One of the biggest issues in most music producers’ journey is getting the low end to sit right in your tracks.
Personally, when I only used studio monitors without a studio subwoofer, it took multiple mixes and tests on other systems to get the low-end right.
You might be experiencing the same.
You may have been told purchasing a subwoofer would solve this issue. In this article, I’ll go over whether it’s a good studio investment, diving into both the pros and cons to adding one to your setup. I’ll also go into placement tips, and how to best set up a subwoofer in your studio.
So, Do You Need a Subwoofer with Studio Monitors?
Subwoofers can be a great addition to a home studio setup and aid you in your perception of the bass content in your tracks. However, it is important to note that proper placement, calibration with your main studio monitors, and even some room treatment may be needed in order for a subwoofer to truly be beneficial to your setup.
Benefits of Using a Subwoofer
Accurate low-end monitoring. Adding a subwoofer to your system gives you a better chance of getting the low end in that sweet spot where you feel its power, but it doesn’t eat up the entire mix. This addition is particularly helpful for producers of electronic music, allowing you to accurately monitor the low end with pinpoint accuracy.
Tactile response. Headphones or even plug-ins that tune your monitoring system can help you perceive the relationship of your low-frequency content to the rest of your mix. A subwoofer, however, is the best way to accurately perceive how the bass physically feels in your room. That physical feeling can actually tell you a lot about how your low-frequency content is interacting with the rest of your mix.
Identify masking issues. You might realize the low end is too loud if that chest-rattling feeling is so strong that it masks other elements in different frequency ranges. Not getting that feeling in your chest when the bass hits may tell you to turn up the bass a little so it hits harder.
Potential Room Issues with Subwoofers
While subs can have this wonderful effect on your music, just purchasing one and placing it in your room will most likely not give you the desired effect. In fact, it may end up hurting the balance of bass to other frequencies in your tracks.
Room Size and Shape Matter
Many of our home studio setups are in small rooms, which can put us in a situation where it is difficult to control low frequencies in the room. If your room is built like a box with parallel walls, standing waves can be created that can make it even more difficult to accurately perceive the bass content in your room.
A standing wave is created when frequencies are reflected between two parallel surfaces. The sound waves will interact with each other and phase cancellation will occur. This will create points in your room where that frequency is incredibly loud, others where you can’t hear it at all, and everything in between.
While this is not much of an issue with mid or high frequencies due to their short wavelengths, it can be an issue with low frequencies, as their wavelengths often equal or exceed the dimensions of a small room.
For example, the wavelength of 100 Hz is 11.3 feet (3.34 meters), which is likely close to the dimensions of your room.
As you can see, standing waves can be an issue in the frequency range that subs operate in, and as a result, can hurt our ability to mix low end in our music rather than help it.
That does not mean all hope is lost, however.
You may only need to add acoustic treatment to your room in order to make a sub work better in your monitoring system. Low frequencies tend to build up most in the corners of a room, so people often build bass traps to solve this issue.
These are acoustic absorbers that get placed in corners to decrease the amount of low-end buildup. If it is difficult to treat this issue well, however, that could be a valid reason to not add a sub to your system and use headphones, plug-ins or other systems to evaluate your low-frequency content.
For more information on acoustic treatment techniques for your studio, check out this article.
How to Set Up a Subwoofer with Studio Monitors
If you’ve decided your home studio would benefit from adding a subwoofer to the system, here are some tips to help you get the best sound out of your new monitoring setup.
As you may know, the wavelength of a low frequency is longer than that of a higher frequency.
As a result, low frequencies are less directional in nature than high frequencies (or more accurately, we are not able to perceive the direction from which a low frequency is coming). This means that your sub doesn’t necessarily have to be placed directly in front of you like your main studio monitors do.
The goal is to place the sub in a spot where you are able to get the flattest frequency response between all your speakers. Subwoofers should act as a natural extension of the low end of your studio monitors, they shouldn’t exaggerate the bass response of your room. In other words, you want it to feel like the sub isn’t there at all, but rather your main speakers have gained more low-frequency response.
One of the best ways to do this is to avoid placing the sub too close to a reflective surface, such as a wall or the corner of a room. We talked about how low-frequency reflections off of walls can create a standing wave that will exaggerate a room’s bass response.
Leaving some distance between the sub and a wall can help reduce this effect. However, it is essential to use your ears in this process. Every room is different, so it is best to place the subwoofer in a spot you think is good, then play some music that contains a lot of bass.
Walk around the room and pay attention to whether the low-end response is even (or not).
If it isn’t, continue adjusting the sub’s position until you get it to sound good, getting as even of a frequency response in the room as possible. If you’re having trouble getting an even response, acoustically treating your room may be the best way to solve this issue.
Calibrating Your Subwoofer with Studio Monitors
Once your speakers are in the best position, it is important to get the subwoofer at a good level in relation to your studio monitors, so that the sheer level of the sub doesn’t exaggerate the low end response of your room. Here is a simple process you can use to calibrate your subwoofer level with the level of your studio monitors. You’ll need an SPL meter for this, whether it’s a physical one or an app on your phone.
1. Connect your speakers to an audio interface.
This is pretty self explanatory. Once you’ve done this, set your interface to unity gain and turn the volume of each speaker down to its lowest setting.
2.Play Pink Noise.
Once everything has been connected, starting playing some pink noise. Your DAW may contain a signal generator that allows you to create pink noise. If not, there are plenty of pink noise samples online.
3. Calibrate Your Studio Monitors.
As the pink noise is playing, start turning up the level of your left studio monitor. With the SPL meter out at arm’s length, turn the speaker’s level up until it reaches 82 dB SPL. Turn the left monitor off and repeat this process with the right studio monitor.
When the two monitors are combined, your SPL meter should read 85 dB SPL. Turn both speakers on and listen to some music. You may have to adjust their position to get the level of both speakers evenly balanced in your mix position.
(Note: If 82 dB SPL is too loud of a level for you due to the size of your control room, it is okay to set them lower. The goal here is to set both studio monitors to the same level, not to hit 85 dB SPL.)
4. Calibrate Your Subwoofer.
Shut both studio monitors off and turn on your subwoofer. Play pink noise through it and set its level to be 3 dB below the level you set each studio monitor at. So if you set them to 82 dB SPL, set the sub to 79. If you set them lower, set the sub 3 dB below that level.
Turn your studio monitors back on and play some music. Adjust the sub’s position if needed, and experiment with the polarity switch on your sub if you have it. Whichever polarity setting gives you the loudest bass response is where you should leave it, as it means no phase cancellation is occurring between your speakers.
If your sub has a crossover frequency setting, experiment with it until you get the smoothest response out of your system. When it feels like the subwoofer is acting as a natural low-end extension of your main speakers, the crossover point has been set right.
So, do you need a subwoofer with studio monitors?
The answer is that it depends on your studio setup. Subwoofers can be a great addition to your monitoring system and help extend the low-frequency response of your speakers so you can get that thumping, club-like bass in your tracks. However, factors such as room size, proper acoustic treatment, speaker placement, and calibration play a huge role in making a subwoofer effective in your setup.
If there are issues with your room or set up that prevent you from getting this right, that may be a valid reason to avoid bringing a subwoofer into the equation. If you are interested in getting one, take these factors into consideration before you make the purchase. If you are good to go, I believe this addition will help you achieve the power in your low end you’ve always wanted.
If you are interested in purchasing a subwoofer but aren’t sure what to get, check out some of our top picks here.