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 How to configure an optimal listening environment for mixing or mastering- The whole truth about studio monitors


We all love great sound. But to produce a truly great sounding recording something more, than great gear, processors and ears is needed. We can not produce great sounding music without knowing and precise controlling what we actually do. Therefore we need great speakers. Or, to be more exact, great MONITORING SYSTEM, that is speakers, amplifier and room.

Each speaker is different. There is so many various studio speakers on the market today, that this fact alone proves that there is no one, ideal solution.

The configuration of monitoring for mixing should be different than for mastering. And the very important factor here is the room itself- it should not have too much reverb but also it should not be completely acoustically dead. The ideal positioning of monitors and the listening position is a triangle with equal sides, with the monitors slanted towards the listener, so the center axis of each of them passes through the, respectively, left and right ear. The height  of the speakers should be such that the hi frequency speakers should be at the ear height or slightly above. 

Systems of studio monitoring and the amplification
The monitoring system for the studio sound engineer is of equal importance as the sight for the artist painting a picture. It is the most important element of his equipment,  because the decisions he makes pare based on what he hears. If the monitors are in any way underdeveloped, they will not be faithful to cast the situation of sound, and the sound engineer will take the wrong decisions.
Let's say that the speakers have deficiency in treble. The engineer will then add the appropriate frequency to hear it clearly and it may lead to too much treble in the finished recording. If the monitors reflect the bass wrongly it will be impossible to set the proper bass on tracks, especially for bass guitar and the drums.  It is impossible to dose something wee do not hear.

Of course, there are no perfect monitors, each model has its advantages and disadvantages. Additionally,  each engineer hears the sound somewhat differently, so what is good for one may not necessarily be as good for another. But there is one, the most important general principle: you should be completely familiar with your equipment, knowing what it can do, what are main characteristics of it's sound. Knowing that, you can always predict how the sound heard in the studio and the mastering room will translate to the outside world.

People listen to music using a very wide range of speakers and in a wide range of situations. Mastering must therefore always have in mind the optimum sound for any situation or listening system, so that the music played through any equipment will sound in the best possible way. The art of mixing and mastering the art is actually the art of "translating" the sound of recording studio to "the outside world". Have you ever had the impression that vocal in the mix made by you is somehow thin and soft, the bass is inaudible or too hollow and the whole sound is much worse than the on recordings heard on the radio or on your favorite CD's? Much of the guilt for this can lie in your monitors.  They act as a camera's lens, if the lens lies, who can say what was the real shade of color?

In mixing and mastering studios 2 kinds of monitors are widely used: the near and far field monitors. The first are small, usually fairly flat in frequency response and they serve setting the right balance of sounds during the mix, they are meant to make sure the right balance of tracks will be correct in relation to each other. Producer usually sits fairly close to them. Far field monitors are the uncompromising quality speakers, usually  high-powered, capable of delivering strong bass and subtleties of the highest tops, for critical listening of finished mixes, or taking final decisions during the shaping of sound with mastering.
 

There is a huge diversity of speakers, both close and far field produced by hundreds of companies from around the world, with prices spanning from several hundred to several thousand dollars. Which are the best? There is no answer to this question, because each set has its advantages and its disadvantages, despite of the price. The mere fact of creating new models shows that simply there is no "best" model, all of them are only more or less close to ideal. You can say that the best speakers and the best equipment for you is the one which you have and which you know very well. There is however a question: What does it mean to know your speakers? Knowing the speakers is being well aware of the characteristics of their work. If we know that our speakers sound rather weak in the bass, we will be very careful with adding the bass in the mix, because if we set too much bass and will not hear it through our speakers  we can be sure that the bass heard on the speakers having better bass response will be exaggerated! Similar is the case with high tones. If we have the speaker that sound not too clear, be careful of higher tones, otherwise you will overshoot with their intensity. Conversely, if we know that our columns have a tendency to highlight the tops and sound rather bright, try to hide it in the mix somewhat, because otherwise it will be too much treble in the final mixdown.

What kind of speakers to choose - passive or active?
I personally prefer the passive speakers of a very high, Hi Fi type quality for audiophile music listening, it does not mean, however, that excellent results can not be achieved using a typical linear studio equipment, if you know what you do. Again, the whole thing depends on the engineer personal preferences and his knowledge of equipment.

Principles of studio monitoring
Some axioms apply to all the studio monitoring gear, regardless of its price.

First of all, there should be nothing located between the speaker and engineer's ear, the speakers should form  equilateral triangle with his head, axles of the speakers should pass through the ear, the left speaker's axle thru the left ear and the right axle thru the right ear. The height of their placement should be such that the tweeter speaker is at the height of the engineer's ear, or a little higher.

Speakers should not be placed on unstable surface. They should be set so that there is no resonance possible between them and the ground. If they are not active ie, they do not have their own built-in amplifiers, they should be powered with superior sounding amplifier. I recommend audiophile quality amplifiers and prefer them to linear studio equipment. Amplifiers are also not perfect. The amplifier can be connected to a hi class equalizer in order to obtain the ideal sound  depending on the room.

Monitors  should have the highest possible quality cables connecting them to the amplifier and a possible equalizer, we recommend that the so-called bi-wiring, the separate wiring for high and low tones. This provides a better flow of electric current pulses between the amplifier and the column, the lack of higher-frequency modulation generally produces much lower response and better and more detailed, three-dimensional listening.


Generally, the principle is true that the heavier is the speaker, the better. A solid, heavy and very rigid cabinet will always sound better than the effect of a light and weak cabinet. The overall quality of any cables, contacts, has an important meaning. In a professional monitoring the principle is that no compromises should be done. Murphy's law  is working right here, telling that if something can go bad or make us any trouble in the future, it is for sure it will. That is why  everything should be done so well and reliably as possible. Connectors and terminals should be the best grade, 24-carat gold-plated, which will prevent any distortion in sound.

Listening room should be treated with deafening material, it can not have too much reverb, but also it can not be completely "deaf". Total deafening of the room using sponge, for example, is a mistake. Artificially sounding room can lead to wrong decisions during mixing or mastering. The room should be slightly "live", somewhat resembling a normal, well-adapted large room for the Hi-Fi listening. Music is always played in typical residential rooms, it should therefore be created in a room with a bit of good, well-balanced reverb, the total lack of reverb in the studio control room is not desirable here.

 

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Copyright ® by Mariusz Wojto˝, 2007-2008. Copying, the use of excerpts for any purpose without the agreement of the author prohibited.
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