by Phil O'Keefe
Studio monitors have one main purpose - to reproduce the sounds that are played into them accurately. Unlike consumer HiFi speakers, they're not supposed to hype the sound or make things "sound good" or flattering; instead, their emphasis is on accuracy and fidelity so that you can make decisions based on how the music actually sounds as opposed to basing your decisions on some sonic false reality. But as you may have noticed, lots of powered studio monitors feature various adjustable controls. If the objective of their design is accurate sound, then why the need for all those controls, and more importantly, how should you set them?
Figure 1: The controls on the KRK ROKIT 10-3 G3 are typical of those found on many modern-era powered studio monitors
The most common controls on modern powered studio monitors are level controls, and tonal (EQ) controls.
Level Controls (also sometimes called Input Gain or Trim controls) allow you some degree of control over the speaker's playback level. Some models have full-range level controls so that you can adjust their levels completely independently from the playback device, while the level controls on other models are intended more as trim controls to adjust their levels over a smaller range, and work in conjunction with the volume control on your monitor controller, audio interface, or DAW software.
If you have multiple sets of studio monitors, the level controls can be handy for matching their relative playback levels so that when you switch from your "big speakers" to your smaller nearfield monitors, there isn't a volume change. Such changes can not only be distracting, but can make direct comparisons more difficult.
Tonal Controls allow you to adjust the response of the monitors to your personal preferences and to adjust their response to compensate for how their sound changes, depending on where you place them within your room. This is the area that is probably the most confusing for neophyte users, and the biggest factor over which monitor designers have zero control, but placement can make a huge difference in how speakers sound and respond.
A monitoring system isn't just about speakers and your monitor controller - the room the speakers are operating in, and their location within the room will have a huge effect on what you hear. Essentially, your room is a filter. You'll sometimes see phrases like "half space" and "quarter space" used in discussions about speaker placement. These terms, from the science of acoustics, relate to the environment around the speaker.
When sitting far away from any reflective boundaries such as floors, ceilings or walls, a speaker is said to be in a free-field environment. A true free-field has no reflections to interact with the sound radiating from the speaker cabinet. What you hear are the speakers themselves, with no reinforcement from refections off of nearby room surfaces. Of course, speaker cabinets don't radiate omnidirectionally at all frequencies; midrange and higher frequencies tend to be far more directional than low frequencies.
When placed near one large boundary, such as a wall, a speaker is said to be in a half-space environment. This placement allows the sound to radiate in half the directions possible with a free-field placement, and can result in boosted levels compared to a free-field placement - especially in the bass frequencies.
When placed close to two boundaries, such as a wall and floor, or a wall/wall corner, the speaker is in a quarter-space environment, which gives you twice the bass boost of a half-space placement - upwards of 6 dB.
What about the room's trihedral corners, where two walls meet with either the floor or ceiling? These are known as eighth-space locations, and placing your speakers here can result in as much as a whopping 9 dB increase compared to a free-field placement.
The exact amount of boost you'll get is usually a bit less and will vary, depending on tons of variables such as the size of the boundary and speaker cabinet and how close they are to each other. But now that you have a general idea of what speaker location can do, and armed with a copy of your speaker's manual, you can tweak the controls to help you adjust your monitors for the best response.
You may have heard or read about the importance of maintaining symmetry in your studio control room setup. The basic idea is that the setup should be centered, with equal distance to the wall behind both monitors, as well as from the sides of the monitors to the side walls. Well, this symmetry is also important with your speaker control settings. Avoid setting the EQ controls on your monitor speakers differently, since this can mess with the stereo imaging and frequency spectrum. Volume levels should also be carefully matched or your mix will sound like it is coming more from one side than the other, even if all the panpots are centered.
Giving you specific recommendations for your monitor control settings is really difficult in an article because there's no way to know what speakers you have, what the room is like, and where the speakers are sitting within your room. Conventional wisdom says you should try to avoid putting your speakers into the room corners, and some monitors with rearward-firing ports should be set so there is sufficient space between them and the wall behind them. Again, the best place to start for recommendations on placement and control settings is the manual for your specific speakers. Alternatively, you can always ask on one of the Harmony Central recording-related forums, such as the Studio Trenches - make sure you provide as much detailed information as possible about your room dimensions, gear layout and speaker models if you do.
Also take your own personal preferences into consideration. I'm of the opinion that anything that helps you make better mixes is fair game. Start by getting to know your monitors and your room. Listen to lots of well-mixed commercial recordings to get a baseline for how good mixes sound in your room, and refer to them occasionally when mixing. If your mixes tend to sound bass-shy when played back on most other systems outside of your studio, try cutting the bass controls on your studio monitors back a bit. You'll tend to push the bass hotter than you did previously, and should notice more bass on the mixes when played elsewhere. If you tend to mix the highs too bright, try boosting the high frequency controls on your monitors a bit. The extra treble will help, and you'll probably use less when mixing. Levels are also a matter of preference, but be aware of two things. First, our ears respond most accurately when levels are at about 85dB(A) SPL, and going much higher in volume than that reduces the amount of time you can safely be exposed to those levels. Keep your ears safe and don't listen at high volume levels for extended periods!
Phil O'Keefe is a multi-instrumentalist, recording engineer / producer and the Senior Editor of Harmony Central. He has engineered, produced and performed on countless recording sessions in a diverse range of styles, with artists such as Alien Ant Farm, Jules Day, Voodoo Glow Skulls, John McGill, Michael Knott and Alexa's Wish. He is a former featured monthly columnist for EQ magazine, and his articles and product reviews have also appeared in Keyboard, Electronic Musician and Guitar Player magazines.