It's not often you can trace so much creative and artistic awesomeness back to a single piece of gear - particularly in the music industry. Meet the Yamaha NS-10: a speaker you've probably never heard of but have definitely heard.
Quick, pick an album you love from the '80s or '90s. Any album. Regardless of where you first listened to it, or on what device, chances are it was mixed on a pair of these unassuming little black monitors. Born in the USA? Check. Roxie Music's Avalon? Uh-huh. Bowie's Let's Dance? You bet. Hall and Oats' Big Bam Boom? I said good albums. But yeah, that one too.
Over their 23-year reign, these quotidian nearfield speakers became such a fixture in the industry that it's actually harder to find an album they didn't in some way shape or influence. Chewbacca hawked them on TV; they helped win Yamaha a technical Grammy; they've been the source of epic research papers (.pdf); people have even studied the effect of placing tissue paper over their tweeters. Put simply, no other piece of studio equipment before or since has exerted as much influence over the way music sounded.
The greatest irony? A lot of engineers kinda hate them.
To get a sense of the NS-10's incredible staying power, the strange love/hate relationships they provoked among producers, and the reason they came to dominate the industry for more than two decades, you need to know a few things - both about their technical chops and the time period.
The year is 1978. Yamaha introduces the NS-10s as hi-fi consumer speakers, where they are more or less panned by critics and all but ignored by the general public. As the story goes, it isn't until mixing god Bob Clearmountain started humping them around to various recording gigs a few years later that they began to gain a modest following. A few gold and platinum records later and the NS-10s where literally everywhere. To this day, if you look hard at any studio photo, you'll probably see these little guys with their trademark white cones peaking out behind a console or tucked in a corner.
So what attracted producers to a consumer-grade flop - aside from word of mouth and a big-name endorsement? In a word: translatability. For an audio engineer - whose goal is to replicate what they hear on the studio mixing board and make it sound the same everywhere else - nothing is more important. As Avid's product manager Kevin Zuccaro notes, the NS-10s really had a couple of advantages in this particular game, both of which came about entirely by chance.
First, the speakers were sealed, meaning no air could escape the NS-10's enclosure. That mattered a lot when recording started happening in purpose-built studios, as an acoustically optimised design tends to amplify every frequency coming out of a speaker - something most consumer-grade monitors didn't take into account. "The sealed design made the high frequency a lot more intelligible because there wasn't all that bass mudding up the mix," says Zuccaro.
The NS10s, with their preternaturally bright mids and highs, could also get really loud without starting to thump. Rock bands, of course, loved this, as did producers who could crank the living shit out of their speakers yet still get good intelligibility.
"You just got used to them and began to understand their advantages," recalls UK producer Alan Moulder, who's worked on albums for everyone from The Jesus and Mary Chain to The Smashing Pumpkins. "You can turn them up really loud and they're just kind of exciting."
Exciting, yes. Perfect, no. Because they were so clinical and did such a good job boosting the uglier frequencies (while hiding the comfortable ones), many producers didn't enjoy the results. Like, hated them. "Naturally, they sound - if you don't do anything - they sound kinda boxy," says Moulder. "They definitely make you work hard to make things sound right. You have to carve a lot out frequency-wise to make a track sound hi-fi."
Nevertheless, while this provoked a lot of bitching, the industry stuck with them even when other flaws came to light. Moulder recalls the now famous tissue paper mod that Clearmountain is again credited with starting, due to the speaker's "overly bright" balance. "Some people would put sheets of toilet paper over the tweeters," he says. "And then there'd be these intense arguments over how many sheets of toilet paper to put over them or what kind of toilet paper. I never went for that myself, but it was a big debate, the tweeters."
More than anything it was their seemingly magical ability to produce great-sounding records across any and all mediums that saved the NS-10. "The thing is, if it sounded good on those monitors, then it was going to sound good on most things," says Moulder, whether it was a crappy transistor radio, a car stereo or a high-end stereo system.
Moozek's Jonathan Grand calls it the IISGHSGOA effect: If-It-Sounds-Good-Here-Sounds-Good-On-Anything. In essence, the NS-10s were like musical editors - revealing the weak points of recordings and challenging their handlers to either compensate for them or start again from scratch. They were also arguably the first piece of studio equipment to became more than a just a tool. For a new breed of Ronin producer who was becoming just as important as the bands themselves, they were an instrument. Like any instrument, the NS-10s took time to learn, as well as some patience. But once you did, the results spoke for themselves.
Say what you will about today's slick, intuitive "it just works" gadget ethos. The NS-10s were difficult, quirky and temperamental. And people loved (or hated) them just as much.
They were a happy accident that will never happen again.
[Note: For an insanely comprehensive history of the NS-10s and their acoustic characteristics, check out Phil Ward's Sound on Sound piece from 2008.]