Choosing and setting up studio monitors is, of course, one of the most important aspects of designing a good recording/mixing space. Every decision made during the recording process—from mic placement to final mix tweaks—is based on what’s heard in those monitors, and while headphones can provide a helpful reference, the sound from the speakers is usually what’s relied upon for the critical choices made throughout the process.
There are plenty of suitable—even excellent—studio monitors out there, at all sizes and price points, but setup is just as critical as choosing a good pair. A flawed or problematic setup—even with good speakers—can get in the way of achieving the best recordings and mixes. Here are 6 suggestions—things to avoid—to get the best results.
“Correctly setting up studio monitors is crucial to ensure your audio productions aren’t awash with problems.”
1. Avoid the Hype
Consumer speakers are often designed to make everything played through them sound as good as possible. However, this is not the goal for studio monitors. The purpose of monitoring is not to promote a consistently enjoyable listening experience, but to reveal the truth about the sound of the recording or mix—good, bad, or ugly, what you hear through the monitors must reveal not only what sounds good, but more importantly, what’s wrong, and what needs to be fixed.
The sound of many consumer speakers is often “hyped”—this usually means that the bass and/or the treble (and maybe presence) frequencies are accentuated, for a punchier, brighter, more “in-your-face” tonal balance. This can give music a more exciting quality, but it’s not what the mix actually sounds like. If you make key decisions about level balance and EQ based on a pair of hyped-up speakers, that mix may sound good right there in that room, but it won’t sound like that anywhere else—in fact, it’ll likely sound lacking on other, less-hyped playback systems.
Fortunately, most speakers sold as studio monitors shoot for a (more desirable) neutral balance, capable of providing a proper reference for decision making. Yet I still sometimes come across people who apply their own “hype” to their monitors, via amp/preamp tone controls, or by cranking the bass and treble adjustments provided on the back of many powered speakers.
But these controls are there not to add thump and sizzle, they’re intended to be used subtly, if at all, to compensate for speaker placement (see below), or for a particularly dead, or an overly bright, splashy room. Usually, if that’s the case, a dB here or there is probably all the adjustment you’ll need, and cutting bass or treble may be more effective than boosting.
2. Avoid the Walls
Most people have noticed that when a speaker of any size is placed against a wall, it’ll deliver stronger bass response. This can be a strong temptation to use this acoustic phenomenon (a function of standing waves) to provide some additional heft, especially from smaller (less than 8”) woofers. But this room-enhanced bass will have an uneven frequency balance, and can trip you up when making critical decisions about low-end EQ, and the balance of key mix elements like kick drum and bass guitar. Many, if not most, monitors are designed to deliver the smoothest low-end response when placed at least a foot or two from the nearest room boundary (wall, floor, or ceiling), and while this free-standing placement, without reinforcement from room boundaries, won’t deliver as much thump, the bass that is present will be a more correct indication of the low-frequency energy that’s actually present in the recording, which is extremely important. One of the most common flaws of small- or home-studio mixes is either too much or too little low end, or uneven bass, caused by EQing to compensate for irregularities that are unique only to the room and monitors in use during mixing.
Most monitors come with a recommendation for placement, and many include adjustable low-end response, to match the speakers to the placement—“full space” for the (preferred) free-standing placement, “half-space”, for wall placement, and sometimes even “quarter-space”, for corner placement (though I’d avoid that!).
But these bass controls won’t increase the low end over what the speaker can deliver in full-space, free-standing position—they’re designed to reduce the excessive, uneven bass that would result from placement near a room boundary. If you really feel you need more low end than your speakers provide, don’t try to coax it out of a smaller pair of monitors by using the room—instead, either trade up to a larger woofer size (8” or more), or add a subwoofer (see below).
3. Avoid Asymmetry
Even if you avoid backing the monitors up against the wall, reflections from room boundaries will still affect the sound. Ideally, you’ll want to position the speakers symmetrically—that is, equidistant from the walls to the left and right of the primary listening position—the “sweet spot”. So, if the left speaker is 3 feet from the left wall, you’ll want the right speaker to be 3 feet from the right wall.
That way, any effects from reflections should be similar—balanced—at the sweet spot. If one speaker is closer to the nearest side wall than the other, you may be misled into reducing the level or ambience of mix elements panned to that side, or your panning placement may be skewed to one side, making the mix sound off-centered when heard on other systems, or in headphones.
4. Avoid Poor Angles
Positioning the monitors either too close together or too far apart can mess up your stereo panning decisions. Speakers that are too widely spaced may provide a stereo image with a hole-in-the-middle. This can cause you to bunch too many mix elements near the center, resulting in a mix that doesn’t effectively use the stereo sound field. Conversely, speakers that are placed too close together may lead you to overly wide panning choices—when the resulting mix is heard on other systems, mix elements may be bunched together in the left and right speakers and the center, with gaps between, sounding like one of those old mono 60s mixes that was turned into fake stereo—again, not properly making use of the stereo sound field.
The ideal angle for stereo monitors is ~ 60° (between speakers, or ~ 30° between each speaker and the “sweet spot”).
If you’re using nearfield monitors, a typical setup would have the speakers around 3 feet from the listener, and 3 feet from each other—this not only maintains the optimal angle for stereo, but minimizes the effect of mid- and high-frequency room reflections.
5. Avoid Reflections
You don’t want your listening environment to be completely free of (mid/high-frequency) reflections—that would be an unnaturally dead-sounding room for working on music. But you do want to avoid strong, short reflections, that may produce excessive comb-filtering (tonal irregularities due to wave interference), which can muddy up the sound, for example, making it hard to tell exactly how much “room tone” is in the recording itself, and how much ambience and effects to add. Weaker, longer reflections—like from the back of the room—can provide enough overall ambience to make for a comfortable listening environment without too much interference. What you’ll want to avoid is having the speakers pump sound at strongly reflective surfaces in the front, that will reflect too much back to the listening position. These could be tall equipment racks off to the side, near the monitors, or flatscreens that are in the path of the speakers’ direct sound wave. The console itself (or tabletop, in smaller rigs)—right in front of the listener, between the monitors and sweet spot—can be a significant source of these undesirable strong, strong reflections.
While you may not be able to completely avoid all such reflections (as attempted with certain high-end studio designs), you can try to minimize them. Avoid placing reflective elements at ear/speaker height in-between speakers and listener. Many speakers have a narrower dispersion in the vertical plane—if you position them at ear level, with their tweeters directly aimed at the listener’s ears, you may avoid having a lot of sound reflect off the console/desktop, making for a cleaner monitoring environment.
Fig 6 (Top) Potentially problematic reflections off the console/desktop; (Bottom) Reflections avoided by proper angling & narrow vertical dispersion.
6. Avoid Excessive Levels
There are a number of reasons why consistently monitoring at too loud a level is not a good idea. There’s the obvious long-term danger to your hearing. And “ear fatigue” will set in sooner at louder levels, which will likely result in questionable mixing/EQ choices.
Many people are familiar with the Fletcher-Munson curves, which describe an aspect of human hearing.
Our ears are more sensitive to high end and, especially, to low end, at higher listening levels—in other words, we hear a little more treble and a lot more bass when the music is cranked up! But while this may make for an exciting, enjoyable listening experience, if you consistently monitor at such loud levels (above 90 dBspl), your decisions about how to set the level of bass in the mix will only be valid at those loud listening levels. People who play your mixes at lower levels will perceive a lack of bass, resulting in exactly the opposite of what you heard—much weaker bass, and a thin, sometimes screechy, mix.
Most engineers recommend working/mixing at consistent average levels of around 83–85 dBspl (you can measure this with an SPL-Meter apps for your smart phone), occasionally checking the mix at both higher and lower SPLs, finding an overall balance/EQ that works well at all monitoring levels.
7. Avoid too Much Sub
One more extra suggestion.. If you feel you need more low-end from a smaller (≤ 6”) pair of monitors, you can add a subwoofer to the setup. But be careful to balance the output of the sub to the monitors. The sub shouldn’t be used to “crank up the bass”—instead, it should be employed to extend the bass to lower frequencies, below what the main speakers can handle. Typically, this means the sub will provide frequencies below 80 Hz or so, adding up to an octave to the frequency response of your average small monitor.
When setting up the sub, whenever possible use an SPL meter and test signals (tones/noise) to dial up a a sub level that matches the level of the lowest frequencies of the main speakers (an octave or two higher), insuring as even (flat) a response as possible all the way down to the limits of the sub’s response. While it’s tempting to crack the sub a little, for the excitement factor, your mixes will benefit more in the long run from a well-calibrated subwoofer. Ideally, you shouldn’t even realize it’s operating, until you switch it off—if its contribution is obvious, then it’s probably too loud, and, as described earlier, this can lead to mixes lacking in bass energy when heard on other systems.
And that’s all for now. Hopefully, these suggestions will prove helpful for anyone who’s looking to get the best results from their studio monitors..
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