Do I really need studio monitors for making home recordings?
August 9, 2018 6:38 PM   Subscribe

Do I really need studio monitors for making home recordings? Or could I just use high-quality computer speakers?

I've been recording for a few years and as I was first setting up, I dutifully bought a pair of M-Audio BX5 monitors.

Truthfully, though, I do all my playback and mixing while wearing nice quality monitoring headphones. I have never really gotten the hang of listening via monitors. I know there are important sonic considerations which are made clearer with monitors. But I have failed to really grasp what they are and am pretty non-technical, unfortunately.

On that note, for my last 2 albums I've enlisted outside help with final mixing/mastering which means that person does all the heavy lifting in terms of getting consistency and a good dynamic profile of the music, testing with monitors, etc.

So...if I'm not really capable of making use of the M-Audios, are there comparable speakers you can recommend that would sound exactly like what I'm hearing my headphones?
posted by critzer to Media & Arts (10 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
Good monitors will reveal detail that cheaper speakers and headphones won't. You use them to spot problems in both individually recorded tracks and the mix so that you get the best possible understanding of what they sound like. But they cost significantly more than the M-Audios.

The way things sound with speakers is different than with headphones, so it's helpful to listen with both during recording and mixing.
posted by Candleman at 6:54 PM on August 9 [4 favorites]

Good studio monitors have the lows, mids and the high end balanced so that you can mix the song properly. You have more of a chance of getting a mix that reflects what you actually want to record. Computer speakers tend to be small, with tinny sound, and unbalanced. Even the good ones. I had a pair of Bose computer speakers many years ago that were very heavy on the low end. You'd barely hear the high end and the bottom would be going boom, boom, boom through the floor. Not optimal for mixing.

Studio monitors tend to be bigger, which also improves sound quality.

Also, nthing Candleman on headphones. You need them but you also need to be able to hear what you are recording with bare ears.

Fostex makes great studio monitors - and as a bonus, they make great speakers just for watching Netflix or whatever, too.
posted by Crystal Fox at 7:45 PM on August 9 [1 favorite]

I'm not a recording professional of any kind, much less a sound engineer. But, I spent some time in my youth doing technical grunt work (soldering cables) in a couple very well respected recording studios. They always had several different sets of speakers, including some really crappy low-end consumer ones and mid-range home stereo stuff available on the switch. Assuming half of your listening audience will hear your tracks with the earbuds that came with their phone while riding the train, diversity may be more informative than putting the best possible speakers in exactly the right place.
posted by eotvos at 7:52 PM on August 9 [5 favorites]

Eh, the contrarian point of view is that nobody listens to your stuff on nice monitors or high quality headphones.

So who cares. Listen to your mix on Apple earbuds, a car stereo from 2010, a $30 Amazon Bluetooth speaker, and maybe a TV.

You don’t tell us anything about your scope, goals, genre or audience. So it’s hard to say, but unless you are targeting rich audiophiles, you don’t necessarily need to shell out for high end studio monitors.
posted by SaltySalticid at 7:53 PM on August 9 [3 favorites]

They should be on your list of stuff to eventually get, because yes, they’re good for mixing. But not at the top of the list. Good microphones, a good preamp, etc. are more important. And a pair of good flat studio headphones that can be used for mixing, like AKG K240. Learn how mixes sound after they’ve been mixed on what you have. That takes some time. You’ll have to do it with monitors just like you do with headphones. Yeah, get monitors eventually. But not until after you have the other stuff, because they’re not essential for home recording. And don’t use computer speakers because they color the sound and will make that headphone mix harder to get.

(I’m a part time professional songwriter producer player with a home studio setup but leave the heavy mixing and mastering lifting to my partners with the big studio and the crazy monitors and preamps.)
posted by The World Famous at 8:41 PM on August 9 [2 favorites]

Eh, the contrarian point of view is that nobody listens to your stuff on nice monitors or high quality headphones.

This is really missing the point. A good listening setup will allow you to make mixes that sound good everywhere. It doesn't quite work the same way the other way around because crappy speakers are crappy in different ways (though some engineers do like to use certain crappy speakers as part of their process).

The issue that does come up as soon as you shell out for nice speakers - this one is from experience - is realizing that the acoustic properties of your room are equally important. If you really want to do it right you're likely going to end up going down that rabbit hole/money pit too - at least buying some panels for the walls or something.

Because of that issue I actually *am* a fan of mixing on headphones. Old-school audio people don't like it, you'll probably never get a response that's as flat as quality monitors, and it's definitely tricky to translate stereo image - but a good pair of open-back headphones can definitely be used to mix if you're familiar with it, and avoids the room issue altogether.

(there's also software that's supposed to apply an EQ curve to compensate for the quirks of your particular set of headphones - can't vouch for that personally though)
posted by atoxyl at 9:52 PM on August 9 [3 favorites]

If anything I find the issue with headphones is that you can hear details that you won't hear with speakers (when you probably want to know which details are actually making it to the foreground).
posted by atoxyl at 9:57 PM on August 9

It sounds like your workflow is fine if it works for you and someone else is tweaking the mix and mastering. But the difference between headphones and speakers isn't merely frequency response, it's a whole different environment, so I don't think you'll ever find speakers that sound exactly like your headphones.

You might make a perfectly good steak on the stove, but it will never be exactly the same as if it were barbecued.
posted by under_petticoat_rule at 1:39 AM on August 10

You certainly can work exclusively with headphones - it's your music, it's up to you how you work. Personally I work almost entirely with headphones when I'm writing music, and many famous producers are the same - I recall reading that DJ Shadow produced Entroducing like this for instance.

That said, I think you really need to distinguish the writing stage from mixing (and mastering if you master you own work). This is especially true if you're writing EDM or other dance music. It's at this point that you really need the full range dynamic that you can only get with a real monitor - as mentioned, it's not just frequency response, it's also really difficult to assess how bass can feel, how it will fill a room, what the full range stereo soundstage is like, and so on, with just headphones.

I find swapping to monitors later in the process works really well - initially you can focus on the composition itself without being wowwed by the huge room filling bass, and then concentrate on working to make the sound bigger and balanced via monitors once you know you have a solid compositional foundation.
posted by iivix at 4:40 AM on August 10

If anything I find the issue with headphones is that you can hear details that you won't hear with speakers (when you probably want to know which details are actually making it to the foreground).

Right, but one of the problems with headphones is kind of an opposite problem: the proximity of the drivers to your ears changes how fatigue sets in, both at the ends of the frequency spectrum and with sharp impulses/attacks. IME, headphone mixes tend to be bass- and hihat-heavy with a muddy middle.
posted by rhizome at 4:32 PM on August 10 [3 favorites]

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