Let’s continue our discussion about
what I consider to be the most critical
component in a studio’s signal path for
achieving great results: studio monitors. In my September 2012 column, “How to
Choose Studio Monitors,” we talked about
passive and active monitors, the differences
between near-, mid-, and far-field monitors,
2- and 3-way monitors, and more. So if you
missed that installment, be sure to check it
out at premierguitar.com.
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We ended last month’s column by examining
how larger size, more power, and porting play
a role in getting good bass response from a studio
monitor. But there’s another way to reach
into those lowest frequencies: Use a subwoofer
in addition to your main pair of monitors.
A subwoofer is a speaker that is dedicated
to producing the very lowest frequencies—
those below 80 or 100 Hz or so. Typically,
a subwoofer will have a large speaker driver,
with 10", 12", and 15" sizes being quite
common. Good subwoofers also have a lot
of power. It’s not uncommon to match a
subwoofer boasting several hundred watts of
power with main monitors having just 75 or
100 watts of power. The larger speaker size
and increased power output are necessary
because—as we learned last time—low frequencies
require a lot of juice to propagate.
This is why bassists often run amps with
much more power and larger speakers than
guitarists will use in their amps.
The way most subwoofers work is by
routing the stereo output from the mixer or
audio interface into the subwoofer. The stereo
signal runs through a crossover (sometimes
referred to as “bass management”)
that splits it into the very low frequencies
that will feed the sub, as well as the high-bass,
midrange, and high frequencies destined
for the main monitors. Those very
low frequencies are summed to mono and
then sent to the amp and speaker inside the
subwoofer. And because the main monitors
don’t have to deal with those power-hungry
low frequencies, they can play louder and
with more clarity.
Systems like the Focal XS 2.1 combine
small “satellite” monitors that produce
the midrange and high frequencies with
a matched subwoofer that generates all
the bass frequencies.
It would seem as if a subwoofer is essential
to your studio rig. Who wouldn’t want
maximum clarity and low-frequency extension?
In the real world, however, a subwoofer
can be challenging to integrate well into
a monitor system. That’s because the low
frequencies are where the acoustics in most
rooms are the most chaotic and difficult to
manage. Plus, many engineers feel that they
can already hear where the main monitors
“drop off ” and a subwoofer will “take off ”
as the frequencies drop.
Here’s my take: I don’t use a subwoofer
much of the time. There’s rarely a sub in use
when I’m mixing. That said, I do find that
a subwoofer can be useful for pinpointing
problems, such as rumble or other lowfrequency
issues that may be too low to be
heard on the main monitors. Some engineers
use subs all the time to ensure they are
getting a full picture of all the frequencies.
My advice is to simply try one next time
you mix. You may love it, you may not.
One final thing on subs: There are
systems, referred to as “2.1” systems, that
require a subwoofer. With this type of system,
small “satellite” speakers produce the
midrange and high frequencies, but are not
designed to produce any bass at all. All of
the bass is delivered by the system’s matched
subwoofer. This type of system can work
extremely well, producing a wide range
of frequencies with good bass response.
Additionally, because the satellites are often
so much smaller, they’re easier to physically
manage in a smaller room.
If you’re using
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For a number of guitarists, running a loud
set of studio monitors for hours at a time
can be difficult or even impossible. Whether
it’s living in an apartment, having babies or
young children in the house, or a spouse trying
to sleep or watch television in the next
room, there are a number of situations that
can make using studio monitors a challenge.
One solution is to monitor on headphones.
Without any interference from room acoustics
or unwanted outside noise, headphones
allow you to work for as long as you like and
at whatever volume you like. With that said,
the potential for hearing damage during long
listening sessions requires keeping the volume
level under control.
Headphones are convenient for studio
use—and they’re certainly required for
controlling noise bleed in most tracking
situations—but they have some drawbacks
for mixdown use. First, by nature of what
they are, it’s difficult to get great, true, bass
response from headphones. Second, the
sense of isolation when wearing phones can
make it difficult for judging balances or
mixing in effects like reverb and delay. And
third, few sets of headphones are comfortable
enough for extended listening sessions.
Despite all this, it is possible to do great
mixes on headphones. In my experience, you
still need a set of studio monitors that you
can turn on now and then to “calibrate” your
ears and to reference your mix, but you can
certainly do most of the work in phones.
Plus, a good set of headphones is essential for
“under the microscope” checks of your tracks
for noises, distortion, and other problems.
That’s it for this time. More next month!
the former editor in chief of
magazine. He’s written
more than 1000 articles
and six books on recording
and music technology, and
has released an instructional
DVD on mastering. His upcoming book is
entitled Guitar Tone: Pursuing the Ultimate
Electric Guitar Sound
. To learn more, visit