Your Home Studio - Setting Your Sound

  • 04/6/2016
  • JamPlay, LLC
As this series of articles expands, I’m hoping that your knowledge and especially your studio, as well. By now you should have a studio space setup, as well as an audio interface, software production suite, microphones and any necessary cables you need to make it all work!

It’s all starting to come together. There is however, one element still missing that is generally overlooked. That’s your speaker system. Although it’s true that your speakers have nothing to do with the sound you input into your machine, they have almost everything to do with the sound of your final recording production. Speakers take a snapshot of sound and recreate it in a manner that they are physically able and know how too. Just like any other item in this world where form follows function, or vis versa, trade-offs come with compromise. Small tiny computer speakers package well and don’t take up room. They also don’t project low and mid-range frequencies accurately, or in some cases at all. A Theater system may be large and powerful, but project too many low frequencies, muddying the rest of the sound.

In almost all cases, consumer level speaker systems “color” the sound in some manner.

You’ve all heard the claims. “Our speaker sounds crisper, ours sounds brighter.” In that lies the problem. Most off the shelf speaker system have built in a level of attenuation to their sound. The speaker is specifically designed to project a certain frequency over others to create the desired sound regardless of the final EQ on the system or that of the track itself.

Thus, the studio reference monitor is born.

They come in all shapes and sizes, even different colors. Some are small and meant for an intimate setting, some allow for true 7.1 surround mixing while others even have a self powered sub-woofer. What they all try to do however is to create a flat, unbiased sound projection. One that attempts to keep the sound you hear as true to it’s digital snapshot as if the computer where sending the signal directly to your brain.

Obviously, some monitor systems do this better than others. You can bet that for the most part, the more you spend, the better the monitors will be. Fear not however, there is many quality examples that can be had for less than the price of a consumer level theater entertainment system.

At this point, you’re probably asking yourself and me, why do I have to go purchase more for this studio already. I haven’t even recorded anything yet!

I can tell you right now, that although you should definitely be considering studio monitors, you can achieve a solid master recording with whatever speakers you choose to use. This is where “setting your sound” comes into play.

My first recordings, for example were done on a pair of Boston Acoustics computer speakers that came with a computer my family purchased back in 1995. At first, what sounded good on that pair of speakers, I quickly discovered mostly sounded muddy and dull everywhere else. It didn’t take me long to discover that my little computer speakers were over projecting some frequencies, while not projecting enough of others.

As with most other facets of life, knowledge is power! Once you know your speakers are doing something wrong, you can effectively work around the issue.

The first order of business is to make sure your computer system is not applying any un-needed equalization. Most computer sound cards have a control panel allowing this type of control. Make sure that while you’re working on your recordings that this option is either turned off, or set to “flat.”

You can certainly purchase frequency analyzers and analyze the audio from your speakers. However, it’s of my belief that the best weapon in your arsenal for combating a poor set of speakers, is to keep a selective library of other artist’s albums on hand.

Using your ears set your sound to match the master recordings of your favorite artists. Matching the output sound as closely as possible is a very effective way of “setting the sound” on any speaker system you’re using. In fact, it’s such an invaluable production tool that it’s advisable to do so even if you’re using the best studio monitors known to man!

It goes without saying that you should keep a collection that spans as many different sound styles as you would find yourself looking for. It also goes without saying that the library you keep for this purpose should be of the highest quality you can find. A bootleg from your favorite band’s concert is probably not your best choice.

As an example, my post-production comparison library consists of the following albums.

Hybrid – Wider Angle, BT – ESCM, Sting – Mercury Falling, Steely Dan – Gaucho, Black Eyed Peas – Elephunk and Canonball Adderley – Know What I Mean?

Not all of these albums are artists or even genres that I listen to often, or in some instances at all. However, based on the type of productions I’m involved in and the sounds I strive for, they represent a standard in audio production that lends itself best to my situation. Depending on what I’m producing, I will compare (on the same speaker system) my production against one or several of the albums I’ve listed above.

Starting with the next article in this series, we’re going to be starting a recording project that will demonstrate all facets of the recording and production process. From recording to a click track, all the way through drum sequencing, fillers, sweeteners and mixing and mastering techniques. We’re going to breakdown sound as it relates to a three dimensional stereo image. Once we’re done you’ll have at least one song or track with a professional polish to it. Ready for radio play, even if it never makes it there.

Over the next week, until my next installment, research your speaker system and take a look at some of the reference monitor offerings. My studio currently uses M-Audio LX4 satellites with the LX4 powered sub. Their frequency response is fairly flat with minimal loft above 10,000hz and little drop-off below 100hz.

These monitors although not at the low end of the price spectrum are a good entry-level monitory system that will allow growth for an expanding studio.

They are of course not the only monitors on the market. Use your favorite music shops to research monitors and if possible try and listen to a few sets before you buy. Also make sure that you have the necessary routing cables for your system. While your computer speakers may only use a 1/8” TRS input, most studio monitor systems will require the use of RCA, Coaxial, 1/4 ” TRS, or Optic inputs. The LX4 system for example has multiple inputs allowing for use of RCA and 1/4” TRS inputs. This allows me to send signal directly from my machine via an 1/8” TRS to RCA output, while also input monitoring from my M-Box via the 1/4” TRS inputs.

Having options is good, but not always necessary. You don’t want to sit down for a nice recording session to find out you’ve got the wrong input cables for your new monitors. It pays to do your research in advance!

I’ll leave you with that for this week. Until next week, happy recording!