(To read this series from the beginning, start here.)
If you’ve followed this series from the start – WOW, you are hungry for information, and you have also proven your strength by sticking with me through the whole story!
We’re nearing the finish line. Take a deep breath and we’ll get there together. It’s time now to take the analogue playback signal and pump it through your speakers, whether they be tiny earbuds or huge speaker cabinets. In this discussion, though, we’ll stick mainly to studio monitor speakers.
Just Not Enough
The electrical signal generated by your D/A converter represents the movement of a speaker as it pushes and pulls, out and in, to move air according to your audio signal. The signal at this point, however, is far too weak to physically move the magnets in a speaker system. The signal must be amplified first.
Some speakers have an amplifier built-in. In the studio we call these active speakers. Others, called passive speakers, need to be fed an amplified signal from a device (an amplifier) capable of powering the speakers.
If you find yourself working with passive speakers and a separate amplifier, be sure that your amplifier is wisely chosen to match the needs of the speakers. I’ll leave that outside the scope of this discussion.
In the recording studio, especially smaller studios, it is most common nowadays to find active speakers in use. These are a terrific choice for the studio, because the manufacturers of these devices have ensured that they have properly matched the amplifiers to the speakers.
It’s Not About Sounding Sweet
Don’t be convinced to buy the most powerful amplifier/speakers on the market. When recording and mixing audio, it is most effective to work at a volume similar to normal conversation. This reduces fatigue and keeps your ears safe from harmful loud volumes.
You will, however, want to work with speakers that are capable of reproducing the full spectrum of audio frequencies, from the lower notes up to the highest audible frequencies, accurately. This accuracy means that you are able to hear the actual content of your music, not the hyped low and high frequencies that “make everything sound better”. What you’re looking for is a set of Studio Monitors. For the purpose of creating music, studio monitors are intended to give you the accuracy that allows you to prepare your music for playback on any playback system. That becomes more difficult to accomplish if you’re listening to a playback system that aims to “sweeten” the sound.
Crossed Over and Back
A speaker system will have at least one moving membrane to drive the air around the speaker, and sometimes two or three such membranes. Typically, you’ll see speaker cones or horns, with more expensive designs using ribbons or other designs. For now, just call them all drivers.
If your speaker has only one driver, that single driver will be required to push audio for all frequencies, from the lowest notes to the highest. Designing and manufacturing such a driver is incredibly difficult (and expensive), because of the requirements to throw more air for the lower frequencies and to respond more quickly for the higher frequencies. Because of this, most speakers employ multiple drivers, each one designed specifically for certain ranges of frequencies: a larger driver for the lower frequencies, and smaller drivers for the higher frequencies, with separate amplifiers for each driver and a device (called a crossover) that splits the audio signal so that each driver is only fed the frequencies it can best reproduce. If you use a subwoofer – a specially designed large driver, in a separate enclosure, intended for the lowest of the low frequencies – you’ll need to ensure that your crossovers are properly configured for such a driver. Feeding the full audio signal to all of your drivers will result in inefficient use of your amplifiers, and an inaccurate sound played back in your room.
Why do we care? Each design has its flaws. A single-driver system will not reproduce the lower frequencies or the higher frequencies as well as a multi-driver system using crossovers. However, the crossovers themselves can be problematic, because they are manipulating the sound to be played back, and because they will introduce some inaccuracies around the crossover frequencies. But here’s the takeaway – multi-driver studio monitors are much cheaper to build than a similarly accurate single-driver studio monitor.
I’ll stop my rambling here. The truth is, we could spend all day talking about studio monitors, and we wouldn’t be making music while we did so. It’s not hard to find a good recommendation for monitors within your price range, whatever that range is. Set them up according to the manufacturer’s directions, and listen to great music on them to become familiar with their strengths and weaknesses, so that you can use that knowledge to make your own music sound great.
This wraps up our discussion of how to properly choose and make use of each of the components you’ll need to record and playback your music. A quick online search will demonstrate that any one of these components is enough to fill books, videos, and lots of debate. Hopefully our brief discussion has helped you to understand how to employ the gear to improve the sound of your recordings. If you need more advice, be sure to get in touch!