If I were to ask you “What is the most important item of equipment in your studio?”, what is the first thing you think of? For a lot of people it’s their favourite instrument, or their most expensive outboard compressor, and that’s understandable. These are the big-ticket items that you saved a long time for and you’re very happy with. However, if your answer wasn’t “my speakers” then I’m afraid your answer was wrong.
Your monitors (aka speakers) are both the most important part of your studio and the part that you use the most (with the exception of, possibly, your chair – but that’s another topic). You can’t really be sure how sweet the tone on your trusty sunburst Les Paul is, nor how much your Korg MS20 is delivering that bass swell unless you can hear them accurately. Equally, if your monitors aren’t up to scratch then dialling in the perfect punch on your expensive bus compressor will be more down to luck than judgement.
So how do we go about choosing our perfect monitors? Here are a few tips:
- Budget. Remember that we are talking about the most important bit of gear in your studio, then budget accordingly. Save up. Push the boat out. All those phrases. There’s not much I find more frustrating in this world than seeing someone jamming on their £10k-worth of modular synth whilst listening on £200 speakers. “YOUR SYNTH MAKES AMAZING SOUNDS BUT YOU CAN’T HEAR THEM ON THOSE THINGS!” (That’s me, shouting at YouTube).
- Try before you buy. As this is going to be a big purchase, you want to make sure that you get it right. The second-hand market is a minefield that I would personally avoid as it’s easy to trash a pair of monitors by listening too loud for too long. Also, hit ‘play’ on your DAW with monitors on full and the instant hit on the cones will damage both your hearing and those cones. Do that a few times and they’ll need to be replaced. If you’re buying second-hand then you don’t know if the previous owner has been doing this, unless you buy from someone that you know well and are familiar with their working practices (and volumes). So, you’re unfortunately better off buying new (and I’m saying that as someone who loves a bargain). Here’s the best way to go about it: Find the biggest music equipment store that you can get to and give them a call. Tell them that you’re looking to buy a pair of monitors and what your budget is. If you have a couple of pairs that you’re interested in then ask to try them and whatever else the store suggest.Any big store worth it’s salt will have a way to set up a few different types of monitor which a customer can switch between to choose a pair that suits them well. Get an appointment booked in and bring along a few reference tracks. I’d recommend both something you’ve been working on that you really know the sound of, and also a favourite album that you’ve listened to a million times. Then all you have to do is pick the pair that give you the most information. This isn’t the pair that sound the most exciting (probably too much bass or treble), but the pair that tells you something about your mix / favourite record that you didn’t know before. Those monitors are keepers.
- We need to talk about NS10s. These are the classic, white-coned, Yamaha studio speakers that we’ve all seen in every studio photo ever taken. They’re not made any more and although you can find the originals second-hand, and there are new versions of a similar design out there. I love them. Some people hate them. Here is why: NS10s give you loads of mid-range. This is why they are accused of being ‘harsh’ or ‘hard’, or worse adjectives. But, within those frequencies that NS10s give you in spades are all the vocals, the snare, most of your electric guitars, saxophones, violins, etc. So, what you get to do with NS10s is work in detail with all those really important lead instruments.If you use NS10s for what they are good at then they are amazing, but there’s way too much hype and mis-information about them. I’ve used them for years and so they work well for me when I’m doing detailed work in the mid-frequencies. Outside of that work I use something else.
- Headphones. There is a bit of a debate over the use of headphones in mixing too, but I’m a big fan. We can get all technical about panning and the way that things panned fully left are still heard by the right ear through speakers and not through headphones and so on, but really that’s just an argument against mixing only with headphones, which I’d agree is not a great idea. However, headphones have one thing going for them that no speakers in the world can boast: the room treatment has no effect on their sound. This can be invaluable if your studio isn’t professionally built and you know there are problems in, for example, the bass response of the room. That also works when you are on the move, which is again a huge advantage.I prefer open-backed headphones as they sound more natural to me, and because I have a quiet studio I don’t need the sound-proofing of closed-backed headphones. You may find the opposite works better for you. In terms of buying headphones, please see points 1 & 2 above.
So hopefully now you are armed with a bit more information about what to look for in monitors, and how to find that. The better you can hear your mix, then the better your mix will be. And if you ever find yourself stuck on a mix then remember to hit up The Mix Consultancy and I’ll give you a helping hand (ear).