So what is Monitoring? In a simple description, it’s the way we have to hear the results we are tracking, recording or mixing. It’s our way to see what is going on with the recording. I will talk a bit here about how to choose adequate headphones and speakers, also what to look for on those, along with a few personal suggestions.
Audio is something we HEAR
I made the word “see” in the first paragraph in italic for a reason: Audio does not involve our vision. So it’s not about visualization plugins, meters, leds, seeing the sound wave, seeing the equalizer curve, it just isn’t about seeing. It’s about what you hear. If what you hear is good, then it’s good. If it’s bad, then it’s bad.
“Oh but wait, how can I know what is good and what is bad? Don’t I need training?” No, you don’t.
Experiment: pick a recording from your favorite artist. Listen to it. Does it sound good? Ok. Now get into a music forum and find some recording done by a beginner of that song. Does it sound good?
If you can decide which you like best, that’s all you will need. How to make better decisions and what to listen for when improving something that is not good, we can learn and discuss. But this basic call of value is indeed a matter of taste and there is nothing wrong with it.
Use your ears, listen and decide, and you will be fine. With time, you will start to know what kinds of sound works best, and where. Even relate them to the visual information, but it’s of huge importance that you keep your hearing as the first and last source of information that you will work with.
Make use of it
A very important point still in this simple idea of listening for good/bad and decision-making: If you start to get in your own way, second guessing a decision due to any kind of justification, you are messing up your own skill.
When it does not sound good, it’s necessary to correct, not to justify. If you start to justify instead of acting to correct, because the gear is bad, because you are just beginning, because you are drunk, because of whatever, then you are impairing your main source of information and also your most powerful tool.
Being such, monitoring is only possible if you have the means to playback audio. And for that you will have two choices: headphones or loudspeakers. The first reaction you may have is that what you need are those super bass headphones or the ultimate home stereo system with bass boost that rattles your furniture.
That’s very far from truth. In fact, what you need most on recording situations is to hear the midrange content. Highs and lows have their charm and are necessary, but everything that is most relevant on a song will be happening from 100 to around 13.000 Hz.
A good monitoring headphone or loudspeaker is not something that makes songs sound better. They need to reveal, they need to show you what is going on. What you want is detail, and clarity on the midrange.
A lot of recording gear sites will talk about how important it is to have a near flat response curve, low-end response (maybe if you are working with material that has a real lot of low-end), lot’s of dynamic headroom and etc. These are for sure not bad things to have, but to fulfill all these demanding specs you will need quite a lot of money. So let’s try to find a more affordable solution instead:
A headphone is a piece of gear that is necessary, but should be used within the correct context. They serve as a “microscope”, when you need to hear small details, when you need to focus for example in eliminating something wrong on the attack of a note, when you need to take a “closer look”. It’s possible to do the whole work with headphones, but it can make your judgement of levels, pitch and stereo field imprecise, or at least much harder than it needs to be.
There are good quality headphones from known brands that can do this well and do not cost a small fortune, do not look for super linear response($$), just avoid phones that super boosts lows or highs and you are most likely going to be fine. Sony has some nice headphones, some from Phillips too. Usually you can see the response curve of the headphone on its specs. Focus on the midrange, if it’s somewhat linear, do not worry if the phone does not have response from 20 to 20kHz.
One very cheap piece of gear that could be used is the Koss Porta Pro, although it has too much bass response for my tastes. I use it when studying songs and I even used it on mixing situations. It’s not optimal but can do the job.
Before talking about loudspeakers, the most important part of information we need is: knowing the room. That’s right, the room, not the drivers, not if the tweeter is made of silk, Kevlar, or whatever.
Why? Well, let’s say that instead of audio, we were working with photos. We got this workstation with a super accurate screen, with so much resolution and color accuracy it seems you are looking through a window.
But, since you lack space in your house, you place it against a window where the sun hits in such way that it blinds your eyes when you are working…
It’s a very similar situation to just placing $4000 of audio gear in a room full of acoustic problems, in any place were you can fit it.
Room acoustics is a subject on its own, but for now, what is important is that you should NOT use all your money to get super flat response curves on your monitors because, at your house, you will not get it no matter what kind of gear you use.
I will talk more about rooms in the next part of this series.
Talking about the loudspeakers, check the specifications and look for the response curve in the midrange. In special from 2kHz up to 4kHz, and see if there are any nasty curves. That area is usually very affected on poorly designed 2-way passive speakers (2 drivers, 1 for low-mid, 1 for mid-high), because of the way the passive crossover handles the audio-signal. It can distort the content, in the case of small speakers it will certainly be on that frequency range.
If you can’t find the specs (and even if you can), try placing the model name on google + “frequency response graph”. You can find even real world measurements done by some sites. A smooth variation over a large area is actually fine. But sudden peaks or valleys, specially on the midrange of more than 5dB, are very difficult to deal with and will mask important content from you.
You also do not want those bass tuned speakers that go “woomp woomp” with whatever music is playing at them. You want a boring speaker that can reproduce midrange well. As an example, a standard piece of gear that almost all big studios have are the Yamaha NS10 speakers, which sound as beautiful as playing songs trough a huge nose… But they do the job! They are great tools.
When choosing the speakers test it by listening to it, do it at low levels (remember that we hear louder as better), and do not look for beauty but details.
There are studio monitors over a wide price range. If it’s your first acquisition and your budget supports it, the HS 8 from Yamaha are a very good deal that you probably can keep for life.
If you are low on cash and you are looking for a cheap solution that could work, I would advise taking a look on the speakers R1900 TIII from Edifier, they are relatively low-cost and have a good performance. I believe that in the US, Edifier does not sell their studio series, in this case you can check eBay or stores on Canada. In fact, in my personal opinion they are not that far from the HS 8, but that´s your call.
Those are just suggestions, remember, I will repeat this: Buy gear based on rational decisions and SPECS, not because of marketing or some letters placed on the label. As an example, you can find headphones on the $700 tag that perform nearly the same, and some even WORSE than the Porta Pro ($50) on the midrange.
Finally the importance of removing room problems and having “boring” speakers and phones is so that you don’t have parts of the audio that are hidden from you. This is what will make your mix consistent on different playback situations, something essential if you hope that others listen to your work in the way you meant it to be.
Oh. Have I mentioned the importance of midrange? 🙂
Some other links about the subject: