Following the above, and this is going to disappoint a lot of people, I'm afraid, we are going to start with the very un-glamorous back end of the recording chain.
Before you can do anything in the way of making polished recordings, you have to be able to trust your ears.
This cannot be over-stated. You must be able to trust what you hear, and only then can you start to make good decisions. This is partly a philosophical, state-of-mind thing, but it is also partly a practical matter. You need to be able to trust that what you hear in the control room (or in the spare bedroom you use for recording) is what is actually on the tape or the hard disk. And that means that you need to have at least a certain bare minimum of room acoustics and monitoring quality.
If there is one area in your studio to splurge on, it is monitors (aka speakers). I'm going to do a detailed buying guide later, but for now it is enough to say that the studio monitors are the the MOST important component. I would rather make a record in mono on a four-track recorder with a single decent monitor in a good room than try to make a record on a Neve console with a Bose surround-sound setup in a typical living room. And I'm not even kidding.
Passable monitors don't have to be all that expensive, and they don't have to be glorious-sounding speakers, they just have to be accurate. Let's talk for a moment on why home stereos often make bad monitors, even expensive or impressive-sounding home stereos:
The purpose of a studio reference monitor is to accurately render the playback material. The purpose of a good home stereo is to sound good. These goals are often at odds with one another, and a simple frequency chart does not answer the question.
A common trick among hifi speakers is a ported design that delivers what I call ONB, short for "one note bass." The speaker designer creates an enclosure designed to deliver a dramatic "thump" right around the frequency cutoff of the speaker. This gives an extended sense of low-end, and it gives a dramatic, focused, powerful-sounding bass that can be very enjoyable to listen to, but it is the kiss of death for reference monitoring. Every bass note is rendered like a kick drum, and the recordist cannot get an accurate sense of the level or tonality of the low-end. If you play back something mixed on a ONB system on a different stereo, the bass is all over the place, reappearing and disappearing, with no apparent consistency or logic to the level. This is especially acute when you play a record mixed on one ONB system back on a different ONB system. Notes and tones that were higher or lower than the cutoff of the other system either vanish or seem grossly out-of-proportion.
Another serious consideration is handing of the crossover frequency. On any enclosure with more than one driver (e.g. a tweeter and woofer), there is a particular frequency at which the two speakers "cross over," i.e. where one cuts off and the other picks up. The inherent distortion around this frequency range is arguably the most sensitive and delicate area of speaker design. Hifi speakers are very often designed to simply downplay the crossover frequency, or to smooth over it with deliberate distortions, and often manage to sound just fine for everyday listening. But glossing over what's really going on there is not good for reference monitoring. The fact that this often occurs in the most sensitive range of human hearing does not help matters.
Other common issues with home hifi systems are compromises made to expand the "sweet spot" by, for instance, broadening the overall dispersion of higher frequencies at the expense of creating localized distortions in certain directions, a general disregard for phase-dependent distortions that occur as a result of simultaneously producing multiple frequencies from a single driver, nonlinear response at different volume levels, as well as the more obvious and intuitive kinds of "hype" and "sizzle" that are built in to make speakers sound dramatic on the sales floor.
The important thing to understand is that none of the above necessarily produces a "bad sounding" speaker, and that the above kinds of distortions are common even among expensive, brand-name home theater systems. It's not that they sound cheap or muffled or tinny, it's just that they're not reliable enough to serve as reference-caliber studio monitors. In other words, the fact that everyone raves about how great your stereo sounds might actually be a clue that it is *not* a good monitor system.
In fact, high-end reference monitors often sound a little boring compared to razzle-dazzle hifi systems. What sets them apart is the forensic accuracy with which they reproduce sound at all playback levels, across all frequencies, and without compressing the dynamic range to "hype" the sound. On the contrary, the most important characteristic is not soaring highs and massive lows, but a broad, detailed, clinical midrange.
The two most common speakers used in the history of studio recording are certainly Yamaha NS10s and little single-driver Auratones. Neither one was especially good at lows or highs, and neither was a particularly expensive speaker in its day (both are now out of production and now command ridiculous prices on eBay). What they were good at was consistent, reproducible midrange and accurate dynamics.
Last edited by yep; 12-02-2008 at 06:38 PM.