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An In-Depth Look At Audio Monitors and Placement

By Moshe Lehrer

So, you've got your studio set up. Mixing boards, controllers, sequencers, and mics. Everything you need to make some great music. Now, you just need the right monitors to accurately listen to, mix, master and tweak all those great tunes.

What are monitors?

One of the most useful tools used during the whole recording process, monitors can be used to help you find ideal microphone placement, to play back takes, as well as to mix and master tracks. It accurately reproduces exactly what has been recorded and can be an invaluable tool helping you to achieve the exact sound you are looking for.

Mixing multiple tracks into a cohesive whole and mastering it for proper volume and clarity are two huge tasks you need to accomplish when preparing a recording for the world to hear. How heavy should the bass be? What about the treble? Which tracks should be pushed to the forefront, and which ones should be pushed further back into the mix. The mixing stage truly gives you the power to make all the large and minute adjustments needed to make your recording shine, and to do that, you'll need to be hearing an accurate representation of the music you're mixing.

Regular hi-fi speakers tend to color the sound (some may emphasize bass, others treble), boosting or dialing back certain frequencies, making music more enjoyable to listen to. Because every hi-fi speaker system colors the sound a little differently, the same recording can sound radically different when listened to on another system. To compensate for this, the initial recording must be mixed with a neutral system, one that does not equalize the music in any way and does not emphasize any frequencies above others, so that the recording will sound good on any speaker system, no matter how the speakers color the sound. That's where monitors come in. They tend to offer much more neutral, and much more accurate sound reproduction than speakers.

Now, sure, it's possible to mix audio with standard hi-fi speakers, but you have to be careful, because whatever frequencies your system boosts may be under-represented in the final mix. Say you were mixing a beat that was heavy on bass, and you were working on a system that emphasized the low end. The song might sound great on your system, but when you try to play it on another system, one that doesn't overemphasize lower frequencies, you may not be able to hear the bass at all. In other words, the system you mixed on emphasized the bass so much that you underestimated how much bass was needed in the final mix. Had you used a more neutral monitor, this problem could have been avoided.

Another advantage of studio monitors are that they are generally much more ruggedly built than hi-fi speakers, since hi-fi speakers are only designed to play commercial recordings that have been carefully mixed and compressed. These speakers can't handle sudden loud sounds and peaks that can occur often in a mixing environment. A good monitor can take much more of a sonic beating than traditional speakers, and are designed for loud peak. But don't go crazy on them because even the best monitors can be blown out.

Frequency Response

The frequency response of a monitor indicates what frequencies the monitor can accurately reproduce. Anything higher or lower than the monitor's frequency response range will be either distorted or completely inaudible. The average human ear can hear frequencies ranging from about 20Hz to about 20kHz, so ideally, you would want your speakers to reproduce as much of this sonic range as possible to make to most accurate mixes.

Something else to keep in mind when looking at a monitor's frequency response is how level its reproduction of those frequencies is. A good set of speakers will accurately reproduce all frequencies within its frequency range to within a couple decibels accuracy (+/- n decibels). This means that for any given frequency, the sound will be a few decibels either above or below the exact frequency. A monitor with -3db accuracy will be twice as accurate as a monitor that has +/- 3dB accuracy. A less accurate speaker may reproduce all the same frequencies as a more expensive monitor but will have a much larger swing in how many decibels off the sound may be.

Now, after you've chosen your monitor, you'll need to decide exactly where in your mixing studio you'll place them.

Why is monitor placement important?

When mixing your music, you want to make sure you are hearing your music as accurately as possible. While a large part of this is determined by quality of the monitors themselves —higher quality monitors will produce more accurate sound —a portion of the sound accuracy actually has to do with the acoustics of the room and how the monitors are placed in the room relative to the listener. Moving a monitor over a couple of feet or turning it a little bit may completely change the way the sound envelopes you, and may change the frequencies which are audible from a listeners point of view. As an example, if your monitors are badly placed, (or if you're sitting in a bad spot in reference to your monitors) you might hear too much bass, and may, once again, overcompensate by lowering the bass to almost inaudible levels. When you listen back to your mix on another set of speakers, you may be shocked at how bad it sounds. You want your monitors to reproduce exactly what was recorded, and because of that, your monitors must be properly placed.

Sweet Spots

Before you decide where to place your monitors, you'll want to take a look at the room you'll be using, and decide where the listening sweet spot is. Sound waves bounce off walls and can either cancel each other out or multiply, so different parts of the room may be heavier on certain frequencies, and other parts of the room may be very light on those frequencies. What you want to do is find the spot in the room that has the flattest frequency response, where as few frequencies are amplified or muted as possible.

As a general rule, assuming your mixing room is more or less rectangular in shape, you'll want to be sitting halfway between the left and right walls and about 38% of the room away from the front wall. So, if your room is 10 feet deep, you'll want to be about 3.8 feet from the front wall. This spot would be your listening sweet spot. Now you'll want to properly place your monitors so that they can take advantage of your new sweet spot.

The best way to position stereo monitors is to create an equilateral triangle with the listener. If the speakers are five feet apart, they will also be about five feet from your listening spot, creating the equilateral triangle. You'll also want to turn the speakers so that they point to about a foot behind your listening sweet spot. This speaker placement helps make sure that you're getting proper stereo imaging.

Another important thing to keep in mind is that because of the way different frequencies move around the room, you want to keep the monitor's tweeters at approximately ear level (or keep your ears at least at a level somewhere between the tweeters and the woofers), and you do not want the woofers to be at 50% of the room's height for optimum sound. While some people like to place monitors on their side, many experts recommend keeping monitors upright for the widest sweet spot and most accurate sound reproduction.

Of course, there are exceptions to every rule and you should use your ear to decide what the best monitor placement is for your room and setup. Chasing the perfect sweet spot can cost a ton of money; you can put in sound dampeners and bass traps or you can even build a room with the perfect dimensions for audio mixing, but by following the above steps, you'll be well on your way to great sound monitoring.

Most of the monitors covered in this buyer's guide are nearfield monitors. These monitors are designed to be placed fairly close to the listener, somewhere between 3 and 5 feet away, making them ideal for home studios

Here are a couple of great nearfield studio monitor options for every price range. Unless otherwise noted, the price listed is for a single monitor. You will need two monitors if you want stereo imaging.

Monitors in the $500 + Price Range

There's the Genelec 8030A Bi-Amplified monitoring system. With a frequency response of 58Hz-20kHz (+/- 2dB), the 8030A's die-cast aluminum enclosure has rounded edges, which the manufacturer claims will help achieve a smoother frequency response.

The THX pm3-certified Mackie HR824mk2 is enclosed in a high-gloss piano black cabinet, has a frequency response of 58Hz-20kHz (+/- 1.5dB), has an internal cabinet damping to eliminate midrange artifacts, and a passive radiator for accurate bass response. It can easily be mounted on walls or the ceiling.

Trying to set itself apart from the crowd, the JBL LSR-4326P includes features to automatically compensate for bad acoustic environments. It has a whole assortment of knobs and switches, and a remote control to adjust the sound to be as accurate as possible. It has a frequency range of 55Hz-20kHz (+/- 1.5db).

The Adam Audio A7 features their ART tweeter paired with 6.5" carbon woofer, and has an incredibly wide frequency response range of 46Hz-35kHz (-3db).

A great monitor kit option is the Blue Sky International MediaDesk2.1 which includes two monitors and a subwoofer. It has a frequency range of 110Hz-20kHz (+/- 3dB).

Monitors in the $300-500 Range

The Mackie HR624mk2 is THX pm3-certified, just like its bigger brother, and has most of the same features, but has a smaller transducer, and features a frequency range of 45Hz-22kHz (+/-1.5dB).

The Genelec 8020B is a compact monitor that features a die-cast aluminum enclosure, and features a 66Hz-20kHz frequency response (+/- 2.5dB).

The Yamaha HS80M's enclosure is built to reduce resonance and still look nice. It has a frequency response of 42Hz-20kHz (+/- 10dB).

For a pair of speakers under $500, take a look at the M-Audio Studiophile BX8a Deluxe. The magnetically shielded speakers have a frequency response range of 40Hz-22kHz. The deluxe edition has extended high frequency response.

Monitors in the $150-$300 Range

Standing out with a bright yellow circle on its woofer, the KRK VXT4 features a frequency response of 59Hz-20kHz (+/- 2dB), front-firing bass ports and its cabinet is curved to help eliminate sound diffraction that is common with traditional rectangular speakers.

The Genelec 6010A, like the other monitors in the Genelec line, has a curved die-cast aluminum cabinet. This one has a response curve of 74Hz-18kHz (+/- 2.5dB).

The Mackie MR8 is a great entry into professional monitors. It has a frequency response of 40Hz-20kHz (+/- 3dB). It claims to provide a wider-than-average sweet spot for mixing.

The Yamaha HS50M is enclosed in an MDF cabinet and has a frequency response of 55Hz-20kHz (+/- 10dB).

The Alesis m1Active 520 has a frequency range of 56Hz-20kHz and features a high, low and mid EQ to compensate for room acoustics and personal preference.

The Cakewalk MA-15D set from Roland comes with a pair of speakers. They have all-wood cabinets, dual bass reflex ports, and a frequency response of 70Hz-20kHz. They come in two colors, Black and Blue/Natural.

The M-Audio Studiophile BX5a Deluxe monitors also come as a pair, and each have a Kevlar woofer, waveguide loaded tweeters and a frequency response of 56Hz-20kHz.

The Mr5 is Mackie's entry-level professional monitor. It has a frequency response of 60Hz-20kHz (+/- 3dB), and many of the same features as Mackie's more expensive monitors.

Monitors Under $150

There are some excellent monitors out there for budget prices.

The KRK Rokit 5 G2 is a great professional quality monitor at a budget price. With a frequency response of 53Hz-20kHz (+/- 2dB), it has an adjustable gain range of +6dB to - 30dB, and a front firing bass port.

The M-audio Studiophile AV 40 set comes with 2 speakers in vinyl-laminated MDF cabinets, and have a frequency response of 85Hz-20kHz. They have both RCA and " inputs. This system could be great for music hobbyists looking to upgrade their computer speakers.

At just under 100 bucks, the Alesis M1Active 320 is a USB stereo monitoring system. You just plug these babies into your computers USB port and they're ready to use. It has a frequency range of 80Hz-20kHz, and as an added bonus, these speakers can act as a USB interface, with RCA, 3.5mm and " inputs.

Monitor Accessories

There are some simple tricks you can use to increase your sound accuracy.

You could use an adjustable monitor stand like the On-Stage SMS6000-P, to help you accurately place your monitors at the perfect height needed to hit your sweet spot.

Speaker cabinets can transfer their vibrations to whatever surface they are laying on, changing the sound that you hear. By isolating your monitors with monitor isolation pads, like the Auralex MoPAD, you minimize the effect that whatever is holding the monitor up will have on the sound. Or, for a few dollars more, you can get the RX7-HF Recoil Stabilizer from Primacoustic. It not only isolates your speakers but also takes into account back-to- front speaker cabinet motion, also known as speaker recoil.

Specs aside, when choosing monitors, possibly the most important thing is to listen to them yourself, and decide what sounds best to your ears. The B&H SuperStore in New York City features a large room dedicated to test driving different studio monitors. Stop by anytime (and bring a CD of your own mixes if possible), and let your ears decide which monitors are best for you. While you're at it, be sure to check out our newly redesigned soundproof microphone room, where you can personally test the best microphones on the market. Should you have any questions about monitors, or any creative production equipment, feel free to contact our knowledgeable sales staff at 1-800-814-2999.

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