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Bigging it up for midfield studio monitors

Large-format monitor systems still have a role in large studios, but, increasingly, midfields are taking their place in the control room, as Gez Kahan discovers

It’s a small world, the world of the recording studio, and getting smaller. It’s not just that the number of big studios is dwindling, but what’s in them is downsizing too. Time was when a round-up of large-format studio monitors would have precluded any cabinet loaded with less than 12″ drivers, and the majority of big-name manufacturers would still be represented. Them days is gone, all one with Nineveh and Tyre.

Underlining that, the latest company to throw its hat in to the studio monitor ring doesn’t qualify even if you drop the bar to a decidedly midfield 8″. Despite the presence on its design team of Rupert Neve and Andy Munro, who both have plenty of big studio monitoring experience, the largest driver in sE Electronics’s new monitor range (launching at NAMM 2011) is 7″. There simply is no mass market these days for main monitors.

“It’s limited by the size of rooms people will build in the future,” says Andy Munro. That doesn’t mean there’s no market – Munro Acoustics still builds custom M4 systems, designed and made exclusively in the UK using Dynaudio drivers adapted for high power applications – but these are bespoke.
 “Our biggest systems are very expensive and very highly engineered,” Munro says, adding that, “these days big three- and four-way systems tend to be used more for playback than for mixing.” One exception, where there is enough distance to make the use of large monitors viable, is in film mixing, with, he says, many post-production houses starting to use Dynaudio monitors behind the screen.
 Quested is another manufacturer offering bespoke ‘monitor-fitting’, and that means, says director Guy Lewis, there’s virtually no upper limit to size. “Our biggest system was a 9.4 surround system with four 21″ subs, but our biggest stand-alone unit is the 4×15″ Quested HM415. Hans Zimmer has an L/C/R system of these,” says Lewis, “which is why The Dark Knight is so dark.” It’s not volume business. “We used to sell one system a year, but last year we sold five, to customers in Mexico, the US and Germany.”
 “It goes without saying that big installations do not happen every week,” says Kerstin Mischke, sales manager for ADAM Audio. “But there are big studios around the world where big monitors have their place – as main monitors in broadcasting and recording studios, for example. Another quite big market for our S6X (two 12” woofers) and S7A MK2 (two 15″s) is Dubai and the entire Saudi Arabian peninsula where private and governmental studios need main monitors.
 “Main monitors cannot act as a substitute for small nearfields and vice versa. The focus is shifting – and as big studios are closing down, this market is shrinking – but the main monitor market is still there and needs to be maintained.”
 “It is no secret that the music industry has been through tough times in the past decade and many fewer large recording rooms are being built,” says Lars-Olof Janflod of Genelec. But Genelec nonethess makes some pretty big beasts, including the 1036A, with dual 18″ (457mm) bass drivers, 5″ (127mm) mids and a 1″ (25mm) tweeter driven by a 3.2kW amp. Who’s buying them, then?
 “Bigger studios for music recording,” says Janflod and, pinpointing a growing market, “they’re also used for home theatre applications.” While it’s doubtful that home theatre counts in any round-up of studio monitors, if that’s one of the things helping to sustain the production of large-format monitors for the few studios that need them, it’s worth a mention.
 “But it’s a total misconception that a large monitor would be better than a small monitor,” Janflod adds. “Today we can run small monitors, with the help of subwoofers and bass management, down to sub 20Hz regions. That means the main advantage with a big monitor is high SPL capacity, which is hard to achieve with a smaller monitor at the same listening distance. Thus large monitors have a role when the listening distance is large.”
 “The largest model we produce, and our flagship product, is the BB5 XBD-Active,” says Keith Tonge, marketing manager for PMC. “It is a twin cabinet loaded with 17″ woofers that reaches 17Hz flat. It’s sold to the very top end of the market – mastering, recording, film score mixers and composers, music makers and producers such as Prince, Stevie Wonder and record companies like Sony BMG and Universal Music.” It’s an impressive list, but the real growth, Tonge says, is in sales of PMC’s three-way midfield speakers.
 “The market told us it wanted higher resolution monitor speakers that will work in smaller rooms,” he says, but insists that large monitors still have a role “if you really want to know what is going on. If you want to monitor something faithfully that has real bottom end, using a pair of computer speakers won’t really cut the mustard.”
Closing the gap
However, he does concede that it’s not only smaller room sizes that are causing the market drift away from the big cabinets. “The gap between our larger and smaller speakers is closing,” he says, “as we continually develop and push the boundaries of speaker technology.”
 One man’s midfield, though, is another man’s large. “Neumann has been actively selling K+H-branded studio monitors for a year now. The largest in the range is a three-way 12″ system with a matching 2 x 12″ subwoofer,” says Wolfgang Fraissinet, Neumann president of marketing and sales. Neumann will be launching its own range of large monitors over the coming years – a process that started at IBC with the new compact KH 120 and KH 810 subwoofer.
 “The large monitor market was vibrant 10-20 years ago, but not any more: one can see this in the age of some of the designs out there.” Customers of today’s larger loudspeakers (which were mid-sized monitors early), he says, are mostly studios, broadcasters and post-production houses. Project studios generally use smaller two-way systems.
 “The mid-sized products of old that are our largest products of today,” he continues, “are sufficient to achieve excellent sound quality in the typically sized rooms of today. Having said that, the problem is that wavelength of sound has not changed during this time. This is a huge challenge for room designers, especially as budgets are tight for acoustical treatment.”
 “Affordable technology has allowed production to be carried out in a range of spaces in which the use of large monitors is not feasible,” says Peter Chaikin, director, recording & broadcast marketing for JBL Professional. “As a result, self-powered, small-format studio monitors serve the needs for the majority of the market. However, in large control rooms, and applications that require high SPL and full-range response, the use of large systems is necessary.”
JBL’s largest monitor is the 12″ three-way LSR6332, designed for use at distances of up to 5m in music and post-production applications, although Chaikin adds that JBL woofers and HF components are also used in large custom-designed systems from specialist suppliers.
The middle ground

And so to models that – in the big old days – didn’t count as large. Obviously all those who do make large monitors also make smaller ones too, but there are several companies whose ranges don’t get beyond the midfield. Fostex, for example, notices a trend for broadcast stations, at least in Japan, to move from 12″ monitoring to 8″ – and indeed the 8″ PM-2mk2 is the largest model in the Fostex range.
 “The ‘big monitor’ market has to be divided into two parts: main and midfield monitors,” says Nicolas Debard, sales and marketing manager for Focal. “Most new studios are now using smaller control rooms, so ‘big monitor’ demand is focused on midfield solutions that are more convenient to integrate in the room and less tiring to work with.
 “Main monitors used to be the only way of achieving high SPLs, high dynamics and extended response in the low frequencies. Nowadays, driver technologies such as ‘w’ composite sandwich cones or Beryllium inverted dome tweeters allow us to manufacture drivers with a very light mobile assembly while keeping high rigidity on the woofer cone and tweeter dome. This results in a very high dynamic, while avoiding distortion of the cone. We also worked very hard to develop drivers with extended LF response in a small cabinet.”
 As with every manufacturer in this market, the big products are not big sellers. Focal’s largest model – the 11″ SM11 – only accounts for a small percentage of sales of its monitor range, mainly to large and mid-sized studios. But that doesn’t mean the market is unimportant to Focal – “You should hear about some new exciting solutions very soon,” says Debard, although he won’t be drawn on specifications.
 Similarly, Unity Audio’s MD, Kevin Walker, says: “Currently we just have the Rock nearfield, but we have announced the next model, called The Boulder. This will be a compact monitor – not really a main monitor in the traditional sense – but I guess people will use it as a midfield or main monitor in smaller rooms.”
 And though things are generally getting smaller, it was a “specific commercial demand” that led to Tannoy’s development of the Ellipse 10, says the company’s director of engineering, Philippe Robineau. “These are very high-quality speakers – with a price reflecting that – which are clearly aimed at truly professional users in recording studios, mastering suites and broadcasting facilities.”
 That’s also the case with KRK’s 8″ Exposé speakers, which retail in excess of £3,000 (€3,415) a pair – and as such, remarks one reseller, drily, “they are not aimed at small-scale home/project studio owners but at semi-pro and professional studios”. But even within the ‘bedroom’ market, where Yamaha’s largest offering, the 8″ HS80M, is very popular, price is not always the issue.
 “In our experience, customers spend a significant amount of their budget on monitors as they understand that the monitor is (arguably) the most important part of their signal chain,” says Peter Peck, marketing manager, music production, for Yamaha UK. “It’s therefore not uncommon for producers to spend more than they had really wanted on their monitoring.” And, he says, Yamaha’s midfields also find favour in education, where sonic ‘honesty’ is important. “Teachers appreciate the lack of ‘polish’ on these monitors as it makes students work harder for the mix.”
 Honesty and precision are perhaps the factors that most accurately distinguish professional monitors of any size from the mass MI market. “Although Sonodyne is a new name in Europe,” says Dave West of its European distributor, The Audio Pros, “it has been around for more than 40 years and the decision to launch a larger speaker was not taken lightly. The 8″ SM200Ak was born out of demand for a precise, larger and more affordable speaker. Initially, we thought the market was project and pro studios, but our research discovered a requirement everywhere from broadcast to post-production and through to gaming.”
 Even though he prefaces his remarks with: “Important notice: we do not have very large main monitors”, PSI’s Marc Chablaix acknowledges that: “When sound pressure level and bandwidth are important, nothing but a large monitor will reveal the fundamental produced by organ or deliver the SPL of a live drum kit without compression in an 100sqm damped environment.” But he also notes that “a regular music studio is certainly smaller in 2010 than it was in 1980”, and that the trend is towards nearfield rather than main monitor listening.
 “The range of applications for our main model, the 10″ A25-M, includes studios, broadcaster and hi-fi freaks. And demand is growing, showing that there is a market for larger monitors – and sales of our combined A25-M + A225-M sub to music production facilities have been practically stable over the past five years.”
 Really large monitors, then, still have a place when room size allows – which particularly means the largest studios in the post-production market. For the rest, it’s time to big it up for midfield – the new large in the monitor world.