Whether you’re a Guitar player into Rock n Roll, or a DJ making beats and spinning records, if you’re producing, then you absolutely need to get a pair of studio monitors. There are a ton of variables you can consider. However, if this is your first time, then you do not need to dive too deep into the technical details. For beginners, the best way to go about choosing a solid pair of monitors is to set a budget and go with something that sounds decent. If your room setup is good, then you will be fine. You should however educate yourself on how you can differentiate monitors and what all you need to look out for when making your selection. This guide covers everything you need to know before buying a pair of studio monitors.
Types of Studio Monitors
Active vs Passive Studio Monitors
Even though the studio monitor market is flooded with active options today, it’s important to remember that the production industry built its foundation on passive monitors. While there are certain variations between the two types, one is not always better than the other.
The main difference is that Powered studio monitors (often referred to as active monitors) include built-in amps. Passive monitors, on the other hand, don’t, so you’ll have to buy an external amplifier.
However, choosing the right passive monitor is a much more difficult decision-making process. Matching an amplifier to a set of passive monitors is an art form, especially if you’re into mastering (since amps influence the sound quality drastically).
Furthermore, buying active monitors is somewhat less expensive than buying the two individually. In other words, powered monitors will offer you a better deal for your money, but passives will allow you to improve later.
Nearfield VS. Far-Field
Nearfield studio monitors are essentially very directional, bookshelf-style monitors designed to play music as flat as possible. They are mainly used for mixing and mastering. However, near-field monitors usually cost more as they are designed to be as accurate and impartial as possible, allowing the producer to hear every little nuance of his work.
On the other hand, far-field monitors have a wider pattern, thus resulting in more reflection off walls. Far-field monitors also cause timing problems that will result from the crossover not being accurate for the distance. For instance, a bookshelf on top of a desk may sound overly bright or harsh because the tweeter’s highs travel to your ears before the woofer’s bass does.
Components of a Studio Monitor
Studio monitors are excellent tools, but they perform much better when integrated with other audio equipment (e.g. Audio Interfaces), which is why the type of input a monitor provides is crucial.
Apart from choosing between active and passive studio monitors, you need to make sure the inputs on the back of the monitors are compatible with your workstation. Typically, studio monitors should feature XLR,1/4″ TRS, and RCA inputs. However, other monitors provide both balanced and unbalanced inputs, while others only provide either.
Sound quality, by far, is the most important aspect of choosing a studio monitor. Having accurate sound is unquestionably necessary, however, predicting how a studio monitor sounds in your studio setup is impossible. Even if you hear the monitor before purchasing it, your space’s acoustics will significantly impact what you hear while mixing. While you can see certain characteristics, don’t anticipate them to sound the same.
Also, bear in mind that studio monitors are not designed to sound “nice”. Studio monitors must reveal every instrument in your mix (even the slightest details, good or bad), while also staying completely neutral.
As a music producer, you want your music to be as flat as possible (neutral response) so that your mixes translate to other audio devices accurately. This is the main purpose of a studio monitor. However, certain studio monitors may “boost” or “overhype” specific frequencies to improve their sound, which you do not want. Therefore, the best way to test for neutrality is to play some of your favorite music (or songs you know well) before buying the monitor, and check if the frequencies remain the same.
Bass plays a great role in making your mixes stand out, especially if you’re in a genre such as EDM. However, it requires a lot of power, so testing the bass can be a good metric for choosing the right studio monitor.
Therefore, testing bass-heavy music on studio monitors can somehow determine if the monitor has a flat frequency response or not. If, for example, the bass feels overhyped or exaggerated, this indicates the monitor is not neutral.
Sound level is another factor that you should consider when choosing a monitor. Typically, the higher the average sound level the better, as it will allow you to catch the flaws in the mixes more comfortably. However, it is important to note that you do not need a high sound level while mixing. Generally speaking, you should keep your volume low enough to allow for a discussion without needing to raise your voice.
Furthermore, the issue of ear fatigue is another crucial one that is often overlooked. You might be surprised to learn that, like any other organ, your ears can become worn out. Your hearing will get exhausted after prolonged exposure to sound, which may cause you to lose focus.
Therefore, your choice of monitors will have a reasonable impact on how long you can use them before feeling exhausted. So, consider using monitors without metal tweeters (there are some exceptions) and search for anything that is a “soft driver” and very damped. Additionally, remember to monitor at a volume of no more than 85 dB when in the monitoring position.
Usually, in a bi-amp architecture, studio monitors offer two drivers, an LF (low frequency also known as woofer) driver and an HF (high frequency also known as tweeter). As the name implies, the tweeter is a driver inside the monitor responsible for reproducing high frequencies. On the other hand, the woofer is responsible for reproducing mid to low-frequencies.
There are many different types of building materials available that make up these drivers, including aluminum alloys, Kevlar, paper, etc… New building materials are always coming up, and if you’re curious, there is much information concerning the characteristics of various materials accessible.
Usually, with some exceptions, the larger the monitor, the wider the frequency range. To hear what’s happening in the low-end, you want the frequency range to be as low as possible. You need to hear what is going on down there to mix accordingly.
However, the frequency response is also relative to the quality of the gear. For instance, a $500 equalizer with a frequency response of 25Hz to 30KHz, is not the same as a $5000 equalizer with a frequency response of 25Hz to 30KHz. While they both have the same frequency range, the more expensive one is most likely to have a “flatter” frequency response.
The system’s power management will significantly impact the entire sound in your studio monitor setup as it will affect your dynamic range, or how much headroom you have. For instance, higher wattage allows the transient details to stand out more and allows you to tweak several components in your system more precisely.
This is why if you compare the same mix at the same volume level, on two different monitoring systems each having different wattages, the higher wattage monitor will provide more headroom. Moreover, most consumers underestimate the amount of power music peaks, such as kick drums or snare strikes, require, which might lead to distortion. For instance, if your amp can only produce a clean 100 watts, but your program peak demands more, you will fall some watts short of your requirements.
This causes more distortion and perhaps clipping near the peak of certain instruments, which frequently occurs for the kick drum or snares in most rap/hip-hop songs. Although the greatest power output isn’t always necessary, you should note that more watts will result in a dynamic range and higher clarity.
Additionally, there are three main types of studio monitor architectures (Single-AMP, Bi-AMP, and Tri-AMP), each having its advantages and disadvantages.
Single Amp Monitors
In a single amp studio monitor architecture, one amplifier’s output is split by a crossover network, which then distributes the proper frequencies to each driver—high frequencies to the tweeter and low frequencies to the woofer. (This design is way cheaper than other designs, however, it is not as efficient)
As for the bi-amp design, the crossover network comes before two different amplifiers, each of which is used to drive the high and low-frequency drivers. They mainly contain two drivers, one dedicated to the high frequencies, and the other to low and midrange frequencies. (Most frequently used design with the most efficiency. However, the mid-range is decent but not as good as that of the Tri-amp design)
A tri-amp design, on the other hand, splits the signal into three equal parts to power three amps, each of which drives the high, mid, and low-frequency driver separately. (This design is practical; however, it requires more power than the other designs.)
However, bi-amp and tri-amp setups have proven to be way more practical and efficient than a single amp configuration. This is because they provide better clarity and a flatter frequency response with greater accuracy. Each driver is better equipped to replicate its frequency range when each driver is powered independently rather than by a single amp. Therefore, bi- and tri-amped monitors often sound more precise when compared to single-amped monitors.
EQ and Room Correction Features
To assist you to adjust studio monitor characteristics to your space, many of them come with built-in EQ controls. Some monitors even offer digital processing to help them function ideally in your acoustic environment.
EQ and room adjustment digital signal processing may help a room with poor acoustics sound better and can enhance the sound of a properly treated room. But in the end, no monitoring system can compensate for poorly managed acoustics in your studio.
However, you may look out for some of these features if you cannot afford proper room treatment, but of course, we highly recommend that you treat your room as soon as possible as it will help you go a long way.
Another aspect that gets overlooked quite often is the design of the monitor. As said before, your room’s acoustics have a lot to do with your overall sound quality, therefore, smaller monitors might not be the ideal choice if your room is big.
There is a wide range of studio monitor sizes varying from 3, and 5 up to 8-inches (low-frequency driver size). Contrary to common opinion, bigger drivers in a small space won’t create additional acoustic problems, but it is not required to have extremely huge monitors in a tiny room. To match the sound pressure of a smaller monitor, you can lower the volume of a larger monitor. However, one advantage of using larger studio monitors at the same level (in small rooms) is that it decreases distortion.
Additionally, you should look for monitors with a woofer size of at least 6.5-inches if you want to hear the bottom end (low frequencies) well. However, you can go for a 5-inch pair that is more affordable and an upgrade later as you get farther along in the production process.
Studio monitors are built to last, however, only if proper materials are used. Several affordable studio monitors on the market may do the trick, but many of those are short-lived due to their shoddy construction (which can also lead to poor sound quality). Because of this, you should consider the monitor’s durability and build quality while making your selection, even if you’re paying extra.
Most mid-end monitors nowadays are built using MDF material (Medium Density Fibreboard), which is known to be one of the most efficient building materials for studio monitors. It also dampens resonant frequencies well, making it an excellent choice for a high-quality budget-friendly enclosure.
The studio monitor should also be as rigid as possible. Monitors usually have big, flat panels, and because of their size, mass, and stiffness, they will resonate at particular frequencies.
Bracing is one aspect of studio monitor design that is frequently ignored. Without the right bracing, you wind up with a box that can significantly lower the monitor’s ability to reproduce sounds. Both better drivers and EQ on the monitor cannot help with this issue. The box’s layout and structure are everything. So, if you have a chance, look for a monitor review where the monitor has been dismantled so you can see how the box is put together.
Some smaller monitors, as well as a significant number of bigger ones, include a ported enclosure that aids in extending the frequency response down for additional bass. The acoustic accuracy of port enclosure mightn’t be as exact as that of closed cabinets, even though this can be advantageous. If the ports are back sided, and they are put too near to a wall, this tendency is accentuated. For more precise monitoring, you might opt to use front-ported monitors (or monitors with a closed design) if you can’t resist placing your monitors near corners or walls
Like anything else, studio monitors come in several different price ranges. The higher the price, usually the better the monitor. However, for a home studio, or even a semi professional studio, after a certain point you are going to start having diminishing returns. You can choose to spend $100, $200, $300, $500 or $1000 dollars on a pair of monitors, or you may even spend up to $5000 or more. It’s really your call. Setting a budget will help narrow down options and it will be easier for you to make a pick.
Too frequently, amateurs in the field of music production overspend on studio monitors while entirely ignoring studio monitor placement, which is one of the most crucial elements in obtaining a nice sound.
For ideal results, the monitors should be positioned with their distance from you equal to their distance from each other (where the height of the monitor should be such that the tweeter is around ear level). The frequency response will be the most accurate, and the soundstage will be the clearest.
As opposed to setting your monitors on a desk, monitor stands help in enhancing your monitor’s sound. This is because the sound that is reflected from a desk will reach your ears somewhat later than the direct sound, resulting in a modest comb filtering effect that lowers the precision of your monitoring.
Furthermore, maintain symmetry in your space and make sure to place the monitors in the middle. Your monitors should also be a few feet away from a wall to avoid any low-end escalation.
Studio monitors are without a doubt your greatest option for monitoring your projects. However, if your room is not treated, the output sound will not be as neutral as it should be, which means that some frequencies will be stronger (or weaker) because of room resonance and acoustics.
However, before going on to spend money on random treatment we would strongly advise conducting acoustic measurements. If you have a frequency analyzer plugin and a microphone, you may perform a basic measurement for free.
For that, set your DAW to a frequency sweep (20 Hz – 20 kHz) and your monitors to a comfortable listening volume. Place the microphone in a position similar to your typical listening position. Record the sweep (mute the ‘input monitor’ to avoid feedback) and use the frequency analysis plugin to examine how the frequencies in your environment are declining. It can also be a good idea to use white or pink noise to see what’s going on.
You must consider the frequency response of the microphone you are using (frequency response graphs of the products used are freely accessible online). Once you’ve determined what’s going on in your room, you may spend money on treatment.
It is not necessary (or convenient) to have extremely large monitors in a small space, yet larger drivers in a small room will not generate greater acoustic concerns, contrary to common assumptions. You may reduce the volume of a larger studio monitor to match the sound level of a smaller studio monitor. We should point out, however, that having larger monitors at the same volume level as smaller monitors in a small room has the advantage of lowering distortion.
Acoustic problems in a space arise from the reverberant nature of most surfaces within the room. When you play a sound, it will bounce off the reverberant surfaces and return to your ears, mingling with the direct sound from the monitors, preventing you from hearing the unmodified source signal on its own. No matter how big the monitor is, this is true. Using larger monitors is equivalent to turning up the volume on smaller monitors: it will only increase SPL and the source signal and reverberant field will grow in proportion, producing the same amount of distortion, only louder.
In addition, modern monitors have improved, and even 5-inch woofers can produce sound down to 50Hz, which makes them great budget-friendly monitors with decent quality (if your room is not big enough).
However, as said before, the monitor’s position greatly affects how the signal is received by the space. You should concentrate on it, and it doesn’t matter how big the monitor is; it works.
A subwoofer is an audio device designed specifically to handle low-frequency sound. Sound has a range, and monitors frequently measure their “dynamic range” in hertz. To put it simply, subwoofers reproduce low to midrange frequencies, while most monitors reproduce middle to high frequencies. Subwoofers are often configured to pick up all sounds below 80Hz. This is known as the crossover level. Additionally, 80 Hz is a nice threshold where the rest of the monitors pick up anything above that and the sub handles anything below.
However, the question is, is a subwoofer a necessity? It all depends on what your profession is. A multi-monitor arrangement with a subwoofer is essentially necessary if you’re mixing sound for Ads or TV shows (or creating beats). However, you’ll only need a pair of monitors if you’re mixing or producing your recorded demo songs.
Your space’s size is another factor you should consider. Smaller spaces are insufficient for bass frequencies to develop properly. You’ll hear loudness dips and peaks throughout the space if you place a subwoofer there. Some low-end frequencies will sound hazy and unclear while others will sound solid, leaving your studio’s overall sound out of balance. Therefore, you’ll have to be careful not to overload the space with low-frequency energy.
If you are mixing, your ears will quickly become used to anything. Therefore, it’s critical to constantly switch up your sources (even if you’re only switching between monitors and headphones) and take pauses to maintain a new point of view.