Studio speakers

January 12, 2012
 by Paul McGowan

Have you ever wondered what recording studio engineers use for monitors? I’ll tell you – probably nothing you’d have in your home or system. For the most part they are anything but high-end.

A few loudspeaker manufacturers proudly show us their products in the studios and mastering rooms of the world, but this is done for advertising and does not represent what the real world speakers are – Genelec, JBL and brands you wouldn’t consider in a high-end setting. Yet we high-end people judge the work mastered on these less-than-high-end speakers on a daily basis.

I remember speaking with Keith Johnson of Reference Recordings asking what he uses and was surprised to learn he has some home brew designs that work for him. As Keith told me “you’d hate them in your listening room” but they work for Keith.

If I were to build a studio to record music I’d make my control room setup an identical copy of my listening room. Think about it for a moment. What if you could have live musicians playing in the next room and a control panel connected to your high-end setup. The control panel could set levels and tonal qualities of each microphone feed such that when you were done, you’d have the finest sound your system was capable of.

I remember “back in the day” when Dave Wilson was into recordings. He actually designed the Wilson WATT loudspeaker to be his recording monitor and later turned it into a company that made loudspeakers. They are certainly high-end.

I probably will never have the time to build my recording studio, but it sure is fun to dream.

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16 comments on “Studio speakers”

  1. Paul
    Studio systems are as varied as home audio systems.
    Abby Road , Sky Walker and Dave Stewarts personal studio all contain 800 series B&Ws which most people consider high end.
    As you pointed out its in all their propogana but the fact remains some of the recordings that these studios have produced do not seem as good as many others I have heard from some not so high end studios, and this is being reproduced on a high end system with the very same speakers. Even there own “demo” disc I would not use to demo these speakers. Maybe its a matter of room coloration or equipment variations or just plain personal taste.
    But isnt that same varied taste that makes a person buy a red car instead of a white car even through its the same car ? As you have said in past posts all of us have had people demo” high end systems”, systems that they feel are outstanding and that you feel you cant get out of the room fast enough .
    The quest for a perfect high end system is in the ears of the behloder .

  2. I thought a few companies associated with high end audio make speakers used for monitoring including Tannoy, PMC, ATC, B&W etc. though I know from paging through mags dedicated to recording that the makes you listed are the ones usually reviewed.

    Off the subject a funny tale about the Wilson WATT. A friend of mine was involved in helping Dave Wilson help set up a set of WAMMs before the WATT was introduced. My friend had been involved in the business. Dave told him about the WATT and asked if he was interested in being involved. Given the size and price and his experience he declined figuring it had no chance in hell of succeeding. Looking back, many thousands of speakers later, his logic doesn’t seem bad but his prognastication couldn’t have been more off.

  3. Paul, If you are going to send these things out at least do your homework first. In the last two years both Stereophile and HFN&RR have very favorably reviewed and recommended hi-end JBL speakers that go for $10K+. JBL Centuries (L100’s) are still sought after even though they were introduced in 1969, they are the wood finish twin of the studio monitor 1410.

    An earlier poster mentioned ATC, one of the most used studio monitor brands in the world (perhaps the most used) which has a dual consumer (nice wood trim) / studio (grey finish cabinets) line. I use ATC’s in my hi-end video system and would never trade them except for an even better ATC model. In the audio forums I participate in I have never seen anyone say they regretted buying ATC for their home system.

    I think you have given people a very wrong impression of studio monitor speakers and the companies that produce them.

    1. I don’t agree and would stick by my thoughts. Most of the studios I am familiar with use speaker systems I would certainly never consider high-end appropriate. Are there exceptions? Sure. Are your ATC’s high-end appropriate? I haven’t a clue as I have never heard them – and I’ll take your word for it.

      I think the message of the post remains – that what studios who make the recordings use is, for the most part, not what is being used to listen to the final results.

  4. Just a piece of trivia. Gordon Holt’s last pair of personal speakers were powered ATC 50s. He liked them because they weren’t always polite sounding which is how he found many audiophile speakers. I recall him telling me that brass insturments blare at you and a good speaker should be able to show that.

  5. The point about quality of Studio speakers raises another that has puzzled me for forty years. For the first half of that long period of enjoying recorded music I lived in an analogue world. One of my first Pre Amps and Amps was your early PS product. Gradually I moved upscale until I had a very fine cartridge, arm and table. As each of those components was improved, so of course did the sound coming out of my speakers. YET, the sound that went INTO the LPs (English EMI and Decca) has been put there decades BEFORE the improvements to my home electronics had been invented! Put there by Studio equipment twenty years before the quality and finesse I now had available. So the existential question I still have is: how can something (sound quality) that I can only get out now, because of improvements to technology, have been put in THEN, before that technology was (apparently) available in studios. The same is true (partially) of CDs. Limited bit-word length, jitter, bad clocking, all now vastly better in-home — all those not yet cured problems were literally built in to earlier CDs — yet somehow we can now recover hugely better sound with out new in home components. I hope this ramble makes some sort of sense — and that someone may have an answer to my ignorance.

    1. I too would like this question explored. It seems we have mastered recording, but we are nowhere close to the solving the retriival process. This question is close to the one I have about buying a $170,000 turntable to playback $34.95 worth of software?

    2. I think it’s actually a great question and the answer is that you’re getting closer to the master itself – meaning the difference between what you pull off the medium and hear is most likely not identical to what you would hear if you listened to the master tape that made those CD’s or albums. Improvements in your playback equipment simply get you closer to the source.

  6. Paul, you keep getting yourself in trouble with statements like this. First off the recording world needs to be divided into at least two, maybe three, groups of monitor(speaker) users. The studio recording engineer/mixer uses his speakers in a completely different way than done in the home. His monitors are designed to instantly show flaws in his work in an obvious way so that he can’t miss them.., and has a chance to correct any that he may find.

    The Mastering Engineer, on the other hand, is considered the “golden ears” of our trade and have some of the best, and carefully desined, listening rooms on the planet.., which to your surprise, will contain speakers better suited to audiophiles. In other words many top of the line audiophile speakers end up in mastering environments as monitors (check out Bob Ludwig’s operation in Maine). Mastering, afer all is the very last step in the recording process, and therefore accuracy is a priority. The third group is a growing fringe using monitors of their own choosing, which may be more or less “audiophile”.., I am one of those individuals and have been since the 70s. I use PMCs to record and mix on and Magnepans, MartinLogans or NHTs as a second or third references. While at Elektra, in the 70s, we used Tannoys and Acoustic Research and some Advents even though a pair of JBLs were available. You need to do your reseach bettter before taking a pompous stance… or risking misinformation…, and Dave Wilson does not represent the norm.

    1. Well, you got me there. I do lump in recording and mastering and that is in fact incorrect. Thanks for the clarification. Indeed, the mastering studios I have been to have fabulous systems and your point is well taken.

      But it’ll probably never stop me from my pompous stances. 🙂

  7. When i auditioned Genelec monitors a few years ago. The thing that first blew me away was that even the smallest detail was there. Being able to hear the singer take a breath, tap there foot to the beat of the music or hearing the guitar pick on the strings. I had listened to those recordings hundreds of times but never heard those details before. Bought that model a few weeks later and the rest is history. It doesn’t make a bad recording sound better it still sounds bad. But at least i am listening to what the recording engineer, mixer and artist wanted me to hear.

  8. One of the primary criteria for studio monitors is that with your ears, in your room, with your gear, you get mix results that sound essentially the same whether you are listening in your car, on your iPod, on your high-end stereo, on your neighbor’s crappy stereo or on a boombox.

    One of the ways you know either you, your monitoring chain or your room is messed up is to listen to your mix in these different environments with different playback gear and see if it hangs together or if some aspect of the mix is either not there or sticks out too much. In the old days a quick torture test was to run a cassette of your mix and go out to the car to check if you were in the ballpark, or had gotten too far into “making it sound awesome” (but only in your studio with your gear).

    A prized quality of a good studio monitor is – does it give you consistent, repeatable results across a broad spectrum of playback devices? This usually means the monitor will be “flat” and “unforgiving” – two qualities that are not necessarily at the top of the audiophile speaker trait list. That is, it doesn’t accentuate any particular part of the audio spectrum, and it is fairly revealing of flaws. You would think that would equate to a good high-end speaker, but they’re two different animals.

    My (insert studio monitors of choice here) studio monitors give me those consistent results, but I don’t use them for listening for pleasure. They’re not “fun”. If I mix on them, the result will sound good on my home stereo (and car, and iPod), whereas if I swapped systems and mixed on my stereo, it would sound great at the time, but I would be much more likely to end up with a “bad” mix that doesn’t translate to other systems – and playback on the studio monitors would tell me why pretty quickly.

    The same applies to video monitoring for editing – you can adjust any decent TV to look pleasing, but you may be nowhere near broadcast specs in your end product.

  9. Paul, this topic brings up a very interesting idea. I have for years yearned to see a line of components capable of mixing music, just like I do with my 8-track digital recorder after I record the separate tracks myself (in this case, vocals, guitar, drums, bass, and keyboards). I have the ability to mix any sound, on any track, anywhere I wish. When we buy our CDs, SACDs, DVD-As, and Blu-rays, they’re already mixed by the Mastering Engineer. Well, the obvious question is, why can’t I be the Master Engineer if I so choose like I am with my own music?

    I would get into specific details regarding what this component or these components would actually be able to offer, but this post would get too lengthy so I’ll just mention the obvious.

    First, we would need to be able to purchase the master recording, which isn’t available. However, if we could get our hands on the master recording, with all separate tracks, and we had a player or other perhaps hybrid component that enables us to mix (pan, EQ, etc.) each of these tracks to whatever speaker or speakers we choose, we would be able to master our own music. Of course this doesn’t address the quality or methodology used by the Studio Recording Engineer, but we would at least be able to “create” our own unique music mix for each song in a way that suits our preferences according to our own individual systems. This would be an amazing capability for multichannel, and it would be great for stereo too. Imagine being able to place any instrument in any speaker or number of speakers you choose, equalizing each along the way. Then you would of course be able to save the mix for that particular song once you find the sound that’s right for you. Or, you can have multiple mixes for the same song. The options are endless.

    I know there are probably legal, copyright, and all kinds of other issues with issuing master copies but I wish I knew for sure what the true insurmountable obstacles would be if there are any. And if there aren’t, I think it’s time someone push this through and then build the components capable of doing what ‘ve described.

    I’d be interested in your and anyone else’s thoughts on this idea I’ve been thinking about for the past 15 years!

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