It’s almost impossible to do a good mix if your monitoring environment isn’t honest about the sounds you hear. Consider the room itself: set up a sound level meter (like the Galaxy Audio CM140 or similar smartphone apps) in the middle of your room, run a sine wave test tone oscillator through the speakers, sweep through the audible frequency range, and watch the meter. Unless you have great monitors and an acoustically tuned room, the meter will fluctuate like a leaf in a wind storm.
Because many problems start with how your speakers interact with the room, let’s explore ways to help improve sonic accuracy by placing the monitor speakers properly.
1. PLACE THE SPEAKERS SYMMETRICALLY IN THE ROOM
Because the walls, floors, and ceilings all interact with speakers, place speakers symmetrically within a room. Otherwise, if (for example) one speaker is 3 feet from a wall and another 10 feet from a wall, any reflections will be wildly different, which affects the response.
2. AVOID WALLS AND CORNERS
It’s not a good idea to place speakers close to a wall or a corner, because there will be reflections that throw a monkey wrench into the response. If you have no choice and limited space, check the speakers’ rear panel for controls that could help. For example, the PreSonus Eris 5 XT powered monitor has a slide switch designed to compensate for wall and corner placement (Fig. 1)
3. DON’T SIT CLOSE TO WALLS WHEN MIXING
Avoid a listening position closer than 3 feet (1 meter) from any wall, or you’ll be hit with a lot of reflections. My recording setup with mixer, controller, and computer keyboard is on tables within the front third of the room. Doing so reduces reflection buildups, and also frees up the wall space for a combination of shelves and acoustical treatment. The “middle of the room” approach also makes it easier to deal with the cables running among your gear’s rear panels.
4. CENTER YOUR SETUP’S LEFT AND RIGHT SIDES
Even if you can’t do a symmetrical setup as recommended in the first tip, at least place your left and right speakers an equal distance from their respective walls. This produces a more balanced mid- and low-frequency response, and helps preserve stereo imaging.
5. KEEP THE MIXING AREA UNCLUTTERED
Avoid large objects (such as lamps or decorations—sorry, the lava lamp has to go) near the studio monitor and listening position. These can cause reflections, and possibly even resonate in response to particular volume levels and frequencies.
6. PLACE SPEAKER FRONTS IN FRONT OF MONITOR SCREENS
If your speakers are to the side of your computer monitor(s), make sure each speaker’s front is in front of the monitor’s screen. Being behind the screen, or flush with it, may affect the sound quality.
7. DECOUPLE (ISOLATE) THE SPEAKER BASE
Placing a thick piece of neoprene, or even a thick mouse pad, between a speaker and where it sits, can help inhibit vibrations from traveling into a stand (or table). But there are better options, like the Primacoustic Recoil Stabilizer (Fig. 2).
The Auralex MoPAD line (Fig. 3) is a more affordable option for speaker de-coupling. With any speaker de-coupler, though, make sure the surface area can accommodate the speaker. If the speaker hangs over the side, de-coupling will be far less effective. The de-couplers themselves also need to sit squarely on a stand or table. (I use Recoil Stabilizers in my Studio A, and MoPADs in Studio B—de-coupling makes an audible difference.)
8. MINIMIZE REFLECTIVE SURFACES BETWEEN THE SPEAKERS AND YOUR EARS
If the speakers are on a table along with gear like a mixer, place the speakers to the side of the mixer, and on small stands. You don’t want waves reflecting off the table (or the mixer) and hitting your ears. Placing sound-absorbing material (like a thick rug) on top of the table can help, too.
9. USE DIFFUSION AND ABSORPTION
This tip isn’t about speaker placement per se, but it provides them with a much better overall environment. Diffusers and sound-absorbent material in a room help prevent reflections from entering the listening space (you can also use carpeting to minimize reflections from hard floor surfaces). Acoustic treatment was a much more complex endeavor than it is today, because now you can buy acoustic panel “kits” like Primacoustic’s London-10 room kit, with 8 control columns and 12 “scatter blocks.” It’s designed to handle rooms up to 120 square feet.
10. DO A REALITY TEST WITH HEADPHONES
The ultimate way to keep the influence of room acoustics to a minimum is to eliminate them entirely—so as a reality check, place the “speakers” right up next to your ears, in the form of high-quality headphones. Most people prefer open-back headphones for mixing, however for this kind of reality test, circumaural headphones work well, too. Avoid headphones designed for consumers, because they often “hype” the highs and lows to give deep bass and sizzling highs.
We’ve covered our ten tips, but remember, this is relatively basic advice. Hiring a professional studio acoustics consultant to “tune” your room with bass traps and strategic acoustic treatment could be the best investment you ever make in your audio productions.