Secondary monitors or headphones in a recording and mixing situation can be very useful at providing a new perspective on your sound. Most studios should make it a priority to invest in the best possible quality monitoring loudspeakers they can. It makes sense not to buy a cheap set of monitors as their inadequacies will travel with your work. Always choose to save a bit more money and buy the best you can afford. It is often more cost effective in the long term to buy a high quality item once, instead of doubting an inferior product later and having to upgrade.
Secondary monitors can come in a few guises. Let’s assume your studio monitors have 6. 5 inch drivers and a 1 inch tweeter, the most common monitor arrangement for monitoring music in a studio or home studio situation. These speakers are great for making decisions on stereo image and hearing the vast majority of the audio spectrum. A secondary reference can prove useful in providing focus on either the mid range or very low frequencies (subs) in a mix.
4 sensible choices for secondary monitors would be a single driver speaker, a multimedia type speaker, headphones or a large format hi fi speaker. Each of these designs has it’s advantages in offering new information. We will run through each one:
Single driver loudspeakers
These can be surprisingly expensive, you might be looking at approximately $400 for a professional set such as Avantone mix cubes (you can also buy just 1). However this investment is very wise and provides a no compromise focus on the very critical mid range of your mix. If you consider that every system your music will be played on will always have a mid range driver but not all will have a tweeter or a large bass woofer it becomes clear that this is a very important device. A lot of important mix information resides in the mid range, vocals, snare, guitars, mid bass and a lot of the spectral content of a hihat and cymbal. Direct focus on this all important range can be very useful and help stop certain instruments and sounds fighting for the same space and presence.
A multimedia speaker that would typically be attach to a PC or Apple Mac can also be useful. These tend to be much cheaper. I would steer clear of the cheapest possible multi media speakers and use a set that costs around $60.00-$80.00. You could try and seek out a single driver multimedia speaker and hope to catch some of the qualities of the single driver speaker mentioned above, these tend to be a little cheaper and yet provide a useful check on the mids and the translation of your music to a smaller reproduction system.
Headphones will allow you work at night without disturbing people which is a bonus but with the prevalence of earbuds and headphones used on portable devices such as phones and MP3 players it makes sense for all mixes to be at least checked for compatibility with these types of consumer devices. You could purchase a low cost set of headphones for around $60.00 and I recommend staying with well known studio type brands such as Sennheiser, Beyerdynamic and AKG if at all possible. The sky is the limit with headphones and you can easily pay $800.00.
I recommend high quality open or semi open backed headphones as they tend to be more comfortable for longer listening sessions. Always be careful using headphones and if you ever hear your ears ringing afterwards make sure you monitor more quietly next time. It is easy to damage your hearing with loud and long listening sessions on headphones.
Large sized hi fi or PA speakers
Some musicians and producers may want to hear earth shattering bass and it is possible to purchase a very large speaker with 10 or 12 inch drivers which will give you a perspective on how low and deep bass will sound. Ideally this would be done with the inclusion of some bass trapping to make linear the rooms low frequency response to ensure accurate bass monitoring. It is possible to get large format hi fi speakers for around $400.00 You may forego some accuracy across the spectrum but coupled with musical reference tracks this can you understand the sub bass presence in your mix down.
Also consider how you will monitor through the secondary monitors, check you have a spare headphone output, purchase a speaker switch for your amplifier or a line level monitor controller switch to ensure you can efficiently jump between your 2 references.
When choosing secondary monitors always try and listen to them before purchasing and if not try and look for respected online reviews so you can make a more informed decision overall. Studio monitors are great and having an additional set of speakers or headphones can really help identify and solve mixing problems.
Barry Gardner operates SafeandSound Mastering. An online mastering studo conversant in mastering dance music. With PMC IB1S large format, professional mastering monitors.