How did the legendary engineers of the past use them?
At The Recording Session Vault, it is an important component of our mission to promote an understanding through education about how the great music of the past was created. While part of my mission is to write biographies of the people behind the music, feature articles about the great studios, and also to examine the technologies and to spotlight the companies that created them that have been so crucial to the development of popular music, it is also important to understand how the process of creating music actually worked, as well. With this educational series, we will explore the following topics: how the process of recording worked and how and why the technologies that were so important to that process were utilized. Plus, we will also discuss the products that engineers used to record the great popular music that we have come to love and to cherish.
If there is an integral component to the process of music recording that is widely misunderstood by the general public, it is the use of monitoring systems. While most in the general public would make their way to a store to purchase speakers to make the music that they wish to listen to sound either better to them or more often than not, louder to them, monitoring speakers in a recording studio environment are used for a very different purpose. The legendary recording studio engineers of the past used monitor speakers for the purpose of accuracy in judging the quality of their recordings and mixes and to reduce listening fatigue. While they may be intriguing to listen to— recording studio monitors are designed to reveal the flaws in your work, not to make it sound better. These amazing speaker systems are designed to give you the ability, not just to correct the flaws in your work, but to also understand how your work will translate to other listening environments, as well. It is also worth noting that professional monitoring systems are also designed for the purpose of critical listening for extremely long periods of time. Though they are not designed to sound pleasant, the idea is pretty straightforward— if your recordings or your mixes sound amazing on them, then your work will sound great just about everywhere else, too, and this is their main purpose and why they are so essential to great recording studio engineers, who often carried their own reference monitors from one recording studio facility to the next.
What are the four different types of monitoring systems and the history behind each of them?
Before we begin discussing the four different types of monitoring systems, let’s establish a basic understanding of what a speaker is and how this relatively simple technology developed over time. A speaker is simply a transducer in that it takes electrical pulses and converts them into soundwaves which we are then able to listen to and evaluate. Much like the microphone, another transducer which works in the opposite direction, the concepts that lead to the innovation of the speaker were invented prior to the invention of the telephone in 1876, but it was that innovation which really pulled the microphone and the speaker— two of the great cornerstones of the professional audio world together. In the years leading up to the First World War, new moving-coil designs were invented which began to improve the quality of speaker technologies. These technologies were improved upon during the 1920s and along with the growth in microphone technologies became the basis behind the growth of the commercial movie theater business, the development of public address systems and further refinements in radio broadcasting and the early music industry in America in the years leading up to the Second World War. During the Second World War and in the years immediately following it, speaker technologies took another leap forward with the acoustic suspension principle which allowed speakers to reproduce the entire frequency spectrum— especially the lower end of the spectrum, with much greater accuracy. Since the early 1970s, the greatest advancement in speaker technologies have come in the materials that have been used in speaker construction and acoustic design.
In today’s professional music recording world two differing speaker units are available to recording studio engineers— active and passive monitors. Active monitors are the most common and these speaker systems have the amplification necessary to function at an incredibly accurate level already built into their cabinets. Passive monitors require amplification, from outboard gear units to be able to function. Though passive monitors are less common, with the proper amplification, these units can also be extremely accurate. When you commonly look at a speaker, it usually has at least a large cone at the bottom (or woofer) and a small squishy, but soft, bubble-shaped, cone shaped, or ribbon-based element at the top (tweeter). To put it simply, the woofer is designed to accurately reproduce low-end frequencies and the tweeter is designed to reproduce high-end frequencies. In fact, if you want to know exactly how accurate a pair of monitor speakers are this is measured by the frequency response that the units can achieve. The range of human hearing is from 20Hz to 20KHz. It is typical for small near-field monitor speakers to have a frequency response range that might look something like this on a spec sheet— 48Hz to 19KHz. This simply means that this pair of speakers can reproduce high-end frequencies very well, but that it will not give you a range below 50 Hz that is very accurate or detailed. In this case, a subwoofer may be paired with the monitor pair. A subwoofer is a large-scale speaker unit that is designed to extend the low-end bass response of a pair of monitors and may allow the system to reproduce frequencies down to 20Hz. Keep in mind, that what you are able to hear and how you are able to hear it, is also heavily impacted by the acoustics of your listening space (your control room).
In music recording, there are four monitoring systems which contain either active or passive speaker units (and may also include subwoofers)— near-field monitoring, mid-field monitoring, far-field (or main) monitoring and immersive sound systems. These systems are based on the distance from the speakers to the engineer’s seating position and their placement in the control room of the recording studio environment. The distance and placement are also proportional to the size of the speakers (small speakers can more easily reproduce signals over short distances— the larger the speaker, the more distant it can be to reproduce the signals that you are trying to listen to with a great deal of accuracy.) Also, it is important to address the importance of headphones and cue systems which enable engineers, musicians and producers to be able to communicate with one another in the music recording environment.
Near-Field Monitoring Systems
When you are looking at a picture of an engineer working in a recording studio behind a console, the first speakers that you will see are near-field monitors. Near-field monitors are small in both size and footprint, however, they are the most accurate monitors that you will find in a recording studio control room. In fact, it is so interesting that even today, for the most part you will still see perhaps the most ubiquitous set of speakers in the history of music recording which have not been manufactured by their parent company for more than twenty years— Yamaha NS-10s. These speakers were developed in the late 1970s originally as hi-fidelity bookshelf speakers. At the time, recording studio engineers were beginning to work in differing recording studios on their projects and the concept of the freelance engineer emerged. Since engineers were moving from studio to studio, the need for a pair of monitors that could consistently translate your work and were portable became increasingly important. Hence, this single pair of speakers launched a revolution in the world of professional music recording. Today, near-field monitors are extremely important for recording studio engineers. The job of a pair of near-field monitors can be summed-up by my experience with the Yamaha NS10, if your work sounds great on this pair of speakers, it should sound great anywhere. Therefore, the job of a pair of near-field monitors is to make sure that your work can translate accurately to any other listening environment.
While the Yamaha NS 10 introduced the concept, since the mid-1980s near-field monitors from such companies as Genelec, Dynaudio, ATC, Adam Audio, KRK, Mackie, Focal, Kali Audio, JBL, Amphion and Ocean Way Audio have established a new level of tremendous accuracy and quality, enabling engineers to be able to use just a single pair of speakers in many cases in the home recording or small-scale recording studios of today. Nearfield monitors are often referenced by the size of their low-end cones. As an example, most near-field monitors that could be found in the great recording studios of the 1980s and 1990s would have had cones in the following size range (measured in inches) of 4-8 inches. During the time in which I worked in the professional music industry, the engineers that I had the fortune of working with used Yamaha NS 10s, which as I noted above are no longer available, however, there were also models from Genelec, Dynaudio, Mackie, and KRK that engineers used for tracking and mixing and carried around with them from studio to studio. Though only one of those monitors in the same model range is available today, I will list their current equivalent speaker models from the very same companies at the conclusion of this feature.
Mid-Field Monitoring Systems
This category has grown the most in recent years, but it is still the smallest of each of the monitoring systems to discuss. Mid-Field monitoring systems were rarely used in the period from 1950-2000, and recently, as control rooms have become smaller in size and footprint, these systems have become more popular— to the point that in some home studio and small-scale recording studio environments this system is the only one in use. Most of the companies listed above such as Genelec, Dynaudio, and ATC also produce mid-field monitors whose speaker cones range in size from 9-12 inches. Quite often, these monitors are tweeners, not quite large enough to be main monitors and not small enough or accurate enough to be near-field monitors. However, it is in this category of monitoring system where you will find three-way monitors— or, speakers which can reproduce three differing frequency areas (low, mid and high). Due to the fact that they are capable of giving engineers a different perspective on their work, these monitors can be very valuable for a studio control room.
Far-Field Monitoring Systems (or Main Monitors)
Monitoring systems of this size and scope require special design, consideration and thought. Only a select few companies actually develop monitors of this scale and there are firms which build them on a per project, or on a custom basis. Installing these monitors quite often requires expert care and handling due to their size, plus, in my view it is truly advisable to have an acoustic engineer or a studio designer make certain that you acquire the monitors that are a great fit for your control room. Main monitors tend to be 12-inches or larger and can be found in recording studio control rooms and mastering suites. They also tend to be three-way speakers because of their size with built-in components to reproduce low, mid and high frequency areas (or bands, the scope of which is referred to as a bandwidth). In my experience, these speakers are normally used to awe clientele because of their size and expense. But, they do serve a legitimate purpose in allowing large numbers of people— musicians, record company executives, production team members and the like to be able to hear the masterful work of a great engineering team.
The companies which create these monitor systems are often associated with acoustic design firms and therefore pricing them is best done with the simple understanding that it will come as a part of the cost of creating, measuring and installing them. It is a process. If it is done correctly, these monitors can give an engineer a different perspective, particularly in the low-end spectrum of their work. The following companies create main monitor systems: Augsperger, ATC, Adam Audio, Dynaudio, Genelec, JBL, Ocean Way Audio, PMC and others. Due to their size, power requirements and installation needs, this class of monitoring system will also be the most expensive.
Immersive Monitoring Systems
While most, even in the professional music recording community, regard immersive audio and surround sound formats as something novel, or a new way in which music is produced, it is simply not accurate to say that this is true. The ideas or concepts that led to the eventual creation of surround sound, or immersive audio actually were first introduced in the years leading up to the Second World War and from the beginning were more or less aimed at the film industry, so that the experience of sound and music for film could be an immersive experience for theater audiences. The first films to have the component of surround sound as a part of their production were released in the late 1970s. By the late 1980s, surround sound for the production of music was in its infancy. However, it is the case that a number of home studio, small studio ventures and large-scale music recording facilities have adopted the new Dolby Labs Immersive sound format and it is becoming a more and more popular medium for work in the engineering community of the present. Each of the speakers that would make up a Dolby Immersive System are made or are available in arrays of speakers and the following companies (among others) market and develop these systems: Genelec, ATC, Focal, PMC and Kali Audio.
Cue Systems and Headphones
Perhaps if there is a monitoring system whose importance has been overlooked when we think about the professional music recording environment, it is the cue system. It is the cue system which allows the musicians in the studio to be able to communicate with one another and with the production team in the control room. The cue system consists of the mini mixers that the musicians will use to hear themselves and the other performers in the studio, it consists of the talkback microphones in the control room and studio which the musicians and production team use to communicate with one another, and of course, the console in the control room from which the mix of the recorded performances are being sent and also, the headphones that everyone involved will listen through to be able to do their work together. There are companies which create an entire system— minus the headphones. This system would consist of the mixers, talkback mics and the summing center that allows for the system to be interconnected. Hear Technologies is the creator of the Hearback system and the Hearback Octo system both of which are comprehensive systems.
Headphones, like speakers, are a familiar sight for most of the people who love music but who have never been in a recording studio before. However, headphones are critical technologies for the functioning of a recording studio facility. Just like monitor speakers, headphones in the professional music recording world are prized for their accuracy. There are probably more offerings in this particular technology than in any other in the world of music recording. Just keep a few things in mind when thinking about headphones— their accuracy, their flexibility and their overall comfort for the musicians and performers who may have to wear and listen to them for prolonged periods of time. As I noted a moment ago, a tremendous number of companies make great professional headphone models including: Beyerdynamic, Sennheiser, Mackie, Yamaha, AKG, Focal, Shure, KRK and Audio-Technica among others. Also, I can safely say that during my stint in the professional music recording industry, I never saw an engineer mix a song through headphones— in fact, I never saw an engineer use them for that purpose at all. Most of the time, headphones were only used during the process of tracking (recording).
How did the legendary recording studio engineers of the past use monitoring systems?
The truly great recording studio engineers of the past used monitoring systems to do all of their amazing and legendary work. The near-field monitor speaker system was perhaps one of the most important components of the equipment collection for an engineer. Every single engineer that I had the opportunity to work with carried their own monitors with them from studio to studio. I almost always helped set-up these systems, so I understood their importance to the work that was being done. Most of the time, each studio that we went to had their own near-field monitors and in every single case these near-field monitors were Yamaha NS 10 speakers. It was very rare that we would ever use the main monitors in the control room of any studio, with one exception— when I would help setting-up a control room, sometimes as assistant engineers we would just listen to music on the main monitors, but that truly is about all that I ever saw them ever used for during a recording session. However, as I noted earlier, sometimes we would have record executives over to listen to a particular artist, as the studio that I worked in was owned by a record company. In those instances, we used the main monitors for the purpose of giving large, but very important audience members the opportunity to listen critically to the work that we had been doing.
The ability for the great recording studio engineers of the past to be able to communicate effectively with the musicians and performers though the use of the cue system and too, the work that the engineer would do to create a cue mix are from my point of view extremely underrated components of this discussion. As an assistant, I often took for granted how smooth this system actually was during our sessions. When I had to work on my own sessions, I realized the importance of this process and of the cue system. I never saw an engineer use a pair of headphones for the purpose of mixing, other than to check their work for a few moments on them so that they could have a different perspective of their work.
I think that it is critical to point out to you that the wonderful engineers that I had the opportunity to work with never listened at very high volumes— while either tracking or mixing. I believe that this simple act prolonged their careers and allowed them to be able to engineer so many hit songs repeatedly throughout their careers. In fact, there was never an instance where the volume of the work that was happening in the control room was uncomfortable for me.
Which of the monitors used by the legendary recording studio engineers of the past are still available today?
I am going to list great models of the past— or, the present equivalent version of these units below. If a unit was mentioned in this article, I will also list it below.
Far-field or Main Monitors