Thirsty enough to get the best sound possible from your studio monitors? Well, this Studio Setup 101 guide will take you through the whole process step by step in a very easy and comfortable way.
Creating a great studio surrounding is fantastic to get started into music production. But all that gets in the way of creating good music if your listening environment doesn’t serve you perfectly. What you need is a seamless audio treatment for your studio.
Countless studios are stuck with a common studio setup without a proper listening environment. So, you can guess that audio treatment is the most quintessential part of the studio setup. Most artists set their heart on creating and mixing their own songs in an ideal condition. But most of the time, that seems to be a long way off from happening because the monitor is not calibrated with the rest of the setup.
Calibrating between the monitor and the listening space is one of the most crucial works that gets overlooked. On the other hand, a well-calibrated sound brings more consistency, well-focused adjustments and decisions when it comes to listening.
What We Will Learn
In this article, we are going through step by step on these topics:
- How to position your speakers correctly
- How to calibrate your studio monitors
- How to calibrate your Digital Audio Workstation (DAW)
- How to calibrate with the sound from your computer output
Why Calibrating The Monitor Is So Important?
The main purpose of speaker calibration is very simple. Our brain responds differently to the altering frequencies at different sound levels. For example – at a lower volume, the brain focuses more on the midrange frequencies. Conversely, at higher volume levels, the brain focuses more on the low-end and high-end frequencies. This is a simple outline of the Fletcher Munson Curve.
So, the bottom line is…
Fixating on a consistent loudness enhances the listening ability for sure. Plus, it also enables you to understand the music at other sound levels i.e., whether the tonal balance is on or off or if the sound is too loud or not.
So, if anything, what did we learn from this Fletcher Munson Curve. Here’s the piece you want to know.
85 dB Sound Processing Level (SPL) is ideal in a large room and also the best range for flat sounds.
79 dB Sound Processing Level (SPL) is ideal in a small (bedroom) sized room for obtaining the best flat response.
Now, you know what the best SPL for your ideal sized room is. So, it’s easier to be more aware of the bass and treble of your track at varying sound levels.
Here are a few reasons why you should enhance your listening environment:
1. The main aim for calibrating your studio monitors is to understand whether the pre-defined output levels of your DAW matches with the SPL defined on your speakers. It’s that simple.
2. Listening to the sample audio tracks at a fixed loudness makes you accustomed to that sound level and the output levels based on that listening environment. So, any changes in the frequency of sound become easily perceivable.
3. Use the Fletcher Munson curve to find the ideal flat sound that is suitable for all frequencies and environments.
4. No two monitors are manufactured equally by default. Although they are great, they still carry a volume difference of around -0.5 dB to 1 dB. So, setting the same volume level for both monitors in the same position can possibly generate an inaccurate stereo image.
First thing first – position your speakers in its sweet spot. But the best position also depends on where you sit in front of the monitors while listening to the audio playbacks.
The best way to get a complete listening experience is to form an equilateral triangle between you and the two audio speakers on each side. In short, place yourself and the audio speakers at equal distance from each other.
How To Calibrate Your Studio Monitors (Step By Step Guide)
Step 1: Decide A Preferred Operating Sound Level
You have a whole lot of ways to calibrate your studio but, all that gets in the way of a good setup if you are nowhere with your true sound. It’s better to stick to a 20dB headroom margin, which is a professional convention. Choosing a 20dB headroom margin gives a -20dBFS digital operation level.
You can use a well-calibrated meter scale to create a reference point. For this, you can use either analog meters or digital sample meters. In the case of analog-style meters, the reference points are given by default like – 0VU, PPM4, etc.
Expert Recommended Analogue and Digital Meters:
Step 2: Use Pink Noise For The Best Acoustic Alignment
Pink noise is a test tone that produces an equal amount of sound level across each octave. Thus, it enables you to make finely tuned acoustic adjustments, including speaker and room calibration. Pink noises sound just like a waterfall with a smooth top-end sound. Plus, these are great for acoustic treatment and also easily available online.
It’s best to restrict the pink noise between 500 Hz – 2 kHz to minimize the reflections or low-frequency standing waves when you know your room is acoustically untreated. The idea is to reduce the measurement errors to a minimum by reducing the low frequency standing waves or strong mid frequencies, and also the high-frequency reflections.
Besides, it is important to know that only a few meters can indicate the true RMS level. So, don’t be surprised if your pink noise plays at slightly louder than -20 dBFS.
Step 3: Test The Volume Control System
Testing your audio mixes at all kinds of sound is a great way to tell if your mix stands out on all volumes. To make this work, you need to set the volume control to a precise calibrated position so that you can work on it and create your own reference level. So, turn the volume up to test if there is any unwanted noise in your mixes. Also, make sure to test it at a low sound as well.
The idea here is to determine the quality of the output audio track. This helps you to understand how much the compressor or limiter had increased or decreased the sound of the track.
Most monitors have some kind of audio interface for volume control and dedicated pre-defined settings for this purpose. Also, the monitors are adjusted in decibels so that anyone can adjust the replay volume to understand the relative loudness of the track and adjust it accordingly.
It is safe to use an external monologue or midi controller with the monitors so that you can optimize the gain structure between the active speaker inputs (or power amps) and converter output.
Expert Recommended Controller:
Step 4: Use A SPL Meter For The Sound Treatment
An SPL meter is the first thing you will need to measure the acoustic sound pressure level generated by the monitor. Essentially, you need to look for two things in a meter as follows:
- Whether it has a C-weighted filter option for obtaining the flattest sound possible.
2. Also, it should have a slow averaging mode.
There are both hardware and software SPL meters available. Both are cheap but also reliable for aligning your monitors perfectly. Most people these days use a free SPL meter app on smartphones. However, before you completely trust the app, make sure that both readings from the app and the visual meter give a close output.
Expert Recommended Hardware Digital SPL Meter:
Step 5: Choose Your Reference SPL Level
There are two ways you can choose from to follow a reference SPL level (acoustic level). One is the standard reference SPL recommended by the industry professionals. The other happens when you reach your own preferred reference empirically.
Statistically speaking, most professional cinema hall rooms that are Dolby-approved are aligned in such a way that -20dBFS pink noise generates an 85 dB sound pressure level from each speaker. This level is widely chosen as it gives the flattest curve portion of the Fletcher-Munson curve which is the ‘standard’ reference for large rooms.
This Dolby standard reference (85 dB SPL) has been widely used in many professional audio circles. However, after some minor adjustments, it was cleared that 83 dB SPL calibration-level with a 103 dB peak is ideal for listening to sounds in very large spaces like in a cinema, theatre, and commercial studio control rooms.
But, you can configure it according to your own room depending on its volume. Check this studio reference monitoring levels based on room size for details.
Step 6: Set The Monitor’s Gain Structure
In this step, you are required to configure each speaker carefully one by one i.e., set the correct reference level for each speaker. For this step to work, set the chosen monitor or power amp volume down to the minimum level or the zero (0) mark. Maintain that zero decibels (Unity) on your primary audio sources’ output (monitors) and input (audio interface) and then play a pink noise sample.
Place the SPL meter in the listening position and finally replay the -20dBFS pink noise from the DAW to test one of the speakers. When the correct gain staging with the DAW is achieved, replace the pink noise for the tone. Now, all you need to do is increase the volume to the reference position.
If you managed to perform it correctly, then you wouldn’t hear any pink noise at all. Also, if you are happy with the calibration of the first speaker, then do the same for the other one.
Step 7: Calibrate Your Monitor And Scale It In Decibels
When you have your set of speakers working perfectly, the clarity of your audio mixes would eventually be a lot clearer. But you also need to consider the monitoring level simply because of the loudness phenomenon.
Usually, materials that play high up the meters should sound too loud. On the other hand, placing it below the operating level would make it sound a lot quieter.
Calibrate Your DAW
This is more technical than the other step by step guide mentioned above in the article. Here’s how you should calibrate the DAW:
- Get some tools you will need for sure.
A. Multimeter with true RMS wideband
D. Real Spectrum Analyze
2. Import new tones
3. Calibrate the studio and balance your audio input and output
4. Check the frequency response of the electronics
5. Verify speaker polarity by ear training
6. Using test pulse to verify speaker polarity
7. Aim the speakers in the correct direction and calibrate them one by one
8. Set the monitor level
9. Set the subwoofer level
10. Set the subwoofer crossover frequency (80Hz is the default value)
11. Set the polarity of your sub-woofers
12. Detect sound reflections
13. Find your primary room bass standing wave
14. Check all outputs again thoroughly
Calibrate Your Computer Output to Match
- Open a browser
- Select a -20dBFS RMS pink noise and play it on one speaker at a time.
- Now, choose an SPL meter that has an enabled C weighting and slow response time.
- Turn up and down the main volume of the speakers until the SPL reading shows between 79 to 85 decibels (79 dB for broadcast and games and 85 dB for films)
- Mark the output level using your PC or MAC volume.
These are my pro tips and step by step guide on how to calibrate your studio monitors.
Now, if you need more monitors for your studio, just repeat the steps in the article. And also, because of this calibration technique, you won’t feel any sound difference while shifting between different kinds of speakers. On the bright side, now you also know how to acoustically treat your room for free or at an inexpensive cost.
Steven P. Frizzell is from Kinston, NC. He's 37 years old and currently works as a recording gear expert at Instrument Insight. Steven has an amazing understanding of recording gears, and related equipment - their materials, build quality, and versatility. He also has an in-depth knowledge of the history and origins of various recording gear manufacturing brands. This makes him one of the most sought-after experts in the industry!