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I'd like to preface this question by recognizing that no system has a perfectly flat frequency response curve. I'm aware that this question and this one address a similar concern, but they don't answer whether or not accurate monitors are actually practical...

I know that the deafening built-in Macbook speakers have pretty much no response below 200 Hz. I know that my friend's theater surround system is going to have so much bass that it's going to flood the other instruments. Some car audio systems have heavy mids, and others have heavy bass. When I listen to a professional recording, it sounds good on all the aforementioned systems. When I produce using a "flat" playback system, it sounds good on approximately none of those systems. Instead, it sounds good only on studio monitors.

So, it got me wondering... if most consumer-grade audio playback systems are not designed to be flat or accurate, why is it considered practical to write, mix, or master your music on "flat" monitors?

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    Check out the recording revolution (website and youtube), with Graham Cochran. As well as sites like sound on sound, to get the scoop on your question as well as tips to optimize your results with the gear you have. – skids89 Feb 7 '15 at 5:44
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...if most consumer-grade audio playback systems are not designed to be flat or accurate, why is it considered practical to write, mix, or master your music on "flat" monitors?

Because most consumer-grade audio playback systems are not flat or accurate...

The goal of a "flat" near-field studio monitor is to let you hear what is actually going on, while other systems can hide flaws and colour your work.

If your mix only sounds good on a studio monitor then you haven't finished. When you start to make note of how you want to adjust your mix after listening to it on a wide range of systems, and go back to adjust and then test that new mix, and so on, over time you'll learn your monitors and how the kind of mixes you want sound on them, making it easier to achieve the kind of mix you want1 the first time around2.

You can do this on a less-than-accurate system3, but you have to adjust for the system you're using. The less accurate it is the more you have to compensate for that while not being able to hear any flaws which that system hides. All this when you most need to hear how things actually sound.

So:

  • Mixing on an inaccurate system, which you know well, gives you the advantage of being able to use that knowledge, but gives you blind spots.
  • Mixing on a "flat" and "accurate" system has the advantage of less/"no" blind spots, but you have to learn that system.

TL;DR: Studio monitors may take some getting used to, but they are more practical to mix on, because, in the long run, they can give you better results more easily.

Having said all that, let me throw a spanner in the works by reminding you that the Yamaha NS-10, which became the standard near-field studio monitor, was originally launched as a consumer-grade bookshelf speaker...

1. A really good mix/master is one which has the right compromises to sound good a wide range of systems, as you've noted, and in a sense that mix won't sound "as good" on the monitors because they have, you guessed it, a very flat sound.

2. You'll still listen to them on different speakers and systems, of course.

3. And the bottom line is you will, everyone does because studio montiors and rooms all have their own characteristics as detailed in the other questions you mentioned.

  • Excellent answer. I'd like to point out the NS-10 really is a spanner in the works. It was neither commercially successful nor flat by any standard. This means 1. it's not likely to be on your listener's bookshelf, and 2. it's not entirely accurate. That being said, the assumption was that "if a recording sounds good on these monitors, then it should sound good on most playback systems". Doesn't this reinforce the notion that high quality consumer-grade speakers are both suitable for production and able to reveal "blind spots" without needing to be flat? – James M. Lay Feb 4 '15 at 5:43
  • @JamesM.Lay I'd say no because it's an exception to most speakers of that category. It's very good at highlighting certain flaws, but it still has its own characteristics that would still need to be learned; they just turned out to be less problematic blind spots for (certain kinds of) mixes. "The midrange response is so open that it exposes the frequencies that are the most problematic and worst-sounding to the human ear." The goal of consumer-grade is to "sound good" not "highlight flaws". – D.G. Feb 4 '15 at 6:07
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    so, the moral of the story is, use the studio monitors, but also use a variety of consumer-grade sound systems? – James M. Lay Feb 4 '15 at 6:27
  • @JamesM.Lay That's my story, and I'm sticking to it. Anecdote: I was once hired to co-produce a demo for someone in a rather fancy London studio with an excellent engineer (I guess they let any old riff-raff in as long as someone is paying). (cont.) – D.G. Feb 4 '15 at 6:57
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    ... After we were all happy with his mix down, we got to talking and one of the things which came up was how all the large speakers were really there "to impress clients". He mixed on the near-fields and then checked the mix on the different systems in the room... to the point that sometimes he listened to mixes on this tiny, horrible, speaker which was built into an overhead projector or something in the cupboard (imagine a 4" speaker attached to the inside of a metal box). So we listened on that too, and it was pretty damn good, considering (: – D.G. Feb 4 '15 at 6:57
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If you take a look at any studio you will most likely see a few sets of monitors in them, someone beat me to the NS-10's but its worth going into a bit more depth on why they are so important historically.

First off flat monitors (or close to flat) are useful as they generally have a wide range and you can hear everything you need to though them from bass drums to alto sax. Again as mentioned you should know your monitors and know what kind of mixes they will produce elsewhere and you will be a way better engineer than someone who has a $10,000 pair of monitors they don't know how to use.

As for the NS-10's the reason they became so popular is largely because engineers realized if they could make a mix sound good on an NS-10 it would sound good anywhere. A study published years later (I think I read it in Sound On Sound) eventually discovered that the NS-10's had a really great response time (they could change frequency fast) which people think may have led to what became their desired sound. If you dig a bit into the history of recording you will find many stories of engineers mixing down on mono boxes or small am radio style speakers. The idea was that in the end of the day thats how the audio was consumed (in the 60's and 70's) and they wanted to make it sound good through that medium. Most studios keep multiple monitors on hand (including a not so great set) to see what the mix may sound like in different mediums. I may get flack for saying it but when you are mixing down, put on some iPod headphones and see what the mix sounds like. It may sound great through your monitors but terrible on computer speakers or small ear buds. If you plan to send it to all your fiends who will most likely listen to it though earbuds you want it to sound great on them, don't you?

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Studio monitors are very practical, not to mention an all-around wise choice. The two foremost reasons in my mind are:

1) As an engineer, you NEED to be able to hear exactly what's going on in your audio... no more, no less. Studio monitors gives you this ability - depending on what grade of monitor you purchase. Consumer payback systems cannot give the accuracy in imaging, resolution, frequency reproduction, and power that a good studio monitor will provide (neither can most "budget" monitors)... not to mention the myriad of other technical benefits (harmonic distortion, dynamic range, transient response, well designed crossovers, consistent performance at low/high levels, etc.). It is also worth mentioning the importance of room treatment - but that's a slightly different topic.

2) The middleground is a wonderful place to be, my friend. A good set of monitors, in a well treated room, is important to an engineer for the same reason that a carefully calibrated screen is important for a film colorist. As you well know, there is a nearly infinite amount if variance in sound playback systems. The same is true of the difference in color and dynamics calibration between screens. One emphasizes reds, another emphasizes blues. One is oversaturated, while another is very bland and desaturated. The blacks and whites all vary from screen to screen... so on, and so forth. However, when working on a perfectly calibrated screen, one is able to find the perfect balance between colours, hence any given aspect of the coloration will never be too far out of balance on any given screen - regardless of its particular characteristics. A perfect skin tone (reds) will never seem too red on oversaturated screens, just as it will never look too bland on desaturated screens. All that to say, the same is quite true for studio monitors. When the creating and decision-making occurs from a balanced, middleground position, it stands a far better chance of proper translation to systems that are out of balance. It also takes the guesswork out of things, prevents over/under correction, and enables intelligent mix decisions.

Now studio monitors are not all equal. To achieve the level of imaging, resolution, and power that is needed to reproduce the more subtle nuances of your mix, it requires more than something like a Yamaha HS8. You are looking at something more in the class of the Barefoot MM27's.

Granted, while it is possible to produce great mixes on nearly any speaker, by taKing the time to really learn them; one would be hardpressed to beat accurate monitoring.

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My personal goal is to mix towards playback systems of high quality in controlled environments.

I do believe its possible to make a great mixes through a pair of cheaper monitors, many people do. But this is my goal when mixing, summing all the details together into one sound picture. And that requires monitor speakers that can playback details.

With that said, i use a pair of Yamaha HS50M myself and wont afford anything else for some years probably ;-).

  • I could be wrong, but I feel like details get lost not because the frequency response isn't flat, but because frequencies are missing or the curve isn't smooth and has strange resonances. Also, even if monitors are flat, they could conceivably ring longer at certain frequencies than others, since frequency response curve is measured at peak levels and not rms (at least, I'm assuming it is; I could be wrong) – James M. Lay Feb 4 '15 at 6:13
  • For me the details is also about headroom before mechanical distortion, diffraction, clear stereo image, use of wave guides, that i don't feel there is a gap somewhere in the frequency response, throughout bas-reflex systems etc etc.. All the small things add up into transparency, revealing whats going on with less coloration due to its construction. When i add a fairchild to the masterbus, i really get to hear how it affects the low and top end of this mix, and that will affect how i mix a bit differently compared to mixing through a pair of HS50M. And all those mixing choices sums up. Cont.. – Johan Sveide Feb 4 '15 at 12:17
  • The sum i believe makes a good starting point. A mix made through a high quality sound reproduction system and room i believe also works in less good systems. This is the case because all my choices is made towards the real "flat" as a reference. I don't have to overcompensate anything to hear it the way i want, and by doing so i end up maybe doing less compression and EQing because i get results earlier then through a pair of HS50M. Ending up closer to flat in a way. And i do believe this is a good starting point in all sound reproduction systems. Cont.. – Johan Sveide Feb 4 '15 at 12:35
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    Because what speakers and rooms with bumps and dips will do is drag the mix in different directions. So if the mix is dragged less in different directions from the beginning (less away from flat), then it wont be affected as much by the bumps and dips. This is how i think about it, but of course nothing is right and wrong when it comes to mixing, its all subjective in the end, and you know what ever works :-). Hope my description of my thoughts makes sense, i had a hard time trying to put it into words. Tell me if there is anything that is not clear and i try to explain again :-). – Johan Sveide Feb 4 '15 at 12:40

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