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Nothing But The Truth

Paul White in his studio, 2017.Most of the time we're on the lookout for plug-ins, pedals and processors that help us create interesting sounds — something to make us stand out from the crowd. However, there are two key studio items that are much better off being boring, inasmuch as they don't do anything to draw attention to themselves. One is of course the host computer, which we only tend to notice when it goes wrong — the rest of the time we just take it for granted. The other is our monitoring system. To know that we have a good mix, we need monitors that are boringly honest and significantly more revealing than the speakers or earbuds used by a typical music consumer. There's also the vexing question of room acoustics, speaker position and the system of mounting, but that's for another day...

A proficient studio monitor system needs to project the unmodified audio truth, or as near to that as is physically possible given the limitations of a piece of cardboard flapping around on the end of a coil of wire. We're all told that a speaker needs to have low distortion and a wide, flat frequency response, but there's so much more to the specification than that, and to confound the issue, the human hearing system picks up on some deviations from the ideal specification more than others. For example, the distortion produced by even a very good loudspeaker is orders of magnitude higher than from something like a microphone preamp, yet we don't seem to notice it until it gets quite severe. Likewise, the frequency response might not be as flat as the smoothed-out marketing graph suggests, but small wrinkles in the frequency response might be tolerated better than problems with the phase response, time‑smearing or the dispersion pattern.

A proficient studio monitor system needs to project the unmodified audio truth.

Fortunately we have an in-depth article in this February 2020 issue that explains what is required of an effective studio monitor and what those specifications actually mean. My personal bugbear is the spec sheet that lists a frequency response of 20Hz to 20kHz but without telling you how many dBs down the level is at those two extremes. The industry standard for frequency response is to measure at the -3dB points, but some manufacturers either don't tell you at all or they choose a more flattering option such as measuring between the -10dB points in the hope that you'll just look at the frequency figures.

Response graphs, where provided, are almost always smoothed out to hide all the little dips and bumps that occur in even the best loudspeakers, so taken at face value, a budget speaker might seem to offer a similar basic specification to a serious studio monitor. The differences are in what they don't tell you, so a good loudspeaker is one with the least interesting wrinkles in its frequency and phase responses, the smallest resonances, the most even dispersion and the least exciting waterfall plots. In other words, the most boring one.

Paul White Editor In Chief