Studio Diary #20: How Am I Going To Hear All Of This?

With the home studio revamp,

  • I’ve addressed my lack of preamps
  • My Synergy rig is now back up and running
  • I can easily patch in any of my affordable pedal platform amps
  • I’ve got a way to play (rather than just program) drums
  • The signal chain’s now in a sensible order
  • I’ve bought so, so many cables

… and I’ve revamped the layout of the space, as part of improving the vibe. It feels like the end is in sight, at last.

I’m not quite finished yet though. I need to add a set of studio monitors to my setup.

Why Do I Need Studio Monitors?

Until now, I’ve been using desktop audio interfaces that send the sound simultaneously to both the monitor outs and to a headphone jack. I’ve been plugging into the headphone jack, and using a home stereo system to listen to everything.

That doesn’t work very well with the rack version of the UAD Apollo.

The Apollo x6 et al (rightly!) treat the headphone outputs as a separate output from the monitor outs. I can’t seamlessly route the main mix from all sources out to those headphones. It can be done, but it does involve having to switch between sources depending on what you’re trying to do.

I can’t begin to tell you how much time I’ve spent tracking down audio problems, only to discover I’d forgotten to switch over which sources were being sent to that headphone out. I’m clearly using the unit in a way that it’s not designed for.

I’m hoping that having a set of monitors wired into the monitor outputs of the Apollo x6 will sort this out. And anyways, if I can hear my recordings more accurately, it’ll help me learn to get better results over time.

How To Choose A Set Of Studio Monitors?

Go and listen to them for yourself. Which is a bit of a problem right now!

Studio monitors are one of those pieces of gear that just can’t be demoed in a YouTube video in a meaningful way. Not only can’t you hear what they sound like, there’s no way for a YouTube video to show you what they’ll sound like in your room.

You can ask online for advice. I tried that. Sadly, the replies weren’t that helpful in practice. There wasn’t much in the way of ‘these are the factors that you need to consider’. It was mostly just folks recommending the particular (and often long-discontinued) studio monitor that they use.

So, what’s left is doing as much background reading as possible, hoping that it’s enough to make an educated guess – and then going to listen to them in person.

Even then, all I can do is listen to how the monitors sound in the shop’s demo room. I won’t know how that translates to my room until I’ve brought a set home.

What Factors Are You Considering?

From the reading (and watching of YouTube interviews) that I’ve done, I’ve come away with three factors to guide my search:

  • professional studio monitors and untreated rooms often do not go well together
  • speaker size affects the ability to produce low frequencies
  • and watch out for DSP-driven monitors and the latency they add

As far as I can tell, one of the reasons (apart from price!) why budget studio monitors are popular is because they come with a lot of built-in EQ controls. You can tweak them to suit the room. Professional monitors are designed to sit in a room that’s been acoustically-treated. They come with a more limited range of EQ controls, and it can be too large of a bridge to gap.

The low-E string on a bass guitar has a frequency of about 41 Hz. If you pick a smaller speaker (like a 5″ speaker), it won’t reproduce those frequencies. By all accounts, it’s not critical that you can hear all of the low-end – and the untreated room also has an impact on how accurately you can hear the low-end too.

Latency is one of the biggest challenges for home recording. Everything in your signal chain that’s digital introduces latency. And some studio monitors use DSPs to make their speakers perform better. While I’m definitely after accurate sound, I’m also going to be using them for live tracking. I’m finding it quite the challenge to get latency figures for the options I’m considering.

What other factors am I considering, beyond those main three?

  • Some monitors emit more noise than others, when they’re idle. I’m not keen on that.
  • Some monitors with built-in ‘auto power-off / on’ modes don’t wake up reliably at low volumes. I’m not interested in cranking the speakers just to get them to wake up.
  • The monitors have got to physically fit on my desk.

What’s The Deal With Room Treatment?

As best as I understand it, we want to hear the sound coming out of the studio monitors, and not the sound that’s being reflected back to us from walls, windows, and other surfaces in the room.

Why? Because these reflections change what we hear. Depending on what you’re listening to, and the reflections that happen, you can get phase cancellation, volume boosts, and apparently even new tones added to what you hear.

That’s a bit of a bugger if you’re making any decisions based on what you can hear – for example, making your own mix. (If you’re recording anything with a microphone, it also has an effect.)

The solution is to add acoustic treatment to the room. For home hobbyists though, it’s often not an option, sadly. It’s not (just!) the cost, it’s the practicality. Acoustic treatment goes up on the walls, in the corners, and perhaps on the ceiling too. If your room spends most of its time being used for something else (bedroom, home office, or even a living room), those walls and corners could well be spoken for already.

That does create a bit of a dilemma. Is there any point in sinking serious money into professional studio monitors, only to put them in a room that hasn’t been acoustically treated? You can’t defy the physics involved.

What about saving the money, and getting a set of budget monitors instead? The problem with budget monitors is that, even in an acoustically treated room, they’re often not accurate enough to make good recordings and good mixes.

I’m not sure there is a good solution.

What Are You Going To Try?

I was going to use a hybrid approach:

  1. Get a set of professional monitors.
  2. Use specialist EQ plugins like bassroom.
  3. Get a decent set of headphones to double-check things on.

The idea was to go for accurate speakers, and pair them with software tools and headphones to help me compensate for the acoustics of my room. Stick with the same set of speakers long enough, and you can learn how they sound compared to other sources.

I’d narrowed it down to a choice between Genelec, Adam, and Focal monitors. They each have their fans, and I’m sure that I’d have been happy with whichever brand I chose.

Then the pandemic came, and suddenly, professional monitors felt very out of reach financially.

So I had to rethink things a bit.

I’ve gone the complete opposite route. I’ve bought a set of budget speakers – because I had to buy something. For better or worse, they’ll have to do until either they’ve proven themselves, or I’m able to move on to something much better.

I’ll write up some First Impressions soon.

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