How to buy speakers
If asked the question “What is the most important piece of equipment in your studio?”, what is the first thing you normally think of? For most people it’s their favourite instrument, or their expensive mixbus compressor, and that’s fair enough. These are the expensive items which take a long time to save up for and are the shiny source of joy in pride of place in your studio. However, if your answer wasn’t “my speakers” then I’m afraid your answer was wrong.
Your monitors (aka speakers) are both the most important item in your studio and the bit of gear that you use the most (with the possible exception of your chair – but that’s another topic). You can’t really be sure how glorious the tone on your beloved sunburst Les Paul is, nor how fat (/phat) that bassline from your Moog Sub37 is unless you can hear them accurately. Equally, if your monitors aren’t up to scratch then dialling in the perfect amount of punch on your expensive mixbus compressor will be more down to luck than judgement.
So how do we go about choosing our perfect monitors? Here are four steps:
Remember that we are talking about the single most important bit of gear in your studio, and then budget accordingly. Push the boat out. Think big. All those phrases. I’m big fan of a bargain, but cheap speakers are a false economy. There’s not much I find more frustrating in this world than seeing someone jamming on their £10k-worth of modular synth whilst listening on £200 speakers. “YOUR MODULAR MAKES MIND-BENDING SOUNDS BUT YOU’LL NEVER HEAR THEM ON THOSE THINGS!” (That’s me, shouting at YouTube).
• Try before you buy.
As this is going to be one of your biggest purchases, you need to make sure that you get it right. The second-hand market is a minefield that I would avoid as it’s easy to trash a pair of monitors by listening too loud for too long. If you’re buying second-hand then you don’t know if the previous owner has been careful or not – unless you buy from someone that you know well and you’re familiar with how that person works (and at what volume). So, you’re unfortunately better off buying new (and again, I’m saying that as someone who loves a bargain). Here’s the best way to go about it: Find the biggest music equipment store that you can get to and give them a call. Tell them that you want to buy a pair of monitors and also what your budget is. If you have a couple of pairs (or brands) that you’re interested in, then ask to try them and whatever else the store suggests. Any decent store will have a way to set up a few different pairs of monitors which a customer can switch between. Get an appointment booked in and bring along a few reference tracks – both something you’ve been working on that you really know and a favourite album that you’ve listened to a million times. Then all you have to do is pick the pair that give you the most information. Importantly, this isn’t the pair that sounds the most exciting (possibly too much bass or treble), but the pair that tells you something about your mix / favourite record that you didn’t know before. Those monitors are golden.
• We need to talk about NS10s.
These are those classic, white-coned, Yamaha studio speakers that we’ve all seen in every studio photo ever taken. They don’t make them anymore and although you can find the originals second-hand there are new versions of them available. I love them. Some people hate them. Here is why: NS10s give you loads of mid-range. This is why they are accused of being ‘harsh’ or ‘hard’, or worse adjectives… But, in all that mid-range are the vocals, the snare, most of your electric guitars, saxophones, violins, etc. So, what you get to do with NS10s is work in detail with all those really important lead instruments. If you use NS10s for what they are good at then they are amazing, but there’s way too much hype and mis-information about them. I’ve used them for years and so they work well for me when I’m doing detailed work in the mid-frequencies. For all other work I use a different pair of monitors or headphones. Which brings me neatly to…
There is a bit of debate over the use of headphones in mixing too, but I’m a big fan. I won’t get into it here, but it seems to me to be an argument against mixing only with headphones which I’d agree is not ideal. However, headphones have one thing going for them that no speakers in the world can offer: room acoustics have no effect on their sound. This can be invaluable if your studio isn’t professionally treated, and it also works when you are on the move. I prefer open-backed headphones as they sound more natural to me, and because I have a quiet studio I don’t need the sound-proofing of closed-backed headphones.
In terms of buying headphones, please see points 1 & 2 above.
So hopefully now you are armed with a bit more information about what to look for in monitors. The better you can hear your mix, then the better your mix will be. And if you ever find yourself stuck on a mix then remember to take advantage of a Platinum or Gold package and I’ll give you a helping hand (ear).