What makes a studio monitor sound great?

Mark Knopfler with his SCM25

Mark Knopfler with his SCM25a

By Brad Lunde

What makes a studio monitor sound great? Does higher price always mean better sound?  What about the parts used in manufacturing?  Is it the company that made it or the design of the speaker?  Buying a great pair of speakers can be a difficult step when there are so many conflicting ideas about what constitutes better sound. So often people just go with a brand they think is supposed to be good, shove them in a room and hope for the best. Then, if they don’t sound right-well…then it’s just a mystery!

When I send a set of monitors out for a demo, I KNOW that it will go well if the room sounds good and bad if the room has some problems.  The user never realizes that the room’s sound is why the speakers don’t seem right; they are convinced its the speakers fault and they only need different speakers!  Better sound always means a better room and a speaker system is the combination of the speaker + the room together.

ATC300ASLs at Front Stage

ATC300ASLs at Front Stage

Professional recording studios spend a fortune on a proper design because rooms will never sound great unless you work at it.  For everyone stuck with an office space, a spare room at their house or make shift studio, there’s some work that has to be done. The room will impart a sound to everything inside it, from monitors and microphones to pianos and guitar amps.   A performance recorded in a bad room will never truly sound great, no matter how good the gear.  But, once you get the room sounding good, everything else seems to fall into place. More so than a lot of things, investing time and effort on the room itself will pay off in big way!

SM100Ak at Sphere

Sonodyne SM100Ak at Sphere

Some simple things to do are to start with the basics and listen carefully to your room.  Play back some full range audio and walk the perimeter. Stop in the corners, stand high and squat low.  Listen carefully how the room sounds differently in different spots. Knowing where the bad spots are can help you avoid placing any transducers (amps, speakers or microphones) there in the future.  Avoid hard parallel surfaces if at all possible, as your sound bounces between them like a ping pong ball.  Break that bounce up with acoustical panels covering one or both parallel walls.  Put a thick rug over a hard floor to stop the bounce between floor and ceiling.  If the bass is very boomy in spots and non existent in others, you probably need some bass traps, something you can build or order from an acoustic panel company. These will help to smooth out the low end response.  If your speakers are on the meter bridge, put them on stands above and behind the console – the console face is reflecting midrange back in your face and changing the way the speakers sound.  If your speakers are near side walls, put absorption panels at the first reflection points (the spot where the speaker sound first hits the wall) to improve the imaging and response of your speakers.  Also put absorption panels behind the speakers. You’d be amazed just how much acoustical energy exists back there.

One of the simplest solutions is to buy a complete room kit from a number of quality acoustics companies, such as  RPG, ATS or GIK.  They are a good investment and a step in the right direction. With a little TLC, you’ll be amazed how much better your monitors can sound!

-Brad Lunde