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Speaker Placement & Acoustic Environment Effects,

November 1994
Nov 1, 1994 6:52 PM, By Bob Hodas

ON CLOSE-FIELD MONITORING SYSTEMS

As an independent recording engineer, I have been using near-field monitors for the past 14
years. The decision to purchase my own near-fields was made in 1980 after a disastrous
recording project in Japan. Studio selection was handled by the record company, and
everything was set in stone when I walked off the plane. Three separate facilities were used for
tracking, overdubs and mixing. All three sounded completely different because they had
different monitors and acoustic designers. I brought along a tape I was familiar with and tried
to get a reference in each room. Well, this turned out to be quite difficult, especially in the mix
room.

All the staff engineers were quite proud of the their rooms, and I was uncomfortable suggesting
that there were acoustical problems. One studio’s staff was absolutely beaming because they
had not paid a design fee, even though this was obviously a room done by a well-known
designer. They had taken the design drawn up for their European parent company and used it
for their own room. The only problem was that the Japanese room was much smaller and they
had simply shrunk the design dimensions using a ratio (not to mention that they installed
different monitors). I didn’t have the heart to tell them that it doesn’t work that way. The coup
de grace was at the mastering studio, whose dimensions were a perfect cube. Standing waves
were a nightmare.

Upon my return, I purchased a set of speakers that was to become my reference standard no
matter where I went. At this point, I would like to give credit where credit is due for those of
you that don’t know your audio Hall of Fame history. Ed Long’s Calibration Systems in Oakland,
Calif., holds the trademark for the term "near-field monitor," as well as other industry-sweeping
innovations such as Time Align. Out of respect for Long, engineers should know that today, the
term “near-field” has become synonymous with close-field monitor systems just like Kleenex is
synonymous with tissue paper.

Near-fields eventually became a standard in the industry, as staff engineers positions vanished
and the independents roamed. Engineers found themselves fooled by in-house monitor systems
that were inaccurate or not properly maintained. I must admit that having a standard helped
me to make better records, but I still found that my speakers could sound different in a variety
of studios. This history led me into the field of room measurement, as I had a desire to quantify
exactly what I was hearing, all in the quest of making a better record.

I firmly believe in large room/transducer interface designs. Large soffitt-mounted monitors can
sound fantastic and at the same time be more fun to work on than small speakers. If properly
designed, they may also be more accurate than untuned console-top speakers. I have several
room-voiding clients who are very fastidious and proud of their monitoring environments. They
keep their rooms regularly voiced, and they recone woofers and replace diaphragms on a
regular schedule.

There seems to be a pervasive belief that if you use a console-top speaker, you will not be
affected by the control room acoustics and will get a more accurate frequency response. This
line of thinking also has led many people to believe that home studios can get away without
acoustical planning or treatment because the speakers are in your face. In a word, wrong.
Close-field monitors can be accurate only if care is taken in the placement of the speakers and
room issues are not ignored.

MEASUREMENT METHODOLOGY

The Meyer SIM System II, which I used for these tests, allows the gathering of large amounts
of information in real time, which aids in diagnosing problems quickly. In one screen, a room
response (pre- and post-EQ) is displayed, along with the EQ curve applied to the room and an
analysis of the system coherence. Other screens display room and phase response in real time.
Room reflections may be identified, and time alignment of components is clearly displayed. The
system gathers information at 1/24-octave resolution (245 frequencies, 8 Hz to 22 kHz), which
provides the ability to look deep into a room. Test signals include impulses, tones, noise—even
music may be used.

There are other parameters in addition to frequency response and phase. One such parameter
is coherence, a 245-point signal-to-noise ratio (on a per-frequency basis) of the system under
analysis. It compares the test signal source to the signal received at the microphone. This can
show direct vs. reflected sound, as well as distortion in the system. The Delay Finder displays
an impulse response that shows time alignment and room reflections.

Near-fields will not always display the exact same problems as the soffitted speakers. Position
in the room can make a big difference. I have solved certain problems by moving speakers a
mere six inches. The important point is that the room acoustics do not affect the near-fields,
and you cannot expect to avoid a room problem just by putting a speaker up close to your face.
These low-end anomalies are usually related to the dimensions of the room, but sometimes,
they can be diaphragmatic, as well. One example of a diaphragmatic problem is a non-
reinforced wall that vibrates at a specific frequency and cancels that frequency out of the room.
What are the solutions to these problems? There are two ways to go about it. I often
recommend contacting an acoustician once the problem has been identified. You need an
expert to give you cost-effective solutions. Solutions may include such things as bass traps,
resonators, diffusors or even moving walls. Some dimensional problems and placement loading
problems may also be cost-effectively solved using a minimum-phase parametric equalizer. You
need a minimum-phase EQ because the room problems described here are minimum-phase
phenomena and must be corrected as such. These solutions are also not necessarily mutually
exclusive. The combination of acoustic solutions combined with judicious use of a high-quality,
minimum-phase EQ can produce stellar results.

Commercial studios often address their low-end problems with acoustics and EQ. Many still
have some problems, but the majority of significant problems I have seen have been in project
studios. Because project studios are often in homes, they share certain dimensional restrictions,
such as an 8-foot ceiling height. Many small rooms suffer from an abundance of 150 to 300 Hz.
The main signature that seems to proliferate in the project studio is modes that make the low
end look like the Alps.

What about adding home stereo subwoofers to near-fields with the expectation that all low-end
problems will be solved? I have seen several subwoofers where the crossover point does not
meet the manufacturer’s specification. This can cause some significant problems.

Pardon my soapbox, but don’t think you can open a mastering room just because you can buy
cheap digital mastering programs—especially if you don’t pay attention to room response!
There is a lot to be said for relying on an expert’s ears and abilities in a room where many
records have been mastered.

Care and attention need to be taken when setting up any listening environment, whether it is
an existing professional control room or a new project studio. I hope the information above will
dispel some myths and help you to make better records.

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