Building an iPad recording studio; Part 5 – Monitoring choices for your iPad studio

finger on a tablet computer screenSo far, in the first four parts of this series, we have looked at how the iPad fits into the wider context of the DIY recording studio (Part 1), why you need to consider an audio and/or MIDI interface to go alongside your iPad (Part 2) and factors to consider in selecting a suitable MIDI keyboard (Part 3) and microphone (Part 4) so you can get both MIDI and audio performances into your iPad studio system.

However, if you are putting effort and money (even if a modest amount of money) into making your iPad-based recordings, even if you are just beginning with some of the more ‘starter’ orientated equipment examples I’ve identified so far, there is still one further piece of essential equipment that’s required. You need a monitoring system in order to judge the quality of those recordings…..

Does it sound good?

If you don't want your mixes to sound too scary then you ned to think carefully about your monitoring system.

If you don’t want your mixes to sound too scary then you need to think carefully about your monitoring system.

In using the word ‘quality’ above, I’m referring to audio quality; at this stage, I’ll leave the artistic judgements up you and your audience :-). However, if you are going to be able to judge the audio quality, you need to be listening to the recordings on either (a) a reasonable set of speakers in a suitable acoustic space or (b) a respectable set of headphones designed for studio applications. And, if possible, it is even better if you can do both.

This is, potentially, a huge topic and I’ll do nothing more than scratch the surface here. However, I think it is true to say that in many home or project studios, the monitoring system is often treated as a bit of an afterthought when all that other tempting gear – mics, synths, guitars, software, audio interfaces, etc. – also has to be budgeted for.

This is, generally, a mistake. Ultimately, your recording and mixing decisions depend upon the quality and accuracy of the sound your monitoring system is capable of reproducing. If you try to mix on your mobile phone’s earbuds or hi-fi speakers then the rather limited (and, between makes and models, highly variable) audio reproduction of these systems will not allow you to make sensible choices about mix levels and EQ. The end result may well be mixes that sound OK on the system that they are mixed on but will not translate very well to other speakers and headphones. The experience for your audience, therefore, may not be so great.

Of course, if you are building your first DIY recording studio around your iPad, then the budget may well be constrained and I’ve already suggested a number of items that you might need to acquire to get you started. By the time you get to monitor speakers or studio headphones, there might not be anything left in the pot to spend….

Can you start out using any old pair of headphones or speakers? If you have to then, yes, absolutely – use them while you get to grips with your new recording system and until you can afford to buy something more suited to the task – but be very aware that certain mix decisions you are making will be heavily influenced by any inadequacies in your monitoring system.

Monitoring choices

But, if you are ready to invest, what about some suggestions?

Nearfield monitors; so called because you tend to listen to them from quite close up a few feet away).

Nearfield monitors; so called because you tend to listen to them from quite close up a few feet away).

In terms of monitor speakers, there are lots of options, but for a first time buyer, it makes sense to start with a pair of ‘nearfield’ speakers. These are generally compact(ish) speakers designed for studio listening where the listener is positioned relatively close to the speakers (hence the ‘near’). Many of these types of speaker are now available in a ‘powered’ format (that is, they have an amplifier built in to them) and this has the advantage of one less item to lug around (no separate speaker amplifier required) if you want a mobile system. If you buy ‘passive’ speakers (no built in amp), then you will need to buy a separate amplifier also.

There are lots of very good companies making these sorts of nearfield speakers and prices go from fairly budget friendly up into the mega-bucks territory. Popular brands include Alesis, Behringer, KRK, M-Audio, Samson and Mackie but there are lots of other very creditable brands also.

Some examples? Well, Samson’s current (at the time of writing) Media One 5a can be purchased for around UK£100/pair and, while many speakers in this price range are aimed at much at multimedia producers (video editors, etc.) as musicians and they certainly won’t take your head off in terms of output level, they would make a solid start. Behringer’s MS20’s would be in a similar price point.

Samson's Media One 5a monitors.

Samson’s Media One 5a monitors.

Alesis also have their Elevate series and the Elevate 5’s (at about UK£99 for a pair) are a decent option. Indeed, I purchased a pair of these for myself some months back and, while I’m not sure I’d use them instead of my main nearfields I use with my desktop system (which cost quite a bit more money), for the price, they actually sound pretty good and deliver a decent level of output with plenty of bottom end. They work pretty will alongside my own iPad and are compact enough to be easily moved and setup ‘on location’ if I occasionally need to move my iPad recording studio to work elsewhere.

If you are prepared to get a little more serious, then something like the KRK RP5 RoKit G3 (c. UK£120 per speaker) or Alesis M1 Active 520 (c. UK£210 per pair) would make very decent starting points.

As with microphones, be aware that many speakers models in this price range can come in two versions; a ‘standard’ version where you connect the audio outputs from your audio interface to the audio inputs of the speakers and a ‘USB’ version designed for a direct connection to a desktop computer. For iPad-based studios, the USB connectivity would probably not be an advantage at present as your docking port/Apple CCK/Lightning to USB cable are likely to be otherwise occupied even if the speakers USB connectivity worked with iOS.

The Elevate 5 monitors from Alesis. I've got a pair of these myself and, while they are not the greatest speakers I have ever used, for the price, they make a neat, portable and vey useable solution alongside my iPad.

The Elevate 5 monitors from Alesis. I’ve got a pair of these myself and, while they are not the greatest speakers I have ever used, for the price, they make a neat, portable and vey useable solution alongside my iPad.

Beyond this c. UK£200 mark then there really is no limit to what you can pay for different nearfield monitor models and designs. Yes, more money will generally mean better quality but, as with many things, there is a law of diminishing returns once you get above a certain price point. Unless money is no object, start at this kind of budget end and work your way up the monitor food chain later.

On me head, mate…

The other monitoring option is headphones. The odds are that you will need some headphones anyway for use while recording, particularly if you record live instruments such as acoustic guitars or vocals. You can’t have speakers blaring out the full mix while you try to record a subtle fingerpicking guitar part in the same room; the sound from the speakers will bleed into the guitar mic and on to that recording. Obviously, you would want to switch the speakers off and monitor the other tracks in the recording via headphones while recording these types of parts.

Behringer's MS20s are another inexpensive option.

Behringer’s MS20s are another inexpensive option.

That said, there is a difference between a pair of headphones good enough to be used for the recording process (ideally, you would want to use ‘closed-back’ headphones for this task as these don’t allow much sound to leak out of the headphone capsules into the room) and those that might be of a suitable quality for the final mixing process. For mixing, open-backed types (that don’t seal the rear of the enclosures) tend to produce a more natural ‘open’ sound and are preferable for longer listening periods and critical listening. There are other pros and cons to these two design modes; for example, closed-back models also allow less sound into your ears from outside sources and they are therefore better for situations where there are loud listening environments such as at a gig (maybe if you were recording a live performance).

As with monitor speakers, you can pay as much as you like for top-quality headphones but something like the AKG K240 MKII model – which is a bit of a studio favourite and provides a semi-open design – can be found for around the UK£100 price point. These would do a respectable job when mixing and, providing you don’t monitor too loudly in your headphones, the ‘semi-open’ format doesn’t leak too much sound back into the room.

For closed-back designs that are just to be used while recording rather than when mixing, prices start from about UK£30 for models by AKG, Audio Technica or Behringer and you can go upwards from there.

Audio Technica's ATH-M50's are becoming a bit of a classic in terms of headphones for use by musicians. These would make a great choice and are brilliant value for money.

Audio Technica’s ATH-M50’s are becoming a bit of a classic in terms of headphones for use by musicians. These would make a great choice and are brilliant value for money.

One example deserves a particular mention. The Audio Technica ATH-M50 headphones are a popular closed-back choice. At about UK£110, they are not really ‘budget’ but many users find they also do a pretty good job for long listening periods. These headphones really are a bit of a gem. They are popular as a tracking headphone (low levels of leakage from the closed-back design), DJs seem to like them, yet they also do a pretty serious job as a mixing headphone as the frequency response seems pretty even and has a reasonable level of bass.

I’ve owned a couple of pairs of these (wore the first set out eventually) and I think they are excellent value for money. Used alongside a set of nearfields (even a fairly budget pair), they provide an excellent cross-check but, if they were your only form of ‘decent’ monitoring, then, in terms of making decisions about overall frequency balance in your mix, I don’t think you would go too far wrong.

Space considerations

In terms of monitoring, there is one other important element to consider; the acoustic properties of the room within which you are listening. We are all aware that different spaces have their own ‘sound’. For example, the acoustics in your living room (with all its soft furnishings) may well be very different from those in your tiled bathroom, while a large space such as a warehouse will be different again. The dimensions, construction and content of any room are what defines that characteristic sound and they do it by the way they absorb and reflect different frequency ranges within the audible frequency spectrum.

Why is this an issue? Well, if you happen to be mixing in a room that absorbs lots of high frequencies and leaves bass frequencies bouncing around quite happily, you might be fooled while mixing and be tempted to add some extra high frequency EQ. Play that mix back in a different acoustic space with a more even frequency response and that over compensation will be audible; the mix will sound too bright. This is a very simple (and simplistic) example to illustrate the point but, hopefully, it will get you at least thinking about what your recording and mixing environment might be doing to your ability to make audio judgements.

KRK make a range of highly regarded nearfield monitors in sizes suitable for all sorts of studio spaces. The RoKit G3's are a good starting point in a smaller studio space - although do make sure you buy a pair :-)

KRK make a range of highly regarded nearfield monitors in sizes suitable for all sorts of studio spaces. The RoKit G3’s are a good starting point in a smaller studio space – although do make sure you buy a pair :-)

One way to compensate for any deficiencies in your recording space is to monitor and mix on both speakers and headphones. With headphones, the impact of the room’s acoustics are minimised and, providing your headphones are of good enough quality, this can provide a useful reality check. Do bear in mind, however, than certain mix judgements (panning for example) can often be more difficult to make on headphones so moving between the two systems is best rather than just relying on headphones alone.

You should also make sure that you listen to your mixes on alternative speaker systems and in different locations to see how well they ‘translate’. Doing this on a regular basis – and listening to your favourite commercial mixes on that same variety of systems – will help you understand just what is required in your own mixing room to get the sound well balanced.

There is, of course, a further step you can take to improve your chances of getting the mix right in your recording/mixing space; apply some acoustic treatment. This is a topic for another day but investing in some suitable acoustic treatment – acoustic foam panels and bass traps, for example – can significantly reduce the amount of audio being reflected around your mixing space. What you are trying to achieve here is (a) reduce the amount of reflective surfaces in the room and (b) attempt to get a fairly even frequency response in the room.

As explained in Part 4, using a pop-filter when recording vocals can sometimes help reduce unwanted noises...  but note the acoustic treatment in the background (special acoustic foam on the walls) that has been used to reduce reflections reaching the microphone. The same sorts of materials can also help when placed around your monitors so you hear more of the direct signal and less of the reflected signal.

As explained in Part 4, using a pop-filter when recording vocals can sometimes help reduce unwanted noises… but note the acoustic treatment in the background (special acoustic foam on the walls) that has been used to reduce reflections reaching the microphone. The same sorts of materials can also help when placed around your monitors so you hear more of the direct signal and less of the reflected signal.

By thinking about (a), it means you hear what’s coming straight from the speakers more clearly and your ears are not confused by hearing reflections from nearby walls or other hard surfaces such as desks. Bear in mind that this also implies something about how you place your monitor speakers; with their backs close to a wall or corner is not a great option and nor is placing them directly onto a desktop surface. That said, not everyone has a choice in these matters, particularly if you have a limited amount of space to work in. However, being aware that these things might be an issue does at least help you think about the potential problems when recording and mixing.

In terms of getting an even frequency response in your recording/mixing space, there is actually only so much you can do without some fairly detailed analysis and possibly some considerable effort and expense. Overall, remember that the key trick here is to make sure that your ears are predominantly hearing a direct signal from your speakers and, as far as possible, as few reflections from other surfaces. This will makes it easier to judge your mix decisions.

AKG's K240 headphones are also highly regarded for studio use.

AKG’s K240 headphones are also highly regarded for studio use.

Do note though that this type of acoustic treatment is not about soundproofing your room to stop your noise bothering your neighbours (that’s also a topic for another day) but more about improving the quality of the sound within the room. These are two different issues and, generally, require very different solutions. Basic acoustic treatment can be done relatively cheaply. Properly soundproofing a room is generally a big job with a big price tag.

Companies such as Auralex and Primacoustic make a wide range of acoustic treatment products and this is something that you can start small with and improve gradually over time by adding further treatment options. Money spent on this issue is, however, often a very good investment.

The other obvious comment to make on this subject is that it is more difficult to control the acoustic space you work in if your iPad recording studio is being assembled for recording on the move. Whether it’s different hotel rooms, different band members houses or different gig venues all on different days, there may be little you can do to ‘treat’ the acoustic space; you just have to work within the limits of your location. That said, being aware of the issue is a big step in the right direction.

For those readers that would like a more comprehensive introduction to the issues surrounding monitoring, headphones and acoustic treatment, Sound On Sound magazine published a ‘buyers guide’ a little while ago. This is available to purchase from their website (the print edition has sold out but there is a digital edition available) and will give you plenty of additional information.

What next?

So, we have our iPad (that’s a given) and have now considered the key pieces of additional hardware that we need to build this iPad recordings studio around; an audio and/or MIDI interface, a MIDI keyboard, a microphone (plus accessories) and a monitoring system (preferably both nearfield speakers and headphones).

There is, of course, still one area of ‘equipment’ we haven’t covered, although this might be one that you have already started to explore; we need some apps! And, in Part 6 of this series, that’s where we will move our attention to… the suite of apps that you might need to assemble to turn this collection of hardware into a viable recording studio….

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    Comments

    1. Jayson Vein says:

      Good stuff John.

      Still saving for the Audio Technica’s ATH-M50’s you and Chris mentioned. I can tell they will be well worth it.

    2. Good article as always, John! Very helpful, thank you!
      I’d like to throw in a super-low budget alternative for headphones: the Superlux HD681 which is a kinda allrounder and was thrown on the market to be an “AKG K240 killer”. They are listed to be semi-open like the AKG nevertheless they feel more closed-back in my opinion.
      They come in 3 variations;
      The HD681 is more of a consumer product for fun listening experiences with pronounced basses and well, you know.
      The HD681B (“B” stands for balanced) is a compromise between sounding great and “telling the truth” about your mix.
      The HD681F (“F” stands for flat) is supposed to be used for recording as they do not pimp your sound at all and therefore may disappoint the just for fun listener.
      I got myself the “B” for less than 20€ here in Germany which does satisfy my non-professional demands for recording, mixing, dj-ing and also just consuming media on the iPad – until a bigger budget is available :-)

      • Hi Patrick… thanks for this… always good when folks add personal recommendations here as I’m sure these can help other readers…. Best wishes, John

    3. Angel José says:

      Another well done episode in the series. As I’m still very nomadic in my military life, I have kept assets small, compact and affordable. My current headphones are Behringer’s HPM1000 and for monitors, the M-Audio AV-20. These are ok right now for my needs, but when I retire in a couple of years and settle down in a place, I would like to prepare a room specifically as a home studio with acoustic treatment, nice monitors and headphones so I can properly record, track and mix.

      Even though I do not have my dream setup, I can still do a lot with the tiny monitors and headphones :)

    4. I recently purchased a pair used M Audio BX8a studio monitors and wanted to know what type of connection cables I would need to hook them up to my iPad… on the back of each Monitors there are 2 connectors: 1 XLR and 1 TRS… I read that the TRS connector accepts either balanced or unbalanced cables.. the XLR is only balanced..wanted to know how to convert two 1/4th jack TRS unbalanced coming from each monitors to a single 3.5 inch plug to the ipad… I don’t have a USB audio interface.. just the monitors… please advise.

    5. This is very useful advice on monitoring system. But before I head towards nearfield speakers like the recommended ms20 s can you please clear up my mind on my current hifi speakers.
      I have found that an acceptable mix and sound quality through my headphones is less satisfactory through my hifi as you advised may happen.

      But what confuses me is that my hifi appears to be of equal or greater spec than the behringers
      Hifi is technics SE-HD81 amp with din 2x 45 W , RMS 2x 60W
      With choice of 2 sets of speakers
      SB – 81 speakers. 50W with 12cm woofer and 2.5 cm tweeter or
      SB-51 speakers 30W with 12cm woofer and 6cm tweeter
      So are the Behringer ms20s going to perform better than these , because the technics seem to be good spec. Maybe I’m just not good at equalising the hifi
      Confused man in Warrington
      Please advise with thanks

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