Home Recording Basics: Choosing Studio Monitors
Selecting monitors for your home recording set-up is like choosing a pair of ears. Monitors determine how everything that goes down on tape, or, more likely, zeros and ones, is perceived. And that has a profound effect on how every aspect of a recording is going to sound.
The most important factor, as always, is budget. The cost of individual monitors runs from less than $200 to more than $2,000. Most home recordists want to spend less than a grand, often significantly less, on monitor speakers, and that’s fine. There are several manufacturers, including Gibson’s own KRK Systems, who make excellent, reasonably priced models.
What’s great about shopping for monitors today is that there is a wider variety of products available than ever before. Their dimensions run from mini to man-sized. For home recording, where space is typically tight, near-field monitors are generally the winners, verses mid- and far-field monitors, which are larger and need space to reveal the entire frequency spectrum that they produce. Being small, near-fields are also easy to tote to various locations as needed.
Speaker placement is crucial to the effectiveness of near-field monitors. They work best when set up to form as perfect a triangle as possible, with both monitors forming two points of that triangle and the third being the listener’s head. Hence the typically home studio desktop monitor and computer set-up, with the speakers on either side of the computer and the engineer right in front of the computer screen. If you’re ultra-tight on space, speaker stands may be helpful. Hard-mounting monitors so they float or are attached to a wall defeats one of the virtues of near-field monitors — portability.
An important decision is whether to go with active or passive monitors. Active models have their own internal power source that’s been designed for the optimum efficiency of the speakers. Typically manufacturers build separate amplifiers into the cabinets for the low- and high-frequency speakers they contain. That’s because accurately reproducing low frequencies requires more energy than high frequencies. If the high and low speakers, or drivers, as they’re called, are powered by the same amp, the upper range is altered as the volume goes up.
Another advantage of active monitors is that the cost and space required for a stand-alone power-amp is eliminated. In Star Trek and home recording, space is the final frontier. On the other hand, if an amp blows inside a monitor enclosure, the monitor need a costly repair or is a goner, especially if it’s a low-cost unit. Such a repair may cost more than a low-budget monitor. That, and the ability to control the wattage that drives the speakers and therefore colors the sound, is the reason why some opt for passive monitors such as the KRK R6, which can handle up to 100-watts of power. A 100-watt amp is reasonable investment for any home recordist, and the R6 — named for its six-inch woofer — itself lists for $249 and can often be found sale priced. A comparable active monitor, the KRK Rokit 6, lists for $399, although it too can often be found at retail on sale for discounts of $100 or more.
The size and shape of near-field monitors is another consideration. Bigger speakers equal more accurate lows, and the size of woofers in near-fields typically runs from five to eight inches. If you’ve got space, got for the eights. If you’re tracking in tight area, fives may be your only recourse since larger speakers require bigger enclosures. You can get great mixes on five-inch woofers. Many studios have a variety of monitors, from cheap three-inch car stereo speakers that provide an idea of how music will be heard on the road, to old-school V-I-T cabinets in wooden enclosures. Go with what you know once your monitors are installed and familiar, instead of worrying about variety. Confidence in your monitors will result in more creative mixes. When its time to reference other speakers, burn a CD and take it out to the car or zip it in the home stereo, or make an MP3 and zap in the ear buds.
One more thing to consider is the shape of the monitor enclosures. There’s a debate regarding contoured verses rectangular cabinets. Some monitor makers claim that the shape of a cabinet, in particular the flat plane of rectangular and square monitor enclosures, affects sound waveforms. That’s why many monitor makers have opted to offer contoured cabinets they feel more accurately channel sound. The best way to make this determination is to go to your dealer and do an A/B comparison with a high-quality recording that you’re intimately familiar with, and see which best serves your ears.