Your studio monitors are the windows to your music. If you’re mixing, when you listen to an accurate presentation of your work, you’ll hear more detail, you’ll get less fatigued, and you’ll create mixes that sound the same wherever they’re played. And, if you’re enjoying your favorite tunes, you can trust that you’re hearing them exactly as the artist intended.
The perfect listening environment marries ideal monitors with an ideal space. But, let’s be real: Home studios and offices tend to be tiny rooms with oddball dimensions, spaces that were intended for sleeping or storing cars, not mixing music.
Your room will always influence the sound coming out of your monitors, but that doesn’t mean you have to settle for a subpar speaker setup. We’ll show you how to configure your speakers to get the most accurate response in any home recording space—even those doubling as remote offices.
The Elephant in the Room
Speaker technology has evolved dramatically over the past couple of decades. Today, a new generation of monitors combine advanced materials, ultra-precise designs and sophisticated signal processing to minimize the influence of your space and even self-adjust for room problems.
But, even the best speaker cannot change the laws of physics; once you place that speaker in a room, you introduce low-frequency resonances, reflections off walls and other acoustic interferences. (This is why top studios spend millions of dollars on purpose-built, acoustically optimized spaces.) On top of that, your room’s impact on your speaker response is different at different frequencies, at different locations in your room, and at different listening positions.
That said, there will always be a “sweet spot,” for both you and your monitors. Finding it is a matter of applying a few basic rules of thumb and a little trial and error.
All About That Bass
One of the biggest acoustic challenges in a home studio is bass management. In small, untreated spaces, low-frequency resonances called “room modes” wreak havoc with bass, creating peaks and dips that manifest as a boomy low-frequency buildup, or conversely, an absence of low end. This means that you could be hearing exaggerated low frequencies at your listening position, or in extreme cases, no bass at all—even though your speakers are reproducing low end just fine.
“Most users don’t realize what kind of influence their room has on their monitors,” says Chris Hansen, HARMAN Professional’s Director of Recording and Broadcast. “In the low frequencies, the room is in control; your bass performance correlates directly to placement of your speakers within the room.” Hansen suggests a simple test to illustrate room resonance: “Play a low-frequency sine wave, maybe 40 or 50 Hz, in one speaker, and walk around your room. In some spots, the tone will sound fine, and in others it’ll be twice as loud, and in other spots, it’ll vanish entirely—and you’ve never touched your speaker! This illustrates the importance of finding the best location for speaker placement as well as the correct listening position.” Ready to go find that position? Grab a tape measure and let’s get to it.
Dial In the Sweet Spot
Picking out reference material is your first step in dialing in your perfect speaker setup. Choose music that’s very familiar to you, that you’ve heard on a variety of systems. Make sure to listen to mixes that have wide dynamic ranges and rich spectral detail. It’s a good idea to use a commercial, mastered mix, which has been “proven” to translate to various formats and environments. Be sure to reference high-resolution (44.1 kHz/16-bit or higher) audio; music download and streaming services apply file-compression algorithms that remove critical audio information present in the original recording.
Then, it’s a matter of scouting out general locations for you and your monitors. The goal here is to place your speakers where the source material sounds the way you are used to it sounding. This will be an iterative process, in which you’ll listen and adjust placement, again and again, so take a methodical, patient approach.
Configure the speakers and your listening position in an equilateral triangle. Consider using speaker stands and isolation pads, which acoustically isolate your monitors and improve their response in the room.
High frequencies are more directional than low frequencies, so aim your monitors toward your face, with the tweeters at ear height. (Never place your speakers on their sides unless your manual explicitly states they can be oriented this way.)
Place speakers at least a couple of feet away from room walls and corners to avoid “boundary effects” including bass buildup and other acoustic interferences caused by sound waves bouncing off walls and combining with the direct sound waves coming out of your speakers. (We understand that some spaces don’t allow this kind of luxury; don’t worry, we’ll get into corrective measures later.)
Aim for symmetry, both side to side and front to back; otherwise your speakers will sound inconsistent between left and right, which will throw off both stereo imaging and frequency balance.
If your room is square, your wall orientation won’t matter as much as it will in a rectangle room, where aligning your speakers along a short wall means sound will travel longer before bouncing off the rear wall, losing energy in the process, which will cause it to interfere less with the direct sound. In either case, sit closer to your speakers than the walls, so you can hear more direct sound than reflected sound.
Position your speakers to avoid reflections off hard surfaces such as mixers and desks. This will minimize the potential for comb filtering, a constructive and destructive interference pattern that can dramatically color your sound. Try the “mirror test”: Place a mirror on a surface, and sit in your listening position. If you can see the speaker (especially the tweeter) in the mirror, that means sound will follow that path, bounce off that surface and eventually interfere with direct sound.
Now, start making those fine speaker adjustments until your source material sounds the way you think it should.
Acoustics is a complicated beast, and sometimes, no matter how many adjustments you make, things just don’t sound right. Acoustic treatment is an effective way to remedy room problems, but correct application of bass traps and other materials is a complex, expensive process. And, most people recording at home simply don’t have the resources to hire an acoustic consultant.
Some monitors are engineered to sound great without measuring or making room adjustments; JBL 104-BT compact Bluetooth monitors, for example, are acoustically optimized for desktop placement.
Other monitors feature built-in corrective EQ that compensates for the room. For example, JBL 3 Series MkII powered studio monitors feature a Boundary EQ Mode that takes the guesswork out of compensating for anomalies introduced by the environment (such as the boundary effects discussed above). Simply adjust the High-Frequency Trim to tailor high-frequency response to compensate for overly reflective or absorptive listening environments; flip the Boundary EQ switch to compensate for low-frequency issues that can occur when loudspeakers are in close proximity to walls. You can also apply EQ manually to smooth out your room response if you’re well versed in acoustics.
“We know people struggle with correct speaker placement within the limitations of a home studio environment,” says Hansen. “We’re hoping we can make that process a little easier by building room-mode-correction EQ into products like the JBL 3 Series MkII monitors. But it’s always better to correct issues through placement, so before you ever touch that EQ, make sure you’ve worked through all of your options for placement and orientation within the room you’re working in.”
When you do lock in your speaker setup, it’ll be a great feeling. You’ll have a better mixing experience, and you’ll craft better mixes. Isn’t that what it’s all about?