Which Came First – The Chicken or the Monitors?
This article on choosing studio monitors first appeared in Recording Magazine. I reprint it here with permission, and I encourage you to subscribe to that publication, as they are a stand up bunch of folk! PS: you may find affiliate links in this post and I may get a commission if you buy something. 🙂
It may not technically be age-old, but it’s certainly a dilemma. Should you be treating your room first, or choosing studio monitors and treat based on monitor response? This is a question that gets asked quite a bit and some details make it tricky.
But let’s cut to the chase before we dive into any finery. There’s no dilemma. Treat the room first. Now let’s talk about that finery.
Rooms All Have the Same Basic Problems
Acoustic science is complex and varied, and there’s a lot to it. Room measurement is a delicate task requiring attention to detail. Treating a room – at least the major portion of it – is not. As it turns out, no matter what initial measurements yield, the solutions are the same in most rooms – at least on the first pass. You can check out my Tune That Room article [placeholder for right issue] for more details, but the gist is:
- Broadband low-end absorption is good – the more the merrier.
- Create a reflection-free zone (RFZ) around the listening position.
- Minimize untreated parallel surfaces.
Meanwhile, coloration from an untreated room presents a false picture of any monitor’s response. So even if you can evaluate a bunch of monitors, doing so in an untreated room doesn’t work.
Choosing Studio Monitors: They DO Have Different Specs
Analyzing monitors in an untreated room may not be wise, but that doesn’t mean all monitors are the same. Far from it. Each monitor has different specs and even in a treated room, some coloration occurs, which will make a difference in how your monitors respond.
So, now’s the time to measure. If you’re comparing monitors, you can measure with each pair and find out which response is flattest. Once you’ve settled on the mons, you can use the measurement to refine your treatment.
This is when you might consider things like tuned low frequency absorbers such as Helmholtz resonators and the like. You might discover imbalances from left to right, nodes, or comb filtering. At this point, acoustic solutions aren’t all the same – you’re into the aforementioned finery.
If you can, you might want to evaluate several pairs of monitors, measure, make tweaks to your treatment, and measure again, finding the perfect combination of monitors and treatment. So, in this sense, you’re treating and picking monitors simultaneously – but not before you’ve done most of your treatment.
To Sub or Not to Sub
During all this hubbub, you might find your low end isn’t enough. This depends on the treatment and the monitors. Smaller rooms don’t necessarily need huge monitors, but counter-intuitively that may mean you want a sub.
So, when do you bring the sub into the mix (no pun intended)? Whenever you discover you need it. It’s a not a given that you’ll need one, and it a lot depends on what you’re doing. If you’re mixing for TV and movies in surround sound, you certainly need a sub to monitor the LFE channel. If you’re mixing songs, you may have enough in your monitors. Then again, if you’re mixing bass-heavy music intended for clubs with big systems, you might want to hear the lows better.
That said, you should treat the room to improve low frequency response first, before attempting to reinforce bass in a room that’s cancelling it out at the mix position.
A sub will change how the whole system responds, so it’s a good idea not to lock down your treatment before implementing the sub. A good order of operations is:
- Treat the room.
- Analyze and measure monitor response.
- Tweak treatment, measure again, and settle on monitors.
- Check the measurements and listen to determine if you need more low end.
- Add a sub if you need to, calibrate properly, and re-measure.
- Tweak room treatment.
To Each Their Own
In the end, how you go about building your room is up to you, especially when it comes to the details. Choosing studio monitors, deciding when to add a sub, and how to treat the room are all up to you, really. The main thing is if you can get a great result, you’ve got the right setup.
But treat your room before you shop for monitors. You won’t regret it.
I evolved from crazy-making egg crate bed foam home studios that don’t work at all to artfully designed, modular treatment. My mons are small and my sub is modest. But I still seek feedback on mixes.