Studio monitors are designed to give us the most accurate representation of a piece of audio fed into them. However, the monitors themselves are not enough to achieve this accurate representation. They need an acoustically treated environment in order to achieve this level of accuracy.
What is Acoustic Treatment?
Acoustic treatment involves designing the interior of a room to make it optimal for monitoring audio. But why do you need acoustic treatment? Because in an untreated room, even the best monitors’ response will be compromised by the reflections that bounce off of the walls and ceilings of the room.
To understand this better, we need to understand the concept of acoustics applied to studio monitors. When your monitors make a sound, it is generated in all directions. A small portion of this sound travels in a straight line directly to your ears. This sound is pure and unaltered in tone and frequency balance. The remainder of the sound bounces randomly off of the walls and other reflective surfaces and reaches your ears a few milliseconds later.
This reflected sound has a tendency to interact with the direct sound that reaches your ears first. Depending on the size and nature of your room, this interaction could alter the sound drastically. Acoustic treatment is meant to remove (or at least reduce to a negligible level) these interactions between direct and reflected sound.
Building a professional, acoustically treated room is extremely difficult and expensive. Rooms like this need to be very spacious and built out of materials that are not easy to come by. For most of us, this is just not feasible. In this article, we will look at 10 ways to make your studio monitors sound better in your home studio.
10 Ways to Make Your Studio Monitors Sound Better
1. Align Your Speakers With the Longer Walls
Most rooms are rectangular in shape. These rooms give you two choices. You could place the speakers against the longer wall so that the sound travels along the shorter wall – this is known as short throw. Or you could place the speakers against the shorter wall so that the sound travels along the longer wall – this is called the long throw.
Long throw is usually the better option for two reasons. The first is that since the back wall is further away from the listening position, the reflections off of this surface pose less of an issue. The second reason is that a longer room creates a better low end response. The distance between the back wall and the monitors allows the low end frequencies (which have longer wavelengths) to properly develop within the room.
Some rooms might be square or even an irregular shape. In these scenarios, you should experiment with different speaker positions until you find the room’s sweet spot. Even in square rooms, you may get different results if the walls are of different thickness or made out of different materials.
2. Optimize Your Listening Position
In most cases, your listening position should be about 38% of the “throw” length away from the front wall (the wall behind the speakers). If you take the length of the wall along which the sound is thrown (short throw or long throw) and multiply it by 38%, this is where you will sit facing the front wall.
Of course, this is not a hard and fast rule, it is merely a guideline. Experiment with different positions slightly off the 38% line to make sure you get the best frequency response from your speaker placement. As mentioned before, wall thickness and material do play a role in the acoustics of a room.
3. Optimize Your Speaker Placement
Once you have decided on your listening position, you need to place the monitors in such a way so as to get the best results. In order to do this, you need to place the monitors so that they create an equilateral between the listening position, the left speaker and the right speaker. In other words, the distance between the speakers, the distance between the left speaker and the listening position, and the distance between the right speaker and the listening position should all be the same.
This preserves the stereo image of the sound. The way stereo imaging works is actually an auditory illusion. When a sound is in mono, it means that both speakers are playing the exact same sound at the exact same time and at the exact same volume. This creates the illusion that the sound is coming from in between the speakers.
If you were to increase the level in one of the speakers, it would create the illusion that the sound is coming from that side. In fact, this is how panning works! When you turn the pan pot on a mixer to the left, it is increasing the level in the left channel and decreasing the level in the right channel simultaneously, creating the illusion that the sound is “moving” to the left. Setting up your speakers in an equilateral triangle with your listening position will give you the most accurate stereo image.
4. Maximize Symmetry in Your Room
Another thing that affects the stereo image of a sound is the symmetry of the room itself. Even if the room is a rectangle or square, things in the room, such as couches, bookshelves and other furniture, could also affect the sound. It is probably not possible to get a perfectly symmetrical interior but you can move stuff around until you get close, and this will help further preserve the stereo image of your sound.
5. Use the Correct Speaker Orientation
You may have seen some studios with the monitors placed horizontally. This is most likely not because they were experimenting with speaker orientation but because that is how those particular monitors were designed. It is always best to place your speakers the way the manufacturers intended and this is easily observed from the manual or the box itself.
Orienting your speakers in a way that was not intended by the manufacturers will create phasing issues when you move your head while listening to your mix. Phasing occurs when the same signal in the left and right channels go slightly out of sync with each other, causing tiny but noticeable dropouts in the level. Orient your speakers the way they were intended to be to avoid this problem.
6. Keep Your Monitors’ Tweeters at Ear Level
The tweeters are the smaller speaker in the box, usually above the woofers. Tweeters are the ones that generate high frequencies, which are very directional in nature. If you stand behind your speakers and listen to some music, you will notice that it sounds a lot more “bassy” than if you were to sit in front of them. This is because of the directional nature of tweeters.
In order to ensure that you get the best frequency response in the high end, it is important to keep your monitors’ tweeters at the same level as your ears. Keeping them slightly above or below your ear level will give you an inaccurate idea of your high frequency response and cause you to compensate incorrectly while you are mixing.
7. Keep Your Monitors on Stands Next to Your Desk
Often in home studios, producers tend to keep their monitors on their desk just behind and on either side of their screen. The problem with this is that when you keep your monitors on your desk, the desk will resonate with the speakers creating a frequency response that is not present in the sound being played.
A good solution to this is to get monitor stands that you can keep on the floor next to your desk. The resonance between the speakers and the stand is significantly less than the resonance that occurs on the desk and there are even stands that are designed to absorb the resonance that monitors generate. These stands are also adjustable in height so you can make sure they are at the right level relative to your ears.
8. Use Acoustic Panels
For those of us who can’t afford a full fledged studio (which is most of us), we have the option of acoustic panels made of foam that are designed to either absorb or diffuse reflections. These are relatively cheap and you can stick them to the walls of your room in strategic places so that they take care of harmful reflections.
There are two kinds of panels – absorbers and diffusers. As the names suggest they absorb and diffuse reflections respectively. Absorbers help to remove reflections thus leaving behind only the original (direct) sound. However, absorbing all the reflections tends to leave the room feeling “dead” in terms of its natural tone. This is where diffusers come in. Diffusers retain the reflections but scatter them so they do not interfere with the direct sound. Just a few of these can be surprisingly effective in removing reflections and standing waves from your listening environment and in creating a great room tone!
9. Use Bass Traps in the Corners of Your Room
Bass traps are designed to be placed in the corners of your room. This is because bass frequencies tend to build up in corners, causing the whole room to resonate in the worst cases. Bass traps absorb these frequencies as well as some mid range frequencies, making them a powerful acoustic treatment option for a home studio. Sometimes a few bass traps are enough to greatly improve the acoustics of a room.
10. Avoid These Traditional DIY Methods
There are a few DIY methods of acoustic treatment that you might have seen, namely carpeting, cup holders, and egg crates. These methods do not work and often make the situation worse. They usually absorb only the higher frequencies while leaving the lower frequencies alone, causing a kind of “dampening” effect in the room. The problem however is usually in the low frequencies so these methods actually do the opposite of what we want.
Here are five DIY methods that could work as a last resort:
- Close miking: This involves placing your sound source as close to your microphone without ruining the tone in the recording. Doing this maximizes the amount of direct sound and minimizes the amount of room tone that gets captured in the recording. It is not ideal but it does the job decently.
- Using dynamic microphones: Dynamic mics are typically less sensitive than condenser mics and this fact can be used to your advantage if you cannot afford acoustic treatment yet. Dynamic mics won’t pick up a lot of sound other than the source itself, so while it will sound duller than a condenser mic, it will also sound “purer” when used in an untreated room.
- Household absorbers: Absorbers are basically any soft material that “gives way” when hit with a sound wave. So while acoustic panels are designed for this purpose, you could also make do with many things in your house such as towels, pillows, piles of clothes, and even your couch!
- Mattresses: One of the best household absorbers is the mattress, especially when it comes to vocal recording at home. All you need to do is prop a mattress up against the wall behind the performer so that it absorbs any reflections that might be picked up by the most sensitive part of the mic. As long as it is a heavy solid core mattress and not a light innerspring mattress, you should be good to go with this method.
- Reflection filters: This is not really a DIY method that you can set up with household appliances but it is a cheap alternative to acoustic foam. A reflection filter is a semi-circular absorption panel that you can mount to your mic stand and wraps around your mic to absorb any reflections just before they reach the mic.
Do studio monitors sound better?
Studio monitors are designed to have a “flat” response which means that they will not alter the incoming signal at all. While this is somewhat difficult to achieve in reality, most good studio monitors do come quite close. Having a flat frequency response means that you will hear the most accurate representation of the signal that is possible.
Commercial speakers are not designed to give a very clear frequency response and many of them are designed to colour the sound to compensate for this. So while music does sound good through commercial speakers, the sound they produce is inaccurate and not suitable for mixing. Some commercial speakers even come with a bass boost built in that you can’t turn off. This is definitely not a desirable option for mixing as they will give you a completely wrong representation of the low end.
In a nutshell, studio monitors do sound better than commercial speakers even for casual listening, but they are absolutely necessary for the purposes of music production, recording, mixing and mastering.
How loud should my studio monitors be?
If your monitors are too loud or too soft, you will not be able to properly monitor your sound because of the way our ears work. The sweet spot is to keep your monitors at 85 db at your listening position. If you do not have a loudness metre on hand, 85 db is the level at which you can have a conversation with a slightly raised voice (but not yelling) with someone sitting a few feet away.
This is ideal for the purposes of mixing and mastering and should be sufficient for recording and production too. At 85 db, your ears can pick up a balanced sound and you will be able to monitor all the frequency ranges comfortably without hurting your ears. If your monitors are too soft, you will obviously not be able to hear your mix properly, but if they are too loud, your ears will be too overwhelmed for you to make good decisions about your mix.
Why are my studio monitors so quiet?
There can be many reasons why your studio monitors may be too quiet but the most common one is cabling issues. Studio monitors often come with two kinds of inputs – XLR and TRS. Both inputs give the same results but the problem with the TRS input is that it is a quarter inch jack.
This can cause some confusion, especially if you do not know the different kinds of quarter inch cables. A TS cable that is commonly used to plug in electric guitars and basses will not give you the volume you need from a studio monitor. If you are using this input, you will need to make sure you are using TRS cables.
You may also have defective gear – either your audio interface or your monitors themselves. To know this, you will have to run tests with different systems to see where the problem persists, and this will tell you where the defect is. If your monitors sound fine with another interface, the problem is probably with the interface. But if the interface works fine with other monitors, then it’s probably your monitors that are defective.