Studio Monitors - Nearfields
Previously, in Part 1 of this series on studio monitors, we discussed the advantages of mixing your productions on "studio monitors" instead of of "speakers." To recap, we learned that monitors will replicate the volume of different frequencies (or pitches) with far greater accuracy than speakers, and, as such, are best suited for engineers needing to to make informed decisions in their mix.
This, Part 2, will examine the Nearfield studio monitor. "Nearfield" is a reference to the range of frequencies the speaker is capable of replicating. While most all monitors replicate up to an almost inaudibly high 20kHz pitch, they primarily differ in how low they go. A monitor's driver size is responsible for this difference. Below, you can observe the (approximate) frequency ranges various sized drivers will physically replicate.
The archetypal speaker has three drivers – a "woofer," a "mid" and a "tweeter." This standard configuration divides the 20Hz – 20kHz frequency spectrum humans are capable of hearing into "low" "mid" and "high" sounds for the three drivers to handle. "Crossover points" then designate which frequencies go to which drivers for replication. The combination of the sounds replicated by all three drivers then constitute the material you are listening to as "one" piece.
Nearfields most often feature two drivers (a medium or medium-large and a small) and sometimes one (medium-sized). In any event, Nearfields are distinguished by their largest drivers not being all that large – usually between about 4 to 6.5 inches – resulting in limited low-end replication – usually down to about 50-75Hz.
While it is certainly important to accurately monitor your low end there are a number of reasons why you should prioritize owning at least one pair of Nearfield monitors. The first is that you should be mixing on a set of monitors reminiscent of the frequency range of the speakers your audience will be listening on. Specifically, today's audience will often hear your mixes over small, inexpensive speakers like the ones found in elevators, stores, offices, iPod docking stations, televisions and radios. As such, it is good to mix for these all-too-common worst case scenarios and Nearfields help you with this. You will find that if you can make it sound good on Nearfields it will likely sound good anywhere.
Another reason for first making your mix sound good on near-fields is that they emphasize, through isolation, the portion of the frequency spectrum we are most sensitive to (which includes the all-important vocal). If you can craft a tight mix in this upper-low to lower-high section then you will find yourself well on your way to a great production. Nearfields help focus us on this task.
Nearfields, finally, make sense for establishing a workflow that preserves our short and long term hearing. This is due to "Equal Loudness Contours." Simply put, Equal Loudness Contours tell us humans perceive different frequencies with different loudness biases depending on the volume they are played at. Very high frequencies, and the bulk of low frequencies, for example, sound dramatically (10-20db) lower in level to us than the rest of the frequency spectrum when played at the same soft to moderate volume levels. This, in sum, means you cannot get an accurate picture of your low end unless you are listening loud. We of course can't listen loud for too long, however, or we will quickly lose our short term objectivity and our long term hearing. The loudness of very high frequencies also become unreliable when played at high volumes. To elegantly address these factors we utilize Nearfields for the bulk of our mix at relatively low listening levels (no louder than a conversation) knowing that the frequencies Nearfields replicate are most accurate in volume relative to each other at these lower levels.
Once the engineer concludes this stage of the process (and double checks their work at a variety of volume levels on the Nearfields) it is then time to turn to different/larger monitors to evaluate lower frequencies while obtaining a "second opinion" on all that was just constructed on the Nearfields. This is what the Nearfield mixing experience is all about and though you may be surprised to learn professional mix engineers spend most of their time on them you hopefully at least now have an idea why.
Before commencing with recommending various Nearfield models, it is additionally important to consider room size. Specifically, you need to avoid purchasing "too much monitor" for your room. Too much monitor is a result of the room being too small to accurately accommodate the bass being replicated by the monitor. You should, consequently, steer clear of, say, an 7 inch driver replicating down to 50Hz in, say, a 5x5 foot room, or your low end will be unreliable (no matter how much you acoustically treat your room). Along these lines, consider the size of your largest driver (and the purpose of your room – i.e. voice-over work, hip-hop, etc.) in conjunction with your room's size:
"Small" room (~ 5x5) plus budget: 2 sets of Nearfields. One 3 or 4 inch driver and one 5 inch driver. This is a nice configuration that will afford multiple perspectives without too much dishonest bass.
"Small" room (~ 5x5) minus budget: If you can only purchase one set of monitors for your small room then 4.5 - 5 inches is a good size to consider first.
"Medium" room (~ 10x10) plus budget: 2 sets of Nearfields. Think around 4 to 5 inches for the first pair. The second, larger, pair should then be around 6 or 6.5 inches.
"Medium" room (~ 10x10) minus budget: 5.5 - 6 inches.
"Large" room (~ 15x15) plus budget: 1 set of Nearfields 4-5 inches, depending on your preference, plus 1 set of larger monitors (which we will discuss in the next article in this series).
"Large" room (~ 15x15) minus budget: 1 set of larger Nearfields: 6 or 7 inches.
Here, now, are some active Nearfields I think stand-out in their respective price points. Note that "active" monitors don't need external power because they have amplifiers built into them while passive monitors do need external power from an external amplifier. Purchase an active monitor unless you already own a terrific amp or need to mount your monitors on a wall bracket which may not support the additional weight of an amplifier. please note that most Nearfield monitors are sold individually. Some of my favorites include:
Yamaha's HS50M: These 5" Nearfield monitors recently replaced Yamaha's famed NS-10s. The HS50 features a similarly embellished frequency response curve that you may enjoy working with.
Genelec 8020b, 8030a, 8040a: 4, 5 and 6.5 inches. All models are identical, save for the depth of the low end response. All models are scalable to a surround sound system, or to accommodate a sub-woofer. Expect tremendous stereo imaging and crisp detail.
Dynaudio Acoustics BM5A: 5.7 inch driver. Wide stereo imaging with a silky smooth sound. TIP: it can be a great approach, when working on two sets of monitors, to purchase two pairs that sound fundamentally very different, ie. the "crisp" Genelecs vs the "soft" Dynaudios. This strategy adds a whole new layer of perpetually fresh perspective to your decision making process.
Question: Why do some monitors cost so much more than others despite being the same size?
Answer: The main differences are enclosure design, driver materials and amplification. These factors establish a well-defined stereo-field and a robust yet crystal clear sound.
This can be helpful for better carving out sonic spaces for instruments and reverb tails, etc, but this next tier of performance is second in priority to the most vital consideration of selecting one, ideally two pairs of monitors with appropriate driver sizes for your purpose/room.
If the budget is there for high-performance driver material then by all means proceed with confidence! Otherwise simply choose monitors with a sound that inspires you and a sound that you find relatively easy to work with for hours at a time. Then focus on learning the qualities of your monitors in your room. Do this and your mixes will translate well outside your room.Last but not least, don't forget to – if possible – pay a visit to B&H's comprehensive Loudspeaker Room. There you will find literally walls of options accompanied by no-commission sales experts to help you choose the monitor or monitors that may be right for you. See you at 420 9th Avenue!