Project Studio Essentials Part IV: Monitors and Headphones

Listening back to your work with a critical ear is an essential link in the production chain. To judge the audio without prejudice, and to hear the “truth” of your mixes, you’ll need to get the right tools for the job.

Monitoring isn’t necessarily about enjoyment, or listening to things as loudly as possible. It’s all about making decisions. If you’re listening environment can reveal the strengths and weaknesses of your productions, you’ll at least have the opportunity to address them.

If you plan on mixing and mastering your tracks in your project studio, then you need to be doubly aware of your monitoring capability. Mixing and mastering requires a sharp focus on different areas of the frequency spectrum. Your monitoring setup will play a critical role in determining whether you can identify problem areas and create professional sounding finished products.
 

How you listen to and analyse your work can make or break your studio production. This time, we’re diving into the world of monitors and headphones.

What is Monitoring?

Monitoring is studio speak for listening. In a traditional recording studio, monitoring takes place in the control room. This room is acoustically separated from the performers in the live room, meaning that what you hear is a cleanly separated version of the live performance, through the microphones that are capturing the sound of the instruments.

A control room might have multiple sets of speakers that are designed to show the mix from different perspectives. Nearfield monitors are smaller and designed to be positioned close to the listener. Farfield monitors are larger, and designed to be further away and are sometimes flushmounted within the walls of the control room.

The nearfield monitors will highlight the mid range and upper frequencies in the mix. The mid range is particularly audible at lower volumes (see the Fletcher-Munson curves), therefore, nearfields play an important role in analysing the mid range of the spectrum.

The Yamaha NS-10 for example, has a legendary reputation in this role, enjoying near ubiquity in pro studio control rooms from the 80s onwards. Even superstar mixer Chris Lord-Alge and Avantone have codesigned their own version of the humble box – not bad for a cheap and primitive monitor.

So why mix on such apparently deficient device? Everyday consumers of music are not listening through perfectly balanced hifi systems. Think about the multitude of highly compromised environments where people listen to music – the car, the tinny Bluetooth speaker, the ear buds and so on. Small monitors are useful in creating mixes that translate well across multiple environments.

So why the need for big, farfield monitors at all? These types of monitors can handle more volume and have the physical proportions to expose frequencies at the more the extreme ends of the spectrum – a must for spacious control rooms who routinely put out commercial competitive mixes.

This type of monitor, however, would not be best suited to a small, acoustically untreated project studio. To hear thumping bottom end frequencies, crystal clear high end and pinpoint stereo imaging with any accuracy, you’ll need the appropriate acoustic treatment. This can be quite expensive and incredibly difficult to achieve in a small, cube-shaped room.

Don’t Forget Your Headphones

Headphones also play a critical role in a holistic monitoring rig. They are excellent tools for picking up the finer details in a busy arrangement and monitoring while recording. There are, however, a few key specs to look out for that will help you pick the right pair of cans for the job.

If you’re looking to use headphones for monitoring while recording, a pair of closed back cans are more suitable. Depending on the quality of the individual pair, they can do a great job of creating a seal around the ears, giving you the best possible opportunity to monitor accurately in a noisy recording environment. Considering that you’re project studio is likely to be the live room and control room, this kind of headphone should be a worthy asset.

Open backed headphones have a different sound and a different purpose. Owing to their design, this type of headphone reflects the frequency spectrum with more accuracy – less prone to boomy bottom and a more detailed in the high frequencies. They’re also more comfortable to wear for long periods of time. These factors combine to make a better choice for mixing.

Hearing the Truth

The acoustic treatment and physical dimensions of your space are arguably even more significant than any other element in the monitoring equation. The two main techniques in acoustic treatment – absorption and diffusion – can go a long way to ensuring that what you’re hearing is actually happening.

We can easily be fooled by listening in a room with substandard acoustics. Reflections can distort our perception of the stereo image, room modes can cancel out bottom end frequencies, awkward resonances can cause certain frequencies to spike. In other words, there is many a pitfall when it comes to finding a room that has reliable acoustics.

This is where absorption and diffusion come into the picture. Absorptive materials are designed to soak up sound and keep your mixing position clear of reflections. Absorbing higher frequencies can be achieved quite easily, usually with materials like foam or acoustic fibreglass.

Without going to into too much detail about room modes or standing waves, bottom end frequencies present a much bigger challenge, especially in small rooms. Short of designing and building an entirely new space, these reflections can be somewhat mitigated by effective bass trapping.

Diffusive surfaces scatter the sound, creating a natural dispersion of high frequencies. Diffusion helps to create a more natural listening environment but still controls echoes in the room. Diffusion panels are hard irregular surfaces, usually made from timber blocks of random lengths.

Listening critically is difficult at the best of times and even harder without the tools to do so. There is a massive diversity of studio monitors, with a plethora of manufacturers clamouring for your hard earned dollars.

The same can be said for headphones. A wide selection of products with a range of different price points is more readily available than ever. But with such a dizzying array of options, it might serve you best to scrutinise the acoustics of your room and plan accordingly.

For example, should you buy expensive monitors without addressing the reflective aspects of your room? Is it better to invest in good quality open backed headphones if you need a portable mixing rig? All worthwhile questions in the pursuit of the best possible result from your project studio productions.  

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