Of all the components that make up your studio environment, the two most important for producing high-quality mixes have to be, 1) your ears and 2) your near-field monitors. More specifically, the proper placement of these key components within your room will make all the difference in achieving accurate mixes that will sound good on the widest range of systems. This article will provide an overview of common practices and considerations when setting up your project studio for monitor placement and listening position.
Everything in its Right Place: Finding the “Sweet Spot”
Unless you happen to be setting up your studio in an anechoic chamber, your room will have a specific set of resonant frequencies to consider. There are computer programs available that can analyze your room dimensions and tell you where the most troublesome “modes” are likely to occur, but simply putting your monitors on stands and playing some music through them is an easy way to figure out what you are dealing with. The first thing that will become obvious is that the effect of these room modes depends on listening position and the relative position of the speakers. Sitting in the exact center of the room is the least desirable choice for your listening position because the room’s fundamental frequency or its harmonics will be creating a “null” there. You can experiment with your position between the front and rear walls, but you will want to sit centered between the side walls to achieve a balanced stereo image. You may have to consider placing the speakers along one of the widest walls if your room is overly narrow to avoid side wall reflections.
Once you’ve determined where the ideal listening position, or “sweet spot” is within your room, it’s time to determine the best placement of the monitors. When you place a loudspeaker near a wall or hard surface, some of its low-frequency energy will travel backwards from the cabinet and reflect from the wall. Some frequencies will bounce back in-phase and create “peaks” that reinforce frequencies, while others will return out-of-phase and create “troughs” that will cancel frequencies. You should randomize these peaks and troughs by ensuring that the distance from the back of the speaker to the wall behind it is different from the distance between the speaker and the side wall and also different from the distance to the floor or ceiling. It’s best to have the speakers positioned above or below the mid-point between floor and ceiling — you can always tilt the speakers slightly to aim the tweeter at your ear. Avoid exact multiples when positioning speakers to minimize the undesirable effects of this modal behavior (ex. If your speaker is 1.5 feet from the rear wall, don’t place it exactly 3 feet or 4.5 feet from the side wall).
For stereo imaging, the ideal monitor setup is for the listening position and monitor placements to create three points of an equilateral triangle with the monitors turned in to aim toward the ears at approximately a 30-degree angle to the center line. Whether you should position the speakers with the tweeter or the woofer at ear level is an ongoing argument; so experiment with both to find your preference, but “ear level” is the key. “Near-field” refers to monitoring where you are hearing more of the speaker and less of the room’s reflections — in small rooms and project studios, this means your listening position is typically going to be three to five feet from the monitors. Ideally, the monitors should not be placed on the console or desktop, but rather behind it on secure, decoupled stands. This will help avoid unwanted early reflections caused by the desktop and prevent one monitor’s vibrations from affecting the other. If you must place the monitors directly on your desktop, place them as close to the front edge as possible and on foam blocks to minimize coupling with the desk. Use some form of rubber feet or tacky material on stands and under the foam to prevent the monitors from moving due to vibration; this can subtract from the bass output and potentially cancel the tweeter.
Acoustic Treatments & Fine Tuning
A professional studio will usually have the luxury of room design expertise and a wealth of acoustic treatments. The project studio owner however, will generally have to make do with off-the-shelf monitors in an existing room and minimal acoustic treatment materials. Every room will require some form of acoustic treatment. If you’ve ever listened to music in an empty, uncarpeted room, this is clearly demonstrated. Fitting a room with carpet is probably the most significant thing you can do to control room reverb behavior. Without spending a fortune, you can fine-tune your listening environment by adding squares of acoustic foam on the side walls to either or both sides of your listening position to help minimize flutter echoes and clean up the stereo imaging. If you’re working in a room with a low ceiling, a foam square mounted to the ceiling above the mixing board or console will help tame ceiling reflections. You may also want to mount some acoustic foam behind your monitors if they are positioned close to the wall in a small room. Avoid over-treating the walls, as this can lead to a “boxy” or “honky” sounding room.
Listening Tests for Final Adjustments
Now that you’ve found the “sweet spot”, set-up your monitors, and considered acoustic treatments, it’s a good idea to do some listening tests with some of your favorite, professionally recorded CDs. This will help verify that you’ve achieved a natural balance within the room across the frequency spectrum and alert you to any “hot spots”. It’s also a good practice to create some original recordings without using any EQ to test on other systems to check the accuracy of your monitoring set-up. If your recording sounds too bass heavy — or conversely lacking in the low-end — on another system, you will know that you need to make adjustments to your monitor placements to correct problems and increase the accuracy of your mixes.