor that is mid-rangey is also that they can sound honky and nasally. Often times speakers that are good at highlighting vocals manage to sound like soup cans when you A/B them against other monitors.
Other fun terms found in monitor reviews:
Woofy = extra low end
Boxy = soup canesque, nasally
Detailed = always good when you see this term
Hyped = overly (fill-in-the-blank)
Tinny = harsh tweeter
Boomy = extra low end
Bi-amped = separate internal amps for the woofer and tweeter
Near-field monitors = monitors you use up close (this is what us mortals use)
Mid-Field monitors = monitors that sit back a ways from the mixing console. These are usually found in the walls of big recording studios and have large woofers and can be 3 or 4-way monitors often times
Mixing on 5” 2-way monitors is better than 8” 2-way monitors. By 2-way monitors, that simply means there is a tweeter and a woofer – 2 ways to get your whole audio image. 5” denotes that the woofer is 5 inches and that would deliver less bass than a woofer that is 8 inches. But, in affordable monitors, I have yet to find a series of monitors that give you 5”, 6” and/or 8” versions where the 8” version wasn’t giving you too much low end. I have heard monitors over $1000 for a pair where the 8” was better than it’s little 5” or 6” brother. But, usually, you’ll find that the 8” monitor is fun while you’re tracking and working on percussion only to find it left you looking like a fool when you were mixing or mastering. You’ll always pull out more low end in a final mix with them. However, if you are just “making beats” and aren’t responsible for a final polished mix – you will find them more inspiring and louder (usually) to work with.
A monitor that looks gimmicky – usually is. Don’t buy your monitors based on how they look. Make sure you’ve read up on or have listened to the monitors. How important is Kevlar for instance? Not much – there are plenty of high end monitors that are still using paper and funky composite materials that aren’t bullet proof. If something has a polished cabinet, it does make me wonder what’s inside the cabinet that they felt the need to put a high gloss finish over.
“Class D” amplifiers inside the monitors are great for a small studio as “Class A/B” put out much more heat. There are different qualities to each class type, but the sound from a Class D bi-amped monitor from Manufacturer A is very different than from Manufacturer B. So, what I can promise is that all Class D amps are all very efficient and don’t waste energy like A/B amps and, thus, aren’t portable heaters.
What’s also funny and, yet, sad about expensive monitors are that they can be a let down in some instances. Many times folks will listen to them and find them “dull” or “flat.” It’s funny how we get used to speakers that aren’t truly flat, but that are flattering and these skew our thinking. Sometimes, you can listen to a pair of 4-way crazy monitors and think – “yep I hear everything – but shouldn’t the bass be more kicking?” The answer is “no.” The monitor with the flattest response is telling you exactly what is happening in the music. That is what we want from a recording monitor – the honest truth and not what we think we want to hear from them.