17 mei 2015

Level Studio Monitors for DJs



The principles of audio amplification are tried and tested, but with the crossover between DJs and producers becoming more apparent, it’s only in the last few years that studio monitors have really become a popular part of our setups.

So, first things first… what are your options for making your sounds really, really ridiculously great sounding and (most of all) really, really loud?

The Basics

Everyone knows what you need to play music. You need some speakers, an amplifier and some cables, and you’re good to go. But what are all the options? Let’s get into some of the terminology we’ll be discussing in the group test.

Wattage

This is a measurement of the output of an amplifier, as well as the rated capacity which speakers can handle. There are two different ways the number may be shown. Peak output is the maximum you might ever see from an amp. In real world terms, you would rarely get this sort of output from the hardware. A more realistic number to watch for is the RMS (root-mean square), the “average output”, or what average power you can expect from the equipment.

Amplifier

Whether a separate powered amp or one that’s built into the speaker, this is the bit that does most of the work. Designed to boost the weak audio signal that comes from your mixer / controller / audio interface, you need to make sure your speakers can match the power rating of your amplifier.
Amps can also have control over stereo balance, EQ and zone control (large, multi-room setups), but the more PA-focused, the simpler it will be. Quite often, you’ll see a 19 inch rack mount with the different controls as separate units.

Speaker

Essentially just a box with a cone that vibrates, the job of the speaker is to make the air shake in a way that reproduces what you’re playing. Why do we need the box (called an enclosure or cabinet)? Not only does it provide a convenient way to carry the speaker and anything else built in (like an amp), it does the very important job of preventing the backwards energy the speaker creates from cancelling out what you want to hear.

The cone part of the speaker is made of a paper or synthetic material, and uses electromagnetic energy to vibrate, thus vibrating the air.

Near-field

A term you’ll hear often referred to with studio monitor speakers, “near-field” essentially means the speakers are designed to be placed close to the listener’s head, pointed directly at them. This creates a speaker placement equilateral “triangle” between the two monitors and your head, ensuring an optimum listening experience.
Environment

If you stand in an empty room (say, before you move into a new flat), all you hear is every sound echoing around. Start adding some furniture, maybe some curtains, and the reverb starts to settle. Because the shape of the room is broken up with different materials, the audio waves have less surface to easily bounce around between. This is the fundamental principle to acoustic treatment.

Studio owners and producers can spend small fortunes on treating a room to improve acoustics. Although, for 99% of producers and DJs, just being aware of the acoustic character of a room is enough to adjust your equipment.

Connector types

When dealing with professional audio gear, there are cable and connector types that will pop up more often than others.

RCA – These are the double red/white combo wires you find connected to most DJ gear. They’re cheap and plentiful. Fun tip: RCA stands for Radio Corporation of America, the group that brought out the standard.

XLR – These are the chunky (usually metal) connectors with safety clips that tend to plug into microphones. They’re popular on professional gear because they can offer a balanced signal.

TRSIf you’re a DJ, you’ve used these. Found on headphone cables everywhere, the Tip, Ring, Sleeve phone connector is ubiquitous. It’s near-identical twin, the TS, is found on pro gear, often alongside the XLR jack. Guitarists amongst you know what it is.

Balanced vs Unbalanced

You’ll hear talk and mention fairly often of “balanced” and “unbalanced” audio cables and connectors. But what does it all mean and is it important?


Balanced audio can be very useful if you have cables lain over very long distances (for example, from the DJ booth to a back room where the sound equipment lives). The way balanced cables are designed, with two wires as a twisted pair wrapped in another conductive material, any interference is drastically minimised. Balanced signals can also benefit from extra output, giving the audio more headroom and reducing chances of clipping.

For home use, there’s little benefit outside of audio sampling and production, so no need to chuck out your gear if it isn’t balanced.

So… since we are all fundamentally bags of water, a room full of people can absorb a lot of sound energy produced by speakers. The bigger the room, the more people, the more power you need to throw out enough sound.

As we’ve covered briefly earlier, the room itself can be important to the quality of the sound. Speaker placement can ensure you hear what you’re meant to hear. Large clubs spend lots of money making sure the sound efficiently fills the space it needs to. For the rest of us, there’s a really simple way to get the best from your speakers. Setting up each speaker the same distance from you, equally spaced apart, in a triangle ensures the sound that hits you most is from the source.

On top of that, here are a few guidelines:
  • Don’t use a huge room as your workspace, the sound will just get lost.
  • Don’t push the audio too hard in any one part of the audio chain (mixer, amplifier, audio interface).
  • Do make sure you have furnishings. These will all soften the reverb around the room.
  • Do take breaks if you’re going to be listening for a long time. This helps reduce auditory fatigue.
  • Do look after your hearing. You don’t have spares!
If you want to go even further and start treating your room for audio production, there are plenty of resources online to get you started. This is a rabbit hole you will step in to. You have been warned!

I’m not saying that modern DJ gear makes us lazy, but it certainly does its best to take the work away from us. This means there’s quite often some ignorance about how to manage your sound. You can find plenty of good articles about best practices online, but it’s important to remember that red warning lights on your level meters exist for a reason. Driving the audio signal too hard will make the sound distort, thus nullifying any push in volume you might get. RED = BAD! If you want your music to go louder, it might be time to invest in a beefier system. Here are your options…

PA Speakers

If you’ve been to a club or concert, you’ll have seen these. Mobile DJs will know them well, the rest of us may have played on them at some point. These can be self-powered or hooked up to a chunky power amplifier.

Built to survive the extreme treatment of public performances, PA (public address) systems are heavy duty, using sturdy connectors such as XLR cables coupled with reliable, simple options to reduce the likelihood of something breaking.

Quite often expected to play out to large rooms filled with people, the amplifiers can go into the thousands (and sometimes tens of thousands) of Watts.

Hi-Fi Speakers

In the old days, many living rooms had a hi-fi separates. Speakers, amplifier, cassette deck, record players all sat proudly on the shelving unit, to become the hub from which family entertainment flowed. I remember, growing up, sitting on the lounge floor while my dad dug through his classic rock collection, first on vinyl, then cassette and finally, CD.

Focused on getting the best quality sounds in small spaces such as living rooms and bedrooms, some thought is usually put into the design of the equipment, so as to provide something elegant for your living space.

These days, we spend most of our time listening to our our iPods and phones using cheap ear buds and speaker docks. Which is a shame.

Studio Monitor Speakers

The last type of speaker a DJ might stumble across is the near-field studio monitor. Often seen in the background of producers’ studios, these workhorses are durable, precise and usually go fairly loud. Studio monitors tend to have built in amplifiers and several options for tweaking the sound, plus a little bit of flexibility on connectivity.

Studio monitors are usually referred to as having “flat response sound”, meaning that what you’ve got playing out is as close to the source audio as you can get. This differs from the other types of speakers/amplifiers, which tend to add some character to the sound.

What’s the difference?


Fundamentally, there’s little difference in the technology found in each of these types of speaker systems. Rather, your needs will reflect which is better for you. If you never plan on moving your equipment, and have a small space to play in, you’ll be happy with either a hi-fi or monitors. You could expect similar sort of volume from them both.

If you know you’ll be lugging your audio gear around every weekend, and need to fill a room with both sound and people, then a durable PA system seems like a no-brainer. The built-in amps in some systems just adds to the convenience.

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