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Sounding Off: Monitors

Mike Senior By Mike Senior

Your monitoring system is so important that it affects the entire development of your listening and engineering skills.

Let's be honest: there are few things less inspirational in the home studio than monitors. They aren't the best synth for trancebag happycore. They can't create a daft-mask-metal riff from a couple of lame barre chords. And they won't convolve pan-pipe solos into the deepest of underground caverns, however much this might be considered a step in the right direction. In fact, short of heaving your speakers out of a hotel-room window, their rock and roll rating won't win you many games of Studio Top Trumps.

Mike Senior.

The result of this is that a large number of home-studio owners spend more on cheese than they do on monitors and acoustic treatment, and, despite the importance of good dairy products in everyone's diet, I think this is a false economy. But before you turn back to the Readers' Ads with a dismissive comment about bears and Catholicism, there are a lot more reasons for this than most people stop to think about.

I'd imagine that the most common reason you think you need good monitors is because you want to mix down or even master your recordings at home. Without decent monitoring, you've no real choice but to mix somewhere that does have it (unless you're pioneering a new 'broken' sub-genre of Industrial). The problem with this is that all studio control rooms sound different, however professional they might be. So how do you know how your mix should sound in the one you've chosen?

By listening to a selection of reference records before and during the mixing session, of course. But if you're paying for this time, that's got to hurt! And even if you've pulled a freebie (you sly devil), you're hardly going to spend as long in that control room as you spend in your own studio. If you can hear what you're doing properly at home, every record you play for fun will help to train you for mixdown. Conversely, if your monitoring sucks, every CD you play in your studio will move you closer to monkey-butt status. And before you say 'I'll get someone else to mix my track!', how will you tell whether they've done a good job? Or, to put it another way — could you even afford Spike Stent's toenail clippings?

What I'm saying is that the main reason I think your monitoring system is so important is that it affects the entire development of your listening and engineering skills. On every session you make a hundred little decisions based on what you're hearing, and that is the basis of the learning process. The ropier your monitoring, the dodgier will be the techniques you're acquiring. And when you finally have decent monitoring, you'll need to spend a lot of extra time working out why your normal tricks don't seem to work any more, as well as scrabbling around for new tricks to replace them. Oh, and that's after you've finished listening to all those reference tracks, of course.

And don't forget all those gear-buying decisions you make. If the bass in your room is all over the place because your monitors and room acoustics suck, how exactly are you going to tell which bass synth is the phattest, for phuck's sake? Or whether BFD, DFH, or WTF has a better kick drum? Every erroneous purchase you make is likely to cost you money (to replace), time (in trying to compensate for its deficiencies), production quality, or a cosy combination of all three.

And I speak from experience. Fresh from working in a professional studio, I decided to set up a home rig and grudgingly opted for the cheapest active monitors I could find. I quickly became unable to mix my way out of a wet paper bag, despite having found mixing a very natural and logical process before. To make things worse, however, I initially made the mistake of believing the new monitors and doubting the rest of the equipment, and spent happy hours unlearning a whole load of useful things I'd picked up in professional studios, while learning a load of rubbish as a replacement. Add a couple of ill-advised equipment purchases, and you can see why I'm still kicking myself for wasting all that time, energy and money. I'd get Paul White to kick me too, but he might enjoy it too much...

So let me be crystal clear: monitoring and acoustic treatment may be dull as digital dither through a low-pass filter, but unless you can hear what you're doing you'll be haemorrhaging money, time, and engineering skills. Do yourself and your music a favour: sort it out! Don't make me set Paul White on you... 

About The Author

By day Mike Senior is SOS Reviews Editor, but by night he transforms into the amazing Acoustic Foam Kid! Or occasionally back into a pumpkin. If you would like to air your views in this column, please email your submissions to soundingoff@ soundonsound.com.

Published January 2006