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Pro Tools #5: The Other Kind of Monitor


Welcome to Pro Tools on da cheap - I’m in no way an expert, and what follows is just “what works for me”. Have I missed something, made a glaring error, or flown in the face of common wisdom? By all means, post a (hopefully polite and cheery) comment and join the discussion.

One of the most nail-biting gear purchasing decisions you will ever make may be your monitor speakers.

But before we get to that, why can’t you just mix with headphones?

For starters, many of us have no choice - roommates, neighbors, and the cost of quality monitors may mean we use ‘phones almost exclusively. And with iPods taking over the world, isn’t a lot more listening done with cans (well, earbuds) anyway?

There are a lot of problems inherent in mixing even on the most pricey phones, and you can certainly google the science behind it. The gist of it is that when we listen to music, we’re hearing the direct sound of (usually stereo) speakers, in both of our ears… in addition to those room reflections and nulls we discussed in the previous post. With headphones, we hear only the direct, discreet left and right channels, and we hear the left in only the left ear, the right in just the right. It’s tough to mix a song on headphones and have it sound “right” on speakers.

That said, a good pair are priceless for checking mixes, doing edits, working late at night, and seeing how a mix translates to iPods. They’re also necessary for recording overdubs - for listening to backing tracks without those tracks bleeding into the microphone that we’re recording new tracks with.

Which brings us to another problem - within a reasonable price range - say $50 - $200 for a pair - open-back cans sound a lot better than closed-back (closed back phones enclose the whole ear in a plastic cup). But open backs release a lot of sound, sound that may be picked up when you overdub. It’s not unusual to have a nice pair of pen-backs for mix wrk, and a so-so pair of closed-back cans for tracking.


OK, I’m Convinced - Which Speakers should I Buy?

Just check the forums (such as gear slutz) for the “what monitors should I buy” threads - you’ll find the same brand beloved by some is hated by others. It’s incredibly subjective.

Which seems to mean that you have to “learn” your monitors - you have to get used to, say, not hearing a ton of bass in your speakers but knowing it’ll be there in your car. Pros constantly say you have to listen to a lot of commercially mixed music on your speakers, and continually take breaks when mixing to switch on a CD or MP3 of the style you’re working in. That said, can’t you just mix on anything once you learn it?

Maybe the pros can - but most monitors strive to offer three things:

  1. Accuracy, also known as a “flat” frequency response: The home speakers at Best Buy are all tuned to sound great in a noisy showroom - even the best speakers (like a set of Klipsch or Bose) are designed to emphasize pleasing frequencies. You want a monitor that’s as flat as possible.
  2.  Detail: You want speakers that allow the most subtle things to shine through… not just the guitar solo but the buzz of the strings or the sizzle of the snare drum. 
  3. Range: Though the trend in monitors over the last decade or two has been to mix on smaller and smaller systems - thus taking out a lot of the bass content which requires more power and bigger cones - manufacturers strive to get as much low end out of the box as they can.

Can you find all of that for under a grand a pair? For under five hundred? Yes, to some extent. For you & me, I’d suggest you look for the following features:

Self-powered systems:

These are speakers with a built-in amplifier, tuned to work specifically with those speakers. Less wiring to deal with, more power-per-pound, and usually a better sound.

Get 8″ if you can afford it:

The bigger the cone, (generally speaking) the more bass you’ll get.

Do your homework:

Try to listen to whatever you consider buying. If you can’t, haunt the forums and look for reviews on-line ( is a great resource). Check eBay and Craig’s list for deals on models you’ve spotted.

Alesis, Mackie, KRK and Event all make monitors that are generally considered great values - if you shop around, you could find a great pair at a great price. There’s no perfect speaker - you have to get used to them by using ‘em. 

SPECIAL FEATURE: What is D/A Conversion and Where can I Buy it?

The Apogee Mini DAC

The Apogee Mini DAC

D/A conversion (in this application) means the conversion of the digital signal in your system to the analog signal that goes out to your monitors. Pro studios spend big bucks to convert their monitor sound in a pristine manner - pro engineers say the can hear more detail, more high end, and they love it.

Should you buy a converter made for your monitors? Hey, if you’ve got a grand or more lying around and don’t need anything else, sure. I’d wait though.

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