One of the things that most home studio musicians/composers/producers/etc get wrong is their monitoring chain. What do I mean by monitoring chain? Your monitoring chain is every piece of equipment between your recorded or played-back sounds and your ears so that would include:
DAC (digital-to-analog converter…often times a part of the interface)
The monitoring chain is arguably (although not many people will argue) THE most important piece in your entire recording chain. Why? Because you can’t fix what you can’t hear. If you don’t have a good monitoring chain, you’re not going to be able to properly hear what’s going on in your mixes or with your instruments and you will not be able to adjust or correct them. It’s like shooting in the dark.
What happens is that you can’t hear what’s really going on (even if you think you can) and make decisions based on that. You start making poor decisions that might sound ok on your system, but it won’t translate to other systems. In other words, it will only sound good on your system, but as soon as you play it on something else, it sounds out of whack. The only way to solve this is to have a monitoring chain that is accurate. If you have an accurate monitoring chain then you are hearing what is really going on. You can mix and make decisions and know that they will sound good across the board.
How do you get an accurate monitoring chain? In my opinion here’s the order of things to get:
1. Accurate Monitors. It seems these days that so many manufacturers are slapping the word “Studio Monitor” onto speakers and sucking people into thinking they are accurate or good to work with in the studio. That just is not true. So many speakers out there are setup to flatter music and make it sound good. This is the exact opposite of what you want in studio monitors. You want something that is honest and will make your music sound bad if it is or sound good if that’s the case. You want monitors that reveal all the problems in a mix so that you can fix them.
The problem here is that to get into something decent, you have to spend around $1000. That’s more money than most people have to spend (myself included at the moment). So what can you do? Try out as money monitors in your price range as you can and find the “best” ones to your ears. Find some that don’t sound boosted in the highs or lows or have the mids sucked out of them. Find something that has detail and you can hear some depth to. Find something with a good stereo image.
Whatever you choose, you are going to have to “learn” those monitors as they are still not going to be completely honest to you. This means comparing your mixes on a number of other different systems like your car, your headphones, your home stereo or anything else you can find. You’ll quickly learn what works and what doesn’t on your monitors and learn to adjust for those things.
2. Room Treatment. I cannot stress this point enough and would have placed it at #1 except you do need something to playback music or else the room treatment won’t be helpful. Nevertheless, room treatment is so critical to proper monitoring because a room wreaks absolute havoc on the frequencies that are coming out of your monitors. If you’re mixing a typical room in a house, you will have massive nulls and peaks (ups and downs) in frequencies across the spectrum. This is because soundwaves bounce around and into each other causing these peaks and nulls.
What happens is that your room has a massive dip in a certain bass frequency so you boost that a bunch to get it to come out. Well you go to play that back somewhere else and suddenly that frequency is so loud that overpowers everything else. In another case, you find a frequency really loud so you cut it back a bunch only to find that it has now disappeared when you’re listening somewhere else. This is both really annoying and time-consuming as you’re never sure how your mix is going to translate. This is where room treatment steps in.
Room treatment absorbs the sound waves bouncing around in your room and evens out the frequencies. This leads to much more accurate decisions as you don’t have the same nulls and peaks. Properly setup room treatment also enhances your stereo imaging greatly allowing you to place instruments properly in a mix.
So what is room treatment? Well, I’ll start by telling you what it is NOT. It is NOT foam. It is NOT egg crates. It is not blankets. Proper room treatment is absorbers that absorb frequencies across the entire audible range. If you put up some foam, it may sound better because it can take care of some of the higher frequencies that cause comb-filtering (the sound you hear when you clap your hands in a room), but it doesn’t have the mass to absorb low and mid-range frequencies. You’ve now just put your room even further out of whack because you are only taking care of some frequencies. The same thing goes with egg crates, blankets, books and other things. You can make your own broadband absorbers or you can check out stuff from companies like GIK, RealTraps, and others. A broadband absorber starts at around 4″ thick or thicker. I’ll blog a bit later about how to build your own, but they don’t have to be expensive.
3. Interface/Soundcard/DAC. Pretty much every soundcard or interface has a DAC built in. A DAC turns digital things (such as music stored on your computer) into analog things (such as actual sound that can come out of your speakers). It requires converting digital information into actual electrical signals which requires computing power and complicated algorithms. Cheap soundcards use cheap DACs which can lead to “fuzzy” or “blurry” sounding mixes because they don’t do a good job of the conversion. Most modern interfaces have decent enough DACs that you will not notice an upgrade until you have some seriously good monitors in a seriously good sounding room (via treatment or design). If you’re using the built-in soundcard on your computer, you may notice a difference upgrading to a better DAC or interface, but not if you don’t have good monitors in a good sounding room.
4. Cables. There’s a lot of hype out in the world about cables. I’m not going to get into that, but IN MY OPINION, you are NOT going to notice an audible difference between a $20 cable and a $100 cable (seriously, do a double-blind test). However, you do need to choose the right kind of cables for monitoring. Most professional or semi-professional audio gear can use balanced cables for raw audio signals. The benefit of a balanced cable over an unbalanced one is that a balanced cable has shielding that can block out outside noise. This can be very important, especially if you have long cables connecting your monitors as the longer the cable, the more susceptible to noise it will be. Another thing to note is that while you may not notice a difference between a cheap or an expensive cable when it comes to sound, you will notice a difference in the connectors, how easily the cable tangles, and the longevity of the cable. Keep that in mind while you’re shopping.
Anyway, hope that helps! Leave me a comment if you have any questions!