Ask a hundred audio professionals to describe the ideal reference monitor, and you’ll get as many answers. So, we narrowed the field down to seven, all nominees for this year’s Grammy Award for Best Engineer. The nominees we spoke to represent various backgrounds—their projects range from the familiar harmonies of The Eagles to White Zombie’s grinding metal grooves to the drama of Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana—yet they revealed common concerns when it comes to monitoring.
One of the issues facing these independent engineers is finding familiarity in diverse environments. Some find a constant in their monitor; to others, it is the biggest variable. Most mix only on reference monitors, avoiding mains except for occasional A/B comparisons, or to check for ultralow-frequency problems such as rumble or air-conditioning noise, or, when necessary, to “hype” artists or producers. Healthy hearing appears a priority; nearly everyone we spoke to mixes at low to moderate levels and has reduced those levels over the years.
As for the “right” system, that’s where the similarities end. A product favored by one person is often avoided by another. Read on to find out about the speakers these engineers love (and don’t love), as well as their tried-and-true tricks and their visions of the perfect monitor.
Like many engineers, Larry Rock’s training comes from experience. A trumpet player with a background in electronics, he engineered for 13 years at WFMT, a classical radio station in Chicago. He has worked on syndicated broadcasts for a number of opera companies and orchestras: the Chicago Symphony, the Philadelphia Orchestra, the Lyric Opera of Chicago, the Milwaukee Symphony and the St. Louis symphony, to name a few. For the past six years, he has been doing freelance work, mostly for BMG Records, where he and the late William Hoekstra were nominated for a Grammy for two St. Louis Symphony records, The Typewriter and Other Leroy Anderson Favorites and Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana.
“Speakers are really the weakest link of all,” Rock says, “because they are the most variable aspect of sound reproduction. Microphones and electronics work a certain way and may have certain limitations, but the limitations are more easily quantifiable, compared to the variations in environments from listening room to listening room. I try to be conscious of how people are likely to be listening to what I am recording, mixing, whatever. I think in the classical world, there’s probably more of a tendency for the consumers to have perhaps better, more elaborate speakers, but they’re still listening in living rooms that have characteristics that are not necessarily ideal compared to the ideal control room.
“I’m usually working at concert halls and have to set up control rooms in green rooms [backstage waiting rooms] and so on. I usually try to re-create, in effect, what I would call a typical listening room—a living room¬type situation, where you don’t completely dampen the room and leave some of the reflections to correspond to what a typical living room would be like. RPG Diffusors has a line of studio treatment devices that are easy to transport and install, even on a temporary basis, that make speaker monitoring much easier.
“I tend to use consumer-type speakers—high-level but not something that’s designed only for recording studio control rooms monitoring. I’ve been using Martin-Logan hybrid loudspeakers in the last few years. What I like about them is that because of the electrostatic panel being tall, it works well in a room where I have a mixing console in front of me, or an editing computer monitor. The other common speaker in my business—the B&W 801—is a good speaker, but many times, we find ourselves wanting to raise them off the floor so that they aren’t just dispersing into a table or mixing desk. But the problem is, the speakers don’t really sound the way they were designed to sound when they’re much off the floor.
“What I look for, and what I particularly like about the Martin-Logans, is the electrostatic panel. One of its innate characteristics is transparency across a wide dynamic range. Other than not having obvious colorations—I suppose that would have to be the top priority—having a speaker that sounds as good at low levels as it does at high levels is very important to me.
“I used 801s for years because they were a size that was movable. Then when the Martin-Logan Quest model came out, that was the first one of that line that I started to use, but they’re still a little bit on the large side for some of the rooms that I’ve been in. There’s a newer model of the Martin-Logan—SL3—which is a little smaller than the Quest and really seems to work well in most rooms. Over the years, I’ve used the Threshold power amps and the Hafler power amps.
“I tend not to monitor too loud. For the very important reason, again, there are very few people out there who are going to listen consistently at very loud levels, and if you mix so that everything sounds appropriately balanced at the highest level, then it may not sound as good at lower levels. By the same token, if you listen too low, then you tend to bring up spot mics too much. My overall theme is moderation: moderation in monitoring levels, moderation in the amount of absorption and control of your listening environment.”
Terry Date got started mixing in the early ’80s at a Seattle studio that later became Bad Animals. The Seattle scene was beginning to come alive, and Date was working with early heavy metal bands such as Metal Church, Mother Lovebone and Soundgarden. From there, he branched outside the Seattle area in search of regional music—co-producing in addition to engineering. He (along with Ulrich Wild) was nominated for a Grammy for White Zombie’s second Geffen release, Astro-Creep 2000: Songs of Love, Destruction and Other Synthetic Delusions of the Electric Head.
“I am pretty much a [Yamaha] NS-10 person, and I’ll use big speakers in a studio, [but] there aren’t a lot of studios I go to where the big speakers sound great, so I use them more for a thrill factor than anything else. And I try and check everything I do in some kind of car someplace, usually a rental car since I’m on the road all the time. In the studio, it’s NS-10 exclusively. I need as much consistency as I can get, from project to project, because everything else around the speakers is always different.
“I never mix on mains. There’s a couple of studios that I’ve been in where I really like the way the mains sound, and I trust them really well, and when I’m doing early on low-end stuff, I’ll get up on the mains a little bit. Usually, the only time they get used is when the band comes in and wants to listen. They always want to turn up on the big speakers loud, and then I leave the room. Another thing I’m doing is using the NS-10s and a little [Community] subwoofer with them so we can get a little low end into them at loud volumes.
“In the early days, I listened really loud, and I still listen loud quite a bit, but I’ve learned to listen quietly also, especially on the NS-10s, because you can hear the high end a little bit better at lower levels. I still like to listen pretty loud—if you’re looking at a little meter, I would guess over 100 dB. The type of music I do is usually really powerful; it’s loud and noisy, and I don’t think anybody who listens to it listens to it at really low levels anyway, so I like to rough it in at loud levels and get more specific down low.
“If I know where the problems are, and I’m used to something, it doesn’t really matter how accurate the speaker is to me, because there are so many things that influence how you hear. The NS-10s give me the constant in so many different situations. So the perfect monitor to me is the one that I’m using, the one I’m used to.
“A lot of people spend a lot of time trying to do something one better than what was working before, but I would just say that if something is working for you, and if it’s comfortable for you, then stick with it. If you’re thinking about technology too much, then you’re not really listening to what you should be listening to. The most important thing is what goes into the speakers, not what comes out of them.”
This year marks Richard Dodd’s 25th year as a recording engineer. A Nashville-based freelancer, he’s mixed Tom Petty, the Traveling Wilburys, George Harrison, Jeff Lynne and Roy Orbison; his producer credits include Billy Pilgrim and Clannad. His recent work with Dave Bianco, Stephen McLaughlin and Jim Scott on Tom Petty’s Wildflowers (Warner Bros.) earned him a Grammy nomination for Best Engineered Album. His current monitors of choice are Tannoy PBM-8s and KEF C-55s, powered by a Revox amp.
“My favorite characteristic [of the Tannoys] is they are colored, but colored in a real-world manner. NS-10s can be exciting when they’re loud, very exciting, without doing too much damage to your ears; that’s probably why they’re popular. I have, at the moment, the standby of the Tannoys and the KEFs. But you can’t turn the KEFs up, be excited or anything, because they blow up too easily. And they don’t give you anything but what you’ve got; for a small speaker, they’re really boring. But they do help you a lot with balance. I tend to come back to the Tannoys every time: They seem to be more consistent room to room, amp to amp, and volume to volume. The system in my car, which, locally at least, I always have with me, is probably my ultimate test because I know it so well. I probably do more listening in the car than anywhere else.”
Dodd, unlike many freelance engineers, does not travel with his monitors. “The reason behind that is that in a different environment, the same speakers are different. You take something that you know and love, put it in a different environment with a different power amp, and they’re no longer the things you know and love. I tend to give people credit for what they’ve got, and can work from there. And also, it’s a new experience, as well. After 25 years, a little bit of spice is a good thing.
“In my own studio,” Dodd says, “I rely on smaller near-field monitors only. So when I’m working in someone else’s studio, then the mains are whatever they are, and then I assess them briefly as to what element of them they’re going to be useful to me for. And use them then. It depends on the style of music you’re working on, as well: If you’re working on an orchestral thing, and you’re faced with a large monitor system that is horn-based, they’re absolutely useless, in my opinion, because the crossovers are so defined that you find the oboe or something just leaping out of one part of the speaker, and it’s totally out of balance, because it just happens to hit right at the crossover point. Usually, I’ll use big speakers to impress people.
“I think [my] overall monitoring level over the 25 years has come down significantly. And the duration of monitoring accurately—because of age, I think, in my case—has come down. I’m blessed, fortunately, with as good of hearing as I had 25 years ago. But it doesn’t last for 18 hours like it used to, which is a shame, but it means I get home to the family.
“My dream monitor would sound the same in any environment, at every volume, and fit in my pocket so I could take it with me and be sure that I’ve got an exact, precise monitoring system wherever I am. That would be perfect. Somebody’s going to say, ‘Well, just get yourself a pair of headphones.’ But, unfortunately, that’s a whole new world.
“The environment has probably more to do with what you hear than the actual driver itself. You could pick some speakers up from 25 years ago and give them the right environment and the right amplification, and they could sound every bit as good, if not better and more accurate, than a ‘state-of-the-art’ monitoring system today. It’s the whole package.
“I know there are some people who’ll swear by a certain speaker, and good luck to them. They’re not wrong, they’re right—for them. Me, I don’t know. I like the excitement of finding out. The whole prospect of what speakers to use is such a can of worms. Basically, if you’re enjoying it and you’re making other people enjoy it, something’s right. And if you’re not, well, something’s wrong.”
Elliot Scheiner has been engineering since 1967, when he worked with Phil Ramone at A&R Recording in New York. A partial list of engineering credits includes Steely Dan, Billy Joel, Van Morrison, Rufus and Chaka Khan, and George Benson with the Count Basie Orchestra. Producer credits include Jimmy Buffett, Exile and Bobby McFerrin. His Grammy nomination is for his mixing with Rob Jacobs on The Eagles’ Hell Freezes Over (Geffen).
“I used to carry monitors; I don’t anymore. Now, I use NS-10s. They’re more realistic; it forces you to make things sound good. It’s not a great-sounding speakers. It’s a real workhorse, so you know that when you get a mix or if you get anything sounding good on those, it’s going to relate to the outside world. When I originally started mixing, I was using KLH-3s. And then when I started working with Steely Dan, they wanted to monitor on Dynacos. I used those for a while and then I moved on to Visoniks, because they were using the Visoniks. I used to carry around a pair of Visoniks, and I ran into a problem where stuff just sounded too good on them and didn’t relate to other systems. And then I started using Dynaudios and ran into the same problem. They’re one of the best-sounding speakers I’ve heard. So I’m back to using NS-10s.
“I always check in a car. I always get a [rental] car based on the system that’s in it. I usually get a Ford, because I like the way their systems sound. When I’m at home, I’ll ref in my car; I have a Nissan Pathfinder and the system is great in there.
“I never mix on mains; most mains to me just don’t sound good. And I mix at a very soft level. The only time I play back on big monitors is if somebody wants to be hyped. And even then, I’m hesitant because you end up playing back on a big system that’s supposed to be great and your stuff doesn’t sound great.
“[In an ideal monitor] I’d like to see something that doesn’t have too much top and bottom. A lot of the newer monitors really glorify the top and the bottom, and not much in the midrange, and that’s a problem I’ve run into with a couple of these systems, where you end up putting too much midrange into the mixes. So I’d like to see a speaker that’s a little more even all across.”
Scheiner monitors at 75 dB. “I’ve monitored at a low level for so long, and I believe it saved my ears. The louder you monitor, the more you’re going to punish yourself. Also, it’s less fatiguing monitoring at low levels. I can mix for 12 hours a day and I’m still pretty good; where if I’m forced, when somebody wants to hear stuff louder every now and then—if a quarter of my day is spent monitoring things louder—it fatigues me.”
Al Schmitt’s work on Dr. John’s Afterglow (Blue Thumb) earned him his 15th Grammy nomination. This industry veteran has worked with such legendary performers as Frank Sinatra, Barbra Streisand, Quincy Jones, Liza Minelli and Dianne Schuur and was getting ready to do a McCoy Tyner album when Mix spoke with him about reference monitors.
“The monitors I use are kind of a hybrid; they’re made by the Mastering Lab, with 10-inch Tannoys. The crossover network and the encasements are Mastering Lab. I’ve been using them for maybe the last three or four years and I’m just totally knocked out by them. It used to be that [during mastering] we were either taking out bass or adding bass, or adding some top end or whatever, when we were all going through the NS-10 fad. Before the NS-10s, I used Mitsubishi monitors, and I liked those a lot. Unfortunately, they stopped making them, and you couldn’t get parts, so I stopped using those and I started using the NS-10s, because you could find them in every studio. So now that I have these [Tannoy/Mastering Lab] speakers, I ship them everywhere I go, so they go with me like a briefcase.”
Schmitt does not reference on car or portable systems and he doesn’t spend much time on mains. “One percent. Very, very little. Everywhere you go, they sound different. A lot of studios, they’re boomy or they have no relationship to what’s really going on. Once in a while, I’ll switch up to see how they relate to my speakers, but it’s rare.
“Years ago, I was listening a lot louder and I was listening on the mains. I don’t listen as loud anymore. I don’t have a set level, and I will crank it up if the artist or producer wants to hear it loud at times, but most of the time, I monitor very softly. I think that’s basically the change, plus I have my own speakers. I might work in 40 different studios in a year, so it’s really important that I have a place to focus in on and that’s my speakers, you know; that’s what keeps everything uniform for me.
“I’d love to see everybody have the speakers I have, and that would be ideal for me—to be able to go everywhere and there could be some sort of standard system. A lot of the independent engineers have their own speakers and bring them around with them or they rent. I don’t find near as many people using the NS-10s anymore as they used to. Everybody was using them for a while, but here we were, doing an album that maybe cost $350,000 to do and have 60 musicians in the studio and we and everybody else were monitoring on $300 speakers. What’s wrong with this picture? Now that we’ve gotten away from that and engineers are using better monitoring systems, whether it be the Genelecs or Mastering Lab speakers, or the Manley speakers.”
”It’s surprising, really,” says Tony Faulkner of his Grammy nomination for engineering the Anonymous 4’s recording of The Lily and the Lamb—Chant and Polyphony From Medieval England (Harmonia Mundi) and the St. Petersburg Philharmonic’s performance of Prokofiev’s “Alexander Nevsky” (BMG/RCA Victor). “I’m just working from my kitchen table in a suburb of London.” Faulkner’s “kitchen table” is Green Room Productions, a self-run (with the occasional help of students and temporary works) production company that records more than 70 classical albums yearly, mostly for independent labels such as Harmonia Mundi and Hyperion, and corporate clients such as BMG and Warners.
“I use Quad electrostatics, which is something you’d never use in the rock business at all because they’re not quite loud enough. But for classical music, they’re very transparent with a very clean, clear sound. I’ve got B&W 801s, which we run as well because quite a lot of producers know them better than they know the Quads. I’ve also got some Tannoys, which come out for doing very loud stuff. I use mainly big tube amps; we’ve got a stereo 834 E.A.R., and we’ve got two big mono blocks, which are about 300 watts a side. And I also have a big Threshold S/1000s.
“We do quite a lot of listening on headphones because when you work on location doing wide dynamic range material, you get quite a lot of outside noise. And if you listen on headphones, you’ll get more dynamic range and a lot of the producers I work with are very used to wearing headphones all the time. I don’t like to listen to them all the time because otherwise, you just make albums that sound good on headphones and most people don’t listen on headphones.”
Faulkner prefers to monitor at relatively low levels. “With classical music, it has a very wide dynamic range, which means that if you turn them up too loud when the orchestra plays fortissimo, you will actually blow yourself out of the room. We’re trying to reproduce the way people listen at home and most people don’t listen at the sort of volume that actually gets the neighbors beating about your door.
“For me at the moment, the ideal speakers are actually the Quads. If I could wave a magic wand, I would have Quads with another octave of deep bass. They don’t have a lot of deep bass because to make them have a deep bass, they’d have to be twice the size and a lot more expensive and a lot more awkward to move and then no consumers would buy them either because they’d just be completely out of reach.
“I rely on the microphones a lot. It’s the sort of music I record. Once you start meddling and putting out lots of microphones and lots of tracks and playing around with it afterward, then you’re very dependent on the quality of your monitoring, and if you’ve got it wrong, then you can really screw the album up something terrible. My idea is, if possible, to keep my hands off the whole thing completely and make it as transparent as possible.”
Bruce Swedien’s career spans nearly four decades. He started out in Chicago in the late ’50s, at the end of the big band era. There, he worked at Universal, recording legends such as Count Basie, Duke Ellington, Woody Herman and Stan Kenton. In 1975, he moved to Los Angeles and spent 17 years there before heading east, where he is currently based. He is probably best known for his producing, writing and engineering with Michael Jackson, most recently on the Epic release HIStory, for which Swedien received Grammy nominations as both producer (with Jackson) and engineer.
“When I started in the business, there was no such thing as near-field monitoring. Most of the control rooms that I started work in were built for mono, so they were very, very small and with a single loudspeaker. Pretty soon, we were trying to fit two speakers in where one was, and so the control rooms have gotten much larger. Consequently, the monitoring setup is much more sophisticated.
“What I use for my own monitoring, for near-field, is a pair of custom-made Westlake BBSM-8s. And I absolutely love them. The BBSM-8s are passive bi-amped and four mono block Class-A Electrocompaniets power those speakers. Then, for my reality check, I use Auratones. The amp I use for those is a McIntosh 2105. I even have a little radio transmitter that I carry around with me in my stuff, so we plug that in and we can listen to the mix on the radio—any kind of radio.” He carries his custom monitors, plus two 7-foot outboard racks and 105 microphones everywhere he goes. “Quincy Jones says that moving me from studio to studio is like moving the 5th Army.”
Swedien monitors on mains only about 10 percent of the time. “I usually use the big speakers to check for low end and so on, but having been in the business a few years, I’ve been very fussy about my hearing. I never monitor more than at an SPL of 85 dB for a long period of time. If I do crank it on the big speakers, it’ll be for less than 10 minutes out of the hour. I try to observe the OSHA standards.
“The main thing for me, of course, would be musicality. I am more interested in a speaker that has a wide spectral range so I can monitor at an SPL of 90 or less and hear the full spectrum.
“The one thing that I think frightened me early on was the fact that any hearing damage is irreversible. It doesn’t go away. The most important thing is to protect your hearing. If you’re planning to hang out in these studios as long as I have and ignore that, you’re going to have a very short career. And I think I’m a good example of how that works.”