Do you think you’re set with one pair of professional studio monitors? If so, think again. Most home-studio owners purchase one good pair of powered reference monitors and that’s it. However, to truly hear how your music will translate to the outside world, the real world beyond the four walls of your comfy studio, you should be working on at least two sets of speakers: your main near-field monitors and a set of small, inexpensive desktop computer speakers (minimonitors). This dual monitor approach will let you hear how most listeners will be hearing your tracks—over a cheap home stereo system, a television, or computer speakers—instead of the precise, accurate, and “flat” sound of your pricey studio reference monitors.

Of course, chances are that your audio interface only has one set of monitor outputs (a pretty standard design). This begs the question, “Where do I connect another set of speakers?” The solution is to add an analog monitor control box to your system. The stereo mix coming out of your audio interface’s monitor output is then connected to this box and split (multiplied) into several monitor output paths, each of which can be sent to its own monitor destination (including headphones). Two of the most popular solutions on the market are the PreSonus Monitor Station ($400) and the Mackie Big Knob ($390). Each of these units is designed to sit on your desktop and provide ergonomic monitor control, making it easy to switch between monitors while you’re mixing without losing your “sweet spot” (the listening position between your monitors that sounds the best).

The point of near-field monitoring is to remove as much room coloration from your listening position as possible. Though it’s no less important to tune your room for better acoustics (a topic for another blog), a proper near-field setup can reduce much of the room tone that you would normally hear if you were seated farther away from your monitors, outside the sweet spot. Today, most well-designed studio reference monitors feature frequency fine-tune controls for tailoring a speaker’s response to best fit your listening environment. For example, to compensate for a room that adversely emphasizes low frequencies, you could roll off your monitor’s low-frequency response by a couple of dB. Foam speaker-isolation wedges (such as the Auralex MoPAD) are also an option and allow a monitor to be decoupled from what it sits on, preventing the speaker from transferring sound to the surface in a way that might adversely affect what you hear.

Now, for the speakers. Keep in mind that the size of the low-frequency drivers (the woofers) determines your monitors’ low-frequency output. The larger the woofer, the more bass you’ll hear in your mix. Consequently, you should stick with a 6-inch woofer or larger for your main monitors. In my opinion, the best enclosure-size-to-bass-output ratio for your dollar comes from monitors with 8-inch woofers (such as the Mackie HR824 or Event Studio Precision 8). Of course, you can add a subwoofer to augment monitors with small woofers, but for most music-production applications, having the bass in your face is preferable to having it under your seat or to the side of your workspace. By comparison, your minimonitors should have a 3- to 4-inch woofer (such as the Edirol MA-7A or M-Audio StudioPro3). And, for the sake of quality and convenience, the minimonitors should be self-powered, just like your main monitors.

How your speakers are set up is also crucial for good monitoring. For the best near-field monitoring possible, make sure that your speakers are upright and level with your head. When seated in the sweet spot between your speakers, your head and the two speakers should comprise the three points of an equilateral triangle. You can place the minimonitors just to the inside of your main monitors. Make sure that the speakers are as far away as possible from any walls to avoid potential low-frequency interaction with your room’s physical structure. Pushing your speakers against the wall or shoving them in a corner is never a good idea. Remove any impediments that might interfere with a clear line of sound from the speakers to your ears (such as plastic figurines and stuffed animals—really, I’ve seen it done). And, watch out for possible reflective surfaces just beneath the monitors (such as a large mixer or laminated tabletop) that may cause high-frequency reflections to bounce off and sully your sweet spot.

Between your main monitors, a pair of minimonitors, and a studio-quality pair of headphones (such as the Sony MDR-7509 or Ultrasone Proline 750), you can construct a clear picture of how your mix will sound in the real world without ever leaving your studio. Plus, with a good monitor controller you’ll never need to move from your sweet spot to switch monitors. Now, with all of this control at your fingertips, the only trick is to remember to get up and use the restroom every so often. Though, seriously, if that’s not inspiration enough, many an award winning mix engineer has been known to walk outside the studio, and down the hall, in order to hear how their mix sounds from a completely different perspective—for real, it really does work.

Proper Monitoring Diagram

The stereo master fader in your DAW’s virtual mixer is not for controlling the output level of your studio speakers. This is an all-too-common mistake, but an easy one to make. I mean, it does turn down your speaker level, right? Yes, but think about what’s happening to your mix down level, the waveforms that you’re printing to disk. If your master fader is turned way down in order to keep your speakers low, and your neighbors oblivious to your beats, the mix you’re printing to disk is also going to be low in volume. We’re talking itsy-bitsy waveforms here, a potentially bad signal to noise ratio, and just a plain old poorly executed recording, It’s this exact result that most often leads the inexperienced producer to the puzzling question, “Why the heck are my mixes so low in volume?” (And, incidentally, gain normalization is not the remedy here, because in normalizing a very low waveform you’re also turning the recording’s background noise way up.)

The purpose of the master fader is for setting your mixer’s main output level. Alternately, a monitor-level knob, such as the type found on a well-designed audio interface (for example, MOTU’s 896HD or Digidesign’s 003), is used to control the output level of your studio monitors. This design allows you to set your virtual mixer’s main output to an ideal level, having peaks just below digital zero, and than, independently, adjust the level of your control room speakers. I’m sure you’ll agree that after a long night of mixing the same song over and over and over again, the ability to turn your speakers down while recording your completed mix to disk is a godsend.

In traditional analog mixing consoles, the master fader and the monitor-level knob were both built into the mixer, in adjacent master output and monitor control sections. This made the signal path from the master fader to your mix down deck, or the monitor-level knob to your control room speakers pretty easy to follow. Today, you’ll find these two vital controls living in completely different worlds, the virtual world of your DAW, and in the real-world, on your audio interface. As if understanding signal flow wasn’t already enough of a challenge, now you need to bridge alternate realities!

To make matters even more confusing, most popular MIDI control surfaces give you direct control over your DAW’s master fader. Case in point, the Mackie Control Universal features a physical master fader that’s tied exclusively to your virtual mixer’s master fader. Nice feature, but there you go again, reaching for the master fader to turn down your speakers when you should be reaching over, or under, or around, or wherever your audio interface is stuck in order to grab its monitor-level knob. Clearly, this sort of stretching is great for yoga class but undesirable for mixing, because it moves your head out of the “sweet spot” between your speakers. The solution is to invest in a control surface that features a monitor control section (such as Digidesign’s Command|8 or C|24), or add to your system a dedicated monitor control sidecar (such as Mackie’s Big Knob or the PreSonus Monitor Station).

In the meantime, pull your audio interface to within an easy reach, and the next time you need to adjust your speaker level take a hold of its monitor-level knob and not your DAW’s master fader.