Recording is all about controlling variables. I know, that doesn’t sound very fun. Recording should be about major hits and massive shrimp cocktails backstage at awards ceremonies and limousines and bling. Perhaps for you it will be. Me, I enjoy early bedtimes and grilled cheese sandwiches too much. I’ll stick with controlling variables.
And by that I mean setting up gear and systems so that random hassles are minimized. Repeatability. Reaching a hand out and grabbing whatever you need in that moment and it’s right there waiting for you. Buying reliable equipment that does the job day in and day out.
Your music should be surprising and exciting. Your studio should be capable, but otherwise predictable and efficient. A carpenter rarely decks their favorite hammer with tassels. It’s a tool, as is the studio. One of the best additions to the studio that often goes overlooked is speaker isolation.
Enter the Auralex Acoustics MoPAD Monitor Acoustic Isolation Pads. At a glance these are just some funky cut foam meant to stick under your studio speakers. Hardly high on the glam scale, but in terms of improving your results, these unassuming wedges can deliver incredible performance, just by sitting there. It seems to be a minor thing, a very minor thing, in fact. However, isolating speakers is a critical element that, if you haven’t considered before, you better start considering now.
Here’s the thing… recording is all about transferring energy. Wait. Did I say it was all about controlling variables? Yeah, that too, but they’re not mutually exclusive. Sound exists in waves of energy, and in recording, we capture that energy, convert it to electricity, play with it for a while and then convert it back to waves of energy. While that oversimplifies things enormously, it’s essentially the process.
We, as recording enthusiasts, know this and we spend time and money acquiring microphones and monitor speakers, to ensure we handle the energy-to-electricity and electricity-to-energy conversions effectively and accurately.
Yet probably more than a few of us are guilty of unboxing a pair of monitors and slapping them on a desk, plugging in and basking. We can’t be blamed for that, especially if our previous monitors were old car stereo speakers nailed to the wall.
Monitors have a tough job. Compared to microphones, their energy conversion process is largely inefficient and fraught with all sorts of acoustic challenges. The conversion from electricity to mechanical motion isn’t really the big deal, it’s that mechanical energy to sound waves transformation that throws the wicked curve ball. You and I don’t need to worry about that too much though. Engineers working for speaker manufacturers deal with the math of crossovers, time alignment, port calculations and so on. We just have to find the budget/sound ratio that works for us.
However, we do need to honor the work those engineers conduct on our behalf. Most users wouldn’t think of nailing lumber to the sides of monitors immediately after purchase. Yet we have no hesitation setting those things onto a desktop, gravity being what it is and all. That desktop will then greedily absorb sound output from that monitor. It will resonate, reflect and reprocess the sound output from the speakers, largely screwing up all the calculations those engineers made.
The problem is that the weight of the monitor (usually a good thing) couples to the desktop, making that surface an extension of the monitor itself, one that is not part of the speaker design. Adding speaker stands may substantially improve the situation, but often there is still acoustic and mechanical coupling that permits vibrations to transfer and affect the sound of the monitors. This is where the MoPADs make their magic.
In terms of setup, things don’t come much easier. Put the pads under your speakers. The regular MoPAD kit supports monitors up to 100 lbs., while the MoPAD XLs support up to 200 lbs. Well, it’s not quite as simple as that, as a four-piece MoPAD kit offers surprising versatility.
One common issue with monitor placement happens when the user sets up on a flat desk of a single height. Monitors are usually, though not always, best placed with the tweeters at the ear level of the user or, barring that, pointed toward ear level. Performing a quick scan of the monitors in my studio reveals four pairs of speakers and all fail on this point. Two pairs are above ear height and two are below. Three of four pairs are on homemade speaker stands filled with between 10 and 20 lbs. of sand each, so part of my decoupling problem is already addressed, but tweeter height isn’t optimal. The fourth pair sits below ear level on a flat desktop.
A regular MoPADs kit addresses deficiencies with all my monitors. The eight pieces included in the kit fit together in combinations providing five different configurations as shown in the accompanying diagram. Using a single wedge pad adds a four-degree up or down tilt. Add the angled piece and you can create a flat surface or an eight-degree tilt.
In my case, the two monitor sets above ear level work with the four-degree down tilt. The speakers below ear level require both four-degree and eight-degree adjustments. In all cases, these monitors are set up in near field monitoring triangles of approximately three feet to five feet per side of equilateral triangles. Performance of all speakers improves, but the pair on the desktop are transformed. Let’s talk about that pair exclusively for the rest of the article.
I set up a 24-inch by 48-inch desk in a corner of my studio for writing and video post-production work. Of course, as fate would have it, it’s become my favorite place to sit and sketch out musical ideas. Then I overdub and alter things and sure enough, unless there are other musicians in on the session, most of my recording is now done there.
There couldn’t be a more compromised acoustic setup in here. First of all, the speakers are a pair of Radio Shack Minimus-7s from the early 1980s. These are great compact bookshelf speakers, but they’re no one’s idea of top of the line studio monitors. They’re powered by a Peavey PMA-70 block amp that was sitting around. Decent amp, but one made for permanent installation. This one came out of a TV studio during a renovation. The Peavey receives audio from a stereo Steinberg CI1 USB audio interface, again, another piece that was sitting unused. If there was ever a recording setup that needed help, it was this one.
I used the eight-degree up arrangement of MoPAD. The Minimus-7s are just over four inches wide, so I used a single wedge and angle piece on each side. Larger monitors typically require two wedges per side. The eight-degree arrangement points the tweeters right at my ears, rather than my elbows, as they do when sitting flat on the desk. With that change alone, top end response is now perceived more accurately.
Along with that treble boost, there’s a drop in apparent bass response. No surprise there. The desk no longer acts as a passive subwoofer. Resting directly on the desk, the speakers transferred low frequency information to the desk, which responded by resonating these, giving an illusion of false bass. Now, when working on this desk I regularly compare sounds with headphones, so I knew about the resonating bass thing.
Flat on the desk also bounced low frequencies off the surface in front of the speaker, reinforcing the low end too, in an artificial way. So while the Minimus-7s now sound much less bottom-heavy, it’s in a good way, and they sound much more in common with headphones.
The really remarkable change is with clarity and stereo imaging. Previously, I’d pop the headphones on to check panning. That is not as necessary now. I can pick placement of sounds out of the stereo field with much better accuracy. Reverb sounds stand apart more clearly, and every component of a mix is just that much more discreet. I’m hearing the speakers, not the desk.
MoPADs are foam. Good foam. Sturdy foam. What can you say about foam? These do the trick.
The few negative reviews about MoPADs are the type of people who think you should buy yoga foam or those who somehow managed to use them wrong and think that monitors sound muddier after the pads are in place. There really is no shortage of stupidity. In some cases, you can recognize it because it’s sitting on blocks of yoga foam.
The average user review, of which there are far, far, FAR more, frequently feature phrases like, “Wow, these really do work.” They really do. Should you encounter a user who says that MoPADs did nothing for them, smile, nod, back away slowly and immediate discard, destroy or erase any tracks they’ve mixed without listening. Despite what they tell you, not just any foam will work.
With aggressive street prices under $30, why would you want to improvise with yoga foam? The Auralex Acoustics MoPAD Monitor Acoustic Isolation Pads are probably the biggest improvement you can make to your studio for under fifty bucks.
I do not recommend MoPADs. These should be required, not recommended. Stop reading. Order some now.