Monitors! You can't create or manipulate audio with out them. The quality of your monitoring will always be reflected in the work you produce. But even if you go the most expensive pair of speakers you can find, they won't reproduce sound accurately unless they're positioned correctly in an acoustically-treated space. Here's a simple recipe for getting it right (keep reading for a glossary of terms):
Be sure to use these great tips from Carl Tatz on monitor positioning! These tips were published by in the July/August 2010 issue of Tape Op magazine - a great publication.
If you're new to audio work, you might be wondering, why not just pop on some headphones and avoid the trouble and expense of buying near-field monitors, placing them, and acoustically treating your room? It's true that headphones are an essential tool for all audio applications. They're great for picking out fine details or noise in isolation, or for hearing how a mix sounds on headphones. But that's exactly the point - your audio will always sound much different on headphones than on speakers in a room. If most people who are listening to your work will be hearing it on speakers, (which is almost always the case) you should definitely be using near-field monitors. This is just one of many good reasons to mix primarily on near-field monitors whenever possible.
Final thought - no monitors are end all be all. While its important to have an "accurate" pair of near field monitors for detailed listening, it's also wise to switch between many different monitors while mixing (including a mono mix). Different monitors will highlight different aspects of the sound, give you a fresh perspective, and offer some insight on how your audio will sound in the countless, uncontrolled listening environments where your music will be heard in the real world.
Monitor: Speakers that play back the audio you're recording or working with. Headphones are also monitors, but the term usually refers to speakers unless otherwise noted.
Near-Field Monitor: The medium-sized monitor speakers that are the primary monitors used for mixing. They are placed close to the listener and produce a medium loudness level. These are distinguished larger monitoring system with wider speakers and sub-woofers which are used to monitor at louder volumes and examine the sub bass range, (but mostly to impress clients).
Tweeter: The part of the monitor that produces the high frequency sounds.
Decoupling Element: Anything that separates the monitor from the surface its resting on (a piece of foam for example. This prevents the speaker from transferring vibrations to those surfaces. If this happens, the surface will vibrate in sympathy with the speaker and will produce additional, unwanted sound.
First Reflections: When sound leaves the speaker it travels in all directions. the first sound to reach your ears will be the sound coming directly from the speaker - this is the sound we want to hear. The next sounds to reach your ear will have bounced off the walls and ceiling one or many times. The first of these sounds to reach your ear are called first reflections - since they have only bounced off one surface to get to you, they still have a lot of energy and can strongly interfere with the direct sound from the speaker - therefore you want to absorb these sound-waves as much as possible.
Attenuation: Absorbing sound energy, thereby reducing its loudness level.
Stereophonic: Using two monitors which are horizontally separated and playing two different (but related) sounds to create the perception of different positions (right, left or center) for the sound being played.
Eric is a musician, audio engineer, educator, and radio nerd based in Seattle, WA.