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Studio Monitors Part 2: To Tell The Truth?
By Glen Stephan on September 2 2008 06:00 PM | Permalink | Author Info
When asked, “Which monitor should I use?” , most of us are quick to respond with a fairly specific recommendation for make and model. If it’s that definitive of an answer, then why is everybody’s answer different?

TWO SIDES OF A COIN

“Which microphone should I use?” How would you answer that?  Most of us would answer that it depends upon what you’re trying to capture.

When asked, “Which monitor should I use?” however, most of us are quick to respond with a fairly specific recommendation for make and model. If it’s that definitive of an answer, then why is everybody’s answer different? This guy loves his Windblower 55s because they’re flat and tight sounding, but that guy – an equally good engineer – hates them because they’re hyped and flabby-sounding.

There are several factors that contribute to such wide differences of opinion. The conditions and amount of experience the engineer has with each model can shape one’s judgment. Even such a pedestrian issue as brand prejudice can often play a role. But the main reason at the bottom of everything else is that there is no more definitive answer to the monitor question than there is to the microphone question. They are really just two sides of the same question.

OF MICS AND MEN

The chain of events when we capture a sound with a microphone starts with a vibrating object such as a drum skin, a guitar string or a singer’s vocal cords. This vibration causes the surrounding air molecules to move in sympathy with the vibration. The vibrations in the air may or may not be modified by the way they bounce around and off of surrounding objects, “coloring” those vibrations somewhat. Eventually these vibrations reach the diaphragm of the microphone, which also similarly starts to vibrate. The vibrations of the mic diaphragm are in turn turned into electrical impulses that travel out the back of the microphone and on to the preamp and beyond.

When we listen to our studio monitors, it’s really the exact same chain of events put in reverse. We start with the electrical impulses heading down the wire to a loudspeaker. The electrical impulses cause the loudspeaker to vibrate back and forth, thereby causing the air to vibrate. The air vibrations get colored as they may as they travel about the room until they reach our ear, which has little hairs in it that begin vibrating. These vibrations are what we perceive (via neural impulses to the brain) as sound.

With this in mind, just as our microphone selection depends upon the source of the sound (Kick drum? Female vocal? Didgeridoo?), our loudspeaker selection equally depends upon the destination of the sound; i.e. who’s ears are doing the listening.

But aren’t all ears the pretty much the same? Don’t we all pretty much follow the Fletcher-Munson curves for frequency sensitivity? Yeah, pretty much. But then again, all microphones and loudspeakers “pretty much” follow a relatively flat response across the spectrum; yet we all know that no two microphones or no two speakers sound the same. Those small variations in frequency response make a big difference.

It’s the same with our ears. No two ears are identical, and the differences, though small, make all the difference in the world as to how we perceive the exact color of the sounds we hear.

Back some 30 years ago I used to sell audio and video gear to both pro and home users. After serving thousands of customers, the one thing I could guarantee was that – as long as I didn’t play any sleazy sales tricks on them – there was no guarantee just how any given customer would interpret the sound of any given loudspeaker. Choices cut across all lines regardless of experience. There was no pattern other than personal choice.

In general, the more experienced and the more professional the ear, the more they could specifically identify and describe the differences between loudspeakers. While not always perfect, they usually could tell which speakers had the flattest, truest response, which ones were weak or strong in this or that frequency range, etc. It was pretty easy to tell who had the truly trained ears and who was just BS-ing their way through.



YOU CAN'T HANDLE THE TRUTH

But what left an impression on me was that not even the best of ears made the same choices. There was a (very) roughly 50-50 split between those who wanted “transparency” or “flatness” as their view of the “truth”, and those who purposely wanted either weak edge frequencies or hyped midranges. These speakers, by their ears and reasoning, while not necessarily “accurate”, did a better job of exposing the dirty underbelly of the sound, of getting to a “truth” by emphasizing the harshest part of the spectrum and thereby exposing the “lies”.

We see that all the time today in modern nearfield studio monitors. On one side you have the “flat truth” school, who prefer something like the Tannoy Reveals or Mackie 824s for their extended flatness; delivering the (more or less) truth as-is, and the “hard truth” school, epitomized by the Yamaha NS-10 with it’s now famous 5dB midrange bump and shaky-at-best low frequency response. Most nearfields fall somewhere in-between the two.

So which “truth” do you prefer, and how strong do you want it? Do you really want to choose between Auratones or NS-10s on one end versus the high-end Tannoys or ADAMs on the other, or are your ears maybe somewhere in the middle? This is exactly the question you need to answer for yourself.



MAKING YOUR CHOICE

You need to first have the critical listening skills (i.e. the “engineer’s ear”) to tell – like the experienced customers of my youth – what you are actually listening to and to be able to discriminate just how much or how little of any given truth any given speaker is actually delivering (and not just BS your way through a listening session.)  And then from there, you’ll need to know which ones will work best for your ears; i.e. which levels of what truths will fatigue your ears the least while letting you make mixes that’ll translate outside the studio just as good as they sound inside.

You can’t tell this from a specification sheet, no matter how detailed it gets. You can’t tell this from online forum recommendations from strangers, no matter how qualified they may be. And you certainly can’t tell this from the sales person helping you out, no matter how sincere or knowledgeable he or she may be.

You have to let your ears do the listening and the deciding. This means, if possible, heading down to your local dealers – more than one if you have that luxury – and listening for yourself. Bring a CD-ROM that contains at least one track of wide-frequency, wide-dynamics music that you are very familiar with, perhaps by your favorite artist, at least one track that you are just as familiar with but is perhaps more sonically challenging, and (important) at least one track of an entirely different genre that you are NOT very familiar with, and do comparison listening on each track between the different candidate loudspeakers. Make sure these are in the form of CDA or WAV files and not MP3s.

More than one dealer is a good idea because the listening conditions will be different in each location. Listening to them in a different environment will mitigate any chance that one speaker may be affected because of room positioning or acoustic conditions in one location. Then use the good-sounding familiar music to hear what sounds “right” based on your aural memory, the challenging familiar music to hard test possible weaknesses in the various speakers, and the unfamiliar tracks to listen for pleasant (or not) surprises that may be masked by your previous expectations.

Even after all that; we must understand that things will sound different when we get our monitors home. In a worst case, we may not have the luxury of having nearby dealers where we can audition the speakers beforehand. For this reason, make sure whether you buy from a local dealer or from an on-line outlet, that they have a good return policy on their products, and that you’re working with a salesperson that understands that your decision cannot be final until you’ve tested them in their intended location. Monitors can be as custom and as personal a decision as shoes; don’t be afraid to exchange them for something else if they just don’t fit your ears when you get them home.

Of course having the room configured and ready to accept the monitors is a HUGE factor in how they'll sound when we get them home.

Which is why next time, in Part 3, we'll look at how to set up your mixing room to get the most out of your monitors.


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