Today we are going to show you some of the best pairs you can find on the market, talk about each and later go into the science behind monitors. By the time you are done reading this guide, you should have a good enough knowledge about these speakers and what they are meant for. With that said, let’s get right to it.
Learning all the nuances of music production and getting into the business itself takes a lot of effort. You will need skills, but also specialized tools if you want to get your projects done properly. Of all the studio gear found in an average studio, chances are that studio monitors are in the top three in terms of importance.
What Are Monitor Speakers?
A studio monitor might look like your average bookshelf speaker, however, their purpose is completely different. When making music, one of the issues that producers have been encountering for decades is making their music sound good on every system out there. That means achieving same or similar results on a home Hi-Fi system, car stereo, and average headphones. Why is this an issue? It all comes down to speaker bias and how they were set up from the factory.
For example, some speakers and headphones are really bass heavy. Manufacturers usually like to loosen up the low end because it gives the sound girth, all while masking deficiencies in other portions of the frequency range. Then we have high-end systems where each speaker contains several drivers, each tasked with handling a specific band of the frequency range. Creating a piece of music that will sound good on both is not as easy as it seems.
This is where studio monitors come in. You can look at them as a testing rig. Your average set won’t have any bias. On the contrary, these speakers will be as neutral as possible. That transparency of sound is what allows the producers to mix music and know exactly how it will sound on a variety of different setups. However, there are more benefits to using monitors instead of regular speakers. With more transparency, you will be able to notice small details in your mix that need correction.
Transparency And Monitoring
Transparency has become somewhat of an abstract term by now. It gets tossed around without much explanation. An easy way to explain transparency is to use a simple graph. Your vertical axis is going to be measured in decibels (in other words, volume), while the horizontal axis will represent the frequency range. To your left will be the lowest frequency that speaker can reproduce, while the right side is the highest. These types of graphs are made by placing a microphone next to the speaker and recording the output. It’s more or less standard procedure for determining the performance of monitor speakers.
If we take a standard set of bookshelf speakers a perform this test, chances are you’ll see a positive curve in the lower frequencies, which then dips as it reaches mids, and maybe spikes again in high trebles. This tells you which frequencies are louder, and which ones are not pushed as hard.
With studio monitors, all you want to see is a flat line from the lowest possible frequency to the highest one. That type of flat output is considered transparent as every portion of the frequency range is represented equally. In practice, having the entire frequency range reproduced at same or near same volume, allows you to notice even the smallest flaws in the mix. This could be instruments which are too loud or too quiet and similar. Next thing that’s worth looking into is power.
Power And Power Management
Many people associate power measured in Watts with volume. However, power impacts so many other things, which are far more important. Before we get to that, let’s take a look at how the power is supplied to the speakers. There are two types out there. We have active and passive units. Active speakers are the ones that have a built in amplifier, meaning that they require no external amplification. Passive speakers are the complete opposite. In order to run those, you will have to get a stand-alone amp.
Active monitors are more or less the norm. If we look deeper into this type of speaker, we will find that there are models with one amp per cabinet, as well as those with two or three amps. Generally speaking, cheaper models will only have a single amp to push both transducers. Once you start moving into more high-end stuff, you will see dedicated amplifiers for each transducer. Having a pair of dedicated amps gets you more transparency and definition as each amp only has to drive a single transducer.
Let’s get back to power. If you have a small, home studio, 20 Watts of power will get you more than enough volume. However, going with a more powerful set is beneficial even though you don’t need any more volume. What that extra wattage gives is headroom. In other words, how far you can push the speaker before it starts distorting.
Studio Monitor Positioning
One of the most overlooked aspects of working with speakers, especially this particular type, is proper positioning. Unlike standard bookshelf speakers, studio monitors are majority near field. All this means is that they produce great results when the user is a meter or two away from the speaker. The further out you go, less definition you’ll get.
Positioning the speakers is not that complicated if you follow a set of few simple rules. First and foremost, you want the speakers to be level with your head and aimed at you. Imagine that a laser beam is shooting from the center of those drivers. You want the beam from each cabinet to be pointed at your head.
Next step is to have the speakers and your head from an equidistant triangle. This will allow the sound waves from each speaker to reach you without conflict. Forming that triangle is extremely important. If you set the speakers too wide, you will get skewed sound. Same goes if you place them too close to each other.
Another thing to keep in mind when positioning the speakers is the distance from the walls. Most pairs feature bass reflex ports, which are either on the back panel or the front side of the speaker. The issue with bass frequencies is that they propagate in all directions. With rear firing bass ports, having them close to the wall results in all those low frequencies bouncing back at you. Having at least 2 feet of distance between reflex ports and the wall is highly recommended.
This is a big one. Every room, no matter what size or shape it is, will affect the performance of your speakers. This is mainly due to the nature of sound waves and how they propagate through space. Every wave has a length, with higher frequencies being shorter and lower frequencies being longer. High frequencies are usually not an issue since even the smallest studio will be longer/wider than the length of those waves. However, as you start going down in frequency, you will reach a point where the wave is the same length as your room. This, in turn, creates a standing wave. The issue with standing waves is that they impact the performance, volume, and nature of the speaker’s output.
If your room is a cube with equally long walls on all sides, you will get double the standing waves. This is why most studios are cuboid in design. Dealing with standing waves is something you will have to do no matter what. The best way to start is to place your speakers along the longest wall you have and leave at least three or more feet between the back of the speakers and the wall. Up next come the room acoustic settings which most models offer. These will either cut or boost lower and higher frequencies, thus allowing you to tune the speaker to the size and shape of your room. Just keep in mind that room acoustic settings can help, but not solve the problem.
Selecting The Right Set Of Monitor Speakers
Now that we know what monitors are, what they do and how they work, let’s talk a bit about selecting the right set for you. No matter how you go around doing this, you will have to account for a number of factors. This part is going to be dedicated to helping you figure out which segment of monitors will suit you the best.
Every single producer out there, no matter their experience or skill level, is limited by budget. Figuring out how much money to spend on a set is one of those decisions that might trouble you for a while. There is a single piece of advice that is given to anyone looking to get any type of audio equipment, and that is to always look for value for their money.
The main issue with that line of reasoning is whether or not you can utilize the full potential of those speakers. On top of that, maybe there are other things that money could be spent on instead. If you are just starting out, getting anything from a $100 pair of monitors to a $500 one is going to be a good decision. Those who are truly new to the game shouldn’t beat themselves over not getting the latest and greatest hardware. Allow yourself to learn on something that won’t ruin your bank account. You can always upgrade later.
Size Of The Speakers
Drawing some conclusions from our earlier discussion, finding the right size of speakers is imperative if you want to get the best bang for your buck. Don’t fall into the common trap of going for the largest possible set you can get if your studio space isn’t able to support it.
Smaller drivers will give you sharp and defined sound in confined spaces. Finding out which size of speakers will be suitable for you is part guesswork, part science. However, you can’t really go wrong with opting for a smaller set for a smaller studio.
Many producers easily get lost in brands and their reputation. Sure, we’d all like to have a set of high-end ATCs or Focals, but that doesn’t mean you won’t be able to get a good enough performance out of something that costs a fraction of the price. On a side note, more and more manufacturers are slowly expanding their lineup to include some more affordable models. This bridges the gap between the exclusive professional gear and something that an enthusiast could enjoy in the comfort of their home studio.
Don’t Be Surprised With What You Hear
Someone who has never heard a set of monitors being used might come to a conclusion that their brand new speakers simply don’t sound right. You’d be surprised how many beginners RMA their newly acquired speakers, only to be told that there is nothing wrong with them.
Here’s the thing, by being so transparent and neutral, proper models often times come across as bland. That is exactly what they are supposed to sound like. You won’t get that thumping bass, nor those screaming highs. Getting used to the sound is something that definitely takes time. However, the moment you finish your first mix and play that same file on your regular stereo, you will realize what it is all about.
The Definition of Too Cheap?
The most affordable segment of the market is hardest one to shop in. That is just a fact. You will often see aspiring producers starting to wonder whether they should just save up for something better. Here’s the thing, having any kind of monitor speakers is way better than not having anything at all. Even the cheapest pair will fare much better than a great set of bookshelf speakers.
You would be surprised just how cheap you can get a decent beginner set. For more info on that, check out our guide for affordable options. We’ve found some pretty awesome models that are absolutely worth looking into.
Can Headphones Replace Monitors?
This is a great question and one that pops up frequently. The short answer is no. Headphones can’t replace a proper set, nor do they need to. Headphones are an awesome tool that is fairly important for mixing, but having that spatial propagation of sound simply cannot be replaced. Even with open back headphones that have great definition and an awesome sound stage, you still won’t achieve same results.
It is generally recommended to mix music on monitors first and then go over the mix one more time on the headphones. That goes even for monitoring headphones. Next question that usually follows is what to do if you just can’t have the music blasting out the speakers for whatever reason? Whether your studio lacks proper sonic insulation, or you don’t want to expose your loved ones to your mixing process. The answer here is to go with monitors but at very low volume.
This actually brings certain benefits to the mixing process. Back when monitoring speakers still weren’t completely a thing, producers would often turn whatever speakers they had to their lowest audible volume. Doing so brings everything down to a relatively flat level because the transducers are not being fed enough power.
Speakers vs headphones is a wrong way of looking at things. It’s not either or, but rather using both where it is appropriate. With that said, studio speakers are a must-have piece of gear, and if you are still interested in getting some good headphones, check out our guide.
Studio monitors are an essential part of any recording studio, both professional and enthusiast. If you’ve stuck with us this far, you have probably figured out that there is a lot more to monitoring than it meets the eye. We wrote this guide in hope to answer most if not all of the frequently asked questions, and to introduce you to these speakers, which have really shown to be great in practice. Whether you are on a tight budget, or you are looking for something a bit higher on the ladder, you really can’t go wrong with models we have mentioned above.
If you need more help with setting up your studio, check out the related buying guides for recording gear:
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