We all know that the most important tools we have are our ears, taste and experience, but right after that come the speakers we use and the space we use them in.
In mastering, that’s more true than ever.
The goal is to make your music translate to the widest possible range of replay systems, from the best, to the worst – and sound great on all of them.
That’s a big ask.
If your speakers are too bright, you’ll be tempted to master everything too dull. If they don’t have enough power to play cleanly, they could be hiding distortion you don’t want. And if they don’t have good enough low frequency response, you could end up leaving way too much sub-bass in there… and no-one likes a master with a flabby bottom !
In a nutshell, if your mastering monitoring isn’t good enough, you’re always going to struggle to get great results.
(And if you think it’s OK to just make your music sound great on the “lowest common denominator” systems like Apple earbuds, because that’s what everyone is listening on – think again.)
Every speaker is different, so this post won’t tell you how to choose a set of speakers simply by reading specifications or manufacturer’s blurb – but hopefully it will give you an idea what you should be looking for, and why.
Three crucial qualities of speakers suitable for mastering
There’s a common misunderstanding that great speakers make your music sound even better.
In fact, the very best speakers make most mixes sound worse, because they reveal all their flaws !
They have no personality, because we’re not interested in the speakers, we’re interested in the music.
And they almost certainly aren’t the same speakers you’ve chosen for near-field monitoring to sit neatly at ear-level on your mixing console.
Mastering speakers need to be:
- Revealing – allowing you to hear details you’ll miss on other speakers – faults, like clicks, hiss and distortion; but also the positive sides of the recording – accurate stereo imaging, “depth” (meaning the impression of a three-dimensional sound field), impact and dynamics. Listening on a mastering system should almost be like wearing headphones, in this respect.
- Clinical – Mastering speakers don’t make things sound good. Unlike speakers for tracking or mixing, they shouldn’t add “vibe”, or “feel”. Often they might be described as “bland”, “boring”, or at best “civilized”. In fact, they are accurate, and reliable. Only the very best recordings will sound good on them ! A fact that leads us neatly to:
- Unforgiving – It’s often shocking to hear how bad many recordings sound on a mastering rig – the uncompromising accuracy uncovers limitations masked by lesser reproduction systems. While this won’t necessarily make for a very satisfying listening experience, it’s essential for the mastering engineer to hear and correct any problems or limitations in the original mix.
So far so good, but…
What does all that mean in technical terms ?
To have the qualities listed above, mastering monitors need:
- Flat (neutral) full-band frequency response – meaning their response is very even over as much of the audible range as possible – no big lumps, bumps or holes. So for example, B&W 801s come with a graph measuring their response – it only varies by +/- 1 dB from 20 Hz to 20 kHz ! Whereas NS10s on the other hand… don’t.
- Acurate phase response – the audio waveforms played by the speaker need to be time-aligned, at every frequency – and not “smeared” by sharp edges in the wrong place in the enclosure design. This will mean that the stereo image is very detailed, giving an absolutely solid mono center image, but also a deep, convincing “three-dimensional” soundstage – at least, on a decent recording. The stereo imaging in my studio is so good that it’s common for people to ask if some of the sound is coming out of the center speaker (used for surround work), even though they’re listening to pure stereo. And on the occasions where even part of a mix is accidentally phase-reversed, it leaps straight out and draws attention to itself.
- Clean, controlled dynamics – with only minimal distortion introduced, even at high listening levels. (Using a suitable amp is important for this, too, of course, for passive speakers.)
Now, here’s the catch
If you’ve got this far, you’re probably thinking “how the hell do I choose speakers which meet all those criteria ?”. Because unfortunately, you can’t tell whether a set of speakers will meet these requirements just by looking at technical specs, brands or price-tags.
The only real way to tell is to listen – and that’s where the catch lies:
You can’t tell what a really good recording should sound like, until you’ve heard it through a really good pair of speakers. But you can’t choose a really good pair of speakers until you know what a really good recording should sound like through them !
So you’re screwed, right ?
Not quite, luckily…
1. Go with what you know
I’ve been lucky setting up my own home mastering studio. I chose my home hi-fi speakers over 10 years ago, by listening to music I’d mastered myself in a pro mastering studio. And I’ve been listening to those same speakers ever since, so I know exactly what my music should sound like on them. So as a first step in setting up my home room, I’m just using them !
Of course most people don’t have a working mastering studio to use as a benchmark like this – but even so, maybe you can do the same. If you have a really good pair of hi-fi speakers that you know inside out – maybe you can master on them. Using speakers you know really well is my top tip for mixing and mastering, and the system you do all your listening for pleasure on can be a great option – as well as giving you a valuable alternative perspective, which is one of the toughest things to achieve when you’re mastering your own music.
And if you don’t want to move them, maybe you can even master where they are already – if you’re working “in the box” then a modern laptop with a decent USB converter can be a good way to go.
(Yes, many of the big-name mastering studios are chock full of expensive analogue hardware, but that’s not essential. Personally I was trained working on digital gear – when I started out, digital was the Next Big Thing and seriously expensive ! Funny how that goes…)
I’m dead serious about this. My own mastering philosophy is to be “invisible” – to make things sound the best they can be without anyone ever really knowing why, rather than stamping a particular sound on the top – and mastering with decent digital plugins can be a great way to achieve that goal of transparency.
2. Compare with high-quality headphones
Yes, you heard that right.
But notice, I said high-quality !
By which I mean, something like a pair of Sennheiser HD650s. These are my personal favourites, and are something of an industry standard. They have flat, accurate frequency response, low distortion and excellent phase coherence – but they do cost more than many set of entry-level monitors to begin with.
They’ll be a valuable investment, though – giving you a reliable alternative perspective for assessing your mixes & masters, and taking room acoustics completely out of the equation.
So – look for a pair of speakers that sound similar to HD650s. Bear in mind that the 650s are a little soft in the 10kHz region, and a little warm in the 100-100 Hz region – but they’re startlingly trustworthy all the same. If you can hear issues with a recording on both your speakers and HD650s, the chances are it’s a real problem and you need to fix it !
And when you’re doing this kind of comparison, watch out for problems caused by the room and it’s acoustics, rather than the speakers themselves. If you hear a resonance on the speakers that isn’t there on the headphones, but then it goes away when you move your head a few inches – the chances are it’s the room, not the speakers.
3. Get recommendations
Another option is to get some suggestions from people you trust. The original version of this post was inspired by a thread on the Gearslutz mastering forum asking about mastering speakers, and places like this or the SOS forums are good places to start – perhaps less than £500 isn’t really realistic, though!
Several of the classic brands of mastering speakers – B&W, PMC, ATC, Dunlavy – are available second-hand for “reasonable” amounts of money on eBay and elsewhere, so if you can find a pair from a reputable seller, you could be on to a winner.
Of course the catch with this recommendation is that you need to be able to trust the recommendation, and the speakers need to suit your room… but hey, no-one said this was going to be easy !
I said this was a really tough issue, and I wasn’t kidding.
Finding the right speaker in your price-range is a major challenge for a would-be home mastering engineer – and even many pros, when the time comes to switch or upgrade.
Luckily there are strategies that can help you cope even when your setup isn’t ideal – like using reference tracks and making sure you always loudness-match – this is the kind of thing we go into in a lot of detail on the Home Mastering Masterclass course.
But the time and effort will be worth it. The better your monitoring is, the easier everything gets, and once you’ve worked with truly acurate monitoring for a while, things will start to falling into place – and you won’t want to ever go back again.
The image at the top of the post is of the first loudspeaker I ever owned. It was hand-made by my Dad when he was a young man, can you tell ?! I listened to the first album I ever bought on it (“Kings of the Wild Frontier”, by Adam and the Ants) – and was very very happy.