Dear Editor:
I have been making videos for about three years now. I don’t produce anything real fancy like music videos or movies–just your basic weddings, family special events and one local cable commercial (that I actually saw on the air following Larry King Live on CNN!) I love your magazine, reading every page (even the ads) the day it comes in the mail. You cover every topic pretty thoroughly, but I don’t remember reading anything lately on "audio monitoring." I never realized the importance of this technique, until one of my wedding clients, the Kilgores, ran my production through their home stereo. You see, I was there because they wanted to make sure they liked it before they paid me. Well, when it came on the screen, the picture looked fine, but about three minutes in, when the bride came walking down the aisle, you could hear Bobby (my buddy/tripod mover/extension cord wrangler) describe a fantasy he wanted to have with the bride-to-be. We both giggled at the time, but I didn’t think it was on the tape. And I never heard it when I was editing the wedding. I only use the TV monitor’s speaker to listen to the sound part of the tape. Well, to make a long story short, I didn’t get the money for the wedding.

Since you’re always willing to give me the goods every month for such a low price, I thought I’d do the same for you. I’ve enclosed all of my notes collected during the past month while I was becoming an expert on the world of audio monitoring. I kept the information in a diary, but I forgot to write down some of the dates. It all happened in order, though. And guess what? You don’t have to pay me the $2.95 your mag costs. Just send me one of those cool T-shirts so people will know I’m a videomaker when I wear it.

Thanks. (You can send the shirt to my home address. That’s where my production studio is at right know, but soon I’m going to get an office.)


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October 17, 10:37am

This is the first day I decided to find out about speakers. I can’t keep using my TV speaker. I am going to go to the appliance store down the street. It’s called Smitty’s Television and Stereo. It’s not like a big superstore; Smitty only has a couple of things, but I heard he really knows a lot about electronics. He played in a band.

Smitty tells me that’s it’s impossible to figure out what the quality of my soundtrack is through a 3-inch TV speaker. The range of sounds that are available to me through videotape and the range of sounds that come through that little speaker are, in Smitty’s words, "vastly different." That would explain Bobby’s comments escaping my notice, but unfortunately, not those of the Kilgores. Smitty says their "souped up" home theater with its many amplifiers and multi-channel speakers were able to pluck those embarrassing comments off the tape. He was surprised we didn’t hear more background noise from the event, because Smitty believes that videotape offers the second best sound recording possibility on the market today (after CDs, of course).

Smitty, being the salesman that he is, just launched into a hard sell on this expensive line of speakers in his store. He told me I need several channels, maybe even a Dolby, surround sound, THX, pro-logic set-up (I think those were the terms). It sounds cool. Like I’ll get to hear the gurgling of a baby on one side of the church coming from a right bank of speakers, while at the same time an old man’s sneeze comes from some left-side speakers. I’m loving this! One problem, though–the price. Remember, I tell Smitty, I’m still operating out of my parents basement. I really don’t have $4700 for a sound system–yet. Maybe after a couple more weddings…

I leave Smitty a little dejected (he’s really bummed out that I didnt buy anything). But at least I’ve got a clearer goal in mind. Not only do I want to know about a better audio monitoring set-up, I also want to do so in a low-budget manner. He tells me to talk with Doug, a buddy of his from the band days. Doug still runs sound at a club downtown.

October 22, 4:15pm
Getting in touch with Doug was a little tougher than I expected. I guess these bar dudes keep some strange hours. Anyway, in our conversation, he made the following points:

  1. You cannot monitor audio correctly without a set of headphones.

  2. Equalization is just as important in playback as it is in recording.

  3. I should use a minimum of two external speakers with any audio monitoring set-up.

  4. I should examine and improve the acoustics of my editing room.

  5. It doesnt take a huge budget to build an audio monitoring system.

Boy, was I happy to hear that last remark! When I quizzed him about working with a low budget, Doug mentioned a couple of ideas that I can implement immediately for improved audio monitoring. And the best part is that I already own most of the gear!

His first suggestion seems simple and cheap enough. I’ve got this little Walkman-like cassette recorder/player. Well, they sell tiny amplified speakers for the thing so other people can listen to whatever tape I’m playing. By hooking up the output from my VCR to the audio input on the cassette recorder, then amplifying the sound through those tiny speakers, I have a low-budget audio monitoring system.

I don’t own any of those mini-speaker systems, but Doug says they’re pretty cheap, usually running less than $10, and widely available at any electronics superstore.

A second suggestion of Doug’s–use my boombox as part of an audio system. It obviously has better speakers than my TV. And the box even has bass and treble control knobs to allow adjustment of the sound. It’s a really simple set-up; I just connect the audio outputs from the VCR into the line input jacks on the boom box. Doug also says to place one speaker on each side of the editing monitor to get a better "feel" for the stereo sound. My boombox, though a little old, certainly produces a noticeable improvement over the TV speakers.

Since I may decide to use this as my primary sound set-up, I researched several units just in case. While many of the features are similar, some include CD players and dual tape decks. This is an added bonus because you can use these as additional audio sources for your recordings. RCA’s RP-7855 ($60) is a 3-piece unit–two speakers and the stereo cassette player–that features 4-inch full range dynamic speakers, a bass boost control and stereo enhancer. If you want CD availability with a low price, Koss’s HG32 costs only $89 and comes with detachable speakers and several equalization controls. A simulated surround sound effect is featured on the RCA RP-7979 ($120). Its detachable 2-way speaker system also uses bass boost for authentic sound reproduction.

Of course, these are just a few of the boomboxes I looked at. There are probably hundreds of different models out there suitable for videomaking.

November 3, 3:11pm

I feel really good about the options Doug spoke about, but there’s more out there, I just know it. Smitty started me thinking with his sales pitch, and the equipment Doug was playing with while we spoke at the club was just a little more intimidating than mini-Walkman speakers. But I still want to stay away from any high-end gear. Is there no middle ground? Maybe I need to expand my definition of low-budget. I guess a small investment in audio gear will eventually pay for itself with improved productions.

Editors, please note:
On November 4th, I went to a sound seminar sponsored by a music store in my town. The topic of the evening was "Picking the Right Speakers." The lecturer rambled on and on concerning a certain brand of speakers which I’m sure he wanted us to buy, but he did make some interesting points:

  1. Don’t overbuy. Consider the end user. I guess what he means is that if I’m doing video productions that people may be watching on a home theater system, my sound set-up should at least equal theirs. And, if all of my clients view their tapes on a mono (that means single-channel) television set and VCR, then a really low-buck speaker will do the job.

  2. Consider the future. While it may be great to save some money by purchasing cheap speakers now, will you be saving money in the long run? The guy was talking about upgrades. Let’s say my VCR and camcorder editing system only deserves some mini-speakers as an audio monitor. But will I be upgrading the video equipment anytime soon? If so, I’ll just have to repurchase more speakers that can perform as well as the new video gear.

  3. Examine the specs. Speakers have options and features just like any other piece of electronic equipment. Make sure you’re getting what you need. For video work, it’s vitally important to use shielded speakers. Heres why: within any speaker is a large magnet. And even the most novice videomaker knows what that’ll do to a videotape. Placed too close to your video monitor, an unshielded speaker can tweak your colors out of whack as well. Check this option before purchase. Independent volume control, built-in amplifiers, proper wattage and even the physical size are all topics of concern that should attract the buyers’ attention.

While the guy offered some good info, I thought he was too pushy to ask about speaker suggestions, so I did a little research on those babies myself. What’s out there? One of the first places I went "shopping" was my Markertek video supply catalog. In addition to thousands of video-related items, the company also lists an exhaustive audio-oriented section. For the low-ballers out there, Markertek’s offers a High Power Bass Reflex system ($75). The pair are specifically designed for video use, coming with those oh-so-important shielded cabinets. Mounting brackets on the 65-watt maximum speakers make it easy to hang them up and out of the way.

Also affordable at $75 are Sony’s personal stereo speakers. The system features built-in amplifiers and volume controls and are compact and lightweight, which is good if you edit in a small space like I do. A similar solution is the pair of mini-speakers available from Radio Shack ($39 a pair); these take up only five inches of shelf space.

If youd like to link your computer to your editing system anytime in the near future, you may be interested in buying some multimedia speakers. These sound amplifiers will work with both audio and computer systems. Radio Shack offers a low-priced pair. The 9-inch high, 5-watts-per-channel speakers cost $79. Also from Radio Shack, a pair of battery powered, 2-way amplified speakers ($39 pair) contain separate volume, bass and treble controls.

JBL makes three levels of bookshelf speakers ($59, $89, $97 each) which offer varying sizes of woofers. All are 2-way units with bass reflex enclosures that help make the most of the "lows" of any soundtrack.

Those that want true surround sound may want to check out Radio Shack’s truly affordable system. The 3-speaker kit ($99) includes a center channel speaker and two satellite units for rear channel sound.

Date Unknown, Time Unknown
The subject of headphones has almost escaped me. I know Doug had suggested using them, but I never really invested in a set, unless you count the earphones that came with my Walkman. But I don’t think that’s what Doug was talking about.

November 7, 8:42pm
Yeaaah! I’m not a real emotional guy, but I joined a video user group that just started in my area. What a great time! We covered a lot of topics, and I offered up audio monitoring. Everyone seemed to agree that it’s a subject worthy of most videomakers’ attention. It’s easy to get caught up in the visual part of a production, almost ignoring the aural aspects. As we talked and people began describing their methods of monitoring, the word headphones came up more often than once.

The advantages of the product definitely outweighed the downsides. Several realistic concerns did arise, however. Besides looking silly with the "phones" on your head (some argued it looked professional), there was the problem of creating an unrealistic listening environment. It seems the controlled listening "cave" that headphones create actually make a soundtrack sound better than reality. How one videomaker explained it was that with the phones on, sounds are cleaner, richer and louder than they could ever possibly be when coming from open-air speakers. A producer may tend to under-compensate all of the levels because of the inherent clarity of headphone sound. The horrible realization comes when you take the headgear off and listen to the mix you just spent six hours laboring over. Shouts are whispers, gunshots sound like popcorn and your thundering musical score could’ve came from a music box.

On the upside, headphones allow you to hear all those mistakes (Bobby’s lecherous out-loud desires) that straight-thru-the-speaker monitoring may miss. Another realistic consideration is noise control. My parents aren’t real keen on "pumpin’ up the volume." Neither are many apartment neighbors, business associates or landlords. Often, you can only really crank it with headphones in place. But do be careful of hearing damage!

Again, a survey of the market is in order. Here’s what I found. At the low-end of the price range are Audio-Technica’s Labtec LT-125. For $25, these phones are a step up from the ear-sized models featured with most personal stereos. Oversized earpieces provide better isolation of sound. A 1/4-inch adapter is included for the built-in mini-plug.

The company’s ATH-M86 ($39) are a step up. These stereophones feature a closed-back design for powerful low-end response. The big, cushiony earpieces provide privacy and prevent unwanted sounds from interfering with listening. A professional pair of headphones from Audio-Technica, the ATH910 ($79), are built to withstand heavy field use as well as studio environment wear. A specially formulated ear pad material offers excellent isolation and comfort during extended sessions. The phones are ideal when high monitor levels may trigger feedback. A 10-foot cable terminating in a 1/4-inch stereo phone plug also comes with the phones.

Markertek sells Sony’s MDR-7504 ($79). Rugged and strong, the folding, compact head band make these units popular in the field as well as the editing room. They come with a dual, mini-standard stereo phone plug and soft case. Fostex’s T-20RP ($89) are also available through Markertek. The lightweight, professional headphones provide superior reproduction using Fostex’s exclusive "RP" technology.

For those wanting to spend a little more money, Beyerdynamic offers its DT220 ($139) studio phones. Both the headband and earcups are foam-filled, insuring high isolation from ambient noise. The professional quality of this set make them perfect for critical monitoring. Also from Beyerdynamic is the DT48 ($299), a very high-end set that has long been considered the industry standard; these are the headphones found in many a professional editing suite.

November 9, 11:27am
Decisions, decisions. It’s getting near the time to make a choice of what my new audio monitoring set-up will include. Today, my objective is to learn about equalizers, and if they will add to the quality of sound playback.

I never really thought about it before, but my car stereo features a graphic equalizer. It’s quite small, only 5 bands, but it does allow for some interesting combinations of treble, bass and midrange sounds. I think I’ll talk the mechanic who installed it.

Same day, 2:31pm
Pete (that’s the mechanic’s name) tells me that an equalizer allows a person to tailor a stereo’s sound to suit their personal listening tastes and to compensate for the room’s acoustics. Basically, it lets me make the vocals clearer, the bass deeper and the highs sharper. In addition to equalizers, Pete tells me theres a slew of audio "sweetening" gear out on the market.

Though not as easy to locate as speakers, affordable equalizers are available. Radio Shack’s 10-band model ($99) has a neat stereo image enhancer to simulate live concert sound. A spectrum analyzer display lets you see graphically all the adjustments you make.

Furman’s PQ-4 Parametric Equalizer ($299) provides independent control of all three equalization parameters: center frequency, boost/cut and bandwidth. Their primary benefit is that they allow the user to Doug-in the boost or cut to precisely the frequency (or range of frequencies, as set with the bandwidth control) where it is most needed.

An active bypass which allows comparison of the equalized signal with the original sound is a feature on dbx’s 3031C ($750). The graphic equalizer offers 31 bands of low noise, cut-only equalization.

In addition to their equalizers, Furman carries a full line of sound enhancement equipment through Markertek. One neat item is a noise gate. The QN-44 Quadruple Noise Gate ($329) is a device that "gates" a channel closed when the signal level coming into that channel is below a user-selected threshold. With the Kilgore video, if I had a noise gate, I could have set the audio channel to gate anything lower than the minister, bride or groom’s voices. Then Bobby’s lustful mutterings would’ve been left out of the mix.

The 172 Supergate ($870) from dbx features controls that allow you to suppress any headphone, mike or monitor feedback in addition to suppressing ambient sounds.

November 12, 8:07am
I got up early this morning to rearrange my editing set-up. Pete mentioned the acoustics of the room as a need for equalization and that got me thinking. The basement produces an annoying, "hollow" sound. It must be due to the cement block walls and concrete floor. I’m going to move the equipment into an area with ceiling tiles.

I also bought a piece of carpeting to go underneath everything. I once was in a professional studio and they had foam on the walls. The stuff looked like a hospital mattress. I called Smitty back and he said putting some of that stuff up in my area would contribute to more realistic sound reproduction.

Doug says that large sheets of foam padding sold at discount hardware stores looks, feels and responds much like the foam made for professional sound applications. It’s just cheaper. If you want to get the real stuff, Markertek offers foam from Sonex, Acoustilead and Illbruck. It’s fairly expensive, $3.50 and up for a 16-by-16-inch tile, but really does a good job in improving a room’s acoustics. Markertek’s own brand, Markerfoam, is more affordable, costing only $20 for a 54-by-54-inch sheet of 2-inch thick foam.

Final note to Videomaker staff:
I must say I felt overwhelmed after compiling all of the above information. I wanted to improve my audio monitoring, yet, as mentioned earlier, stay within my meager budget. The outcome: I settled on a pair of low-cost speakers and headphones. I also coated my "studio" walls with some foam. All together, the project cost me less than $100. And that’s a small price to pay for the unbelievable difference in sound quality. I would suggest the same to all of your uninitiated-in-sound-monitoring readers. Also, don’t make any lude remarks at weddings.

The Videomaker Editors are dedicated to bringing you the information you need to produce and share better video.