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Part 5: Monitors

Published: Mon November 20, 2006  News Feed

By now, if you’ve read the first few parts of this guide, you will surely have been tempted by some fine sounding software instruments and possibly even a sequencer to control and record them. There’s also a good chance that you may have already spent a fair amount of money on software to make music, but before you get too carried away, be aware that there’s one area that many people fall down on when making music, and that’s listening back to it! Many people assume that the speakers bundled with their computer systems when they bought them will be good enough for their music making. The sad truth is that they usually won’t be. For game sound effects they may be ok, for listening to music, maybe, but for producing your own tunes? Highly unlikely…

As I pointed out in the introduction to this guide, you need some really good speakers, otherwise known as monitors, to get an accurate representation of the music you are making. This is simply so you can hear every note, every nuance at every frequency as it was intended. The chances are your computer speakers will either be cheap bundled speakers that sound awful, or will be coloured some way, usually in the bass region. What this means is that they will be boosted in the bass to make up for lack of size so that whatever gets played through them sounds ‘better’. This is no good for your music making. If what you are producing is artificially boosted in the bass, you will reduce the bass in your mix to compensate, the result being that your music will sound bass light, aka tinny, aka crap on any other system. So ‘accuracy’ is what you are after.

So you need to aim for a ‘flat frequency response’ i.e. one that is not boosted in any region and is therefore accurate. Monitors designed for music production usually have accurate responses. I say ‘usually’ because, sadly, some don’t and, despite the fact that you will have to pay a premium for monitors, they do vary in quality, hence this guide!

Active or passive

Active speakers have their own amplifiers built in, passive ones don’t – simple eh? So if you have a decent studio amp already, you can get away with a set of passive speakers which will set you back less cash than active ones. Good news so far, but there is a school of thought that says active speakers are better because their design takes into consideration the characteristics of the built-in amp to still produce a flat response. With a passive speaker, there is no way the designers can tell which amp you’re going to hook it up to so the output quality will be dependant on that amp, so may vary considerably.

Loud or quiet – watts count, right?

You probably want me to say: get the loudest monitors you can afford, right? I wish I could, but the simple fact of the matter is that you should never monitor at loud levels. When you are producing music, the chances are you will be mixing tracks over very long time periods and those precious ears of yours will be subject to lots of strain, so keep those volume levels down. Also, monitoring with very flat response monitors can in itself be quite strenuous because the most accurate monitors often sound the most brittle, and that brittle sound can take a toll on your ears. I once auditioned a set of monitors widely regarded as being the most accurate in their price band but found that after an hour with them I was hurting! Not physically, perhaps, but there was a wearing effect. I settled on a pair that offered less accuracy (although they are still very good) simply because I can live with them for long mixing sessions.

Here’s a top piece of advice… if you can afford it. Mix with a set of monitors that are, perhaps, a little less accurate but easy on the ear. When you come to finalise the mix, switch to another more accurate set to fine tune the detail. It may sound extravagant having two sets of monitors but you will reap the rewards in the long term. Or at least your ears will…

Audition, seek advice, try, try, try

Don’t jump into buying a set of monitors without doing some background research. Of course, by reading this you already have done, but I’d always say read magazines, go on forums and find out what people mix with according to their studio type, musical genres and their experiences. The most of-asked questions on music technology forums are people asking about which monitors are best. Heed the advice but, where possible, audition monitors yourself. Try them out with music that you know well so you can judge the detail and don’t be rushed into a decision. A good set of monitors will stay with you for life. I should know, I finally have the set that suits me, after trying several tens of sets over the last 15 years!

So to the monitors sold at Dolphin – let’s take a look…

Passive monitors

Possibly the cheapest ‘good’ speakers you can get are the Behringer Truth monitors. These constantly appear on forum threads entitled ‘what are the best, cheap monitors’ and tend to divide the masses. Those who’ve tried them do seem to love them for the outlay though. The passive range includes the B2030P (£83) and B2031P (£99).

Alesis’ Monitor One passives (Mk 2, £104) have been around for donkey’s years. I should know – they were my first choice for my first studio and were/are a great choice for the price.

Tannoy’s new Reveal range have scored some great reviews recently too. In the budget range there are the Reveal 6 (£135) and Reveal 66 (£149), both great buys.

Adam monitors are also scoring well in the ‘positive mentions and reviews’ stakes. The ANF-10s (£399) are a great buy although more expensive than the other passives mentioned here.

Active monitors on a budget

If you are on a real budget then you can pick up monitors for less than a hundred quid. At this range you could do far worse than EDIROL’s M15D (£99) monitors which are great for those with little room and little cash. At the same price are M-Audio’s StudioPro 3s, again great value.
We’ve already mentioned the Truth range from Behringer. Their active versions are the B2030A which is just £179 and the B2031A for £199. Wharfedale have a great rep in hi-fi speakers and have also reached a good standard in production monitoring with the Diamond range, the budget end of which is represented with the 8.1 Pro Actives (£169.95).

Yamaha have a history of producing some classic monitors. Their NS10s are still widely regarded as the ultimate in monitoring with many engineers still saying that if you can get a mix sounding good on a set of NS10s, it will sound good anywhere! Yamaha have also produced some great budget monitors over the years and the HS50Ms are no exception at £198. However their best monitors at the budget end are, to my mind, the MSP3s (£189). I’ve sat in listening tests where these little wonders have beaten far more expensive monitors. In the very same listening tests the Fostex PM0.5 (£199) monitors also did quite well as did the Samson Resolv range including the 60a set (£199).
KRK also have a great reputation in certain quarters and their budget offerings are the Rokit RP5s (£240 per pair). Moving slightly up the scale price wise are the Alesis M1 Actives (£298 a pair) and updated and powered version of my first speakers! Yamaha are also well represented at this price point with the MSP5 monitors (£259).

The ‘just under £300’ a set area is quite a crowded one and you could do far worse than any of the following. Samson have a good set in the form of the Rubicon R5As. KRK’s Rokit RP6s are also well worth considering. Event are one company that seems to have come from nowhere in monitor land to suddenly get a lot of recommendations. Their TR6s (£299) have almost already reached classic status among those in the know.

Active monitors in the mid budget range

Paying more than £300 for a set of monitors might initially seem a lot but I really think you should consider it, especially when you can get such good quality monitors which produce such professional results. Genelec have possibly the best reputation of any monitoring company and their ‘budget’ model falls in this range. The 8020s (£359) are small but don’t let size put you off. They are great! Tannoy’s Reveal 6D (£369) are also a good buy as are Samson’s Rubicon R6As at a tenner more.

Stepping up a price gear and we reach the Event 20/20 Bas V2 (£520 a pair) which are my current monitors and a great price (I paid far more for mine goddamit!).

As we go up in price Quested enter the fray with the S6 Actives (£650 a set). Mackie have as many loyal fans as anyone when it comes to monitoring and many will stick by the HR624s (£599 a pair) although the more expensive 824s (£849) are more accurate and I know several people (including one magazine editor) who stand proudly by the 824s. Genelec’s 8030s (£594) also have a legion of fans although the company’s 1029a monitors (£599) are almost legendary in studio circles. Adam are also starting to gain many friends at this price point with the Adam A7s (£565). Dynaudio’s BM5As (£699) are also well worth considering here and JBL monitors tend to do well in tests and reviews and the LST4326s (£849.95) are the company’s representatives at this range.

Active monitors if you have no cash limit!

What’s that? You can pay more than a grand for a set of monitors? You must be joking right? Well, I’ve said it before and I will doubtless say it again, but computer musicians have it easy on the cash front these days. 10 years ago it cost me £10k to get a studio together, the equivalent of which can now be done on a computer and software set-up costing a grand, so maybe spending another grand on something decent to listen to your efforts is not such a bad idea…

Anyway Genelec are again well represented here with the 8040s (£1,109 a pair and also available in white!), the 8050s (£1,798) and 1031As (£1,850). Dynaudio have the BM6As (£1,049) while JBL weigh in with the Pro LSR range (£1,499 to £2,499).

What’s that? You have even more money to spend on speakers? Well, our good friends at Genelec will have it off you. For a mere £2,800 the 1032As certainly sound the part while at £3,220 the 1038As certainly should sound the part!

Desktop and surround monitoring – the 2.1 and 5.1 options

The computer music revolution has meant that there is a big market for desktop monitors i.e. ones that are small enough to sit next to your computer monitor on your desk. Now as I’ve hinted, those that you get bundled with your systems at purchase are usually rubbish, so some companies have developed 2.1 systems whereby you get two desktop speakers and a subwoofer to boost the lower regions. The desktop speakers can be small as they don’t have to worry about reproducing the bass end yet still sound good as this bass end is taken care of by the subwoofer. M-Audio’s LX4 2.1 system is £169 and one of the cheaper ones. Blue Sky’s Media Desk systems have had glowing reviews and start at £399.99 although finish at £1,350. These more expensive ones probably sound fantastic but, I have to say, that if you are in the market for a set of 2.1 speakers for space reasons only, you might want to think about buying a bigger desk rather than spending over a grand on a set!

5.1 systems are a whole new ball game and here you are entering the world of surround sound. Some say it’s the future of recording, others say it’s a cynical attempt to get us to buy more gear for listening to and producing music. Either way you can get speaker systems that include enough components to literally surround yourself in your music – just make sure your DAW can produce it in surround before you splash out on a set! Once again M-Audio start things off at the budget end with the LX4 5.1 system which, at just £294.99, is pretty incredible value considering the number of bits you get. If you are a semi-pro studio investing in surround mixes as a service you might want to spend a bit more and, of course, you can! Tannoy’s Reveal 6D set-up (£1,299) is going to sound pretty good although Genelec’s 6D 5.1/6.1 system probably has the edge and as it’s a 6.1 set-up you get an extra speaker thrown in for good measure. Mind you it is £2,300, but this time Genelec don’t have the most expensive system as Blue Sky’s System One 5.1 (£2,999) set has that rather dubious honour.

That’s it for monitoring. Next time I’ll be talking about some of the ways you can add extra power to your computer set-ups in the closing part of this now mammoth feature! Hurrah!

Next Step...

The Dolphin Music Beginners Guide To Computer Music by Andy Jones

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