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PAR Opinion: Choosing Monitors

I have an idea: let’s swap mic collections! It would be interesting fun and likely wouldn’t hurt our work quality much. We could probably swap DAWs without too much trouble, either; just learn the layout and workflow and we’ll be cranking out great audio by the day’s end. 

But we wouldn’t dare try and trade our monitoring systems for a day, would we? Monitoring is so subjective, products are so varied from model to model, and the act of monitoring is so overall imperfect in its interaction with our rooms. Yet we learn our systems and tweak our mix interpretations until our monitoring system becomes an extension of us, highly personalized and unique, even as we try to make our listening experience somehow universal and acceptable to all our clients and visitors.

Our career arcs walk us through so much variety in monitoring and we subliminally remember every bit of it. I feel lucky to have tasted so many sonic flavors, although I now crave many of those gone by. Above all others, I still love the big studio experience. You can’t beat the “classic” set-up: a large and acoustically proper control room, designed by an expert that had drivers/crossovers/amps in mind during the design phase, likely utilizing big woofers and custom horns (and probably no subwoofer), with enough amplification to fill the room with headroom to spare. Such a system can give the entire team (musicians, engineers and producer) an inspiring lift by reminding them what they hope will be the listeners’ experience — transcendence via awesome sounding music! Visceral, physical, game changing: all music makers, producers and even fans should experience such a monitoring environment just once to gain invaluable, irreversible perspective.

But the reality is that today we do a whole lot of professional listening on nearfields. Maybe it’s not as glamorous or awe-inspiring as the classic big system, but it’s liberating: nearfields (with some acoustic treatment) have turned hundreds of thousands of bedrooms/garages/basements into “studios.” People like me often start out with a pair of powered, small two-way monitors and diversify from there; I went solo with a project studio back in 1995. I’ve been through many monitors over the years as I’ve learned to identify the features that best suit my workflow, my clients and my ever-evolving environment.

I have used passive nearfields, active nearfields, models with and without room analysis and correction, PA speakers, consumer monitors both large and small, boomboxes and headphones all with some success, as well as numerous shortcomings. This leads me to believe that our monitoring choices are ever evolving, as we build our sonic memory and learn to achieve translatability. 

My journey has led me to the following tools as I build my multi-paned monitoring window to the world:

My large control room has mid-field monitoring with a Blue Sky SAT8 pair, active three-way speakers that create not only a large sweet spot, but accurately fill the front two-thirds of the control room, reaching my clients as well. I employ the Blue Sky SUB212 subwoofer (two 12” woofers in a push-pull config) to satisfy my clients’ desires for extended bottom as well as inform myself of low frequency activity in the rock/pop I often work with.

I use two sets of nearfields to gain more insight. I find that the Avantone Active Mixcubes (with a single 5” driver) help me focus on difficult midrange decisions — for example, vocal pitch correction, doubled instrument levels and vocal blends, without the distractions of thumping bass and sizzling treble. I also use a pair of vintage Radio Shack Minimus 7 passive speakers (with a hi-fi consumer amp) to simulate consumer-style “loudness button on, jacked EQ” listening.

Almost as important as the mid- and near-fields are my headphones, where I need two sets to be fully informed. I use the AKG K240 for balancing mids, checking treble sweetness and making sure low-frequency elements are audible, if subdued. I further rely on the Audio-Technica ATHM50 with their fantastic bass response to see how the bottom end bumps without any room interaction and to make sure my panning isn’t irritating, even at high volumes. For what it’s worth, I personally couldn’t mix on the cans alone. No way.

Next, I still need a couple of real-world checks to truly satisfy myself; frankly, I’d be doomed if I couldn’t check playback on my car stereo (factory model with sub) or via home computer, with my laptop and iPod/earbuds being final points of reference.

Yes, it’s complicated, messy and all subject to personal interpretation — so much so that many engineers don’t want to experiment with monitors (or review them either, for that matter). Personally, I’ve learned to embrace the awkwardness of readjustment when reviewing monitors, as the difficulty has made me better at frequency identification and has forced me to look at my monitoring decisions under a microscope. I’d like to think that, if anything, I can share mistakes and conclusions I’ve made, as well as translate those special moments of insight to the next generation of engineers who are often “stuck in their caves,” too. 

So, does anybody wanna swap monitoring systems for a day?

Rob Tavaglione is the owner of Charlotte’s Catalyst Recording.


PAR Second Opinion: Know Your Monitors

We all know our choice of studio monitors is quite personal. Everyone’s tastes and needs are different, and we hear things in unique ways. That influences our purchases and what we use. But what we all have in common is that our monitors should take what we do in the studio and properly translate it to the outside world. 

I’ve been using the same pair of NHT Pro M-00 compact powered monitors for almost 10 years now. They have the matching S-20 sub, and when I mix surround, I simply put up three more M-00s. I also have a spare set still in boxes, since they don’t make them anymore; it’s always good to be prepared. The main reason I use them is because they are comfortable on my ears, I can mix on them for long periods of time, and they simply sound good to me. Most importantly, as stated above, what I hear in my (tuned) room sounds good on TV, DVD and/or MP3 and AAC — ouch, did I say that last one out loud? 

These NHTs are not the most detailed speakers. But I actually like that; I like to mix on speakers that are fairly close to what consumers use. For fine mix details, I will put on my headphones (Sony MDR-7520 or Ultrasone Proline 750). They give me the ability to tweak that reverb just right or define a proper vocal echo. But when I take the headphones off, the speakers don’t let me down. That’s important as I use the two elements in combination with each other.

When I go to other studios, I actually enjoy (for the most part) using other brands of monitors. I do the usual thing – play some music on them to hear any quirks – but luckily, most places I work have good setups. Many times, the room they are in has far more influence (often to the negative) on the sound of the music than does the speakers themselves. However, most of the work I do in other rooms ends up back at my studio, so I know the end result will sound good. 

So my advice would be, no matter what brand of speakers you use, and no matter what type of material you mix on them, make sure you know them well. It’s time well spent. And just as important, make surethe room you have them indoesn’t throw off your judgment … or it won’t matter how good your monitors are.

Rich Tozzoli is a Grammy-nominated engineer, mixer and composer as well as PAR’s Software Editor