Studio Monitor Switch: Alex Sterling — Upper West Side

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Listen closely, and you can hear them – an emerging generation of engineers who care deeply about audio.

Alex Sterling has an ear for detail.

Alex Sterling has an ear for detail.

Among them is Alex Sterling, whose eponymous studio on the Upper West Side is evolving quickly. While the unique live room and flexible output impressed us plenty in a 2012 Sweet Spot, Sterling has clearly taken it all a step further.

Already a stickler for the critical listening experience, Sterling realized he could significantly upgrade accuracy and reduce energy-sapping ear fatigue in one fell swoop: with new monitors.

But arriving at what speakers to switch in wasn’t just a decision: it was a journey. As you’ll see, Sterling paid close attention to every detail of how he was hearing, and how he could do it better. Read on to see how he dissected his monitoring situation, but be aware – you’re about to get a whole new perspective on critical listening.

Behind the Scenes

A few months after my Sonic Scoop SweetSpot feature in mid-2012, I undertook a substantial renovation of my studio control room in order to increase its size and enhance its functionality and acoustics.

An enlarged control room went hand in hand with the monitor switch. (click on all photos to enlarge)

An enlarged control room went hand in hand with the monitor switch. (click on all photos to enlarge)

I was able to expand the control room by taking over an adjacent storage room and combining the two spaces. The renovation effectively doubled the control room volume and has made it far more comfortable and aesthetically pleasing, as well as more functional.

In addition to having more space for important studio equipment like a generously sized client couch, the overall acoustics and layout of equipment has been greatly enhanced. Part of the renovation work also included a complete overall of the control room acoustic treatments. I designed a custom layout of bass traps, broadband absorption, and diffusion using commercially available RealTraps and GIK Acoustics products.

Since doing this renovation my studio business and engineering work has grown to new levels and I am pleased to say that things continue to grow every year. Some of my recent projects include:

Producing an EP with electronic artist “Krychek” as well as mixing his upcoming album.

Orchestral string and woodwind recording for film composer Michael Bacon.

Voiceover and sound effect recording and post-production mixing for David Chesky’s “The Mice War” animated film adaptation of his opera by the same name.

Mixing and co-producing an upcoming hip-hop album from Zen Buddhist lyricist “Sikz Points“.

Mastering for various Downtown Records artists as well as a variety of independent artists here in the United States and abroad.

Recording and mixing for jazz albums from Matt Robbins, The Le Boeuf Brothers, Leon Boykins, Paul Jones, and Tyler Greenfield (featuring the celebrated Cuban vocalist Xiomara Laugart).

All in all, the business landscape for me is very busy and getting more so. I feel that working across genres and sectors keeps the work interesting and also informs my musical and sonic aesthetic. In the constantly changing music industry it is important to be versatile and able to respond to the needs of a diverse clientele.

Phase One: Moving On

For the last 5 or so years I used ADAM S3X-H 3-way midfields as my main speakers. I got some great work out of them and they served me well. I liked how detailed and clear they sounded. I felt that they gave me a lot of information about whatever I listened to.

To the right, Alex Sterling's outboard and synths are close at hand.

To the right, Alex Sterling’s outboard and synths are close at hand.

They also had a great sense of clarity and openness in the upper midrange and treble which allowed me to hear a lot of detail in whatever I was recording, mixing, or mastering. In addition, they had a reasonably deep and impactful bass response, which was great to feel how the kick and bass behaved and to blast the client when they wanted to feel the music and rock out a bit.

However over time, as my ears and listening skills developed further, I had the realization that the ADAM’s weren’t giving me as much information as I had previously thought. I began to feel that the same upper midrange and treble openness was actually slightly artificial and a bit metallic and hard sounding. The bass response also felt a bit smeared and muddy at times.

The ADAMs seemed to put a sonic fingerprint on everything and made various mixes from different genres and sources all kind of sound the same; a bit harsh and a bit floppy and muddy in the lower midrange and bass.

Mixing was always a bit of a guessing game and sometimes physically ear fatiguing with the ADAMs because I often needed to make sounds extra bright and harsh so that they would translate to the outside world better. I also began to feel that I could do better in terms of having more audible bass extension to lower frequencies and improved low frequency and midrange precision. It’s hard to EQ the midrange and bass when you can’t tell if the source has an issue or the speaker itself is smearing it.

Overall I felt like I couldn’t trust the ADAMs anymore and as the saying goes, “trust is the foundation of a good relationship”…it was time for a change.

Phase Two: Picking a Pair

Up close on the rack.

Up close on the rack.

Working quickly, efficiently, and striving to do the best quality work I can for every project is the foundation of my engineering success. If I am to grow my business further, I need to have tools that will help me work even faster and make better-sounding music.

From the standpoint of running a sonic business I believe that part of staying ahead of the trend towards everyone doing it all themselves at home, is to offer artists and clients something that they mostly can’t get in their home studios; plenty of top level equipment in an excellent controlled acoustic environment along with personable and skilled engineering talent to help take their project to the next level sonically and musically.

I know some mastering engineers and serious audiophiles and I have heard some pretty amazing speaker/room systems over the years. I had already done a substantial amount of in-room acoustic treatment, so upgrading the main speakers was the logical next step forward.

I knew I wanted a more honest and neutral monitor with much lower distortion and substantially better low frequency extension and definition. The ADAMs I had were already pretty amazing speakers by most people’s standards and experience, but I wanted to make a giant leap to a whole other level of performance.

I am generally not a fan of separated subwoofer and satellite systems so I wasn’t considering doing a 2.1 setup the way some people do with smaller nearfields plus a sub. I don’t like hearing the physical disconnection between the deep bass from the subwoofer and the rest of the music coming from the satellites. Subwoofers are also tricky to setup properly and can cause translation problems if they aren’t really well integrated to the mains. This preference against subs led me to want a truly full range speaker for left and right channels.

I also knew that I wanted to buy an active powered monitor, mostly because I don’t want to engage in power amp shootouts for the rest of my life…but also because with powered speakers, the amps, drivers, and crossovers are an integrated system that can be designed as a whole to achieve better performance in many cases.

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  • Lino Martinez

    Great article. I recently went through some of the same issues you mentioned with a pair of Adam A77Xs. Do you think your DAC has any significance on your monitoring as well?

  • Alex Sterling

    The DAC certainly will make a difference, although I think speakers have a much more substantial impact on the overall sound than the difference between most pro level DAC’s.

  • Sigmund Abeles

    Joined with your amazingly keen ears, Alex, you have always aimed very high, evolving your technology to the finest tuned. Congrats and keep on refining & growing! The best talent will keep coming through your door.