Making music with studio monitors compared to headphones gives you a far better perspective of the tracks you create.
Why? Because monitors have a flatter frequency response. They allow you to hear a much higher quality and accurate sound from your digital audio workstation DAW.
But, for your mixes to sound and work correctly, you need to calibrate your studio monitors FIRST!
In this guide, I’ll show you 3 ways how to do that exactly. Read on!
- You can calibrate your studio monitors in three ways: Calibrating at 85 dB SPL at Listening Position, Calibrating Subwoofer Level, and Calibrating the Crossover Transition.
- When calibrating, you will need two main tools: Sound Pressure Level (SPL) Meter and Tone Generator.
- Calibrating studio monitors is VITAL to achieving consistent, balanced, and accurate sounds & frequency responses for your mixes!
Why Do I Need Calibration?
In my experience, mastering tracks with poor room acoustics and calibration made a messy, muddy, and harsh version of them when played back elsewhere.
Later on, I realized that an uncalibrated studio environment could trick you into setting EQ curves differently. With this, tracks often become off-balanced and a different version of what you ought them to be.
So, when you calibrate your studio monitors, you will get better balance, consistency, and accuracy in your mixes and masters wherever you may play them back. Adding some acoustic treatment is a good idea too.
Here are three good reasons why you should calibrate your monitors:
When you operate at a fixed volume level, your ears will become accustomed to it in a given environment. This should give you consistency among all your published tracks.
Accurate Representation of Frequency Range
I suggest that you consider the Fletcher-Munson curve when mixing and mastering. This is a graph of how the human ear hears best at certain frequencies.
The chosen level for calibrating is the one that gives the flattest response across all frequencies.
Personally, when I calibrated and acoustically treated my studio space, I immediately noticed the change in low frequencies and lower midrange.
Accurate Stereo Image
Even though you use the same brand of studio monitors, they’re still NOT EQUAL.
Depending on its position, you may still hear a difference in the volume of around 0.5dB to 1dB, even when set at the same level. Calibrating them will result in a more accurate stereo image.
What You Need:
Before calibrating your environment, I highly recommend you prepare the following tools first:
Sound Pressure Level (SPL) Meter
SPL meters can come as a hardware device, software, or an app you can easily download on your smartphone.
For calibration, you should use SPL meters that allow you to set them at C-weighted and slow response.
The sweet spot for measuring with your SPL meter is at arm’s length; its microphone is positioned at your mix position.
This is at the center of your speaker placement (left and right speakers), where your ears should be too.
You will need a tone generator to play test tones in the form of pink noise through your monitors.
Some DAWs have tone generator plug-ins that offer a wide range of test tones like pink noise. If you don’t have them, you can download them from various websites with these offers.
With pink noise, every frequency band is present at the same level. I find this really helpful for calibration, room analysis, and other acoustic measurements.
Different Ways of Calibrating Studio Monitors
Before I dive into the methods, I want you to remember that when you calibrate your studio monitors, the left and right monitors of every pair should be calibrated independently.
Level calibration is important when you work with more than one pair of speakers. Ideally, you should not experience a change in loudness when switching between speakers.
Unleveled calibration can lead to inaccurate perception and quality of your track.
1.) Calibrating at 85 dB SPL at Listening Position
You will rely on technical data when you calibrate through this method. It will not be based on subjective listening. Calibrating at 85 dB SPL, which is the “standard reference” is most common.
Its goal is to ensure that when the output meters in your DAW register 0 dB, the SPL meter registers 85 dB in your mixing position.
Check out this step-by-step guide to calibrate using the standard 85dB reference:
- On your studio monitors, turn the monitor volume down.
- On the audio interfaces’ output level, set the volume to 0 dB or “U” (unity). “Unity gain” is the volume setting where the signal level is NOT BOOSTED. An audio interface might also use the unity gain setting as its maximum volume level. Consult your audio interface’s manual to know more about its levels and adjustments.
- Set the SPL meter to C-weighted and slow response.
- Position the SPL meter in the sweet spot of your normal listening position.
- Play 20 Hz to 20 kHz full-bandwidth pink noise from your tone generator with a peak of -20dB. (-20 dB is the required output level to calibrate studio monitors correctly)
- Starting with one monitor at a time, slowly increase the volume level of one speaker until you get a reading of 82 dB on your SPL meter. When both speakers play simultaneously, the overall SPL should increase by about +3 dB in volume, achieving the standard 85 dB.
- If you started with the left speaker, power it down. Then, repeat step 6 on the right speaker.
- Once you measure 85 dB on the SPL meter after calibrating both speakers independently, stop the pink noise and turn the other speaker back on.
- Play some music and sit down in your normal mix position. Once you are satisfied with the balance of your listening environment, you’re all good to go! If not, you might need to fine-tune your speaker placement.
Although 85 dB is considered the standard volume level to be achieved on the SPL meter, it may NOT ALWAYS be suitable in the case of a smaller room.
If so, you may opt for 75 dB-79 dB instead. What is important is both speakers are calibrated at the same SPL level.
2.) Calibrating Subwoofer Level
Calibrating subwoofers is as INTEGRAL as calibrating your full-range monitors. You should calibrate both subwoofer and full-range monitors to exactly the same level.
Check out this step-by-step guide to calibrating subwoofers:
- Power down your full-range studio monitors and turn your subwoofer volume to its lowest level.
- Play 20 Hz to 20 kHz full-bandwidth pink noise at 0 dB through the output of your primary audio source.
- Turn up the output of your primary audio source to “U”.
- Slowly increase the volume of your subwoofer until it measures 76 dB (for small rooms) or 82 dB (for bigger rooms) on the SPL meter. The overall dB SPL should increase by about +3 dB in volume, achieving the standard reference.
- If your subwoofer has a variable lowpass filter, make sure to set the filter to its highest frequency. This should create an overlap of frequency responses between your studio monitors and subwoofer.
- Turn your full-range monitors back on and play some familiar music with a lot of bass. Experiment and adjust accordingly with positions that will give you the best bass response at your mix position. Leave the polarity switch to the position that has the loudest bass response. At this point, your subwoofer should be in-sync with your full-range monitor system.
3.) Setting the Crossover Transition
Depending on the system, having a frequency content of below 60 to 120 Hz in your full-range monitors can create destructive cancellation and reinforcement.
I specifically noticed this with the highest frequency the subwoofers recreate.
Highpass filters on full-range monitors create a more seamless crossover transition with your subwoofer. These are used for BETTER bass management.
Subwoofers also have highpass filters on their output to cut-off frequencies between them and the full-range monitors.
If your monitors produce a frequency range of between 70 Hz to 80 Hz, you may not need to do much but simply plug in your subwoofer. But if it is below 60 Hz, you will need to configure your crossover network.
Check out the steps when dialing in the crossover transition:
- Set the highpass filter for your full-range monitors using their onboard controls or the highpass filter on your subwoofer.
- Set the lowpass filter on your subwoofer to the same frequency on your full-range monitors. If you are engaging an 80 Hz highpass filter on the monitors, set the variable lowpass filter on the subwoofer to 80 Hz too.
At this point, listening by ear is the better judge. Experiment with the lowpass filter setting that provides the smoothest crossover transition.
Got more questions? I got you covered!
How Can Speaker Calibration Help Improve the Quality of My Mixes?
In my experience, making sure all the speakers are operating at a balanced level in a listening environment is CRUCIAL.
Balance is achieved when none of the monitors are too loud or too soft concerning each other.
Once we calibrate the studio monitors, we can maintain accuracy, standard, and repeatability in measurements. Which, in effect, produces reliable results when mastering and mixing recordings.
The primary purpose of monitor calibration is to ensure a specific metered audio level in your DAW equal to the SPL in your listening environment.
This means whatever audio you virtually create in your DAW is exactly how you hear it in the real world.
Proper calibration also helps reduce unwanted noise, keep studio monitors in spec, protect against ear damage, and preserve the quality, safety, and longevity of your equipment.
How to Use a Sound Pressure Level (SPL) Meter?
Sound pressure level meters are used for various purposes in multiple scenarios. In essence, they measure, monitor, and control noise levels.
Factories and construction sites, in particular, use this instrument to make sure noise levels are within what is regulated and are safe for the workplace.
It is also used to measure and control noise in urban environments, protecting workers, city dwellers, and the general population from too much noise pollution.
But for our purpose of calibrating studio monitors and setting up audio equipment, here is how to use a sound pressure level (SPL) meter:
- Whether you are indoors or outdoors, position your SPL meter at a sweet spot free from any obstacles or reflectors.
- Place the measurement mic of the SPL meter about 1.3-1.5 meters above the ground and towards the direction of the audio source.
- Take down notes and consider elements that might affect the measurement of a decibel meter. These include the number and duration of measurements, location, time of the day, weather conditions, and the description of the sound source, including its distance from the SPL meter.
What Is Pink Noise?
Pink noise, just like white noise, is a constant and steady sound in the background. It has a lower pitch than white noise.
It uses a consistent frequency or pitch and creates a flat sound. It filters out sounds that may be distracting too.
Some examples of pink noise are steady rain, wind rustling through the trees, or waves on a beach.
The deep, low-frequency and flat sound of pink noise is an IDEAL instrument used in calibrating monitors to determine whether the volumes are already in balance.
Do You Need a Measurement Microphone to Setup Speaker Calibration?
Personally, a measurement mic is an ESSENTIAL gear when calibrating studio monitors.
A measurement mic is used for audio analysis, mainly to measure the acoustics in a room.
The microphone is designed to deliver a flat and uncolored response testing whether the audio equipment is balanced.
You will need a calibration file for your mic to function. This usually comes with the device. If it doesn’t, you can download it from its manufacturer’s website.
What dB Should Studio Monitors Be at for a Good Listening Environment?
Whether you’ve been in the music industry for more than a decade or just getting started, you know mixing engineers have vouched for 85 dB.
This is the STANDARD sound pressure level for a larger room. 75 dB, on the other hand, is the standard measure for a smaller room when you calibrate your mixing environment.
Having a calibrated environment, especially at your normal listening position, is integral when setting up your home studio. Because calibrated monitors equal BETTER sound quality!
I hope the 3 methods for calibrating studio monitors I mentioned in this guide are helpful.
The best method will always depend on your environment, equipment, and mixes.
If you consider another method, I won’t stop you.
Besides, what matters most is not the way you calibrate your studio monitors, but the fact that they have been calibrated!