When quality studio monitors are concerned I don't believe it really matters how much they cost, If a set of studio monitors are not positioned correctly in your studio you will most likely get a cheap and nasty sound from them that you won't be able to live with or trust when mixing. If you have not put any care and attention into setting up your monitors you will struggle to mix a track to translate properly on playback systems outside the studio.
Frequency response graphs feature quite heavily in studio monitor marketing but be warned, they don't tell us the whole story. Most cost-effective and indeed high-end studio monitors these days are designed to produce what is known as a full and flat frequency responses typically from 20Hz right up to 20kHz (the range of human hearing). In the real world though studio monitors that claim to have a flat response actually struggle to achieve anything like that in our studios because of a couple of factors:
- The properties/dimensions of the room the monitors are in
- The positioning of the monitors.
Getting the absolute best response from studio monitors requires a blend of maths and science… a room specifically designed and built for optimum acoustics… but that does not come cheap. Those approaches are not exactly practical for the vast majority of recording artists these days working in small home studios. So what can the home studio crowd do in order to get better sounding responses from their monitors? In this article, we share a commonsensical process that will help you to get your studio monitors sounding more focused within whatever studio space you have them set up in. This article avoids deep levels of bind bending maths and science that, to be honest, most creative musicians find incredibly boring.
Reset Your Expectations
Before we get into this there is an assumption surrounding this topic that needs to be addressed. If you have your gear in a “home studio” or “general purpose” space throw out any illusions that you’ll be able to achieve a flat frequency response from your studio monitors using only positioning technics and acoustic treatment as those won't make it possible without, as I stated earlier, a room designed and built to be as acoustically flat as possible or without assistance from professional acousticians. Without the budget for those premium solutions, the goal here is to get the most from our studio monitors using common sense along with a handful of tools.
There are some very clever software solutions available that have been around for a few years that adapt and improve the characteristics of studio monitors by use of EQ and other wizardry but we’ll cover that later in the article as it’s important to first try and get the best from our studio monitors before reaching for software aids such as speaker calibration.
Prepare To Invest Time - Possibly Extra Money
Positioning studio monitors is very much a process, one that takes a fair amount of time to get right so be prepared to put the hours in. It’s a process often riddled with trial & error, doubt and compromise. You need your ears, judgement and in some situations, you may need to rethink your studio layout, in others you may even need to spend a little extra cash to buy some components to aid your monitoring setup. Let’s start with an essential step, the manual, then we’ll move to studio ergonomics and layout.
Read The Manual
I can’t stress this enough. Don’t assume that you know your monitors before you’ve even heard them set up in your studio - It is so important to read the manual cover to cover that comes with your monitors as manufacturers go to great lengths to produce great sounding products, the engineers who slaved for months designing your monitors want you to hear and experience their monitors in the best possible way but also don't assume that all monitors are made equal.
Let’s take the M-Audio EX66 as an example. These are an interesting set of monitors. If you look at images of a set of EX66s online you’ll notice that these are not positioned in the commonly used triangle arrangement “facing inwards” to the listening position. No, these haven’t been set up incorrectly, M-Audio designed these to be positioned facing squarely outwards to provide end users with a wider “listening lane” suppose to a fixed sweet spot being a single optimum listening point. If you were to have purchased these back in the day and not read the manual you could have positioned these in the commonly used triangle facing inwards method only to had set these up wrong.
Always read the manual from cover to cover as it will help you to understand how your monitors work and how they project sound into listening spaces. By getting under the skin of your monitors you’ll become better informed about your monitors which in turn will enable you to make smarter monitor positioning choices.
- Article: How To Read The F*****g Manual
Where Do You Intend To Sit And Mix?
Many home studio producers don’t have their studios in large purpose build rooms, let’s be real here, that’s a fair assumption to make. Home studio producers use spare rooms in their homes, garages, lofts or outhouses where space is often very limited. Small rooms throw down many acoustic challenges for studio monitors, luckily, there are some small tweaks that you can make that should improve the response of your monitors.
First, you need to take the shape of your room into account. If your room is a rectangle, say 3m by 5m, then you have some options. Make sure your studio gear is set up at the narrowest end firing down the length of the room. If you have a square room then you sadly won’t be able to do this. Firing your monitors down the longest part of the room is the first and most important part to get right as it is better for the sound to travel as far as possible before bouncing back to you than it is sooner if you have your monitors against the length of your studio. Firing the sound down the length helps to weaken reflections before they reach your ears again.
Personally, I like to start by positioning my computer display up first when setting up monitors in a new studio space. This gives me a feel for where I’m going to be sitting in the room mixing. I make sure this working position is absolutely central between the shortest wall (left to right) and place monitors either side in perfect symmetry. By doing this I will hear even reflections from my monitors from the side walls giving me a more accurate stereo image.
I then make sure the back of monitors at least 30cm away from the wall to avoid any reflections from the monitors. This is really important, especially if you have monitors with rear ports. Ports are generally great for providing low end on low-cost monitors, especially if they are small in design. If rear monitor ports are too close to a wall bass can start to sound phasy and smeared. Low end, in general, can sound over pronounced when monitors are too close to a wall. This will cause you to mix a song with what you think has the perfect bass energy only to find out that it wasn't enough when hearing back your mix in the real world.
If you are experiencing this in your studio try moving your monitors into the room towards your listening position (while moving your listening position back the same amount) until the low end sounds less boomy and more defined. You may even need to move your desk and computer display into the room as well.
Width & Height
Read the manual to establish the recommended angle of attack for your monitors. Let’s assume, because most monitors are positioned this way, that your monitors need to be facing inwards in a triangle shape. The distance between the centre of your monitors should be equal from both monitor centres to your listening position. If the distance between your monitors is 1.2m then you need to be equally 1.2m from both left and right monitors. If your monitors are 2m apart and you are less than 2m from either monitor you need to find a way of narrowing the monitors together. It is crucial to have both monitors at the same distance from the wall while having both monitors on the same line within the room. If let’s say the left monitor is 1cm closer to the wall (being 1 cm further from you than the right monitor), the sound from the right monitor will reach you first upsetting lots of things, mainly the experience of the stereo field.
A good way to get this measurement right is by using a microphone boom stand. Use the boom stand to represent your head. Set the height of the stand to be at the height of your ears and position of your head when sitting down in your listening position and measure between the centre of one monitor driver to the “listening position” represented by the boom stand, repeat for the other monitor.
When I set the inwards angle of the monitors I sit in my chair in my listening position within the now measured triangle, I look directly forward keeping my head absolutely still. I move my eyes to look at each monitor to check the angles are right. What I’m looking for is the faces of the monitors and not the sides. If you see the sides of the monitors you need to slightly twist the monitor either in or out until you only see the faces of the monitors.
Height is also very important. The rule of thumb is to have the tweeters at ear height but not centred between the floor and the ceiling. If you have your monitors set up on a desk then you may need to consider the following...
What Are Your Monitors Positioned On?
Monitor stands are very simple devices that provide a wide range studio monitoring benefits. By and large, the biggest benefit of placing monitors on stands is they improve studio monitor performance.
Monitor stands reduce speaker cabinet vibrations transmitting (by way of decoupling) into other masses and structures such as floors, workstations, desks and mixing consoles. Monitors placed on something like a desk can sound a bit skewed and coloured, this is caused by vibrations from the cabinets rumbling into the mass of the desk that the monitors are sitting on making your monitoring experiences less than ideal.
There is a wide range of monitor stands that come in all shapes and sizes. Height adjustable stands with bases that stand freely on the floor are very popular but there other types to consider such as short desktop mount stands and smaller decoupling devices that sandwich between monitors and desks/workstation setups, such as DMSD speaker decouplers:
I personally recommend free-standing monitor stands, they are relatively cost-effective. The only drawback to using monitor stands is that you will most likely need to sacrifice space behind your studio gear or desk to position them while also allowing for suitable space between the rear of your monitors and the wall. It’s worth sacrificing that space though but you need to make sure your stands are strong enough to take the weight of your monitors whilst also being heavy and ridged. By nature, monitors will try to push away from you when operational which will affect the sound. Get a set of stands that are both well supported and weighty to counter any minor movements or sways when the monitor are playing.
Does Your Studio Have Acoustic Treatment?
Studio room acoustic treatment plays a huge role in getting monitors to sound more focused in small home studios but don’t believe for one second that you can buy an off shelve solutions that will fix let's say a 100 Hz standing wave. What’s a standing wave? Standing waves are frequencies (predominately in the lower end of things), that get trapped between two parallel walls that affect both volume and decay rate of frequencies.
In my studio I once had a big 80 Hz dip that caused me real problems when I tracked bass guitar.
Off the shelf acoustic treatment won’t do much to correct this, monitor positioning will do more to help. I used Sonarworks Reference measurement application to find out what was missing along with a subwoofer and repositioned my entire monitoring setup to help reduce this standing wave my room was causing, which worked a treat.
So if off the shelf acoustic treatment alone doesn’t help to combat standing waves what is it good for? Acoustic treatment, when used in the correct places will help your monitors sound more focused. If the correct depths of absorption materials and diffusion products are used in the main reflection points (being the areas in your studio where you monitors are facing) then things such as flutter echoes in a room will be reduced making your studio sound tighter
Broadband absorption panels work best. Such panels are wood frames with a deep amount of Rockwool inside covered with a breathable fabric. They are very inexpensive to build with some basic DIY skills. They perform best when positioned behind monitors, either side of your listening position, at the first reflection points where your monitors are pointing and at the rear of the room. Corners are equally as important to address but in my opinion first reflection points should be considered first.
First Listening Test
At this point let's assume you've completed everything we've covered so far in this article and you are now ready for some listening tests. First set the volume of your monitors to a low to medium level. You are aiming for a level not too quiet that you struggle to hear anything but also not too loud that you can't have a conversation. If your monitors are too loud your ears and your room will play tricks on you.
First up, you want to use an ascending sine wave test that plays back each frequency at the same volume. Sit in your listening position, play the test below and focus on the frequencies that jump out at you or dip considerably. Try not to worry about anything below 30 Hz (especially if you haven't got a subwoofer) as these frequencies aren't that important. What you are listening for are standing waves. Do this test a few times to really work out which frequencies have issues, write these down on paper and label it Test One. Don't worry if there are one or two frequencies jumping out at you, remember we cannot achieve a perfectly flat frequency response in a small domestic room. We've got two options we can try to help balance out some of those standing waves:
- Reposition your monitors into the room and repeat tests
- Get a measuring tape and try this very useful online speaker placement calculator at No AudioPhile. It's a very simple calculator that you can enter your studio dimensions into. It provides monitor placement measurements recommendations.
With some trial & error and countless rounds of tests, you should be getting closer to evening out the ascending sine wave. If you come across a frequency that is consistently too loud or quiet then, if you monitors have it, adjust the Room EQ on the rear of your monitors to help flatten the response.
Real World Test
After testing and repositioning you should be getting a good idea what you monitors can achieve in your room. Hopefully, you've found the best position for your monitors. Sure, there will be compromises but the tests should now at least give you a good idea what frequencies are problematic in your space.
It's time to put your monitors to work, produce a mix and test it out in the real world. If what you have mixed sounds the same in a consumer playback system as it did in your studio then your job is completed. If not then you may need to go back and make some minor adjustment to your setup again.
In the decade or so speaker calibration software has grown to be very popular in studios. Luckily for us, it doesn't cost the earth nor does it take a degree in science to set up. Trinnov, Sonarworks and IK Multimedia all offer their own Speaker Calibration software that all do a great job of providing users with a flatter frequency response in studio monitoring. These products do not work very well unless you've not got acoustic treatment in your studio, nor do they work if you've not taken the time to properly position your monitors. Speaker Calibration products work best when monitor positioning has been done to its best and when acoustic treatment is well thought out and implemented, think of Speaker Calibration as the final component to a monitoring setup and it will work perfectly.
It takes a fair amount of time to learn properly learn characterises of your monitoring system. Even if, in a perfect world, you had a perfectly flat frequency response from your studio monitors in a purpose-built recording studio that doesn’t have any acoustic problems you would still need to put the time into learning how your monitors sound.