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Deciding How You’re Going to Hear the Music

Whether you decide to use a mixer or not and regardless of which audio interface you settle upon, ultimately the audio chain ends with sound coming out of a device that enables you to hear it. I’ve already referred to speakers and headphones, but let’s talk about both of those topics in a little more detail.

Monitoring Through Speakers

Of course, you realize that a good-sounding pair of speakers is critical to making quality recordings. But it’s not quite that simple. The speakers you want to use in your studio are not the same as the ones you want to use for your stereo. Home stereo speakers are designed to make the music sound as good as possible. For your studio, you want speakers that make the music sound as accurate as possible. In other words, you don’t want speakers that color the sound. Instead, you want to hear exactly what you’ve recorded so you can know exactly what you’ve got. Your studio speakers should “tell it like it is,” not as you’d like it to be.

Speakers made for musical production work are called reference monitors. You can choose from a dizzying array of monitor options, which can be categorized in a couple of different ways.

Reference monitors fall into three general categories: near-field, mid-field, and far-field. Mid- and far-field monitors hold no real relevance to the typical home studio for a couple of reasons. First, they’re bigger and more expensive. Second, they’re made to be listened to from a distance—generally 5 to 10 feet away or more. You’ve seen the picture of my studio and can tell that I couldn’t get that far away from my monitors if I wanted to!

So you’re left with near-field monitors. That’s not a bad thing. (In fact, for your budget and space considerations, they’re a good thing.) It simply means that you need speakers that give their best sound in a range from about 3 to 5 feet away—exactly right for listening to the monitors sitting on (or preferably on stands near) your desk while you’re sitting in your chair. When you go looking for speakers then, stick to the near-field monitor choices.

Monitors can be either active or passive. I referred to this topic earlier when I mentioned that some monitors supply their own built-in amplification. These are referred to as active. Monitors that require external amplification are called passive.

Active monitors may give more accurate sound because the amplification is obviously designed specifically for the speakers.

Each active monitor has its own amplifier that needs to be plugged into the wall, so you’ll need an extra outlet.

I prefer active monitors because they eliminate the need for a separate amplifier that I would need to store at my workspace.

You should make every attempt to properly place your studio monitors. Monitor placement can have surprising effects on the quality of the sound you get, so try some different locations if you can.

I mentioned in the previous chapter that you want to avoid placing a monitor close to a wall because of the quick audio reflection that results. You might think that you’re safe in putting the back of the monitor up against a wall or in a corner because the sound comes out the front of the monitor. But sound also escapes from the back of a monitor, so even if its back is against the wall, you can run into problems.

You also want to do your best to create a perfect equilateral triangle with your two monitors and your head making up the triangle points. In other words, if your two monitors are three feet apart on your desk, they should be three feet away from your head, too. This puts you right in the sweet spot—that area where the monitors give the most accurate sound and stereo effect.

You’ll want to angle the monitors in and angle them up if you have to so that their faces point directly at yours. Better yet, if you can, raise the monitors on stands off your desk so that their tweeters (the smaller speaker cones in each monitor) are level with your ears. Specially designed monitor stands often don’t rest flat on the floor. Instead, they stand on small spikes to minimize their contact with the floor, thus sending fewer vibrations into the floor. That’s a nice touch if you can afford it.

Monitoring Through Headphones

Don’t scrimp when it comes time to buy a pair of headphones. If you don’t have a quality pair, make room in your budget for one. There will be times in the home studio when you want to work but you just can’t make a lot of noise due to factors such as sleeping babies, grumpy neighbors, or TV-watching roommates.

If you can’t afford a nice pair of studio monitors, a good pair of headphones might be within your budget. You can do most, if not all, of your work monitoring through headphones. Some would argue that you shouldn’t mix or master your music in headphones because they give a different experience than monitors. That may be true, and I tend to agree that I’d rather mix in monitors, but sometimes you don’t have a choice. And mixing in headphones is better than not mixing at all!

We’ll talk more about the issues involved with mixing and mastering your music in Chapter 10, “Mixing Your Song,” and 11, “Mastering Your Song.”

There are many good headphone choices, too. I’d use the same technique in choosing the headphones as I suggested for choosing studio monitors. Your ears have to be the final judge, not the product’s reputation or recommendations from friends and online forums.

You can find good headphones in both enclosed and open-air styles. Enclosed headphones cover the entire area around your ears. They keep sound from bleeding through to your ears from your environment and keep the sound they make from bleeding out the other way. That’s important when you’re recording with a microphone because any sound that bleeds out from your headphones may very well be picked up by the microphone and end up on your recording.

On the other hand, the open style makes it possible to keep a little more in touch with what’s going on around you. This is important if, for instance, you’re the one who needs to jump when the baby starts crying.

Get Familiar with Your Gear

It’s important to spend some quality time with your studio monitors and headphones. Listen to a lot of music on them. Get to know their attributes and characteristics. Listen at low volumes and higher volumes, but don’t damage your hearing! Get to know how the music sounds at these different levels.

The more familiar you are with the sonic attributes of your monitors and headphones, the better you’ll be able to judge your music when you hear it through them. And that will help the sound of the music you produce on them.

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