Building a Project Studio – The Basics (Monitors)

In the previous post, I talked a lot about how to think about building your studio and how gear makes its way into your workflow. Now we’ll start talking about the decisions and how they affect each other.

Stereo or Surround, ain’t that the eternal question?

Before getting into the next bits, we need to answer a critical question…Are you going to be recording in stereo or surround?

If you’re recording music whose ultimate destination is to be streamed, you’re likely not going to want or need surround. However, if your audience is likely to have surround, it’s awfully nice to be able to make a smile come across their face when they notice something come up from the rear speakers.

Subjectiveness aside, surround is a very different beast than stereo. Instead of just dealing with phase issues from left to right, you deal with them all over the place.

I learned how different mixing in surround is when I was in college. We were mixing in one of the surround studios at MTSU for an Audio for Video project. I think it may’ve been Aliens or Last of the Mohicans. I’m sitting there wondering where this monstrous hit for one of the effects was. It should’ve been fairly big, but it was totally pathetic and weak…WTF?!? Then, I moved to one side…WHAM! There it was dominating everything.

What had happened was that the recording (and processing) of the effect had been in stereo, but we moved it out of the strict L&R position back into the surround field. Just so happens, I had been sitting right where a big chunk of the low frequencies cancelled each other out in the room. So, you see, phase cancellation is a HUGE deal in surround.

This decision about stereo or surround will help determine nearly everything you need from here on, so take it pretty seriously.

Back to our regularly scheduled program

Now, lets talk about the actual things you’re going to need.

Obviously, there are a few basic items that are required. At a minimum, you’re going to need these:

  • Monitors (speakers, not displays)
  • Digital Audio Workstation (software)
  • Audio Interface
  • Computer

So, let’s look back at the list to see how we should choose these…


Setting aside the myriad choices out there, what do you need? If you haven’t ever bought monitors before, I suggest you don’t go for expensive units. I know, “What do you mean by expensive?” Well, for a small room, I probably wouldn’t go above $300-400 per monitor, maybe less.

Here are some things to consider when purchasing monitors:

  1. Are they active or passive
  2. Do you require surround or stereo?
  3. How revealing are they?
  4. How flat is the response across the 20-20k frequency band?
  5. Do I need a sub(woofer)

Notice that I didn’t say, “How great do they sound?” That’s because these are monitors for critical listening during mixing and mastering, not simply pleasant sound reproduction like the speakers in your living room.

Do you prefer Active or Passive monitors

I say ‘prefer’ because that is exactly what this is, a preference, nothing more. I’ll lay out some of the differences, and I think you’ll be able to make the choice yourself. To cut a long story short, if this is your first set of monitors, I strongly suggest going for Active monitors so that you don’t have to worry about the extra expense and setup of Passives.

Active Monitors

  • Have built-in amplifiers in each monitor or subwoofer.
    • These amplifiers are often built specifically for the response of the combination of drivers in the unit.
  • Require power to each of the units
  • While each unit may cost a little more, the system may cost less due to not needing to purchase separate amplifiers
  • Generally easy to setup and calibrate
  • Often come in systems designed for both stereo and surround monitoring

Passive Monitors

  • Require a separate amplifier or amplifiers to power each unit
    • For instance, if you monitor in stereo without a sub, you’ll likely require only a single stereo amplifier for your monitors.
  • Due to the separation of amp and monitor, allows for significant customization.
  • Only require a speaker wire for connection, as they do not require further power.

As you can see, it’s really just a choice you have to make based on your own preferences. Don’t let anyone tell you that one way is the right way.

There isn’t a right way. You get to choose what works for you, and even that may change.

Stereo or Surround, what does it mean for monitors?

Honestly, given that most of us are in small rooms with less than stellar acoustics, surround is probably not in the cards. But if you need (or want) it (yes, I do 😀 ), here are some things to consider when it comes to monitors.

First off, you’ll likely need a sub. For all modern surround formats, you’ll have an LFE channel specifically for low frequencies. Theoretically, if you get monitors that can deal with frequencies close to 20Hz, and since bass becomes more uni-directional the lower the frequency, this can work without a sub. The side benefit of having a sub, though, is that your other monitors can typically be a bit smaller.

Next, you’re going to need five (5) main monitors: left, right, center, surround left, surround right(, sub, possibly). Instead of giving you all the technical details about placement, etc., I will leave it to the pros at Dolby to do that. Do a quick search for Dolby Surround Mixing Manual, and you should be able to find Dolby’s instructional guides that give you all the gritty details and reasoning.

Since you’re going to have many more monitors needing power in the room, you’ll need amplification for any passive components, so you’ll either need active monitors or you’ll need amplification for each of your 5 passive monitors (or 6 counting the sub). So, the decision to go active or passive has some serious ramifications here.

Something to consider, manufacturers often have lines of monitors that are constructed specifically for surround. For instance, Genelec has several lines that use the sub as the central hub of the system so that its crossover can take out the low frequencies, passing everything else to the respective monitors elsewhere in the room. One of the benefits of a system like this is that you just run a snake from your interface to the sub, then all the individual cables go out from there. This can be a little cleaner in that small studio space.

How revealing are they?

So, here’s the deal with monitors…over time, you’re going to grow attuned to your monitors and how they reproduce sound relative to the environments where the sound will eventually be played, like a living room or out of a typical car stereo. No set of monitors can sound like the infinite possibilities of playback locations.

That’s not to say that you don’t care if the monitors sound nice to your ear. You’re going to be spending a lot of time with these, so you want to avoid ear fatigue, but you also need them to work for you. So how can the really work for you?

Monitors should reveal imperfections in the recording process.

Monitors should help you hear all the nasty bits of the process so that you can get rid of or mitigate those imperfections. Note that I said ‘imperfections in the process’ and not ‘imperfections in the performance.’ It’s up to you whether a flubbed lead or missed note should be rerecorded. Imperfections in the process refers to things like digital overs or pops and crackles in the line, things the artist is not responsible for.

How flat are they across the frequency spectrum?

Say…those are some flat monitors?

Are you hitting on me?

Okay, bad jokes aside, we next need to look at how well they represent the various pieces of the audio spectrum, hence the need for a reasonably flat response curve from 20-20k. If you have a distinct drop off either on the high end or low end, you’re not going to be able to hear any nastiness that happens there, and, subsequently, you’re not going to be able to fix it.

Also, be sure to listen for tight, controlled bass response. You don’t want monitors that have a tendency to fill the room with throbbing bass.

A note about bass-hyped monitors: Given today’s common listening preferences, manufacturers will often create a somewhat bass-heavy monitor or headphone. While this may sound pleasant to the ear, it will cause your mixes to be anemic in the bass region.

With all this flatness in mind, understand that the room you’re going to be working in probably has issues with resonant frequencies at particular locations, given its likely small size. However, by using components that are known to be relatively neutral (flat, in this case), it will make it easier to deal with the room issues later.

Do I need a sub?

The choice is really up to you. If you have full range main monitors, you can probably get away without it. Personally, I do use a sub because it allows me to have smaller monitors around the room and neater wiring with my active monitor setup. With a passive monitor setup, this wouldn’t necessarily be the case. With that said, I could possibly change the way I work in the future.

So, how do I choose?

First off, do your best to hear any monitors yourself before purchasing.

When choosing monitors, take your own source material with you, so that you have a reference that you know well. Preferably, it should be something that you’ve mixed yourself. In any case, your reference audio should represent the following:

  • Wide dynamic ranges: Pop is not typically good for this. Pick classical, jazz, etc.
  • Articulation: You should be able to hear delicate sounds at both loud and quiet levels.
  • Known Process Issues: Take some material that has slight artifacting or recording issues. These should jump out at you.

One of the coolest things for me was when I actually played an MP3 through some nice reference monitors. All of a sudden the artifacts from the codec started jumping out at me like never before. As an engineer, this was a wonderful indicator of how having revealing monitors can help the whole recording process from tracking to mastering.

*Up next…The Basics (Interfaces, DAWs, and Computers)

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