Mark Thompson on choosing studio monitors

Mark Thompson, industry veteran and Funky Junk boss, breaks one of his longest-standing rules and offers his thoughts on one of the most intimate subjects: studio monitors.

My guide to monitors on the website used to read… ‘I don’t advise on haircuts, girlfriends or studio monitors’.

Well, age has withered and custom staled me somewhat, and these days I will occasionally advise others about their haircuts. But I still go out of my way to avoid pontificating on more sensitive areas, such as studio monitoring.

In the course of my work I advise scores of clients every day. Like grasshoppers at an audio Sufi’s knee, they come seeking enlightenment, definitive answers to life, the universe and everything… everything, that is, to do with their burning desire to make enough racket to terrorise their neighbours. Politely, I explain that only a fool, a simpleton, or a mealy-mouthed sales-weasel would present opinions as facts when it comes to monitoring. Because so far as loudspeakers are concerned, the pre-emancipation adage of one man’s meat is another man’s poison holds true.

Before going further, I should define what, to me, represents the difference between hi-fi speakers and studio monitors.

Most hi-fi speakers are designed to gloss over imperfections in order to enhance the listening experience, whereas studio monitors should be analytical, revealing every nuance to enable an engineer to identify, and so rectify, anomalies. And, of course, monitors should reflect a degree of accuracy, ensuring that performances translate faithfully and that every instrument and voice sounds real, assuming that this is the object of the recording exercise.

Of course, these are glib generalisations, but they offer an explanation as to why high-end hi-fi speakers are rarely seen in studios. Sure, the lines get blurred and of course there are exceptions with every rule. After all, an outstanding loudspeaker is an outstanding loudspeaker.

Take the ubiquitous Yamaha NS10 that started life as a hi-fi speaker, as did the Acoustic Research AR18LS, for many years the nearfield of professional choice after George Martin sneaked a pair from his living room to mix some Beatles tracks. Indeed, I occasionally suggest to clients on real-world budgets – bugger-all cash in other words – to check their local junk shop for a second-hand hi-fi amp and pair of KEF or similar speakers. A hundred pounds judiciously spent on granddad’s cast-offs can deliver excellent results, far better than many expensive Chinese or Indian made ‘professional’ thunderboxes. That’s how I came across my prized Phillips Motional Feedback speakers. I lashed out forty quid on a second-hand pair and fell in love. It was only later that I learnt that Pink Floyd used them to mix The Wall. That sounded OK, didn’t it? You bet. Later on I used to cart a pair of cheap Mordaunt-Short MS10 hi-fi speakers to sessions. I knew them, trusted them and they sounded fine for balancing a mix. I guess I wasn’t alone. I learnt not to leave them in the studio overnight after three pairs went walkabout in quick succession. Come on guys, you know who you are… have you no shame?

Beauty is in the ear of the beholder. One size can never fit all. Platitudes, I know, but applicable in respect of loudspeakers. There are plenty of great engineers who produce award-winning recordings with monitors that I wouldn’t personally use as bookends. The crucial ingredient is trust. An engineer must trust his or her monitors implicitly. What counts is to ensure that a mix translates faithfully to the cutting room or film and television screen, that what you print in the control room is as close as possible to what you’re going to hear outside. In short, trust means more than technical specifications ever can.

The importance of trust in monitoring was bought home to me in the 1980s. My client David Lord, one of the most gifted producers of his generation, regularly used Tim Young at CBS in Whitfield Street to master his finished albums (Tim is now at Metropolis I believe). Tim’s cuts sounded wicked, which translates into English as spiffing – top notch and tickety boo. I seem to recall that his room was dominated by a massive pair of Altec dual concentric monitors, the ones with an exponential horn mounted in the centre of a 15in driver, like Urei 813s. Yet for 98 percent of the time, he listened back through a pair of small two-way Boston A40 hi-fi speakers that carried a massive price tag of £70, almost as much as the cost of an A&R executive’s lunch back then. The Altecs were used rarely, usually when Tim wanted to double-check the bottom end, but even then he seldom had to tweak the Boston cut. He knew those little beauties intimately and trusted them, with reason.

As an aside, I would add that none of the producers or mastering engineers I respect monitor at high levels. Not only does sustained volume lead to hearing loss, but the louder the level, the more the room acoustics will affect the sound. No room is perfect and most are far from flat, hence the modern balance and mastering engineer’s preference for near and midfield monitoring most of the time.

I always smile when audiophile friends brag about the gazillions they’ve just spent on the latest esoteric hi-fi speakers. ‘You should come and hear the new blah, blah, blah album. It sounds amazing on my humungous thirty-five grand rig.’

‘No thanks,’ I respond diplomatically, taking care not to mention that I was present when the tracks were mixed… on compact nearfield monitors. And if my friend persists in boring me with details of his latest stereophonic folly, then I proffer some choice bits of advice about his latest girlfriend. That usually shuts him up.

Expert witness

Mark Thompson has worked in most areas of the music industry. After years as a session musician in the early 1970s, he moved into tour production, working with clients such as The Selecter and Haircut 100 before graduating to artist and producer management in the 1980s. That’s when a passion for making records first laid seed, and after a decade of working with major labels such as A+M Records, CBSm and JVC Victor, he founded equipment consultancy and supply company Funky Junk in 1990.

Now Europe’s leading supplier of new and used professional audio equipment and services, Funky Junk has branches in London, Paris, Milan, and Vigo, Spain, with clients in more than 50 countries worldwide.