In part one, I go over the practical benefits of having smaller speakers in the average bedroom/project studio.
In this part I will go over some, light, non-math, acoustic issues in small rooms, Hi-Fi vs. nearfield speakers, the difference between monitoring and feeling bass, and finally, touch on the pros and cons of adding a subwoofer to your setup.
Getting all excited, no really
You generally don’t want to put too much sonic energy into a room that doesn’t have the cubic volume to handle it. Room proportions will influence the behavior of certain frequencies physically and create standing waves (room modes) relative to those dimensions.
Fig 1. Small rooms are notorious for bass build up in the form of standing waves.
This means that the room itself adds unwanted boosts and cuts to what you hear, and that is counterproductive to accurate monitoring.
How and why that happens is not in the scope of this article, suffice to say, putting big speakers in a small room is going to create major problems in the low end. Speaker boundary interference response (SBIR)—that is interference caused by boundaries near the speaker, like walls, the floor and the ceiling—will also cause constructive and destructive interference at the listening position. (See Fig 2.)
Fig 2. Wave cancellation due to Speaker Boundary Interference.
As mentioned in part one, with smaller near field monitors placed correctly, you increase your ability to hear direct sound from the drivers first. You can also get closer to the back wall with your whole listening position, ideal for small rooms with limited space.
With small speakers less energy is being pushed into the room, SBIR, room modes, early reflections and reverb are diminished somewhat, and you will gain a more accurate listening experience.
Of course, inherent acoustic problems in the room will not magically disappear, but smaller speakers in a smaller room will definitely not feed problematic frequencies with more energy than necessary.
Does it have to be a near field monitor? What about a set of small Hi-Fi speakers?
You could mount 3-inch tweeters into a pair of shoe boxes and mix on them—as long as you know the shortcomings of that setup, and can accurately compensate.
Fig 3. Shoe Box Speakers
Will it make your job easier though? Well put it this way, technically it is possible to row across the atlantic in a plastic bathtub…
Most low and mid range Hi-Fi speakers perform differently, acoustically, than professional near field monitors. Hi-Fi speakers are designed to equalize the sound upon output and emphasise pleasing frequencies using mechanical design and psychoacoustic tricks.
This is great for casual listening because it usually sounds very good, but if you try to use these kinds of speakers analytically, for mixing music, you will compensate for the frequencies being added by the speaker itself, not frequencies that exist in the source material. This means that your mixes will probably not translate well to OTHER sound systems.
That said, the (in)famous Yamaha NS-10s are actually Hi-Fi speakers, but they’re a happy anomaly, and most definitely an exception to the rule.
But I need that bass, man!
It is generally a good idea to distinguish the difference between hearing and monitoring bass and feeling it.
If you can feel it, and you are sitting in a small room, odds are you are feeling a reinforced wave that exist primarily in the room itself and not in music you are mixing down for your gig tonight. When you drop it on the dance floor, expecting to blow the panties off all the people in the front row with that low end power you experienced in your studio, you realize, to your horror, your track sounds thin and powerless, and the crowd’s undies remain firmly in place.
Come to think of it, you did turn the bass down just a little bit after pumping the track to check it at louder volume, it was a little too loud in the mix after all, and maybe you touched the EQ a bit to control it, smooth it out, and now you are realizing, too late, that you have almost completely removed it from the track instead.
Congratulations, you just mixed to your room, not the source music. Trying to get more bass by owning larger speakers actually ends up working against you.
Hearing bass on the other hand is difficult to describe in writing.
In a room with well chosen, well placed speakers (and ideally tuned acoustically) the bass is just - present - you can hear it clearly, it sits where you imagine it should, and it fills out the room like honey, but never overwhelms the soundscape.
It is possible to feel it at louder volumes, but its presence is always proportional to the rest of the mix, even at low volumes.
To sub or not to sub? Bass is the question.
If you are set on having bass extension in your studio, for a budget a shade over €1000, you can get a professional set of small monitors and a sub that will be far easier to tune and set up than one set of large two way monitors. By this logic, it makes more sense to go small and pro than large and budget.
Fig 4. Adding a subwoofer
With a dedicated subwoofer you can set the desired bass levels and really have control over how much low end is pushing into the room.
Most decent subwoofers will have a cut off frequency and only feed the satellites frequencies above a certain threshold (usually from 80 Hz and up), and this actually helps the satellite speakers perform better.
A subwoofer can add a whole lot of unnecessary bass information to a room and cause more issues than it solves.
Adding a decent sub doubles the cost.
A good sub is a big thing, do you even have space for it?
Small speakers for small rooms and budgets, work on many levels, financially, practically and scientifically. You could go with large speakers and monitor at reasonable levels, relative to your room size, however, you run the risk of adding more sonic problems than solutions.
It really does make more sense to go small and pro, rather than large and budget, if you are working in a small room.