Our speakers are our only tangible link to our recorded music. As such, they’re more important than any element of our signal chain outside our hearts and minds. They filter what we hear, what we don’t, and in what proportions.
For casual listeners, choosing speakers is easy: Get a bunch of likely candidates together in one room, listen to some music you know and love, and pick whichever pair rocks your boat best in your price range. (Then, go home and listen to kickass music on them. Constantly.)
But for producers, engineers, and recording musicians, things aren’t quite so simple. There are a few hidden rules about selecting useful speakers for recording and mixing. Many of them run counter-intuitive to our instincts.
1 – Be suspicious of any speakers that sound “good”.
For some readers, this will be the most controversial piece of advice we have to offer. But among successful studio rats, it’s one of the most deeply ingrained lessons of experience. I’m often amazed by how many new and hobbyist recordists ignore the advice of their favorite producers, mixers, and engineers on this front. For those who are ready to accept it, this could be the most helpful tip we’ve got.
It’s important to realize that many new studio monitors (and microphones for that matter) are designed to win in a “sip test” scenario. While they may impress our ears in the short run, they don’t always help the user deliver results in the long-term.
The Studio “Sip Test”
In his 2005 book Blink, author Malcolm Gladwell explored this phenomenon with the case of the “Pepsi Challenge”, a series of soft drink taste-tests that seemed to conclusively prove that Americans plain-old liked Pepsi better than Coke.
These soda shootouts made Pepsi a serious contender for the first time, and left Coca-Cola hemorrhaging market-share. Gladwell however, presents evidence that Pepsi’s overwhelming success over Coca-Cola in these tests was not evidence of a real preference, but rather a result of the flawed nature of the “sip test” method itself.
His research shows that when offered a quick sip, tasters generally prefer the sweeter of two beverages – even if they prefer a less sweet beverage over the course of an entire can. Just because a taster prefers a single sip of the sweeter beverage, Gladwell argues, doesn’t mean he’d prefer to have an entire case of it at home.
Coca-Cola found this out the hard way when they introduced “New Coke”, a soft drink completely redesigned to match Pepsi’s success in the sip test. The results were catastrophic.
It’s a lesson that shouldn’t be lost on the studio world. Where soda drinkers tend to prefer the sweeter of two beverages in a brief sip-test, listeners prefer the louder or more scooped of two sources in quick, non-contextual listening tests. Bass, treble, and volume are like sugar to our ears.
There are many reasons why speakers that sound “good” in an instant can mislead us in the long run. Their sound may be hyped and dishonest, at best lulling us to into a false sense of security, and at worst steering us in entirely the wrong direction.
2 – Your mixes will tend to sound like the inverse of your speakers
If you want fat, bottom-heavy mixes, the worst thing you can do is buy a set of speakers that already sound that way. The same is true if you like records that sound bright and exciting. Buy a set of speakers that already sound bright and exciting, and believe me when I tell you that your mixes will come out lifeless and flat.
Ideally, a great speaker for the studio has great balance. But even the flattest of studio monitors are colored in their own small ways. My recommendation is that instead of picking speakers that sound the way you want your mixes to, you should select speakers that will lead you away from your most constant pitfalls. It’s likely that you already know what they are.
If your mixes generally sound dull, veiled, and unexciting when you hear them elsewhere, you may be best-served by speakers on the darker side of the spectrum. They’ll encourage you to mix brighter and bolder. Conversely, if your mixes sound thin, bright and tinny when you hear them in other rooms, you may want to invest in speakers that are voiced slightly toward the brighter end of the spectrum themselves. They’ll give you your high-frequency fix and punish you for pushing those sparkly regions too hard.
Finally, if your mixes sound murky, cluttered, or crowded in the mid-range (by far the most common problem for new mixers), you’ll want some speakers that bring the midrange to the forefront; Speakers that refuse to flatter your or gloss over the centerpieces of your sound and the soul of your record.
3 – Small speakers can lead to huge-sounding records
There are several reasons that Yamaha NS-10s or Auratone Sound Cubes have been found in almost every serious studio for the past 40 years. The first and most significant of these reasons is that they force you to focus on the soul of your record: The midrange.
The midrange is where the magic happens. What goes on here is what makes listeners tap their feet, bob their heads, sing along, and grow gooseflesh on their arms.
I recommend that instead of spending most of your time chasing after the boom and sparkle of your mixes, you should focus on the heart, soul, and midrange of your record instead. This will stack the deck in your favor when it comes to the mix, and help you make better music and write better arrangements as well. If you can get the midrange tones and balances right, the bass and treble will come together quickly. The reverse is seldom true.
But What About The Bottom?
While mid-focused models like the Auratone and NS-10 are light in the low frequencies, what bass they do have is unusually accurate, and free from the troublesome low-frequency resonances that plagues the majority of comparably-priced portless designs. Many low-priced speaker companies add poorly-implemented ports (or as I like to call them, “needless evil death holes”), to give the impression of deeper frequency response, and wow listeners with their suspiciously thunderous low-end.
But marketers make promises they can’t keep, and the truth is that if you can’t have accurate low-bass frequencies, it’s much better not to have them at all. This is the second major reason speakers like Auratones and NS-10s both been studio staples for decades. Alternately, it’s why a smaller top-of-the line full-bandwith speaker can be a better choice for home recordists than a questionably-designed larger model. This goes double for those who work in untreated rooms.
Auratones and NS-10s are still fairly affordable, even though they’re no longer in production. But for those who prefer more modern options there are plenty of choices. Avantone and Behringer now make copies of the original Auratone, and companies like Blue Sky and Acoustic Energy make affordable two-way portless designs (the latter of which is offers some of the best qualities of the original NS-10 with improved response all around.) Still other companies such ADAM and Dynaudio are intelligent about porting on their smaller speakers, and offer compact affordable models that could serve as a primary nearfield monitors even at a world-class studio.
4 – One May Never Be Enough
Don’t get me wrong: Large, accurate, full-range studio monitors can be extremely helpful. So can dozens of brands of small consumer speakers and affordable studio monitors that we won’t be able to mention in this brief guide.
In the final analysis, two of the most important factors in your speaker setup will be familiarity and variety. Ideally, everyone would have 2 or 3 sets of monitors to help inform their decisions, and would know them well. Unfortunately, this isn’t always feasible. Still, whether you’re picking up a secondary speaker, or have to choose a single, primary portal to your world of sounds, these suggestions are sure to help. Always remember:
1) Be wary of impressive speakers, 2) Choose speakers for the effect they will have on your mixes, rather than their inherent sound, 3) Never spend your money on a large, poorly-designed speaker if the alternative is smaller speaker that will be more useful in getting great sounds.