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7 Mistakes To Avoid When Setting Up Studio Monitors
Joe Albano on Sun, August 9th 20 comments
Correctly setting up studio monitors is crucial to ensure your audio productions aren't awash with problems. In this enlightening read, Joe Albano discusses 7 things which can be avoided.

Choosing and setting up studio monitors is, of course, one of the most important aspects of designing a good recording/mixing space. Every decision made during the recording process—from mic placement to final mix tweaks—is based on what’s heard in those monitors, and while headphones can provide a helpful reference, the sound from the speakers is usually what’s relied upon for the critical choices made throughout the process.

There are plenty of suitable—even excellent—studio monitors out there, at all sizes and price points, but setup is just as critical as choosing a good pair. A flawed or problematic setup—even with good speakers—can get in the way of achieving the best recordings and mixes. Here are 6 suggestions—things to avoid—to get the best results.

1. Avoid the Hype

Consumer speakers are often designed to make everything played through them sound as good as possible. However, this is not the goal for studio monitors. The purpose of monitoring is not to promote a consistently enjoyable listening experience, but to reveal the truth about the sound of the recording or mix—good, bad, or ugly, what you hear through the monitors must reveal not only what sounds good, but more importantly, what’s wrong, and what needs to be fixed.

The sound of many consumer speakers is often “hyped”—this usually means that the bass and/or the treble (and maybe presence) frequencies are accentuated, for a punchier, brighter, more “in-your-face” tonal balance. This can give music a more exciting quality, but it’s not what the mix actually sounds like. If you make key decisions about level balance and EQ based on a pair of hyped-up speakers, that mix may sound good right there in that room, but it won’t sound like that anywhere else—in fact, it’ll likely sound lacking on other, less-hyped playback systems.

Fortunately, most speakers sold as studio monitors shoot for a (more desirable) neutral balance, capable of providing a proper reference for decision making. Yet I still sometimes come across people who apply their own “hype” to their monitors, via amp/preamp tone controls, or by cranking the bass and treble adjustments provided on the back of many powered speakers.

Fig 1 Low-and High-Frequency adjustments on the rear panel of a studio monitor.

Fig 1 Low-and High-Frequency adjustments on the rear panel of a studio monitor.

But these controls are there not to add thump and sizzle, they’re intended to be used subtly, if at all, to compensate for speaker placement (see below), or for a particularly dead, or an overly bright, splashy room. Usually, if that’s the case, a dB here or there is probably all the adjustment you’ll need, and cutting bass or treble may be more effective than boosting.

2. Avoid the Walls

Most people have noticed that when a speaker of any size is placed against a wall, it’ll deliver stronger bass response. This can be a strong temptation to use this acoustic phenomenon (a function of standing waves) to provide some additional heft, especially from smaller (less than 8”) woofers. But this room-enhanced bass will have an uneven frequency balance, and can trip you up when making critical decisions about low-end EQ, and the balance of key mix elements like kick drum and bass guitar. Many, if not most, monitors are designed to deliver the smoothest low-end response when placed at least a foot or two from the nearest room boundary (wall, floor, or ceiling), and while this free-standing placement, without reinforcement from room boundaries, won’t deliver as much thump, the bass that is present will be a more correct indication of the low-frequency energy that’s actually present in the recording, which is extremely important. One of the most common flaws of small- or home-studio mixes is either too much or too little low end, or uneven bass, caused by EQing to compensate for irregularities that are unique only to the room and monitors in use during mixing.

Fig 2 Free-standing placement (L) vs wall-placement (R) of studio monitors.

Fig 2 Free-standing placement (L) vs wall-placement (R) of studio monitors.

Most monitors come with a recommendation for placement, and many include adjustable low-end response, to match the speakers to the placement—“full space” for the (preferred) free-standing placement, “half-space”, for wall placement, and sometimes even “quarter-space”, for corner placement (though I’d avoid that!).

Fig 3 Rear-panel speaker controls for different speaker placements.

Fig 3 Rear-panel speaker controls for different speaker placements.

But these bass controls won’t increase the low end over what the speaker can deliver in full-space, free-standing position—they’re designed to reduce the excessive, uneven bass that would result from placement near a room boundary. If you really feel you need more low end than your speakers provide, don’t try to coax it out of a smaller pair of monitors by using the room—instead, either trade up to a larger woofer size (8” or more), or add a subwoofer (see below).

3. Avoid Asymmetry

Even if you avoid backing the monitors up against the wall, reflections from room boundaries will still affect the sound. Ideally, you’ll want to position the speakers symmetrically—that is, equidistant from the walls to the left and right of the primary listening position—the “sweet spot”. So, if the left speaker is 3 feet from the left wall, you’ll want the right speaker to be 3 feet from the right wall.

Fig 4 Stereo monitors symmetrically positioned between side walls.

Fig 4 Stereo monitors symmetrically positioned between side walls.

That way, any effects from reflections should be similar—balanced—at the sweet spot. If one speaker is closer to the nearest side wall than the other, you may be misled into reducing the level or ambience of mix elements panned to that side, or your panning placement may be skewed to one side, making the mix sound off-centered when heard on other systems, or in headphones.

4. Avoid Poor Angles

Positioning the monitors either too close together or too far apart can mess up your stereo panning decisions. Speakers that are too widely spaced may provide a stereo image with a hole-in-the-middle. This can cause you to bunch too many mix elements near the center, resulting in a mix that doesn’t effectively use the stereo sound field. Conversely, speakers that are placed too close together may lead you to overly wide panning choices—when the resulting mix is heard on other systems, mix elements may be bunched together in the left and right speakers and the center, with gaps between, sounding like one of those old mono 60s mixes that was turned into fake stereo—again, not properly making use of the stereo sound field.

The ideal angle for stereo monitors is ~ 60° (between speakers, or ~ 30° between each speaker and the “sweet spot”).

Fig 5 Stereo monitors positioned at a 60° angle.

Fig 5 Stereo monitors positioned at a 60° angle.

If you’re using nearfield monitors, a typical setup would have the speakers around 3 feet from the listener, and 3 feet from each other—this not only maintains the optimal angle for stereo, but minimizes the effect of mid- and high-frequency room reflections.

5. Avoid Reflections

You don’t want your listening environment to be completely free of (mid/high-frequency) reflections—that would be an unnaturally dead-sounding room for working on music. But you do want to avoid strong, short reflections, that may produce excessive comb-filtering (tonal irregularities due to wave interference), which can muddy up the sound, for example, making it hard to tell exactly how much “room tone” is in the recording itself, and how much ambience and effects to add. Weaker, longer reflections—like from the back of the room—can provide enough overall ambience to make for a comfortable listening environment without too much interference. What you’ll want to avoid is having the speakers pump sound at strongly reflective surfaces in the front, that will reflect too much back to the listening position. These could be tall equipment racks off to the side, near the monitors, or flatscreens that are in the path of the speakers’ direct sound wave. The console itself (or tabletop, in smaller rigs)—right in front of the listener, between the monitors and sweet spot—can be a significant source of these undesirable strong, strong reflections.

While you may not be able to completely avoid all such reflections (as attempted with certain high-end studio designs), you can try to minimize them. Avoid placing reflective elements at ear/speaker height in-between speakers and listener. Many speakers have a narrower dispersion in the vertical plane—if you position them at ear level, with their tweeters directly aimed at the listener’s ears, you may avoid having a lot of sound reflect off the console/desktop, making for a cleaner monitoring environment.

Fig 6 (Top) Potentially problematic reflections off the console/desktop; (Bottom) Reflections avoided by proper angling & narrow vertical dispersion.

Fig 6 (Top) Potentially problematic reflections off the console/desktop; (Bottom) Reflections avoided by proper angling & narrow vertical dispersion.

6. Avoid Excessive Levels

There are a number of reasons why consistently monitoring at too loud a level is not a good idea. There’s the obvious long-term danger to your hearing. And “ear fatigue” will set in sooner at louder levels, which will likely result in questionable mixing/EQ choices.

Many people are familiar with the Fletcher-Munson curves, which describe an aspect of human hearing.

Fig 7 Fletcher-Munson curves show the EQ needed to compensate for the ear’s varying sensitivity to high & low frequencies at different SPLs.

Fig 7 Fletcher-Munson curves show the EQ needed to compensate for the ear’s varying sensitivity to high & low frequencies at different SPLs.

Our ears are more sensitive to high end and, especially, to low end, at higher listening levels—in other words, we hear a little more treble and a lot more bass when the music is cranked up! But while this may make for an exciting, enjoyable listening experience, if you consistently monitor at such loud levels (above 90 dBspl), your decisions about how to set the level of bass in the mix will only be valid at those loud listening levels. People who play your mixes at lower levels will perceive a lack of bass, resulting in exactly the opposite of what you heard—much weaker bass, and a thin, sometimes screechy, mix.

Most engineers recommend working/mixing at consistent average levels of around 83–85 dBspl (you can measure this with an SPL-Meter apps for your smart phone), occasionally checking the mix at both higher and lower SPLs, finding an overall balance/EQ that works well at all monitoring levels.

7. Avoid too Much Sub

One more extra suggestion.. If you feel you need more low-end from a smaller (≤ 6”) pair of monitors, you can add a subwoofer to the setup. But be careful to balance the output of the sub to the monitors. The sub shouldn’t be used to “crank up the bass”—instead, it should be employed to extend the bass to lower frequencies, below what the main speakers can handle. Typically, this means the sub will provide frequencies below 80 Hz or so, adding up to an octave to the frequency response of your average small monitor.

Fig 8 A properly-calibrated subwoofer doesn’t boost or enhance low-frequency response, but extends it.

Fig 8 A properly-calibrated subwoofer doesn’t boost or enhance low-frequency response, but extends it.

When setting up the sub, whenever possible use an SPL meter and test signals (tones/noise) to dial up a a sub level that matches the level of the lowest frequencies of the main speakers (an octave or two higher), insuring as even (flat) a response as possible all the way down to the limits of the sub’s response. While it’s tempting to crack the sub a little, for the excitement factor, your mixes will benefit more in the long run from a well-calibrated subwoofer. Ideally, you shouldn’t even realize it’s operating, until you switch it off—if its contribution is obvious, then it’s probably too loud, and, as described earlier, this can lead to mixes lacking in bass energy when heard on other systems.

And that’s all for now. Hopefully, these suggestions will prove helpful for anyone who’s looking to get the best results from their studio monitors..

Do you want to learn more about acoustics? Watch this excellent video course by Joe Albano HERE.

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Comments (20)

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  • Kirehuo
    Great article. Thanks!
    • 4 years ago
    • By: Kirehuo
    Reply
  • Joe A
    I'm glad it was helpful! :-)
    • 4 years ago
    • By: Joe A
    Reply
  • Koolmeme
    Hey Joe ... great article! Two questions on point 7 ... background first ... SPL'd my 2.1 setup using a couple different methods/mics and found (not unexpectedly) that the further I went below the sub crossover frequency (120HZ) the greater the "pump" it provided relative to the 5" satellites as I toggled the sub on/off. So I chose to equalize the setup dBs at that crossover point. Questions: 1) At what frequency should I attempt to "match" the dBs between the sub on/off states? 2) What criteria should be considered when setting a crossover frequency for a 2.1 setup that has a variable crossover setting? Room? Genre? Mixing vs Mastering vs ... etc. Pre-thanks for your feedback!
    • 4 years ago
    • By: Koolmeme
    Reply
  • Koolmeme
    Oh, and Joe, to clarify, I am using a sub/satellite 2.1 set that splits the signal at the crossover point, i.e., the audio signal goes directly into the sub, the satellite signal is routed via the sub. They receive everything above the point, the sub everything below. Unless the sub is bypassed.
    • 4 years ago
    • By: Koolmeme
    Reply
  • Joe A
    Hi Koolmeme.. Re (1), sounds like your approach—match sub to satellites at the crossover point—is solid.. Ideally, you want the sub to pick up seamlessly from the satellites at a point where the smaller speakers are still more or less flat, just before or just as they start to roll off.. As to what the best crossover frequency will be (2), I'd say if you want the most neutral response (always the goal!), then it'll depend more on the size and low-frequency extension of the satellites than on genre or application.. I'd say 120 Hz is near the top of the range—I prefer around 80 Hz or so, but if the satellites are on the smaller side (
    • 4 years ago
    • By: Joe A
    Reply
  • Joe A
    Repost - the first post cut off the end of the text.. Hi Koolmeme.. Re (1), sounds like your approach—match sub to satellites at the crossover point—is solid.. Ideally, you want the sub to pick up seamlessly from the satellites at a point where the smaller speakers are still more or less flat, just before or just as they start to roll off.. As to what the best crossover frequency will be (2), I'd say if you want the most neutral response (always the goal!), then it'll depend more on the size and low-frequency extension of the satellites than on genre or application.. I'd say 120 Hz is near the top of the range—I prefer around 80 Hz or so, but if the satellites are on the smaller side (
    • 4 years ago
    • By: Joe A
    Reply
  • Koolmeme
    Thanks for your response. Went back and found these 5" satellites start rolling off at 100Hz. So I moved the crossover just a touch above that, down from the original 120Hz. Then re-matched sub on/off dBs at that level. Seems good for my setup with those satellites. Did a fresh ARC 2 correction and it improved the lower end of the clean signal. Much less correction required.
    • 4 years ago
    • By: Koolmeme
    Reply
  • Joe A
    Great! Sounds like now you've got the sub as well-optimized—as well-matched to the satellites—as possible, for the most neutral response. Hopefully this'll make for an even more trustworthy monitoring environment, at least as far as the low end.. :-)
    • 4 years ago
    • By: Joe A
    Reply
  • Allan
    Hi Joe, thank you very much for this article. It's very useful and it really helped me set up my studio speakers. A couple of weeks ago, I bought a set of KRK Rokit 5 monitoring speakers since many review sites (this was what made me decide on it http://studio-speakers.com/bestmonitoringspeakersreview/) said they're the best in their price range and I could only afford cheaper ones. These studio monitors sounded awful at first but after reading this article and following the suggestions it finally sounds better now. However, the bass still sounds a bit too much, do you have any suggestions on how to fix it? Thanks!
    • 3 years ago
    • By: Allan
    Reply
  • Joe A
    Hi Allan - I think the most likely way a 5" speaker would exhibit too much bass is if it's up against a room boundary (wall, floor, or worst of all, corner). If that's the case, that'd be the first thing I'd try, moving them a couple of feet away from walls and floor. If they were sitting on a resonant object (something hollow, for example) that could also over-emphasize bass. Of course you'll want to check that no tone controls are boosting the low end unintentionally. Any "Loudness" buttons should be off -- those are intended to compensate for quiet listening levels by strongly boosting bass, but they're notorious for overdoing it, and they should never be switched on for normal-level monitoring. And I assume you've checked the monitors with various commercial recordings as well as your own mixes. Hopefully one of these might be a contributing factor to an overly-bassy response, and addressing that will restore a more even balance. Cheers, Joe
    • 3 years ago
    • By: Joe A
  • daslicht
    The triangle is actually less optimal, it should and 'behind' the head not in front of, no ?
    • 3 years ago
    • By: daslicht
    Reply
  • Joe A
    Yes, ideally the sweet spot point of the triangle would be at the back of the head -- if the image was an actual floorplan/diagram the little guy would be sitting a little closer (and the angle would be closer to the 60° specified).. :-) Of course, the equilateral triangle and 60° angle is an ideal reference point-- as long as the listening angle is not too much wider or narrower, the stereo image should be fine for mixing. Cheers, Joe
    • 3 years ago
    • By: Joe A
  • Untouchable_888
    Hi. Thanks for writing this great article! I don't understand the Fig. 6 diagram/image. I don't see how the monitors are positioned differently to do away with those reflections shown in the top portion of the image? I also like how in your diagrams, there is no computer shown. How great!
    • 3 years ago
    • By: Untouchable_888
    Reply
  • Joe A
    Hi.. You're right, you can't tell from the picture.. Many monitors have different dispersion characteristics in the horizontal and vertical planes -- so a particular model might have wide horizontal dispersion to allow for a more inclusive listening area, but narrower vertical dispersion to avoid reflections, as pictured. It's important to be familiar with the speaker's horizontal/vertical dispersion when placing them -- if they're meant to be positioned vertically, and you lay them on the sides (as many people do with console-top monitors), you may unintentionally narrow the listening area, and inadvertently cause more reflections off the console or table surface, as shown in the top picture. Some monitors -- if they have different horizontal/vertical dispersion patterns -- even provide an option to unscrew the tweeters and rotate them 90°, to allow for either horizontal or vertical positioning with the appropriate dispersion characteristics at the critical higher frequencies. Cheers, Joe
    • 3 years ago
    • By: Joe A
  • Noobie
    i used audio interface to record on fl studio 12.5 but my voice volume so low to hear and the music i cant even heard my music Its my first time to record with Audio Interface and i still dobt know how to solve that problem im the real noobie
    • 2 years ago
    • By: Noobie
    Reply
  • Joe A
    It sounds like you need to increase the input volume for your vocal mic. On the interface there should be a knob labelled Trim or Gain next to the mic input you're using. With the channel strip in record-ready mode (red light flashing) turn this up until the meter in that channel maxes out at around -6 dB and then record -- that should be plenty of level for your vocal. In playback the levels for the various channels should be set so that the level in the meter in the Master channel strip also tops out at around -6 to -3 dB (from the top). Then simply crank the listening level on your amp/speakers for a suitable monitoring level.
    • 2 years ago
    • By: Joe A
  • Pefiniu
    This whole 60' angle thing is hogwash. That's what is recommended for ideal rooms - basically an anechoic chamber. Is your studio an anechoic chamber? Yeah, mine neither. The reality is that every space will have it's own unique modes, and you need to *EXPERIMENT* with your speaker placement to get it right. You can't just apply some theoretically ideal angle and get it right. And no, having your speakers too close won't mess with your stereo field... does that happen for you with headphones?
    • 1 year ago
    • By: Pefiniu
    Reply
  • Joe A
    Hmm... First off, an anechoic chamber is not an "ideal room" -- at least not for listening to or mixing music.. And the 60° angle recommendation is not about room modes, it's about perception of the stereo soundfield. > You can't just apply some theoretically ideal angle and get it right.. Whatever "get it right" means, the article doesn't suggest that a 60° angle is a panacea for any of the myriad issues that may relate to reflections or room modes -- it's a standard recommendation intended as a general guideline for novice engineers who might be inclined to position the monitors in a less-than-ideal layout that might not work as well for them. > ..having your speakers too close won't mess with your stereo field... Again, the article doesn't suggest that closely-placed monitors will "mess with your stereo field" -- it suggests that it could mess with an inexperienced mixer's panning decisions. (Overly-wide positioning *can* affect the perceived stereo image, unless you sit really still while mixing).. > ..does that happen for you with headphones? If "that" means affect panning decisions, then yes, it certainly can with inexperienced mixers. It sounds like you may have your speakers positioned differently than the article recommends (and perhaps are sensitive about perceived criticism of that choice?) -- if that’s the case, and it works for you, then it’s all good. But the standard 60° angle recommendation is still good advice for others. Cheers, Joe
    • 1 year ago
    • By: Joe A
  • Have a question. I have a home studio with Pressonus front port loaded monitors do I still need to keep off the wall behind the speakers?
    • 1 year ago
    • By:
    Reply
  • Joe A
    Hi Pjay999 - Regardless of the speaker design or port location, the speakers are still subject to the effects of room modes if mounted up against a wall. If they have a switch on the back to match their low-end response for different placements, the half-space position would theoretically modify the bass response to be more suitable for wall placement, but you should still get more even bass response with such a switch in the full-space mode, and the speakers mounted a couple of feet or so from any room boundaries. Cheers, Joe
    • 1 year ago
    • By: Joe A
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