Audio monitors for film sound

Why I Love Genelec speakers

I have always had an obsessive interest in sound, from both perspectives of creativity and technology. I really enjoy audio post and sound design in the studio. Much more so than editing, grading and image manipulation. For me sound is so important for filmmaking. If the soundtrack to a film is beautifully recorded and crafted one can forgive other aspects of a films production values. Yes picture quality is very important but if the sound is poor it becomes very distracting and therefore hard to watch. However if the picture quality is not top notch, lets say lower resolution for example, it can be somehow overlooked or forgiven if the sound is rich and artistically mixed etc. Some may disagree with me on this, it is merely my personal opinion after all. Walter Murch and Michel Chion have written many fantastic books and articles on film sound, some of it very complex indeed!

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I highly recommend researching these two masters of sound and reading their works. Both of these masters are emphatic that sound is very important for film, sound often does most of the story telling, with the pictures adding details to the mix. So if sound is so important then as filmmakers we should give it a high level of importance within our work.

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DSLR’s have revolutionised what is possible from relatively cheap cameras, often yielding beautiful visual results. There isn’t really anything like that at present in the film sound world. If you want good sound you still need to get your hands on the best kit you can. And you have guessed it, excellent audio kit costs money. It seems crazy that a camera such as the Canon 600D can give fantastic video results with half decent functionality all for the tiny price of £400 or less. Yet a simple piece of audio kit like a wireless microphone will set you back as much for a baseline model and many many times more for a midrange kit. For instance a field mixer such as one of SQN’s amazing units will cost more than a 5D MK III. Essentially all it will do is mix different audio signals into your camera, compare that to what you can do with a 5D MK III and the SQN seems like poor value, and for an indie filmmaker on a budget its unobtainable. Audio kit hasn’t undergone the hyper speed evolution that video/film cameras have in recent years. Maybe that will change? Who knows. What I do know is the kit used ten years ago by sound recordists in the field is still perfectly valid and suitable for today’s film sound. Maybe that’s why it’s so expensive in comparison?

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Recording equipment is a huge subject, something which I will discuss in other threads. How to hear that sound in post so you can accurately integrate it into your films is absolutely vital for filmmaking. There are two main ways to “monitor” sound in film post. One is via headphones, which is my preferred method when editing away from the studio or on location etc and obviously the most practical. On the whole, good quality headphones make for a very effective monitoring device.

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The other method is to use speakers, but not just any speakers. There are all kinds of speakers out there, most of them aren’t good enough for monitoring film sound. We are looking specifically for a special kind of speaker simply called a “monitor”. That’s confusing because monitors can also mean the thing we stare at when using computers. Audio monitors are the sound equivalent of computer monitors, the better the monitor the more accurately we can asses and edit our pictures. The same goes for Audio monitors except we are assessing the sound and not the picture of course. Computer monitors can be calibrated to give accurate true to life or trusted colours, audio monitors can also be calibrated to give a clean accurate sound within the room they are positioned in. We want our audio monitors to be very accurate, uncoloured or tainted, giving the most accurate representation of the sounds we want to use in our films, that way we can accurately mix and blend them with other audio to form the sound track. Once we have completed our film we can view and listen to it in our studio with good quality video monitors and audio monitors. This is essentially the pinnacle of your films replay. Chances are it will never sound or look better than this. From here on in our films will be played on all kinds of screens and mediums with which we have no control over. Most of the time the replay equipment or environment will be less accurate than our own studios. Getting a good sound mix is important because if it sounds great in our studios on our monitors then it stands a better chance of sounding half decent elsewhere. With sound design its not uncommon for final mixes to be replayed through very poor quality speaker systems such as those found in cheap TV’s or PC speakers so the sound mixer can get an idea of how the mix will sound in a worst-case replay scenario. But before we can get to that stage we have to have made our sound mix with excellent quality monitoring equipment.

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I recall being kindly allowed to use what seemed then to be a fantastic edit suite to cut my A-level Art final film. The room was packed with many tens of thousand £’s of kit, all very impressive, but the one thing that hit me and left a lasting impression even to this day was the sound I heard. The monitors were Rogers legendary BBC LS3/5a speakers fed with a Quad amp. I couldn’t believe the lovely sound I was experiencing from these tiny little speakers.

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I was so impressed I had to ask the manager what were these speakers and how much did they cost. Back in 1991 as a 17 year old student £350 seemed like a kings ransom for just a set of speakers. As the years went by I spent many tens of thousands on all kinds of speakers and HiFi, audio monitors, headphones etc but nothing impressed me the way those LS3/5a’s did. In fact I almost bought a pair but by this time Rogers had long stopped making the LS3/5a’s and Rogers was now just a badge name for a crappy Chinese electronics company. LS3/5a speakers were so sought after I was considering parting with £1250 for a boxed, mint, matched pair on eBay. I didn’t buy them in the end.

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So I remained always slightly unsatisfied with what I heard from audio monitors, that was until by chance i found myself listening to a pair of Genelec active monitors. I was absolutely blown away, they were incredible! Tiny little metal bean shaped enclosures with XLR inputs and mains power for the built-in amplifiers. This was it, this was the Rogers LS3/5a moment I had been looking for all these years. So I immediately sold almost all of my speakers and bough a pair of Genelec monitors.

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Genelec is a Finnish company, formed to meet the needs of the Finnish broadcasting company YLE. How similar this is to the story of Rogers who designed the LS3/5a’s in conjunction with the BBC to be their standard issue audio monitor. Regardless of the history I have never found a company to date that makes a better all round audio monitor than Genelec. There may be some incredible studio monitors out there that might (subjectively) sound better than Genelec but I firmly believe the Genelecs would be a better choice in the long run. I have been using Genelec monitors with all my workstations for several years now and I doubt that will change any time soon!

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OK why do I like them so much, well you have to hear them yourself to fully understand. The sound reproduction accounts for about 70% of what I like and the other 30% comes down to the design, functionally, durability, company ethos etc. Of course they aren’t cheap, but just like the Rogers LS3/5a’s they are well worth it!

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2 comments on “Audio monitors for film sound

  1. Pingback: Pandau | Recording Broadcast-Quality Audio on the Canon 5D Mark II DSLR Camera

    • Hi Scott, i see your a fan of sound devices 302! An awesome piece of kit! Have you tried the MixPre D? Its dedicated to DSLR usage with an output to the cameras mic input thats slightly hot (warm lol) that helps to avoid some of the atrocious noise floor on almost all DSLR’s. Tascam DA-60D maybe? PS used to live in LA some years ago now 🙂

      All the best

      David

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