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Studio Monitor Madness

Doesn't it drive you nuts when your mixes sound completely different
at home compared to how they sounded in the studio?

You work and slave over a hot console, you tell your significant other that you'll be home by midnight, it's 2 am, and you proudly head out to the car with your cassette or CDR, and then, POOF! Where'd the guitars go? How come it sounds dull? Why is the vocal thin? The bass is out of control! You go back in the studio, you plug in two more sets of speakers, and on each system, it sounds different. You are stressed out in the Twilight Zone experiencing Studio Monitor Madness....

You put a Kleenex over the tweeter of the white-coned ones, the big ones mounted in the walls make your ears bleed, the cool powered-ones have great low end if you're sitting back in the corner of the control room...it just goes on...

Let's start with the basics. In a mixdown, the sound travels down two paths. (1) is the electronic path to the mixdown machine. The other (2) is the acoustic path to your ears. The treatment you apply to the mixdown path is determined by what you hear via the acoustic path. The mistake is when we think the two paths are one-in-the-same. They're not.

The speakers are in a tonal enclosure, the mixdown machine (or file) gets a direct signal. The speakers are in a second enclosure, namely the control room. The control room enclosure has numerous surfaces around them (console, rental gear, couches, walls, windows, engineer's head, etc.) With a high-sound pressure level (SPL) mix, your ears may start to lose high end after a while, but the mixdown machine continues to get direct sound down the wires. No reflections. No Kleenex. No bleeding.

The studio environment is sometimes different from the home environment. But shouldn't those cool wall-mounted speakers in the big studios be great? First of all, how many people do you know with home systems where the speakers are mounted in the wall? But the monitors I bought have "flat" specs! Yes but they are tested "flat" in anechoic chambers. How many people do you know listen to music in an anechoic chamber? But the studio hired Ed Gearmax to "tune" the room! And how many people have bass trapping, RPG panels, compression ceilings and such in their homes? No wonder it's such a common practice to take mixes out on a cassette and listen in the CAR (if one's available)!

Bottom line: If your mixes sound bottom-heavy in the real world, your monitors don't have enough bottom. If your mixes are dull at home or in the car, your monitors are too bright. The monitors are adding highs to the sound which are not added in the mixdown path.

If your mixes are lacking punch, you're mixing on overly-punchy monitors (like the ones in the walls - which are no longer "flat" because they're mounted in non-factory designed enclosures). If the vocals or middle instruments sound thin in the car, there's probably a "bump" in the midrange in your studio. If the panning seems different or you're just having a hard time "seeing" your exact sound field, there's probably some reflections off the board or other gear that's blurring your monitor imaging. But there's more.

Power amplifiers, speaker cable and monitor preamplifiers are significant in accurate monitor sound. "But my power amp is flat from 20 to 20K." You have to use your ears when judging a power amp. They're all "flat", but some are dull sounding, some are harsh sounding, some are mushy sounding, some collapse the image, etc. I generally do not recommend typical studio power amps.  Like Bob Ludwig and Steve Marcussen, I prefer audiophile gear from one of those expensive home-theatre audio-fanatic stores (not your typical Circuit City home stereo store). Stereophile Magazine is a good place to start getting info.

Monitor preamplifiers (usually chips located inside your console, sound card or A-D breakout box) are another critical point. Years ago when I got my Inward Connection Discrete Switching Matrix, I about flipped when I heard the difference compared to my Hafler pre-amp. Hafler is no sleazy company, folks, but the difference between chips and discrete circuitry is astounding. One of the primary things I heard was that the image was wider,and the front-to-back depth increased dramatically. This is because the phase of each channel is very in-sync compared to before.

Think about it. If the mid to high frequencies positioned in the center of your mix (like on vocals, kic drum, etc.) are not perfectly in phase, what happens? The image is smeared or rendered less precise. The subtle stuff like real room sound loses the exactness of the locations of the room reflections, and the image collapses slightly. And chips can sound anywhere from dull to harsh.

Some chips are pretty good, but nothing compares to discrete (individual) components for smooth, even, revealing sound. To change this in your board will require a tech getting in there to do a mod, or patching out of your stereo buss into an outboard monitor matrix. What kind of pre-amp should you get? Again, a stereophile store, or your favorite gear mart that sells discrete products.

What to do about it.
Aside from getting all new gear, there are things you can do now with what you have:
• Separate your speakers from whatever platform they are now sitting on. Whether on floor stands or sitting on your console, go to your local fish store or craft store and buy a $5.00 bag of those flattened out glass marbles that are made to put in fish tanks (or made to add weight to flower vases). Any color.... Set 3 of them flat-side-up (2 in front one in back) where your speakers normally sit, then put your speakers back on top of the marbles. This will raise them up about a half inch, and it will help isolate them from transferring vibration into the surface they were just sitting on.

When your speaker cabinets are sitting on something, part of their energy is dissipated into whatever they are coupled (or connected) to. The energy that is vibrating that surface takes away from the potential energy and coherence of the speaker. When the speaker is de-coupled from the surface, all of its energy is focused into the projection of the waveform you're sending it. It's actually closer to the way it was originally designed and tested in the first place.

Better vibration isolators include actual stands that have concrete, granite and rubber sandwiched into a heavy platform that provides even better de-coupling. It's like focusing the audio "lens" you're listening through.

• Get a subwoofer. Once I did a mixdown at a semipro studio, and I immediately found that there was no low end. The studio owner had nothing to offer other than some old JBL 4311's and some funky close-up speakers. I postponed the session till I could bring in some mid-sized audiophile speakers. He didn't have access to subwoofers, so I took his 4311's and set them on the ground face down on the floor (plugged in along with the audiophile speakers).

I listened to my favorite CDs (as well as some in the same category of the music I was mixing) and I gradually... inch by inch... lowered the 4311's till the bottom coming out of them balanced the other speakers. How far were the 4311's off the ground? The distance of the thin side of a cassette box... placed under one edge of each 4311! This may seem funky, but it worked, and in mastering, it was one of the client's favorite mixes needing very little in the way of eq.

• Next, get the best speaker wire and line wire (from your console to the power amp) that you can afford. It makes a huge difference in the accuracy of your system. Use Monstercable at the least, and get better if possible - and yes better power cords make a difference! If you are using digital cable to your breakout box, get some purple Apogee digital cables. They are great, cost effective and sound wonderful. A $100 Apogee cable will make as much difference as a $3,000 D-A converter.

• Now, set your console back from your monitors so the low end has a chance to develop. Low frequencies consist of longer waves, and at 3 feet from the speaker you are mostly hearing low bottom that is reflected back to you from the room. You will find that the bottom end changes in your room from place to place, so you'll need to do some CD listening tests as you move your mixing position.

Key: You will get a better sense of what's really happening in the bottom if you are in a place where the full spectrum of sound gets directly to you. Plus, people often listen to their home systems with more distance between them and the speakers. Adding distance will enhance your objectivity.

At the same volume level, compare your mixes to the 1/4 million-dollar productions. Do this even when your clients are there. I know. At first it might sound like the commercial CDs sound better. But keep listening, and let your client chime in with ideas about what they hear. It takes guts to compare your studio with the biggies. Your clients will respect your willingness to stand next to the giants. Your clients will respect your commitment to achieving a great standard for them.

Key: It's important that you notice that CDs all sound quite different. Your system should reveal how different CDs sound. Otherwise, what's happening is that there is a common element to your system that is masking the differences. This masking problem greatly contributes to studio monitor madness. Room reverberation (in all frequencies) adds to this masking.
 

• Listen to lots of CDs in your control room. You want to really really like the sound of the hot-sounding commercial CDs you're listening to so you can compare their sound with your sound. Years ago it was rare to see a turntable in a control room, and that was a mistake. Now days, people have CD players in their control rooms because of the convenience, and because CDRs are commonly the "cassette copy" of today.

• Do some acoustic treatment to your control room. Here's a can of worms for ya. For starters, do not just put up a lot of carpet and foam on the walls. In the real world, there are a certain amount of reflections coming from walls and tables and stuff. People don't live in rooms with carpeted walls... usually.

What you don't want is high end slap-back in the room. Diffuse the high end either with some pro-gear-store diffusers or something simple like 1"-wide wood protruding from the walls at varying distances. One person I knew had his fireplace behind his speakers system, and the solid, yet diffused sound was fantastic. Also, use some soft materials like carpet around the room too - just don't get things too dead sounding. (Here's a peek at my old control room.)

Fuzzy stuff only attenuates highs, and does nothing to treat the low end build up (and it does nothing to keep the low end from visiting your next door neighbor, either). Parallel walls reflect the sound back and forth like mirrors reflect light. Face two mirrors toward each other with a light bulb in the middle, and look how many light bulbs you'll see! The same things happens with low-mid to low frequencies between parallel walls. The sound reflects and builds up creating sound that arrives at your ears that doesn't exist on tape (...er, on your hard drives...)

• Low frequencies must be changed into heat. Since low end has so much more energy to it, you must actually give it something to vibrate in order to "trap" or "absorb" it. Mounting 4-foot-by-8-foot (or 2' X 4') open-ended panels of 1/4" or 1/2" plywood in corners at an angle can help control the lows. Put lots of fiberglass or other fuzzy stuff (like used carpet padding) behind the wood. Hopefully somebody's dog didn't relieve itself on the carpet (and padding) you're about to put back there...

Low frequencies cause the wood to move when it vibrates. The motion causes the molecules in the wood to get hotter (think physics.com), and so the sound energy is converted into heat energy. Thus the lows don't continue to reflect, and this tightens up the sound in your room. You can use anything that vibrates - cardboard boxes (like the ones your rack gear comes in); 12" diameter pressed Quick-Tube building forms are available in those big home improvement warehouse stores (stuffed with insulation or carpet padding); all the way to expensive trap systems.

As far as isolating one room from another, the only thing that keeps lows from bleeding into places you don't want... is density - like drywall, plywood, backer board. Low end goes right through carpet or foam rubber. Isolation is only as good as how dense and how air tight a wall is made - a crack or separation in the wall lets in as much sound as the entire wall does. Putting fuzzy stuff on a door does nothing to keep the low end from going into the next room. Solid core doors that seal around the edges is more like it. Air tight is sound tight.

The way to gauge your room is to listen to a lot of CDs, and get the system so that you hear lows, highs, mids... all differently on different CDs. Our list of commercial CDs givers you an idea of the range of music I listen to when tuning my room.

• Spend some time at an audiophile store listening to high-end full-range speakers. Then go to your favorite pro-sound gear store and listen to what they have. Then... go back to the audiophile store. Get a sense of the clarity, definition, realism, warmth, smoothness and presence in a fine home speaker system. Take your mixes along on CDR and compare. You'll find it very eye-opening. It's important to audition lots of systems, so you can gauge their differences.

Your product can sound great. It takes time and effort and a willingness to try, try, and try again. When you cut tracks, listen to commercial CDs. When you mix, listen to CDs. When you book your mastering session, bring along CDs that you feel sound the best, so that you can convey what your preferences are. Ask questions - find out what's possible - get the best you can afford. (Making Separations is the best way to have the best options when it's time to master your project.) Even if your monitors aren't the best money can buy, expert mastering is a powerful tool to bring out the best in your mixes.

Q) I'm planning to get some Clearview speaker cables and power amp weights -- and some Virtual Dynamics power cords for my monitor setup.  Will this help my monitors be more accurate? -Kenny

Accurate - to me - means I can make sonic judgments that translate to the real world.  Some people need a little time to understand the sound in my room because it's not a typical "studio" room with tight, pounding speakers. My room is open, experiential and revealing, but if you measured the room it might not show to be "accurate" because it's not "flat."  Flat rooms don't always make correct sound for the car or home system, so everyone has a different idea about what's accurate.  Certainly no home stereo or car stereo is "flat."

The items you're speaking about will reveal more in your sound.  You'll hear better, more detail.  Scott Gordon, engineer for Alanis Morrisett, Ringo, Aerosmith and more was shocked when he could hear that a different power cord changed the sound of his Mackie monitors.   He couldn't go back to his old power cords!

You'll need to buy a few weights for the amps.  I had a few on the amps and it helped, but as I added more, it got even better..... up to a point..... .where more weights took some life out of the amp.  You have to "tune" the amp with the weights, and you'll want someone to help add/remove them so you can listen carefully.  Start with the better cables so the difference in the amps is easier to hear.  Bad cables mask the true sound.  The weights are just as good as the power cords, maybe better!  It's an adventure, and worth the try.  Be sure you have music you are very familiar with, and use short passages of music to A/B the sound so you can hear right away what changes.

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Doing some research can save you time

Major artists are fed up with MP3s and less-than-fabulous sound. Computers, Smartphones and internet services are faster - so now HIGH-RESOLUTION AUDIO is in demand. Mastered for iTunes has been a great start.

Your product deserves the same attention to detail that is available with LOSSLESS STREAMING services such as Tidal. The reviews will produce discussions, to be sure, but the trend is undeniable.

With Apple's Sound Check and VOLUME-MATCHING FEATURES now found on YouTube, iTunes Radio and more - the loudness war will be substantially less important. Better sounding music will prevail. New high-resolution audio players will replace the iPod for the more discerning listner. We are here to make your sound Future-Ready.

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Date created: 8/15/98
• Last modified: 03/24/06



Remember the "teeter-totter principle" -- when you bring somethtng down (frequency, instrument, vocal), something else appears to go up. Example: bring down the cymbal crashes (and/or hi hat), the toms and snare appear louder.

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