Building out home studios has become de rigueur for musicians of all kinds of levels. This is part two on a series of doing it on the really cheap.

Last week, we talked about the room itself. That’s important, so if you missed it, start there.

But this week, let’s talk monitoring. You already know you need microphones and a sound interface and some sort of recording kit (In free software, I suggest Ardour, if you can make it past the learning curve), but hearing what you’ve recorded being played back is just as important.

Despite this, a lot of people – including me – will try to work off studio reference headphones. Don’t get me wrong, you’ll need those, particularly for listening to tracks you’ve already recorded while playing out the next track you’re adding. Shure makes a nice pair, the SRH-440s, occasionally discounted as low as $50ish.

No joke here; just decent basic headset

But you’ll also want speakers. The audio experience is simply different, and it’s different in important ways. Ideally – particularly if you can’t afford a mastering pass but want to come as close as you can – you’ll have a bunch of different kinds, from crap laptop and computer desktop speakers (critical, given how much people listen on those horrible things) up to some genuinely good pairs of different quality levels.

But this can be a many-thousands-of-dollars project! If you can’t spend any money, what do you do?

The easiest and arguably best thing to do, if you have some money, is to research and buy a good set of self-powered studio monitors. These are speakers with built-in amps, and they’ve become rather the standard. The amps can be tailored to the speakers, which can in turn be tailored to the cabinet in which it’s all mounted. It’s your plug-and-play solution. Hie thee off to a good equipment seller and have at.

But if you’re reading this, you’re probably more of a hax0r, and want to DIY it. Or you just have to, because you have no money to speak of.

Or possibly YKINMK, but that’s okay.

Okay, first, let’s start with an overall tip: the cheap but rebuildable equipment you want mostly comes from the 1970s and early 1980s. There are a couple of key reasons for this: 1. By this time, transistor audio technology had settled down, and no longer sounded like ass. 2. The state of the art was finally good enough (in transistors) that the then-goal of broad and equal frequency handling – meaning, flat audio reproduction curves – became realistically attainable, and people were still trying really hard for it.

Seriously, “reproduce all frequencies, high and low, the same amount” sounds obvious? But that was difficult. People would even print their equipment response curves on packaging.

what you want

what you don’t want

And this last bit is really important, because once reproduction technology really got under control, manufacturers started realising that they could make their systems sound better by not having flat response curves across all frequencies of sound. They’d intentionally boost attractive frequencies a bit, nudge characteristics around – all to make the system sound better.

And that’s great, unless you’re in a recording studio, where you really want that flat response curve. If you sound good on that, you’ll sound good all kinds of places. When you’re recording, you want accuracy, not help.

So. If you have virtually no money and want to do the best you can with a single pair of speakers, look for a pair of these little beauties on eBay:

hey kids, did you know radio shack used to make radios?

These are the Realistic Minimus 7, introduced in 1978. These particular speakers look like they’re from the 80s; the originals had wood cases, not metal. You’ll also see white metal cases, instead of black, and they tend to be cheaper for no functional reason.

And they are the best audio devices Radio Shack ever made. Seriously, when introduced, they showed them off in stores by discreetly placing them atop a pair of massive fuckoff four-way monster speakers on one of their best kits, blasting, with a sign saying ALL THE SOUND COMES FROM THESE —> pointing at the tiny speakers.

This isn’t to say they’re perfect. Far from it. Sound response drops way off after 70-90 hz and there’s nothing to speak of under 50. But in new condition, they are probably the most precise speakers you will ever hear for under $500.

So get a pair of these. You’ll spend $20 if you look around enough.

But there’s a catch, of course. Notice I said in new condition above. These won’t be.

just walk away

The original crossover design in the Minimus 7 is ultra-minimalist (hence the name), which is part of the brilliance of their design. It also used something called a nonpolarised electrolytic capacitor as part of the sound circuit. These components age, and age badly.

So once you have your Minimus 7s, start googling around for “minimus 7 crossover upgrade kit.” One kind will be a direct replacement of the capacitor with a new film capacitor pair; these sound awesome, are really cheap, and leave the speaker with its original response curve. But it won’t be completely flat. Another will be a more complex and expensive kit, which will include a coil; it’s usually called something like a Zobel Network Crossover. That will get you your flattest curve.

And you get to make a decision here which way you want to go. Either way has its advantages, and the decision’s up to you.

If you have a little more money, do the direct-replacement upgrade on the 7s, and then also look for a pair of Minimus 11 or Optimus PRO-x77 speakers. The 11 was a larger version of the 7; it has a bit better bass range. The 77x was an attempt to merge the two product lines; it was not very successful, but can be salvaged.

takes some work, tho’

You can find both of these, too, for around $20, but be careful with the x77; the foam on the woofers can degrade over time. (Which is what that picture above was about.) The 11 didn’t have this problem.

For either the 11 or the x77, however, get Zobel-type crossover replacement kit. Both of these have better low end response than the 7 series, so you’ll get a wider area of flat response curve. A completely upgraded PRO-x77 (with the degrading foam replaced, in particular) or 11 make lovely, lovely studio monitors.

Then grab a pair of cheap computer speakers from RePC or free from Craigslist. It doesn’t matter what you get, as long as they work as originally designed. You won’t mix for or on these, but you’ll test against them occasionally to make sure what you’re doing can still be heard.

yes, yes, too easy

As is probably unsurprising, I have a setup kind of like this. I have a pair of AFCOs rather than Minimus 7 speakers, but they’re similar devices, and have been similarly modded. I have a pair of Optimus PRO-x77s that needed new woofers but now have nicely flat response curves; they’re becoming workhorses.

I also have a pair of Bose 301 that I mostly use for checking out bass, because even modded, the x77s aren’t awesome on the low end. (But the Bose are not good monitor speakers overall – they “help” – so I don’t rely on them.) And finally, I have a pair of junk powered computer speakers that I fixed and modded to interface with my studio monitor amp while still using their built-in amplifier.

I got the AFCOs for free; no, wait, it was better than that. I found them, abandoned, outdoors, in Seattle’s U. District. The mod kits were $12, and now they’re two of my favourite listening speakers. The computer speakers, I’ve had since my Amiga. The x77s – I don’t even know. I’ve had them sitting around in a box as spare/junk speakers for just forever, not even realising that with a few mods and a few hours work, they’d suddenly turn awesome.

So now I have a four-sound-profile mini-mastering setup, all for on the order of $150 out of pocket, including speaker wire. Is it BEST SETUP EVAR?! Hell no. But it’s genuinely pretty good, gives me a variety of listening models, and I sure wish I’d had it while recording Dick Tracy Must Die. You’ll hear the difference that a better setup can bring on Din of Thieves.

Next time: if you didn’t go with self-powered speakers, you’ll need a monitor amp! As always, I have some suggestions. Ja ne!

This post is part of The DIY Studio Buildout Series, on building out a home recording studio.