Thomas Barefoot designed the MicroMain27 to be the only speakers one would need in a studio, functioning as detailed nearfields; as loud, impressive mains with integrated subwoofers; and (brace yourself) as mastering monitors. Barefoot developed his first-generation monitor (MiniMain12) in the early 2000s while participating in the online recording community and recognizing that a new set of unarticulated needs was "echoing in the ether". While big studios are closing their doors, smaller studios are meeting the bottom line of recording budgets by affordably offering everything it takes to make a record. However, these smaller rooms are often physically and financially unable to accommodate big main monitors or a separate mastering environment, and must therefore rely on a single set of speakers in one room for all that they do. The second-generation MM27, like the original MM12, is specifically engineered for this new paradigm in which one set of
speakers may have to do it all in the same room. So, how did Barefoot go about meeting these demands with the MM27? In a nutshell, he married the subwoofer to the main structure in a truly innovative way that allows for the translatability of the 2-way nearfield format, yet with the low-end extension, linearity, and dynamic range of a mastering speaker. Each speaker contains two 10" subwoofers mounted on the sides, and the motor structures are locked together, internally canceling each other's forces. This design stabilizes the cabinet, even under the 500 Watts of power delivered to the subwoofers alone. The tweeter is a 1" soft-dome driven by 60 Watts, and the two 5" midbasses are driven by 250 Watts. The midbasses extend about 1.5 octaves below a typical midrange, translating like a 2-way. Relieved of their deep bass duties, however, they generate much less of the harmonic distortion that clouds the upper bass and lower midrange in a typical 2-way midbass. Furthermore, the sealed enclosures yield better transient response than ported and passive radiator designs. The stiff aluminum cones and clamped opposing motors also enhance the tightness and solidity of the bass response. Indeed, the MM27s can get quite loud, and they deliver low-end content
that reaches down to the deepest frequencies. It may take some time to get used to the sonic information coming your way when you first check out a pair of MM27s, so I encourage anyone who tries them to take some time getting used to the experience, especially the low frequencies. Ironically, listening to records you know well may create the most confusion. Unlike a separate mono subwoofer, the MM27s set the sub frequencies directly into the stereo soundfield, and present that information on the same horizontal plane as the highest of frequencies. At first, I felt as if I was gazing down into a sonic abyss in which large serpents of sinuous low-end lurked. Records I thought I knew well seemed to reveal their true nature, sometimes boomy, sometimes thin, sometimes absolutely beautiful. More than anything, I was struck by how unique each record sounded, and I have come to trust that what I was hearing was the individual character of the records, and not the character of the speakers. It wasn't always an enjoyable experience to listen on the MM27s, which was a fine discovery, since what we're looking for in a studio monitor is accuracy. All of this detailed information should prove
invaluable for making records. While tracking with the MM27s, I quickly realized what
all that accuracy could do for me. I use the MM27s in an
open-concept studio (Mavericks Studio in Manhattan), and go instantly between hearing an instrument in the room and then through the speakers. Never before have instruments sounded more like the real thing than on the Barefoots, and the guesswork of what was happening in the lowest of the lows was replaced by the ability to quickly and confidently make choices in how I mic'ed and EQ'ed. Also, accurately monitoring at higher volumes helped me and the musicians feel the instruments on playback in a way that they felt when played live, especially the drums. To hear a kick drum coming back at you just as it sounded live off the floor inspires a great deal of confidence. You need volume for that, and the Barefoots deliver. Still, I've yet to distort the MM27s, and fear the SPLs that would require.
Switching over to NS-10Ms at whisper volume for a "reality check" did give me some old-paradigm reassurance. For me, whatever I heard on the Barefoots was represented on the NS-10Ms in a way that made me say, "Okay, we're good." I've come to trust that if my mix sounds good on the Barefoots, it'll translate to the NS-10Ms, which, in turn, will translate outside the studio. But do I really need the NS-10Ms to confirm that? Probably not. It has been good to have the NS-10Ms around for folks who only trust the harsh truth of the white cones, and I can imagine that people who have been burned by "really amazing expensive speakers" might not trust the Barefoots at first. However, I am convinced that if the music sounds good on the MM27s, that's because the music sounds good, not the speakers. This is the exact same thing I'd say about NS-10Ms, and it's the same reason those speakers are still ubiquitous in this industry.
The differences between mics and preamps were stark on the MM27s. With a guitar amp in the iso-booth for overdubs, I heard the difference between an SM57 and a Royer ribbon mic like never before. Similarly, a preamp shoot-out for a muted trumpet through a Coles 4038 revealed changes in the raspy textural details that were easily audible to everyone in the room, assuring us of the value of the time spent on the shoot-out. A particular ride cymbal generated an electrical ringing in a mic preamp. This was an obvious tone when heard through the Barefoots, but was harder to hear on the NS-10Ms. In general, sonic artifacts imparted by the signal path that I would have previously thought subtler seemed to leap out of the Barefoots more obviously. I've heard others say that they work faster on the Barefoots, and I'd have to agree that the choices before me were a bit more obvious, and therefore I made my decisions more quickly.
While mixing on the MM27s, most of the attributes we normally seek in a speaker were impressive; stereo placement, depth of field, reverb tails, and quarter-dB level changes were all represented with astonishing detail. I have no complaints in these areas and feel that whatever Thomas Barefoot did to time-align the tweeters, mids, and subs was nothing short of brilliant. These speakers simply deliver a ton of information.
What feels truly different is the detail of the harmonic relationships between sounds at different frequencies. I had the privilege of recording a record with pianist Rachel Z, who brought a Fazioli piano into Mavericks. This instrument was designed and built to generate complex harmonic structures with the utmost clarity, and listening to it through Rachel's ears was like entering the twelfth dimension of harmonic awareness. By mixing relative levels between the pair of Soundelux 251s that were on the harp and the Royer SF-12 stereo ribbon that sat just outside the hood, we could balance the harmonic overtones that best suited the key of
the song and the area of the keyboard she was playing. What interested me most was her insistence on the importance of frequencies below 40 Hz, not so much for their own sake, but for the ways that these lower-order harmonics interact with their sonic cousins at higher frequencies. Apparently, the Fazioli was the first piano on which she could truly manipulate those harmonic relationships, and I felt confident that the Barefoots were helping us hear these relationships as accurately as possible. Like the kick drum, the translation of this piano from live to recorded was inspiring. I have since begun to re-examine the purpose of sub frequencies vis-a-vis their harmonic relationship to upper frequencies and now rely on the MM27's stereo subwoofers to even begin to make these considerations worthwhile.
Self-mastering is a can of worms I don't really want to open here, but we can't deny that, for better or worse, it is a growing phenomenon. Part of the logic behind the Barefoot design seems to be that if you can hear the full frequency bandwidth with the utmost sonic detail while tracking and mixing, then, when it's time to master your record, there should be less to do. It never did make sense to wait until the final stage to really hear what's going on, only to regret choices, or guesses, made along the way to mastering. Of course, it's not a new thing to desire mastering-grade monitoring in a tracking and mixing studio, or for a speaker company to advertise that they have finally achieved it. Suffice it to say that, should an engineer decide to master his or her own work, I'd prefer to know that this person used the MM27s in a carefully measured and tuned room. The low-end information alone is worth the price of admission if you're going to master where you mix.
I've taken two sets of mixes done on the MM27s at Mavericks to two different mastering studios, and each time the mixes translated alarmingly accurately, even down to the lowest frequencies. This was enormously encouraging and helped me to better understand what the role of the mastering engineer would be for each project and which mixes would act as the guideposts for the final sound of the whole record. Both at Peerless Mastering in Boston and at Jigsaw Sound in Manhattan, I was thrilled to hear my mixes sound like my mixes; it's such an easier place from which to start than when I've had to explain how my mixes sounded "back in the studio." So, even if you don't use the MM27s for mastering your own work, these speakers can help you get your mixes closer to the final sound, which certainly helps the mastering engineer understand your goals and vision, which is undoubtedly crucial.
A few other notes about the MM27s... There is a switch on the back that will gently change the frequency response, lowering the mids a touch, and adding a hint of bass. This setting is audible, but not enormously obvious. I have preferred the accuracy of the speakers when left flat, but some people have requested this EQ switch, perhaps to make the speakers more listenable when not doing critical work on them. Also, with the higher volume and sonic detail, I expected to experience ear fatigue with the MM27s, but after a few sixteen-hour days of tracking and mixing, I didn't experience ear fatigue anything close to what I feel when working on NS-10Ms. Somehow, the Barefoots are both honest and gentle. Lastly, the MM27s can be mounted either vertically or, using the included pedestal, horizontally. At 62 lbs each, that's a good option to have.
If you need a speaker that can do it all, I don't know of any company that makes similar claims for their product. At the same time, if you're simply on the quest for a pair of speakers that are going to help you hear even more of what's going on in your recordings, it would, at this point in time, be pretty hard to beat the Barefoots. While the price isn't exactly low ($6500 street), when you consider the possibility of the MM27s playing the triple-role of nearfield, main, and mastering speaker, their price tag begins to make some sense. As a final note, it's inspiring that Thomas Barefoot boldly put his vision into action and hasn't been afraid to take risks with his forward-thinking designs as the world of making records continues to change. These speakers are true marvels, even the most seasoned engineers I know who have tried them say the same thing. I don't think it would be an overstatement to say that the Barefoot MM27s have set a new standard for studio monitors. ($6500 street; www.barefootsound.com)
Tape Op is a bi-monthly magazine devoted to the art of record making.