Studio Monitors


While signal processors, tape recorders, consoles and musical instruments seem to make quantum leaps in technology every year, studio monitors—a critical factor in the recording chain—seem to be stuck somewhere in the Paleolithic era. The evolution of studio monitors has been a continual process and the integration of exotic materials, interactive electronics, innovative transducers and new designs into the studio listening environment could mean some big news for the control rooms of the next decade. We checked in with some speaker manufacturers, soliciting their views on current market trends and what we might expect to see in the next generation. Perhaps the best is yet to come.

Before we embark on any discussions concerning studio loudspeakers, a few ground rules are necessary. Edward M. Long, of Oakland, Calif.-based E.M. Long Associates/Calibration Standard Instruments, originally coined the phrase near-field monitor and holds the trademark on the phrase time-align. “The word ‘monitor’ comes from the Latin word ‘monare,’ to warn,” notes Long, “and the difference between a monitor and a consumer loudspeaker is in the design goal. A monitor should allow an engineer to hear bad things in a recording so he can fix them. Since consumers can’t do anything about a bad recording, their loudspeakers should make bad recordings sound at least acceptable.

“Fifteen years ago, we introduced the MDM-4 Nearfield Monitor,” Long continues, “which allowed mixing decisions to be made in a consistent way by engineers and producers who travel from one studio control room to another. I think this trend will continue.”

This market direction has certainly been apparent to Yamaha. Over the past five years, the white cones of its compact NS-10 speakers have become a familiar sign in studios throughout the world. Yamaha’s Gerry Tschetter feels “the near-field market will continue to grow,” but observes that the close-field speaker phenomenon has changed the work habits of recordists everywhere. “Engineers used to listen on the large, soffitt-mounted monitors most of the time and went to the near-fields to check mixes. Today, that trend has almost completely reversed to the point where engineers work mostly on the near-field monitors and occasionally go back to the large monitors to check things.”

Another factor in the popularity of near-field monitors is the growing home studio recording and MIDI market. According to Tannoy’s Bill Calma, “An average person in a home or garage can actually come out with a pretty decent mix these days. People have come to realize that they don’t have to monitor at 118 dB, which is a welcome change. Large-format monitors are going to dwindle—there will be less and less of the full-blown 48-track studios as we know them today—so near-field monitoring is going to become more important. In the future, we’re going to see more emphasis from the manufacturers on quality near-fields with quality components.

“The possibility of near-field monitors going up somewhat in size is very likely,” Calma predicts. “Physics alone dictates that we’ll need a few more cubic inches under the ‘hood’ for more bottom end. For example, the new DMT version of our NFMs gets down to 48 Hz; we’re starting to get down there with smaller boxes, but I don’t think they will get smaller than, say, a Yamaha NS-10 or our PBM-6.5.”

Glenn Phoenix of Westlake Audio has observed an overall demand for higher-quality monitors, regardless of the size. “Westlake’s direction,” Phoenix explains, “has been a continuation of what we’ve been into since the beginning of our company: good imaging with low distortion and good power handling. Low-distortion monitors have really become a necessity. With digital recording, there’s more of a population of engineers who are tuned into that.

“We believe in total symmetry in the monitor,” Phoenix continues, “which creates a totally symmetrical polar pattern. We think that’s important. Other designs, like coaxials, approach it slightly differently: While it’s probably the most cost-effective way to achieve that totally symmetrical polar pattern, we feel that it has its trade-offs. You can’t get that same low distortion that we get with discrete components.”

The coaxial design is defended by Larry Doran of Professional Audio Services (PAS), whose TOC (Time Offset Correction) line of monitors includes both single and double-15 models. “Coaxials are a traditional design in studio monitors, going back to the Altec 604s, Tannoys and UREIs. It’s very accepted and offers point-source monitoring that can’t be accomplished with multiple components.” The top-of-the-line TOC SM-2 has a 2-inch throat, coaxially mounted, compression driver. Can we expect to see more 2-inch drivers in co-ax monitor designs in the future? “I would think so,” answers Doran. “The distortion level in a 2-inch throat is significantly lower than a 1-inch driver, although it’s twice as expensive.”

The ongoing battle of horn vs. all-cone systems continues, with no clear-cut victor in sight in the near future. “There is a trend right now for all direct-radiator systems that will play loud,” observes Mark Gander of JBL, manufacturers of horn-loaded systems in its BiRadial Series (JBL also distributes UREI Time Align coaxial horn systems), as well as all-cone monitors in its 4400 and Control Series. “Unfortunately,” Gander continues, “a direct-radiator system can’t play as loud as a horn system, so that trend won’t dominate the market. The all-direct radiator systems are limited in that application by the constraints of that technology. If you put in enough power to make them play as loud as horns, you run into thermal compression problems.”

Claude Fortier of State of the Art Electronik, a Canadian manufacturer of electronically controlled, direct-radiating monitors, has noticed “a lot of studios changing away from horn-type loudspeakers, although they’re still very popular in California. In Toronto, almost all the major studios are taking out their horn-based systems and replacing them with either ours or other systems, for vastly improved frequency response, smoothness and much lower distortion. Of course, horn systems can play much louder at this point in time, but with future improvements in direct-radiator technology, any argument for using a horn for its sound power output may be eliminated.”

The race for high-performance sound at ever-increasing sound pressure levels can lead to some adverse effects, adds Fortier. “In the large rock studios, where the SPL requirements are far above hearing damage levels, I’m not sure that the problem can be solved by better loudspeakers. At those volumes, the ear becomes very nonlinear due to muscles compressing on the bones in the ear.”

Electro-Voice’s Ivan Schwartz observes an increasing interest in true, accurate, sub-bass reproduction in many of the larger studio installations. “What I like to call ‘mondo’ monitors are coming back in vogue, ranging from things like the Puk studio system with four 30-inch woofers to anything else. Some of these make a lot of sense, but some of the large studio systems are silly, because you have to be so far away for the sound to be coherent. I’ve seen a few good installations, but in the future, true LF reproduction from single subwoofers will become the trend.”

“Monitors capable of high acoustical output will be much smaller,” foresees Ed Long, “because technology such as our ELF (Extended Low-Frequency) system will allow the size of bass enclosures to be considerably reduced. Our custom Time-Align CRM Series of monitors use 18-inch bass drivers in separate 2-cubic-foot enclosures to achieve flat response to 32 Hz. Monitors like this will be more versatile since they can fit into tighter situations. If more bass output level is needed, more bass enclosures and amplifiers can be added.”

The future may also bring more self-powered systems, with internal amplification tailored to the specific drivers. According to Meyer Sound’s Mark Johnson, whose company is currently developing its first near-field monitors (although not necessarily a self-powered system), “The concept is very logical. At one time, I was cruising some studios, talking to engineers who brought in their own reference monitors. I asked them what kind of amplifiers they used, and they said, ‘Oh, whatever’s here.’ That didn’t seem worthwhile to me, because all amplifiers do sound differently, and the whole idea of a near-field reference is to have something to refer back to. Having an amplifier built into the speaker creates a larger package, but taking away a lot of the variables would be a welcome addition.”

As a leading proponent in electronically controlled loudspeakers for sound reinforcement and studio monitoring, the Meyer near-field speakers will also be designed to work with an external processor. Johnson feels the trend toward processed systems will become more widespread among other manufacturers in the next decade because “electronics make the whole thing more controllable. Once you start matching electronics to the individual boxes or the individual components, you have much more control over the outcome of the product. Everything we make will have control electronics because there are so many parameters involved in the processing, including phase response alignment, frequency response alignment and protection of the system, which is very important in recording, as well as sound reinforcement.”

This vision of processor-controlled systems is also shared by Yamaha’s Tschetter. “In speakers, the revolutions and breakthroughs are less frequent than in some other product areas,” he notes. “In the future, we may see processor-controlled systems, where the use of digitally controlled equalization could allow engineers to individually tailor their monitors. Our DEQ7 digital equalizer could start to approach these things; each engineer could tune a preferred EQ curve and store it for later recall.”

“There seems to be a market for—not processor-controlled—but electronically controlled speaker systems that allow operation at up to the theoretical limits of the drivers,” observes E-V’s Schwartz. He continues, with this caveat: “It’s kind of a dangerous thing. In one sense, people in the recording studio want it as loud as possible, yet they don’t want anything artificially reducing their dynamic range. There’s a lot more to be said about having more electronically integrated driver systems.”

State of the Art Electronik’s Fortier feels the idea of electronic monitoring control could evolve much further in the 1990s. “The main direction we’re going is into active soundfield control—the ability to control both the spatial characteristics of the sound and the overall quality of the sound—improving frequency response and removing detrimental room effects. We’re also doing psychoacoustical testing to see if some sounds can mask other sounds. Applying time-delayed sounds in various spectral shapes can correct for room acoustics, too much echo or other problems. This can be brought about by the advent of cheap DSP chips. Our intention is to make adaptive systems, where the electronics ‘learn’ the room under some computer algorithm and adapt the monitors to the room. The system could set itself to what we consider ideal for the room or make the room sound smaller or larger.”

Some big surprises in speaker technology may be in store for the next 10 years, according to Bill Calma of Tannoy. “The Japanese don’t built the world’s best loudspeakers, but in terms of R&D, they’re really on to some hip things. The flat-plane speakers from Technics and Sony didn’t sound real good, but their approach to technology is correct. They may be a major force to reckon with in the coming decade. In the 1990s, I think we’ll actually see some new technology in loudspeakers—not just new versions of moving coils or electrostats, but new technology for re-creating audio. Most of what we’re dealing with now goes back to the 1920s and 1930s, so future developments should be very exciting.”

JBL’s Mark Gander doesn’t see any major breakthroughs in studio monitors in the next few years: “We’ll see a continuing evolution of materials and techniques,” Gander postulates, “with better materials, better integration of components within a system and perhaps more integration of electronics into systems. On the far horizon, there may be radical changes, like superconductivity. Usually, major breakthroughs come from military or other research rather than from the audio industry itself. For instance, our ability to use titanium diaphragms came from aerospace applications. It’s the same thing with magnet materials, like neodymium. Superconductivity was a dormant area, but perhaps we could take advantage of this in voice coil wires. Or it might become economical to cryogenically cool a magnet structure to yield super-efficient transducers. We all have to be open-minded in applying new technologies from major research areas to the problems of acoustical transduction.”