The Questions You Need To Ask Yourself When Upgrading Monitors
When upgrading your monitors or outfitting a new control room for the first time, there are some questions you should be asking yourself before you start the process. Depending on what your answers are to each question below, here's a bit of guidance from Vintage King's Ryan McGuire that may help you make the best monitor choice for your space.
What is the volume of my room? (H'XW'XD')
VOLUME! Not like the "WHAT!? I can't hear you man!?" type volume, but rather "how big is your room?" Most control rooms tend to be in the range of 1400 cu.ft. to 3000 cu.ft. and if you are within that range or larger then your options for fitting an appropriate monitor within the space will be wide. Those of us working in spaces below 1400 cu.ft. will want to take special consideration as to the size and low-frequency extension of the monitors we are choosing. Low-frequency sound waves in the 20-45hz region have very long wavelengths and developing those frequencies properly in a space this small has its problems. You also tend to have more issues with low frequency standing waves and their harmonics causing build up further into the audible spectrum in a small room, which is what can cause a muddy and indistinct sound. As a result of all this, sometimes the solution for a smaller control room is a smaller monitor with less energy in the 20-45hz region. Examples of models in this vein are ProAc 100s, PMC's Two.Two series, ATC SCM20ASL, Barefoot Sound MM45s, Focal CMS series, Yamaha HS8, Amphion One18 and One15, and Neumann KH120.
How important is low-frequency response for the type of music I work with?
Booty Bass! Do you need it? Some folks need it more than others. If you are working primarily on hip-hop or EDM then no doubt you are going to want some hefty low-end extension down to 30hz or below in order to hear those 808's. Working on classic rock in the vein of AC/DC? Well, then you probably don't need to hear much below 50hz! Let this decision along with your room volume and acoustic design help dictate your monitor choice. If you need a lot of low-end, plan to make your control room large enough to accommodate all of that energy and budget more for your monitors appropriately as you'll need a larger system like the Barefoot Sound MM26s, MM27s, MM12s, ATC SCM150ASLs, Focal SM9s, Neumann O-410 or PMC IB1S-AIII If you don't need all of that low end, then make sure you are maximizing the quality of a smaller monitor pair with superior midrange resolution and accuracy; those better translation characteristics will pay large dividends in the future.
Are there any limitations in my room that will dictate where I can place the monitors and the mix position?
Monitor placement as well as where the mix position is placed within the room have major influence on the accuracy your system will have. The goal is for your monitors to respond as flatly as possible at the mix position and this is no small feat; most rooms natively have a frequency response that looks akin to the Rocky Mountains. Keep in mind that placing your monitors very close to the front wall will increase the low-frequency response of the system at the mix position, through a phenomenon called the "boundary effect." With a larger monitor this is generally a bad idea; you'll likely have a muddy and overblow sounding low end. If you have a very small monitor, this can be used judiciously to support and extend your low-frequency response, but be careful not to overdo it. In most cases you want your monitors at least a few feet off of the front wall to minimize this effect.
In regards to mix position, a general starting point for most control rooms is to place the mix position at 33% of the entire length of the room, referencing from the front wall. So in a 20' long control room, start at 6.6' from the front wall. Place your monitors a uniform distance from each other and from your head such that all three dimensions form a unilateral triangle from your head and the spacing between the monitors. If you have access to real-time frequency analysis then it's a good idea to measure pink noise at the mix position and tweak the positioning until you minimize any anomalies in the response. If you don't then reference a song that you know inside and out and listen critically for any notes, especially in the low end, that may be sticking out or missing altogether. Tweak the positioning until the song sounds as balanced in the low-frequency range as possible.
Do I have sufficient acoustic treatment in my room to ensure my monitor investment is being fully leveraged?
Acoustic treatment doesn't have to be the daunting, complex, and expensive endeavor that it may seem at first. In most project studios that don't have the budget to hire a professional acoustician to consult and custom specify their treatments, broadband absorption is the name of the game. In general, getting into tuned traps is best left to the realm of the professionals since it's likely to do more harm than good if not done right.
The good news is that there are plenty of quality and cost effective off the shelf solutions available today that were not available 10 years ago. Check out some of the room kits and broadband absorption products by Primacoustics, Auralex, Real Traps and Vicoustic. We recommend staying away from any foam based product as the density of the foam tends not to be high enough to properly attenuate low frequencies, which can cause the room to sound "boxy." Absorbers based on compressed fiberglass, mineral wool, or other similar alternatives are more effective and have the density and mass to absorb low frequencies effectively and create a balanced sounding space.