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The Great Studio Monitoring Fiasco

Brandon Drury —  September 16, 2011 — Leave a comment

Here’s the rules.  You get a $25 shovel (the best one they sell at Lowe’s) and I’ll order a $100 shovel online.  Who’s gonna dig the best ditch in the least amount of time with the least amount of aches, pains, and blisters?  Who knows!  A $5 shovel is more likely to break and give you blisters.  Once you get to the  $25 mark they’ve knocked most of that out.  What’s a $100 shovel going to do that a $25 shovel can’t?

In this article we are going to discuss this $100 shovel vs $25 shovel business as it applies to studio monitoring.

We have this little point-of-diminishing return curve happening that can be drawn for just about every  piece of gear in the studio arsenal.  Unfortunately, these curves aren’t published with the manufacturer specs.  Maybe they need to be.  Even worse, we don’t know if this point occurs with a $25 shovel, a $100 shovel, or a $10,000 shovel.

Exhibit A

This week a client I work with every Tuesday night brought in some Audioengine 5 speakers.  These are getting rave reviews in the consumer-grade world. They use an 1/8” jack.  One is heavy (power amps inside) and gives the “this is pro” feeling while one is light enough to give you that  “this ain’t pro” feeling.  Apparently they sell for under $400. My buddy got ‘em for $270.

Alright, they aren’t monitors by any real definition that would normally be applied.  Oh well.  I hooked them up on the second studio monitor output on the console.  It lets me push a button and switch between my Focals and these Audioengine 5 speakers.

I have a pair of Focal Solo6BEs with the Sub6.  When I upgraded  from a pair of Mackie monitors (which I believe to be broken) to these Focals, it made a drastic and immediate improvement in the way my mixes translated.  I still have to double check all mixes elsewhere, but rarely am I surprised.  When I do hear things that NEED to be fixed on other stereos, I usually say, “Oh, duh!” when I get back in the control room and wonder how I let that slip.  Anyway, the point is my Focal monitors work.  My mixes translate quite well.

I made the jump from lower end (and probably malfunctioning) monitors to all-out turbo expensive monitors.  I just said screw it one day and blew an enormous amount of cash.  The gamble worked in my opinion, but I’ve always been curious if I could have been just as happy with an $800 set of monitors w/sub.

Back to the topic.

With my Focal Sub6 on, the low end was night-n-day when comparing the Audioengine 5 speakers to my usual monitors.  That’s a given.  So I killed the sub, but left the high pass crossover engaged on my the Focal Solo6BEs.  This is where it got very interesting.

It may be that I’m always looking for objective improvements and not necessarily qualitative improvements with recording gear.  I’m not impressed when a $3,000 compressor sounds 0.05% smoother than the $300 compressor particularly when I can get that kind of effect with an EQ or something.  I want a $3k compressor to do something awesome that I can’t do with an EQ.  That $3k compressor needs to be doing something where I say, “Wow!  That sounds EXPENSIVE!!” or “Wow!  That sounds way better!”

There is a difference in tonality between the Focals and these cheapo Audioengine 5 speakers.   Kinda like the difference between a Shure SM57 and an Audix i5 in that they both seem to be doing the same things only in different ways.    The Audioengine 5 speakers have a bit more bite.  They are less smooth, but that could be their smaller bottom end.   The Focals were a bit wider sounding, but not in a way that emotionally stimulated me.   The problem is I, unfortunately, couldn’t point out the Focals as sounding move expensive.  Not better.  Just different.

While I didn’t mix on the Audioengine 5 speakers and I do believe that mix translation is the ONLY real metric when evaluating a monitor, I would be surprised that after learning the speakers I wouldn’t be able to make mixes that translate on them as well.  Maybe not.  I’d need to buy a pair and try ‘em out for a month to know for sure.

I will say that it was a little odd when I listened to the Focals for 30 seconds and then switched to the Audioengine 5 speakers.  The only problem was it was always a little odd when I listened to the Audioengine 5 speakers for 30 seconds and then switched to the Focals.  Hmmm.  That’s a red flag.  The Focals should have always been the clear winner, right?

Note:  When I disengaged the crossover on the Focals with the sub off, they clearly had quite a bit more low-end extension.  That’s kinda a given as the Audioengine 5 speakers really need a sub to be of any use for low end decision making.

Most of all, there were times where I’d get distracted and forget which monitor I was listening on.  I’d switch back and forth and my brain would immediately kick in the “don’t look stupid” juice.  I’d try to figure out which monitor was playing.  There was a long enough “panic mode” that I had to use cerebral power to figure it out because the differences weren’t obvious enough to be automatic for me.  I remembered that the Audioengine5 speakers were on top of my Focals and that helped me figure out which one was which.  Is that how it should be?  Not sure.  Maybe I’m just deaf.

Exhibit A Conclusion
Based on 30 minutes of listening with the sub off, I expect very very very few of you to hear the kind of difference you would expect in a $400 pair of speakers and a $2,200 pair of speakers.  Again, there are character differences, but the obvious quality difference isn’t what I expected.  To sum it up, I was shocked that the Audioengine 5 speakers were this usable.

Exhibit B

In this video, Chris-Lord Alge is interviewed by Chris Farley’s SNL Interview character.  (I stole that description from Bholst.)

CLA goes on and on and on about his intensely detailed tastes in compression, EQ, and consoles.  Being THE rock mixer of our time, he’s got access to everything and clearly has very, very specific tastes on all of his hardware.

Then when asked about monitoring, it’s almost like an “ohh…whatever” moment.  He JUST uses NS10s and ran off to Best Buy to pick up some crappy Infinity boom device known as a subwoofer.

I immediately feel a little stupid.  My sub is…uh…way more expensive than that yet I’m clearly not in his league.  What is going on?  I just blew a bajillion bucks on monitors without all the fancy outboard gear.  I clearly took the opposite path as CLA.  That’s probably a mistake on my part.

Maybe monitors aren’t sexy to talk about.  Maybe the NS10 is just the thing all the current big dogs grew up on and they know well.  Maybe the fact that they know them sooooo well makes using another monitor seem a little silly.  One way or another, it’s clear that he wasn’t making nearly as big of deal about his monitoring as I would have expected.

Note:  I’m ignoring the whole room acoustics issue which is the pink elephant in the room.  Comparing a room with and without proper design and room acoustics is like comparing a Kansas house before and after a tornado.

The NS10

I’ve attended big boy mixing sessions in Nashville.  The NS10 is not a fun speaker to listen to.  I was practically begging the mixing session to stop my ears were hurting so bad.  Of course, the point of any monitor isn’t to be a fun speaker to listen to, but to produce mixes that are fun to listen to everywhere else.  So it’s not important how fun the speaker is to do what we do.  I think we can all agree on that.

What is interesting is the NS10 was never designed to be a monitor.  It was a consumer-grade bookshelf speaker.  It’s not flat.  It doesn’t have much bottom.  It’s not smooth.  Besides the overwhelming majority of big boys who swear by them, there is not a single measurable/technical metric where the NS10 makes sense as a monitor in terms of “flatness” and things of that sort.

Note:  Somewhere in there Yamaha did go back and made the speaker more usable for mixing.  I’m pretty sure this is more about power handling than flat frequency response or sound quality.

While I don’t deny that there are certain immeasurable traits that make a monitor effective, it seems to me if this NS10 works as a monitor, just about any speaker you know inside and out COULD be a monitor.  These immeasurable traits include finding very specific levels/frequencies that fart out, certain quirks that expose excessive sibilance, or just a general upper-mid boost that makes it almost impossible to stand a harsh mix on NS10s.

The obvious contradiction to this is my situation with my Mackie monitors. Those things, no matter what I did, ALWAYS had a hole at  120Hz.  I thought this was an acoustics issue, but the Focals simply didn’t have this problem.  I could never learn this 120Hz area because I was hearing NOTHING in this region.  It wasn’t uncommon for me to hear a mix on other stereos and go “Oh God!” and need to pull down this region by as much as 6dB.  It was THAT bad!  This kind of problem is something my brain seemed to fill in when listening to pro mixes on the monitors, but unfortunately the brain doesn’t inverse account for it during mixing.

Exhibit B Conclusion
While it’s turned into a monitor that was used on most of the records you own, it wasn’t SUPPOSED to be a monitor at all.  Enough guys hate it to make you think twice, but too many guys love it to not make you think a third time.

Exhibit C

Back in 2008, I asked the question. At the time I was VERY frustrated with the monitors that I had even though the pair was over a grand.  I was looking for answers.

I get the feeling that these budget monitors don’t ooze all those ridiculous buzz words they use in hi-fi magazines when compared to the Focals (just as the NS10s don’t either).  That doesn’t seem to change the overwhelming number of people who like and trust their budget monitors.

Exhibit C Conclusion
If you browse through that thread, you’ll see tons and tons of people who are quite happy with the way their mixes translate even though they are using inexpensive monitors and very few of them have much in the way of acoustic treatment.

Toys N Crayons

I’m starting to believe that toys are toys.  Every time I buy expensive stuff, I just end up buying more expensive stuff.  Then I hear someone make an incredible mix on something cheap I haven’t used in 5 years and say, “Well hell! I should just use THAT!”.  It’ll sound great one day and then crappy again the next day.  So my quest continues.

I considered buying a Neumann U87 recently.  If you do the usual waste-of-time research you’ll encounter people who bought it expecting it to have some kind of ultra-magic quality.  Then they (with their epic unicorn-like expectations of magical Germans who never make mistakes…OOPS!) post an audio clip thinking the mic is broken.  Guys who own a U87 say, “Yeah, that’s about right.”  It turns out that a U87 is just a green.  It’s good for grass, vomit, and March Holidays.

I’m starting to think there is no “good”.  There’s just a whole bunch of crayons out there.  A $50 blue is awesome when you need a blue sky, but crappy when you want to draw the sun.  It seems that a $2,000 yellow sure makes you say, “Yes!  It does sound expensive!” when you are drawing the sun, but then you try to use it to color a Coca-cola logo and you say, “This thing sounds like crap.”  This seems to apply to everything.  It’s only “expensive” when its stupid character mates perfectly with the wildly varying source.  It’s almost like if Michael J. Fox with an M-16 happened to sync his shakes up with a moving target and was able to hit it dead on.  Why would you ever want a shaky shooter?  I’ll call this the X Factor.

This doesn’t even consider that sometimes sounds are just WAY different.  Use the exact signal chain with all the exact settings and a singer may sound drastically different.  I’m talking you need a 6dB high shelf boost to match the sound of yesterday’s session. I say, “What the hell?”.  Then I get in front of the mic and sound like I always sound.  Alright, it’s definitely the singer.

Back to monitoring.  The NS10 has a bold character that seems to really work for a lot of guys.  It DOES NOT sound expensive.  Not by my definition.  It’s not really that flat.  I think my Focals sound pretty expensive with the sub on and all that jive, but in a fairly equal playing field in some quicky listens (not real mixes) there were times when I got lost as to whether I was hearing a $2,200 pair of high end monitors or a $400 pair of SPEAKERS with an 1/8” jack.

It’s seems it’s all about character and any real issue of quality was surpassed by the $25 shovel.

The X-Factor

Buying expensive for the sake of expensive will get you a certain amount of mileage.  Expensive tools are almost always good for something and often have a few nice surprises in them you didn’t expect.  I’d guess you are less likely to get mugged at Outback than at Jake’s Ghetto Burger, for example.

However, it’s way too easy in this biz to confuse $$$-driven fidelity for character.  Is that vocal sound you’ve been chasing a  $10,000 Telefunken or is it an SM7 ran through a broken TV?  Sometimes it’s very hard to tell.  Creative people immediately ditch the quest for perfection and start tying Twinkies, capacitors, and broken DVD pieces together to come up with something that excites them.  Sometimes these sounds get defined as “expensive” when maybe they utilize quite cheap-n-dirty techniques.   If I’ve learned anything from watching Pensado’s Place, it’s that creative people just use whatever they’ve got.  Producer after producer making all these hit songs is using stock Logic synths or mixing ITB.  The fidelity accountants would never allow such a thing.

The fancy chorus plugin doesn’t sound cool enough?  Screw it, run it through a guitar pedal.  Does it still need something?  Put your damn finger on the analog tape while the machine is running.  What dumb ass came up with that?  Could you imagine someone jabbing their finger in a CPU heatsink fan to get a tone?  My answer to that is, “Why not?”.

Summing Up Monitors

How does this apply to monitors?  Try 10 mixes on whatever monitors you can afford.  If you get mad at how these mixes sound elsewhere and it’s not just you pulling a Brandon and not noticing your screw-ups in the control room, get rid of them.  Buy something else.  Life is short to try mix #11 on them, much less mix #1,100.    My gut says that you will find something that makes you happy for a fraction of what I paid.

I’m also sure that you’ll need some kind of secondary monitoring just to throw you out of the ruts when mixing.  Is this because of a flaw in the monitors?  No.  It’s a flaw in our uncanny ability to get used to whatever it is we are listening to.  It’s why I’m able to stand my stock TV speakers.  Plan on needing to get creative in this department.  A lot of the guys using Focals, Barefoot, Adams, and many other high end monitors still end up using Auratones, NS-10s, or something nasty just to show a different perspective.  I think any crappy speaker you know will work.

Saved Comments


BlackCatBonz – 09-20-2011, 04:56 AM
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I know you started out with a tool analogy, so I will use one of mine.I’ve been a pipefitter for almost 20 years… more specifically a Sprinklerfitter. A Sprinklerfitter installs fire protection, and to be honest, as far as pipe trades go it’s one of the most difficult and ‘hands on”.Hands on meaning, you touch by hand almost every single piece of pipe that goes in, if it weighs 10 pounds or 300 lbs. When you are that hands on, you only want to perform tasks once.One of the things I do day in and day out is take a wrench and screw pipe together (or you could insert listen to tracks and put a mix together)…lots of it, and the joints are not allowed to leak..period.I will only use one brand of wrench to put pipe in… and any self respecting pipefitter also uses the same brand. There are many brands out there that do the job (Just like speakers)… but when you are doing that job on a daily basis you need to have trust in the tool and it’s when you are doing it constantly that the shortcomings of the lesser tools make themselves known (Yes, with one of the lesser brands, I could get used to all of the things it does to piss me off). In fact, when I see someone pull one of the lesser brands out of their tool box, I have a hard time taking them seriously as tradesmen.The serious tools allow a person to concentrate on the job and not on whether they can trust their tools to pull through today.I consider myself a serious musician, so I use a serious instrument. As far as recording goes, I am a beginner all over again, so it’s smarter for me to get tools to get the job done and concentrate on learning the craft. Eventually you get to the point where you just practice your craft and start noticing the difference between the $300 monitor and the $3000 monitor.

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paul999 – 09-20-2011, 07:40 AM
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I am using cheap monitors but also have a treated room and room correction eq. (ARC) A lot of the big fancy rooms that use NS10′s also use some sort of speaker corrective eq as well. Engineers don’t talk about it a ton but you hear acoustic consultants talk about it as part of the over all treatment of a studio. I still haven’t “upgraded” to expensive monitors and am not feeling the need to either. I get the “how did I let that slip by me” experience you describe but it is rare for me to feel like some frequency range got out of control on me now. I think a person can learn to mix on just about anything but why go to that trouble if you can actually get a system that will let you hear everything?It is always smart to have a “consumer grade system to compare your mixes on. I turn off my ARC for that plus run 2 sets of monitors. Great article!Paul

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jamestoffee – 09-20-2011, 09:29 AM
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This is a newbie post, so excuse or ignore if it doesn’t fit…… Since this topic is monitors, For those on a low-end budget, check out the Focusrite VRM. VRM Box I’ve found it to be great!

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appleroger – 09-20-2011, 09:44 AM
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I gues I´m still in the minor league but what I know for sure is that I have a very good reference and ear training using my two sets of speakers (M-audio BX8 and DAS Control8). While the M-audio sounds very sweet, the DAS are very raw and flat. Thus this gives me some kind of perspective. And since I have heard some other persons mixes in both of them, it gives me a sense as to what freqencies sounds higher/lower between each other. I still need to learn a lot but I definitively think is that one source of monitoring is not enough to deliver a good mix. Great article!

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useyourwood – 09-20-2011, 09:48 AM
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Bravo!!!I use Yamaha HS80′s in a treated room and I am very happy with them except the bottom end. I take my mix to another speaker or car stereo and the bottom is over done and I have to kick it down. I will go get a sub to correct for this but I don’t think I want to $$$ for “better” monitors…

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Canadian Guy – 09-20-2011, 09:57 AM
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Great article, Brandon. I use Behringer Truths and you can call ‘em cheap and nasty if you want but they are great for what I need. And that, I think, is a key factor in the monitor wars…..what do you need ‘em for? Are you pro or amateur? Are you doing it for money? Are you wanting to break into the big time? Do you use a small bedroom in a bungalow or do you have a 200 grand suite of gear? Hip hop or dub step? Hard rock or chill-out? These should also be factors in deciding what monitors you need. And let me throw in one more…..how good are your mixing skills? A $500 pair of custom-made cleats won’t make you a better running back, you’ll just be a bad running back in really expensive shoes.Canadian Guy

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macman – 09-20-2011, 10:12 AM
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Canadian guy is correct.The first time I had a CD professionally mastered I realized that what i was paying for was the skill and experience of the mastering engineer. I could go out and spend thousands of $ to get the same room and equipment but I wouldn’t have a clue what to do with it.
A couple of years ago I went into L&M and said: “I need a sub woofer, my mixes are all muddy in the bottom end.” After answering a few questions I went home without the sub. but with some good mixing/editing advice that solved my problem.
I was in Metalworks monitoring a friend’s recording session. There were a pair of NS10′s on the console and i asked the engineer if I could hear the mix through them. I then remembered something I read years ago: “if you can make it sound good through NS10′s, it will sound good anywhere.”
Every monitor review seems to be able to point out an issue somewhere. I think it comes down to understanding your equipment, and knowing how to use it.
And finally, when everyone is listening to compressed mp3 files through earbuds, what does it matter?

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randalf9 – 09-20-2011, 10:37 AM
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I am another guy who loves Yamaha HS80 and HS10 sub combo. I will say they are for the money really great, to my ears. However, when adding the HS10 sub, be quite careful about the level you set the sub at. It can totally make you think your bass is awesome and on other systems it will be lacking. I used an inexpensive DBX analyzer mic and the Blue Cat Freq Analyst Pro software as a plug in in Logic, and that showed me I needed to back the sub off by about 6-7 db. Now this monitor system sounds really good in my control room and my mixes translate really well elsewhere as well. Finally, I use a small Altec Lansing IPod powered speaker to check the small speaker response, and that helps me set my Low Cut filter quite accurately.

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jules80 – 09-20-2011, 11:20 AM
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Hi Brandon, I haven’t been around for quite a while as I have been bypassing trying to record things and writing for friends who are better at it than I am. I’ve also been making myself a far better musician. I found this article very informative – it’s exactly what a prodicer friend of mine told me 10 years ago, but not in such interesting detail. He always told me it was the guy mixing that made the difference – not the speakers, and your ears adjust to (pretty much) anything in the end. I am always trying to do too many things at once, but I do want to become a good producer at some point. Thanks again Big B! Thanks also to the other guys who commented. Jules80

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garww – 09-20-2011, 11:41 AM
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“•A couple of years ago I went into L&M and said: “I need a sub woofer, my mixes are all muddy in the bottom end.” After answering a few questions I went home without the sub. but with some good mixing/editing advice that solved my problem”.

This is often a deal that can be analyzed and compensated for with without leaving your chair. I’m not in a particular rush for a sub, myself. I won’t discount the wise value of a sub, but one can also evaluate if you really need it or not.

Old school would be to simply EQ the speakers to your reference music. That may make your speakers unusable, but it can give you an idea what the weak areas are.

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bilkin – 09-20-2011, 11:46 AM
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Capstan, finger on the capstan but ya whatever it takes, I use two cheap pairs of hi-fi speakers, one bottom heavy and one mid-range heavy. I alternate between the two as well as with them both on.

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alek – 09-20-2011, 01:11 PM
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Thanks to Brandon for article and everybody for comments, and these are my two cents: My monitors are Behringer MS40, other gear: laptop Prestigio 350 (sound card Realtek High Definition), PC with another sound card Creative Audigy 2zs. So, what I could say when I listen to a mix made on laptop with its built-in little speakers then I hear everything clear – each sound separately (with except of basses, they are just absent) then I switch output from laptop to Behringers and hear turbid sound where some instruments are lost as a whole. Then I say some non-normative words, burn that mix on CD and go to my friend and we have a listening to it on a high end gear (not monitors, just usual package of a lamp amplifier and pair of speakers value $50.000) And this system answers to all my questions honestly I should recognize – it works like a microscope to discover all the details lost on another gear. I have a mono old fashioned lamp amplifier and going to get a sub to find those lost basses. Also have old turntable with amp and maybe it could be used as alternate source with usual speakers to compare with Behringer.

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garww – 09-20-2011, 03:32 PM
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“it works like a microscope to discover all the details lost on another gear”.

You may be very fortunate to have that big system to listen to – maybe not. I recommend you get a known quality set of headphones, like old AKG 240, and make them your reference. Period.

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drm711 – 09-20-2011, 03:35 PM
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observation I’ve been reading the reviews ,stories etc. on here for a couple of years and one thing I seem to walk away with a lot of the time is money doesn’t seem to + quality all the time ! also one of the better studio enginers in my area once said ( its not what ya got its what ya hear ) kinda what Ive been hearin on this site . thanks Dave

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felixd – 09-20-2011, 04:09 PM
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BlackCatBonz, as a tradesman I know exactly what you mean about quality tools on the worksite, but monitors aren’t quite the same thing. You don’t wear them out in the same way. They’re not subject to pressure in a way that will render a cheap set unusable. In your analogy it’s your ears that are getting the job done, not the monitors. Your ears are the tool. “Getting quality tools” in your analogy is really learning to hear. And thinking that a fancy set of speakers is going to make you hear better is really putting the cart before the horse People are always shocked to find that I monitor on a pair of consumer grade Malaysian made Kenwood speakers, but it’s all about knowing them well. I know these ones so well I hardly ever have to adjust a mix after checking it on radio, in the clubs, in the car etc and the only reason people are shocked to see them is because they know the quality of the mixes I get out of them. And yeah, I’ve used “better” monitors (and the dreaded ns-10s) but you have to learn all of those inside out too if you expect to get anything out of them. Couldn’t agree more with your conclusions Brandon, one of the best articles I’ve seen here.

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JayGee – 09-20-2011, 04:09 PM
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Quote Originally Posted by macman View Post
And finally, when everyone is listening to compressed mp3 files through earbuds, what does it matter?
Some of us still listen through speakers, so I implore you to try and achieve maximum fidelity.

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Danny Danzi – 09-20-2011, 06:40 PM
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Brandon, this was a really good read bro. Well done and you also put more wood on the fire towards what I’ve been preaching over and over again about pricey gear and all the hype that goes with it. Yeah, I’ve got some good stuff…it works. Yeah, I’ve got some stuff that didn’t cost and arm or a leg…and yeah, it works too. It’s a matter of finding what works for you, your ears and of course the room you’re mixing in.

Some NS-10 info for you from my experience. I’ve had this one set of NS-10′s since 1984. I never liked them and could never get a mix I liked with them. I’ve had them in 3 different studio’s that I’ve had over the years and the results were all the same. They were good for tracking and actually getting good sounds to tape, but mixing on them was always a fight due to the lack of low end. To me, the ones I have sound great, you just can’t judge low end. How can I compensate for something that isn’t there to begin with as far as what my ears hear, ya know?Over the years, all the studios I’ve been in that had them, always had tricks they used. Paper, tin foil, all kinds of weird stuff jammed or taped into the tweeters. Some had acoustic room treatment, some had room treatment plus correction, some had a sub….but they always had *something* to compensate with those things. I have never heard of anyone just using them right out of the box and coming up with a great mix. And to be honest, even if I heard someone admit to that, I’d still not believe it unless I saw them do it with my own two eyes. I’m sure it’s possible, but just think for a second how much you have to curb your listening experience to work with something that is totally masking your low end. It’s almost impossible to NOT be a bit boomy when you mix through those things because there IS NO BASS!

I had such a hard time with mine that for about 15 years, all my mixes were done using AKG K 240 DF cans. I got pretty cool results out of them and to this day can still dial up some good mixes. However, I didn’t come into my own until I bought my Adam A-7′s with the sub. Now, the cool thing about the rig I have set up here is, any monitors that go into my speaker box also can use this Adam Sub 8. This opened up a totally new world for me with every set of monitors I own…even the NS-10′s.However, there is one important factor that was still missing. Now I had good low end on everything, but I was still second guessing myself and not always on the mark. I got that ARC plugin and it totally changed everything. My NS-10′s sound as good as my Adams. And everything translates incredibly well no matter what I mix or send through the rig. One of your forum members, Ric D, came to my studio about a year ago to have a song mixed here. He wanted to see how I did things.

We had an absolute blast hanging out for the weekend and I showed him how I do things here and he taught me a few things too which is always an added plus. But at the end of our last day, we ran the mix through 3 sets of speakers that I had hooked up at the time. Each one sounded different, but you heard all the right stuff at all times. He was running the controls and switching through the 3 sets of monitors I had hooked up and couldn’t tell much of a difference in any of them because we nailed the mix. The NS-10′s sounded great, the Adams sounded great and even my consumer monitors on my pc (Altec Lansing 5.1 with sub..surround disabled) sounded great. Two things made the difference in my opinion. The subs used and ARC. Without the sub, ARC couldn’t even help those NS-10′s. Here’s what they looked like without the sub WITH room correction…and with the sub with room correction. They sounded exactly the way they looked!

My point in all this is…NS-10′s can definitely be valuable weapons, but they need a little something to help them along. As for other cheaper monitors….I’ve had great results with them too. Tannoy, Tascam, Radio Shack Optimus…with ARC they are all usable for me. But without it, I’d be having a horrible time. It’s been rare I can just walk into a room in someone’s studio or even in a real studio and just use a set of nearfields that don’t have some sort of correction on them. Just about everyone has something giving them a slight edge. But in my experience, it’s been rare that you can just walk in a place with monitors thrown up on a shelf and get things to sound good everywhere you listen. I’m sure that’s possible and may have happened for a few people as well as some of the big dogs…but it sure hasn’t happened for me in the 25+ years I’ve been doing this stuff. -Danny

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garww – 09-20-2011, 07:40 PM
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I probably learned more about ARC from that pic than all the gab

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BlackCatBonz – 09-20-2011, 08:04 PM
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Quote Originally Posted by felixd View Post
1.BlackCatBonz, as a tradesman I know exactly what you mean about quality tools on the worksite, but monitors aren’t quite the same thing. You don’t wear them out in the same way. They’re not subject to pressure in a way that will render a cheap set unusable.

2.In your analogy it’s your ears that are getting the job done, not the monitors. Your ears are the tool.

3. “Getting quality tools” in your analogy is really learning to hear. And thinking that a fancy set of speakers is going to make you hear better is really putting the cart before the horse People are always shocked to find that I monitor on a pair of consumer grade Malaysian made Kenwood speakers, but it’s all about knowing them well. I know these ones so well I hardly ever have to adjust a mix after checking it on radio, in the clubs, in the car etc and the only reason people are shocked to see them is because they know the quality of the mixes I get out of them. And yeah, I’ve used “better” monitors (and the dreaded ns-10s) but you have to learn all of those inside out too if you expect to get anything out of them. Couldn’t agree more with your conclusions Brandon, one of the best articles I’ve seen here.
I numbered some points to address them clearly.

1. In my eyes, monitors are definitely a tool… much like my guitar amp. When I first started playing guitar as a dumb teenager, I didn’t know the difference between just an amp and a great piece of gear. I wanted to plug in any old piece of junk that I could turn up loud enough to compete with the drummer. As a guitar player that learned in the late 80′s and early 90′s, I was aware of technique and often practiced every waking minute…. So when i struggled with tone issues, I knew it wasn’t my guitar (Les Paul Standard) or my technique. I finally saved up some dough for a 5150 when they were first released by Peavey… wow, it changed everything for me.

What I did notice about my amps and sounds is that they wore me out, my ears in particular, because they sounded like shit. There was nothing pleasing about their tone no matter what pedal i used.
Studio monitors are the same thing in my opinion. Can you mix using a set of 1970 Pioneer hifi speakers? I’m sure you could, but you generally have to have an intimate knowledge of the way those speakers handle the source material and then judge your mix accordingly. I think the idea behind a set of reference speakers is that they reproduce what you put in them accurately… You don’t have to mix in them a 1000 times to get to know the way they handle sound.

Bottom line is, a well designed tool performs it’s intended job well. I’m also a believer in the saying “A bad worker quarrels with his tools”

2. My ears aren’t the tools, they are doing the work, like my hands. I can train my ears to perform the job; but the monitors are still the tool. A tool without a worker wielding it is just an object.

3. I don’t agree with this statement either. I was at work one day with an apprentice and I asked him to go and cut me a piece of wood. He was gone for an unusually long time so I went to see what he was doing. He had an aluminum pipe wrench and he was using the sharp jaws to hack through a piece of wood.
I know I had trained him how to use a saw; but he insisted on using something not suited for the task.
It got the job done… but he looked like an incredible idiot to the rest of the tradesmen on site.

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garageband – 09-20-2011, 08:14 PM
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Nice work BCB. You covered that nicely.
… monitors… You don’t wear them out in the same way. They’re not subject to pressure in a way that will render a cheap set unusable.
Cheaper monitors have cheaper capacitors that wear noticeably after about a thousand hours. This results in a dull, somewhat cloudy sound. So, yes, they do.

RCooper83 – 09-20-2011, 09:35 PM
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I couple of years back, I lived in another city, in another apartment on a college campus. I had been working and saving up money, eventually buying a computer, an HD24, a Masterlink and a Mackie board, most of this stuff I was grossly under qualified to use (seriously, what was I thinking getting an HD24 without outboard gear?). But I soon got tired of my mixes sucking. I realized through some well placed “advice” in some advertisements in a Sweetwater catalog that Adam monitors with their folded ribbon tweeters would solve all my mixing problems by “letting me really hear my mix.” But rather than paying full price from Sweetwater, I found a pair of P11a’s on Ebay for a good price (but still a big chunk of change). When I got them, I could tell an immediate difference in the sound: i heard details I hadn’t heard before, the sound stage was super wide and clean, yadda, yadda, yadda. We’ve all heard this before. And in a sense, these observations were partially true. But there is also a strong possibility I was hearing details I hadn’t heard before because I wasn’t listening as closely. Possibly. I spent a good chunk of change so its hard to admit. Its also possible that the increase in quality was that drastic over what I had before. Possibly. Not definitively.
Being in college and young, I moved to another city to another apartment. And another. And then a house with wood floors. By this point, I was really tired of my mixes sounding completely different from room to room because I couldn’t get a handle on anything in my mixes. The blankets on the walls helped a little bit but those wood floors just made everything sound like complete mush! I had found previously that when I mix in wet room, I ended up putting WAY TOO MUCH verb on my recordings. Why? I had to overcome my room reverb just to hear the effect! And the bass! Jeez! I couldn’t mix bass frequencies properly even if some audio nazi was poised sledgehammer in hand over my acoustic!
So, I spent last summer reading as much as I could by Ethan Winer (this is the “come to Jesus” portion of this post, by the way) and I saw the light at the end of the tunnel, the hope and salvation of my mixes and once I just gave in and submitted to the cleansing knowledge of Ethan Winer, I knew beyond a shadow of doubt that I was saved! Hallelujah!
Actually, I sweated my ass off researching, measuring, planning, remeasuring, locating sources, ordering, driving and constructing about 25 or so bass trap panels. And with a rug on the floor, my reflections points covered and as many corners as I could afford filled with bass traps, I noticed the most startling difference in the sound coming out of my speakers. And this time, I know for sure it wasn’t just because I was paying more attention: The stereo field widened out, actually widened out, I could hear the difference between the bass guitar and the kick like it was orange and green, I could literally point at the place in between my speakers where an instrument was panned AND yes, I heard all sorts of details in the music I hadn’t heard before.
I moved again this past June, but this time to a small apartment by myself. Wood floors (no prob!) smaller room (no prob!) and because I had my bass traps, I was ready to go! The learning curve for this room has been DRASTICALLY reduced. I already have a new mix up on this site and I am confident that the sound everyone else hears, who has a decently treated room, will be in the same ball park as what I hear. And because of that, I can trust your advice on my mixes.
This single improvement, based upon knowledge and repeatability, not on advertising promises, manipulation, appeals to authority or group approval, has accounted for 80-90% of my ability to hear what I am doing, not my bad ass speakers (and they are bad ass So, while I cringe at the idea of mixing on $400 speakers, my logic center tells me that in a room that has been properly treated and factoring in the law of diminishing returns as it applies to studio monitors, its your ears and creativity that get the good mix, not the speakers. They are the final 10% and you probably shouldn’t sweat over it so much. But then again, I do have the bad ass speakers. I could just be trying to make everyone else feel better that they don’t have bad ass speakers like me.

Did I mention that I really like my expensive speakers and my bass traps?

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garww – 09-20-2011, 09:54 PM
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“He had an aluminum pipe wrench and he was using the sharp jaws to hack through a piece of wood”.

Man, you have to be careful with who you work with. I hope you and your boss don’t learn that the hard way.

“Cheaper monitors have cheaper capacitors that wear noticeably after about a thousand hours”.

Surrounds come to mind also. But the greater question may be if they are engineered to be fixable items or made for the trash bin aften a honeymoon period !

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Three Cee – 09-20-2011, 10:51 PM
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I think there is a lot of good info in the article and the posts. I have also upgraded my monitors and use Tannoy, Mackie, and hi end stereo speakers. I treated the room and have used EQ to flatten the room with software. I brought a better soundcard and recorded at a higher bit depth. Over time I think I have gotten better at listening and knowing what to do after playing the mixes from car to ear buds. I will never be as good as a professional person that does it everyday. By the same token he won’t be as good at my job as I am. I just want to improve and enjoy the learning process. Most people say my mixes sound good and this is some consolation. Gear can make a difference but it is only as good as the weakest link. And that could be your hearing.

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dudermn – 09-21-2011, 06:48 AM
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Good read, been wondering about this for a-while. I likes the whole this is my rifle this is my gun approach mentioned here.

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graal – 09-21-2011, 10:39 AM
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All I can say: Do you want that extra 15-30% that’s missing in your mixes? 1. Get your room PROFESSIONALLY treated acoustically (not just foam or rockwool panels everywhere, even though that’s better than nothing). 2. Use multiple speakers, among which, one or more good pairs of monitors + some crappy stuff as well (which you should listen to and know their particular sound). 3. Use good DA converters (it matters, i’ve tried different interfaces with different converters and you guessed it…they sound different). 4. Use good reference mixes. 5. Know your tools (eq / compression / delay / reverb / phaser / chorus / distortion / saturation / harmonic enhancers / haas effect) – and I am not saying “know when to use them” – NO – I am saying know what they do to audio. Then, you’ll reach for them only when you feel you need them. PS: Notice I said “good” everywhere – I did not say “the best”, not even “the best you can afford”. But plain ol’ good. And, if you can’t make something that sounds good if you’ve got the above covered, then don’t blame the tools bro. Cheers! Alex Muntean @ KickPunchStudio.

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beanqsagof – 09-21-2011, 10:48 AM
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it’s easy for me to read this whole thing in a breeze, and the way the concepts jump off the page with your animated style makes it stick. it’s so fun for me to be distracted from my other studies. i need to write this like in science; thankyou for the example. in a lame attempt not to make you feel self-conscious about it, let me say this though: “your blog entries suck! and will never gain you readers, you NS-10-loving weenie!”

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rca33 – 09-27-2011, 04:03 PM
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I believe that the first thing you would need in monitors is to be able to hear! You can’t make any mixing decisions below 50 Hz if your monitors only go down to 60 Hz. In the same way, while it’s not very easy to find a monitor that doesn’t go all the way up to 20.000 hz, if it has a big bump in the 1 – 4 Khz region, it may mask what’s really happening on the highs. I believe that we can (and must) learn how the monitors that we use behave, and how they translate. But I also believe that you can’t learn an extremely unbalanced monitor, especially if there are frequency ranges that they just can’t reproduce. After a lot of trial and error in my (very) small home studio, I went with two Hi-Fi monitors that I already had, added a Hi-Fi subwoofer and I fine tuned the position of the sub (in the room) and it’s volume / crossover frequency with the help of a Behringer ECM 8000 microfone and a (free) room analysis software. This tuning had a huge importance, because I did this same monitor/sub combo in the past without great results. It’s very easy to screw things up when we are trying to find the right balance (and specially crossover point) by ear. The measurements were made in the spot were I actually sit mixing, and it’s only good there, but I don’t need a balanced sound in the back couch, as I never sit there, and if I did, I would never be making mixing decisions. Right now, I still have one severe dip around 90 Hz, something that has to be adressed by (more) acoustic treatment, but I have solved most of my problems with mixes not translating on other sound systems. Is it perfect? No! But I was really considering buying the Yamaha’s HS-50m, and I totally forgot it. I ended up buying things that can actually help me to make more music.

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garww – 09-27-2011, 04:45 PM
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“But I also believe that you can’t learn an extremely unbalanced monitor, especially if there are frequency ranges that they just can’t reproduce”.

The major thing here is knowing what it could sound like. I feel most people with some experience with $20000 reference monitors could make sense of what some $500 speakers are doing. Kind of like hang gliding and shuttle flight. You have to continually raise your bar with some kind of reference thing.

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felixd – 09-28-2011, 10:22 AM
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Can you mix using a set of 1970 Pioneer hifi speakers? I’m sure you could, but you generally have to have an intimate knowledge of the way those speakers handle the source material and then judge your mix accordingly.
That’s the whole point. You need to know ANY set of speakers intimately to get any value out of them, fancy reference speakers included. If I knew that someone COULDN’T mix on a set of 1970s Pioneers I sure as hell wouldn’t trust them near any of my nice gear because they don’t know what they’re doing. And dude, I’m seriously worried about your apprentice. He might just not be suited for that line of work.

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EvaEva – 09-28-2011, 11:26 AM
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A couple of years ago, I did a pretty comprehensive search for new monitors, and after listening to a number of them (from very expensive to bargain), found the DynAudio BM5a’s. I got a decent deal on them ($600 for the pair). They are very pure – about as flat and uncoloured as can reasonably be expected, and give a pretty high level of accuracy on frequencies.

I did listen to the Mackies, and was surprised at how much I disliked them considering all the hype that had been given. They were, IMHO, definitely NOT worth the 1G pricetag. My DynAudio’s kick the Mackies’ ass. And, they (BM5a’s) are like little tanks – - I was moving things around one day, and, to my horror, dropped one hard on the floor. Imagine the sound of my heart just instantly seizing up. It survived admirably with no discernable change in quality or performance. Sadly, there is a little bit of cosmetic damage to the corner, but otherwise, it has come through unharmed.

- Eva

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Cailyn – 10-04-2011, 11:11 AM
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I used Behringer Truth monitors for almost five years and while they were somewhat adequate, the low-end never translated well and I just got into the habit of burning discs and running to other systems to make adjustments. They started to wear out however–as GB noted above, they get noisier and a bit cloudy–and so I started to look around for replacements. I happened upon a pair of Fostex monitors at firesale prices which I bought and set up in the studio. They sounded okay but I felt they were missing something as well. As it happened, I working with an engineer on a project and he uses Mackie 824s. Despite the raves about these monitors from most people, I was reluctant to put down that kind of money…until now. We performed a side-by-side comparison of both sets of monitors against his Mackies and it wasn’t even close! The Mackies simply blew the cheaper monitors away: flatter, cleaner, better highs, better lows. I was amazed at how much better they were. Needless to say, I am now the proud owner of a pair Mackie 824s.

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chacka – 10-05-2011, 12:58 PM
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What helped me a lot to become more confident in my (OK, but rather budget) monitoring situation is this video:
#2 – Michael Jackson, Justin Timberlake, Whiz Kalifa and guest Jean-Marie Horvat – YouTube
go to 23:55
Jean-Marie is mixing on Auratones!!! Dave is just amazed about that and asks him how he get’s his great bottom end while he can’t hear anything below 200 cycles. Listen for yourself. Very amusing and enlightening. If I know my systems I can use them with confidence.

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garageband – 10-05-2011, 01:58 PM
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Quote Originally Posted by Cailyn View Post
I used Behringer Truth monitors for almost five years and while they were somewhat adequate, the low-end never translated well and I just got into the habit of burning discs and running to other systems to make adjustments. They started to wear out however–as GB noted above, they get noisier and a bit cloudy-
If you still have those speakers and are handy with a soldering iron, you might try you hand at replacing the power supply caps. Just the two biggest ones and the next two or so largest ones. It will cheer them up dramatically. Nice for the live room or even internet computer that way. Cost you all of about $25 delivered for the parts.

A while back, I wrote a little tutorial about such things: http://forum.recordingreview.com/f12…ur-gear-33273/

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fran v – 10-18-2011, 02:09 PM
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I’d rather mix with a pair of good earphones played through a class A amplifier.Most people you produce the music for don’t listen to it on high end equipment so there is some school of thought that your mix should be mastered to sound right on generally used equipment. For example you might want to use a bass drum a little higher in frequency than those that could only be produced by really low Hertz subwoofers.If you cant afford studio monitors get something like the Antec Soundscience. I have it for home entertainment but the mixes really sound nice with the extra bass and digital inputs.

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garww – 10-18-2011, 09:31 PM
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Quote Originally Posted by fran v View Post
I’d rather mix with a pair of good earphones played through a class A amplifier.Most people you produce the music for don’t listen to it on high end equipment so there is some school of thought that your mix should be mastered to sound right on generally used equipment. For example you might want to use a bass drum a little higher in frequency than those that could only be produced by really low Hertz subwoofers.If you cant afford studio monitors get something like the Antec Soundscience. I have it for home entertainment but the mixes really sound nice with the extra bass and digital inputs.
Class A can be very good. A 100-watt class A amp is usually a monster. Low watt tube class A has been around for guitar players for some time. The 12ax7 and el84 story. There are a lot of class A headphone amps designed around portable device usage, like a iPod. People seem to like them and can range $100 to $300(and less). Of course, they are no competition for real hardware with huge power supplies. Someday each of us may what what it is we are listening to, and class A can be part of that discovery process.

 

Brandon Drury

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Brandon Drury quit counting at 1,200 recorded songs in his busy home recording studio. He is the creator of RecordingReview.com and is the author of the Killer Home Recording series.
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