You probably know that monitors can help your productions, but do you know what you’re doing with them? Do you know how to get the best performance out of your shiny new investment?
If you can’t answer with a resounding yes, then this guide is for you. It might be hard to believe, but the way your monitors behave in your room is going to have a big impact on how your productions sound to you, and the rest of the world. The consequences of poor setup are pretty disastrous, matched only by the incredible benefits you get from having monitors in the perfect spot.
We know all that monitors and room acoustics have to offer from countless hours of guys in lab coats scratching their heads, taking copious measurements, and playing around with sound. Their sacrifice is your reward. Without delving too much into the science of it all, we’ll share the most important nuggets of information, so that you can get back to work.
One of the biggest enemies of proper monitoring is the room you’re listening in. Without acoustic treatment, sounds tend to bounce around the room, which becomes problematic when you start considering room modes. These occur when the dimensions of a room(height, width, and length) are exact multiples a wavelength. Such a mode tends to make particular frequencies sound louder than others, creating an uneven sonic picture.
Room modes occur at many fundamental frequencies(at least the three that correspond to the dimensions of the room), but also at all the frequencies associated with that fundamental. And that’s just the most basic way of looking at it. There are these things called tangential frequencies, which we won’t get into. Just know that room modes are playing havoc with your listening environment, and you want to minimize them. Complete extermination is an unrealistic goal.
If you want to avoid room modes, there are a few things you can do.
First, try to not put your studio in a square or rectangular room. Cubic rooms are possibly the worst location listening, since the room modes will be centered around those frequencies that fit their dimensions, which are the same on all sides. There will be pronounced modes at very specific frequencies. A more varied distribution of modes will actually diffuse the effect of any one mode.
Irregular shaped rooms are perfect locations for listening, though very uncommon in most homes. But this is all academic, since most of us are stuck with our studio space.
So you need to make the best of the space you have. And that’s where positioning monitors becomes crucial.
One thing to note in this process is that having monitors equidistant between any two walls is going to contribute to a phenomenon that is the polar opposite of room frequency-response troughs.
When sounds bounce off walls after travelling a finite number of cycles, they combine with the original sound in-phase, with no problems. But if that sound combines with the original sound out of phase, then you’ll notice decreased volume at that frequency. With so many frequencies on display, some of them are going to suffer, no matter what. These troughs mostly correspond to low frequencies that emanate from the back of monitors and bounce off the wall at you in your comfy listening position.
So, what do you do?
Short of getting your room analyzed and professionally treated, you’ll have to do some hands-on research. If you can cue up some music that covers a lot of harmonic ground in the bass, play that while you move your monitors around, listening for notes that are excessively loud or soft. Find a spot where the bass sounds most consistent. This will take some time and a lot of careful listening, but you will soon find places that sound better in the room.
Science tells us that you’re bound to get better results when monitors aren’t placed exactly halfway between two surfaces (ceiling and floor, for instance). However, since you’re dealing with so many wavelengths, some frequencies are always building up and others canceling . There is not going to be a perfect placement to remove room modes in your studio, unfortunately. But they don’t have to ruin your life.
There are small bass traps that might help out the home studio, though they don’t reach their full potential in a small room, just as bass frequencies aren’t quite fully developed in small spaces. If you want to fight bass buildup, consider smaller monitors, with less bass response. If you don’t start with excessive bass, you won’t have to fight as hard.
Hopefully, that spot can coincide with a proper listening triangle, that places your ears at the angle of an equilateral triangle. If your speakers are six feet apart, then you should be six feet from either speaker. This should give you the truest stereo imaging possible.
If you can, get some distance between monitors and walls, to avoid the boundary effect, whereby bass frequencies build up in corners and against walls. Close proximity to walls will over-represent bass frequencies. 5-6 feet away from the wall should be good.
Speakers not only vibrate air, they vibrate anything they’re touching. So decouple your monitors from your desk, or even the floor if you can. Monitor stands will help isolate those speakers from you, physically, and there are some pretty fancy choices out there. If your desk is the only place to put them, make sure you put them atop some decoupling foam pads. And keep them clutter free! Anything you place on the monitors will vibrate sympathetically, adding unwanted hum and rattle to the equation.
High Frequency Reflections
Generally speaking, the more absorptive material in your studio, the better the listening will be. I can’t emphasize the word generally enough. There are just too many variable to speak in absolutes.
If you’ve managed to even the bass in your studio, you’re halfway there. High frequencies are just as problematic, although they’re much easier to tackle.
For instance, there is a wall behind you as you sit at your workstation. It is reflecting both high and low frequencies back at you, interfering with stereo imaging. A few popular solutions for minimizing the sonic damage:
- A sofa. A large, absorptive piece of furniture behind you is going to absorb a lot of that sound. Few sofas are tall enough to really give you full coverage, but it’s a start. And who doesn’t want to kick back and listen to their mixes in comfort from time to time?
- Diffusion. Absorbing sound is great, but so is diffusion. Diffusion simply scatters reflective sound waves so they can’t become problems. The sound waves still reflect, but they do so randomly. There are some very fancy diffusion panels out there, including some fancy DIY designs(like this one). While they can really class up a studio, you can get much the same effect with a shelf full of random reflective objects – books, CDs, action figures, and whatever else you need in the studio. That can really do the trick.
And of course, acoustic treatment is one of the best ways to really tame your room. Carpeted floors are a great place to start, but don’t look to carpet to take care of all your problems. Carpet only absorbs high frequencies, biasing your room towards the mid-range. The classic egg cartons on the wall are even more pointless, as they absorb next to nothing and have limited diffusion properties.
If you’re going to make any investments along with your monitors, consider acoustic treatment. You don’t need much, and strategic placement will help you get the most from your panels. A few places you might consider:
- Rear Wall – You can diffuse. Or you can absorb. Or both. If you decide to absorb, consider placing a few panels on the back wall, about the same level as the monitors. Absorption tends to work better when not attached to a wall, so if you can suspend panels from the ceiling, give that a shot.
- Side Walls – The walls to either side are contributing to unwanted standing waves, so get after them! You’ll find the best position for acoustic absorption by following a straight line from the speaker cone to the opposite wall, the same line that direct sound waves are taking. Some professionals suggest using a mirror so that you can “see” where the sound is hitting the wall most directly. But you can eyeball it, too. Place a panel at that point on both walls for the greatest effect.
- Over Head – Acoustic treatment over your head can cut down on reflections entering your ears. Remember, you want to treat your listening position. The rest of the room is inconsequential. A larger panel directly over your usual working position will do wonders.
There are plenty of DIY guides on making acoustic treatment, if you want to cut costs. But you can also buy a few panels at a small cost, which will contribute to a welcoming sonic environment. Don’t underestimate this investment, since it can contribute to listening, as well as recording and will forever change your productions.
No matter how well (or poorly) your room is treated, you can benefit from moving the monitors closer to your ears. Nearfield monitoring increases the ratio of direct sound to room sound. In most home studio situations, nearfield monitoring isn’t a choice; it’s a way of life.
In a perfect world, there would be no sonic interference in your listening. That’s just not where we live. But with these tips, you can minimize the interference of this physical world to hear the true sound of your productions.