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Whether you’re recording and mixing a big project or simply want to record your band at home, a set of studio reference monitors will be a big help. A good set of monitors will let you hear what you record with precise and accurate detail. But what makes a good monitor? And how does a precise, accurate monitor sound? For reference, every time we talk about monitors in this guide, we’re referring to near-field monitors, an increasingly popular and accurate monitoring option for big and small recording studios.
What makes a monitor good can vary from person to person and application to application. In other words, what works for you might not work for other musicians and vice versa, so finding a monitor that works for you isn’t as easy as simply asking your friends and fellow musicians what they use and purchasing the same model. In general, a good monitor is a monitor that you can trust, that your ears know very well, and that you can listen to for extended periods of time without fatigue. The circuitry and speakers should also be very solid; capable of handling your volume and frequency-handling requirements along with peaks, pops, and raw recorded audio without blinking. The last bit is especially important. You can’t just grab any old pair of stereo speakers and start mixing because they aren’t built to handle the same type of sonic material as a near-field monitor. And with all things in life, you get what you pay for. That doesn’t mean you have to get the biggest and best monitors available, but to get the most bang-for-your-buck, carefully think about how you’re going to be using your monitors. Professional-level use warrants professional-level dollars, but hobbyists and recording musicians can stay within their budget and get what they need.
A speaker described as accurate, uncolored, or flat will re-create a signal without significantly increasing or reducing the response of any of the frequencies in the recording. The treble, midrange, and bass will all be represented as they are in the mix. The funny thing is that the first time you hear audio played through a speaker with a truly flat response, it will probably sound wrong because your ears are used to consumer-market stereo speakers. Standard stereo speakers are designed to make whatever audio is played through them sound good but aren’t usually accurate in the recording-engineer sense of the word. Standard consumer stereo speakers use tuning tricks to artificially create bigger, punchier bass and more pleasant, friendly highs, among other things. So part of buying monitors is preparing yourself to hear things in a different way. A good monitor will also give you reliable, consistent response no matter the level; whether you turn the volume way up or way down. This allows you to listen critically to how certain elements of the mix sound at different volumes.
By themselves monitors aren’t going to transform your mixes into George Martin-level masterpieces. Just like a guitar or keyboard, you have to learn how to use monitors. You do this with a lot of critical and casual listening through your monitors to create a clear sonic picture for your ears. Knowing your monitors and being comfortable with them will pay off when recording or mixing new music because you’ll have a built-in reference for how different frequencies and sounds reproduce on them. You’ll also get better at placing instruments exactly where you want them in the stereo sound field and at balancing the complex interplay between the dynamics of competing sounds.
The modern near-field monitor is made of three primary parts: the drivers, the cabinet, and the circuitry. These components are specially designed and optimized to reproduce audio with clarity and accuracy. Manufacturers develop their own components to operate to their own specifications using different materials and designs. You can’t really single out any one component as being more important. Every part is designed to work in conjunction with one another. Having a great driver doesn’t do much good if the cabinet isn’t properly designed for use with that driver.
There are two types of drivers in the typical near-field monitor: woofers and tweeters. If you’re using a (rare) three-way near-field then you will also have a midrange driver. 2.1, 5.1, and 7.1 surround-sound monitor setups will have a separate subwoofer, the .1 in such configurations. In a two-way monitor the woofer handles the low, low mids, and midrange frequencies while the tweeter handles the high mids and high frequencies. With a three-way monitor a midrange driver is added to handle the midrange frequencies. When you add a subwoofer to your monitoring array, the sub takes over a portion of the low frequencies and all of the very low frequencies.
Different monitor manufacturers use different materials to construct their drivers. Silk, mylar, glass, carbon, titanium, and metal alloys are all used to make tweeters. Silk is thought to have an especially smooth, airy, transparent response. Mylar is a synthetic polymer developed in the ’50s that mimics silk, but is unaffected by humidity and weather changes. Glass and carbon are similar, very tough materials used for applications where very high power handling is needed and produces a very accurate, extended high-frequency (HF) response. The same is true of metal tweeters made of titanium and other metal alloys, which produce an incredibly precise and extended HF response with the highest power ratings.
Woofers, midrange drivers, and subwoofers are constructed of a cone with a dust cap at the center and a flexible-but-tough surround that allows the cone and voice coil to move. The cone is usually made from treated paper or cloth, polypropylene, aramid fibers, fiberglass, or Kevlar. Paper and cloth are traditional cone materials used for their silk-like performance at a lower cost. Polypropylene, aramid fibers, fiberglass, and Kevlar are all alternative cone-building materials developed in a search to build the ultimate durable, rigid, and lightweight speaker cone. A lighter cone can have a faster transient response which results in more accurate sound.
The studio monitor cabinet strives to get maximum performance from its drivers. Engineers design the cabinet around the driver. It should be as nonresonant as possible so the cabinet doesn’t alter or color the output in any way. For that reason, monitor cabinets are usually built from sturdy, stiff materials such as medium-density fiberboard (MDF) or plywood with special internal bracing and specially designed joints. The cabinet design will also often include ports or passive radiators, elements which aid the monitor in low-end reproduction, improving clarity and handling of bass frequencies. Radiused edges on driver openings and monitor corners improve sound clarity and sound imaging by cutting down on sound wave diffraction.
The main thing to know about the circuitry of a studio monitor is whether it’s an active or passive monitor. Active monitors come with their own power amplifiers and controls built into the cabinet and are often biamplified. Active monitors have become popular because you don't need a separate power amp and the amp is matched to the speaker by the manufacturer. Biamplification helps each speaker driver (woofer and tweeter) work within its frequency range for optimal performance. Passive monitors require a separate, external power amp, that gives you some flexibility in choosing your components and setting up multispeaker arrays. Passive monitors usually have crossover circuitry for splitting of high and low frequencies. You should check the inputs and outputs offered by the monitor to make sure it will work with your existing equipment. For connections, monitors usually have 1/4", TRS, XLR, RCA, and S/PDIF jacks. Some offer only unbalanced or balanced inputs, and some have both.
You’ll see a lot of numbers when you’re shopping for monitors, usually attached to words like THD, SPL, frequency response, and more familiar terms like watts and driver size. These numbers will usually give you a thumbnail sketch of how the monitor will perform during recording, mixing, and mastering. These specifications are the results of tests conducted by the manufacturer to determine the performance of its products. Unfortunately specifications and the tests that determine specifications have not been standardized, so one manufacturer’s 0.01% THD may be another’s 0.3% THD. The information is still useful to you as a prospective buyer as long as you know what to look for and why. The two specifications that nearly all manufacturers supply and you should pay most attention to are frequency response and THD.
The spec for frequency response should let you know how accurate your monitor will be at various frequency ranges. For good, clean bass response look for monitors that offer flat response down to 55Hz with bonus points awarded to monitors that go past that mark. Most monitors don’t have any issue with reproducing high frequency content, but make sure the frequency response extends to at least 18-20kHz. The ±(numeral)dB qualifier that follows is part of the spec, and indicates the relative flatness of the response at a given output. Look for this number to be low—such as ±1dB-±3dB—because higher numbers indicate inaccuracy.
The spec for THD (Total Harmonic Distortion) is also an indicator of general accuracy, but in a different way than frequency response. THD lets you know how cleanly a monitor can reproduce whatever audio you feed it. Most of the time the term THD really refers to THD+N, (Total Harmonic Distortion plus Noise) so when you see THD, you can usually include noise in the equation. Every audio circuit adds some noise and distortion, the question is how much. A good, clean audio circuit should be very close to zero in the amount of distortion and noise it adds, i.e. – 0.001%. A poorly designed audio circuit will add quite a bit of distortion, in the range of anywhere from 0.3-1%. While you aren’t likely to see these types of numbers on a set of near-field reference monitors, you will often see numbers this high and higher on consumer audio speakers and headphones; another reason why you shouldn’t use them for recording.
If you mostly record yourself singing and playing acoustic guitar a medium-size set of desktop monitors will fit you pretty well. If you’re producing hip-hop tracks to freestyle over or club-inspired pop songs, you may want to get a subwoofer-assisted 2.1 system. Producing songs and soundtracks for video games, videos, movies, or television? A 5.1 or 7.1 surround sound system is the way to go. If you’re recording rock bands or working with a wide variety of talent, consider monitors with 8" woofers and plenty of power so your system will always be up to the task.
Buy the best monitors you can afford and then learn to use them really well. It might not be as easy or as glamorous as getting the latest, greatest, biggest, and best set of near-field monitors available, but if they work for you, who cares? Nearly any decent near-field monitor on the market today is going to blow your stereo or computer speakers out of the water, so you can’t lose.
How do you learn to use your monitors? Good question. It shows you’re paying attention. Start by listening to your monitors a lot. Not just when you’re recording, but with a selection of your favorite recordings, too, ones that you know really well. As mentioned at the outset, be prepared for your monitors to sound different than stereo speakers. Keep listening, get past the flatness, and with time you’ll learn how your monitors react to different sounds. This will help you to understand not only what your monitors are good at but also what they’re not good at and how you compensate for those shortcomings so your mixes still sound like you bought monitors on a rock-star budget.
Also be forewarned that whatever your monitors are good at (e.g., bass, treble, clarity), your mixes will be bad at. If you’re using a 2.1 system, its abundance of bass output will trick you into believing your mixes have adequate bass, but when you transfer your audio to a smaller, non-2.1 consumer system, the bass will disappear. So be prepared to check your mixes on several systems and mix against your system’s strengths.
One final thing to note about your new monitors. You can’t just put them up on a bookshelf behind your recording setup, crank 'em up, and call it good. Near-field monitors are designed to be placed close, generally within 3-5 feet of the listener, without obstacles that might impede the clear sound waves from the drivers. That includes the walls, as reflected sound waves from behind or beside your monitors can color the way you hear. Monitor pads are good for decoupling your monitors from whatever surface you have them sitting on. You’ll also want to set them up so you’re automatically positioned in the sweet spot of your monitors when you sit down to record.
1/4" jack — Also known as phone plug. Unbalanced connection using a phone-patching cord connector. The most basic connection in audio.
2.1 — A monitoring setup with two main monitors and a separate subwoofer for handling bass frequencies.
5.1 surround sound — see surround sound.
7.1 surround sound — see surround sound.
Bass — Refers to the low frequency portion of an audio signal usually from 20Hz up to about 150Hz. Also generically refers to notes with a low pitch.
Balanced — An audio circuit with two shielded conductors running at reverse polarity and equal at ground. Balanced wiring provides noise-free transfer of audio in areas susceptible to noise, like recording studios and live sound venues. Requires balanced I/O and balanced cables.
Biamplification or Biamped — The practice of using separate power amplifiers and a crossover network to drive separate elements in a loudspeaker cabinet. Often combined with active amplification, where the amplifier is built into the cabinet of the speaker.
Cabinet — Also cab or speaker cabinet. Cabinet commonly refers to the enclosure a driver is mounted in. The enclosure serves several purposes besides simply housing the driver and its circuitry. It prevents negative phase sound waves from the rear of the driver causing phase cancellation with the positive phase sound waves from the front of the driver and also improves the efficiency and frequency response of the drivers.
Decoupling — Or decouple. The process of isolating monitors from their supporting structure to prevent undesired transmission of sound. Specially designed pads and stands serve this function.
Diffraction — The bending of a sound wave that occurs when it is deflected from its path by an object.
Driver — Refers to the raw speaker mounted in the cabinet or enclosure. It is the active part of the speaker system that actually creates the soundwaves.
Ear fatigue — Condition which occurs after many hours of listening and working with audio, usually while mixing. Seems to happen especially often when monitoring audio at high volumes or when listening to audio with exaggerated frequencies, e.g. too much treble or midrange.
Flat sound — Also flat response. A speaker or other piece of audio equipment with flat response won’t naturally boost or cut any frequency when an audio signal is played through it. Theoretically, a flat input signal will emerge just as flat as it went in although this is practically impossible with current monitor technology. The term originates from frequency response graphs where flat response is represented as a flat line devoid of peaks or valleys.
Frequency — Refers to specific sounds and certain segments of audio defined by its pitch, e.g. treble frequencies, midrange frequencies, bass frequencies, etc. The standard definition for frequency is the number of times an event occurs within a unit of time. The frequency of sound vibrations related to their wavelength results in the pitch of the notes we hear in music. The open low E string on a bass guitar generates a fundamental frequency of 41.5Hz. The high open E string on a standard guitar generates a fundamental frequency of 1.3kHz.
Frequency range — The range of frequencies a piece of audio gear can transmit or reproduce. Usually specified as 20Hz-20kHz. When combined with THD it gives you some idea of the accuracy of the component. The wider the frequency range, the more frequencies you will hear clearly.
Frequency response — The result of frequency range versus amplitude. The spec (20Hz-20kHz ±3dB) means that for a given input signal the listed range of frequencies (20Hz-20khz) will be reproduced within the specified range of levels (±3dB) compared to the original signal. Any frequencies outside this range may or may not be within the range of levels. For example: a piece of equipment with a flat frequency response will give you a more accurate impression of how your audio really sounds.
Hertz — Abbreviated Hz. Hertz is the unit used to measure frequencies and one Hertz is equal to one cycle per second, e.g. a 60Hz sine wave takes one second to complete a full cycle. KiloHertz—abbreviated kHz—is often used once the cycles per second pass one thousand. The Hertz is named in honor of Heinrich Hertz, a 19th-century German physicist who was one of the first scientists to study radio waves.
I/O — Short for input/output. Generally refers to the connections on audio gear.
Mastering — A process in which the final recording of an audio performance is prepared and processed for its intended distribution media. This usually involves using limiting, compression, EQ, normalization, stereo imaging, and editing to achieve a professional and consistent sound aimed for modern radio and quality playback equipment.
Midrange — Refers to the middle-frequency portion of an audio signal usually from 150Hz up to about 2.5kHz. Also generically refers to notes with a medium pitch.
Midrange driver — The driver in a multidriver speaker designated to reproduce the midrange frequencies.
Mixing — The process of using a mixer, either hardware or software, to adjust and balance levels and frequency content of an audio performance or recorded audio in an effort to pleasingly enhance the audio.
Monitor — Also studio monitor or reference monitor. A speaker specially designed for high-fidelity playback of audio material for critical listening during the recording process. Varieties include near-field, surround, active, and passive. Near-field monitors are designed to be used in very close proximity to the listener to limit interference from the room acoustics. Active monitors have built-in power amps that eliminate the need for an external amplifier. Passive monitors are traditional speakers which require an external power amplifier.
Near-field monitor — A monitor designed to be placed closer to you—or more specifically, your ears—than anything that might interfere with the soundwaves coming from the speaker, such as a wall, guitar stack, rack, etc. See sweet spot for placement suggestions.
Phase — A measurement in degrees that specifies how far along in its cycle a sound wave is, with a complete cycle being 360 degrees. If two waves are out of phase it results in cancellation of parts of both waves. Two identical waves exactly 180 degrees out of phase will completely cancel each other out.
RCA — More correctly called a phono plug, this connection was developed and popularized by Radio Corporation of America (RCA) for use with their audio equipment. Most often used in stereo pairs.
Reference monitor — Also soffit-mounted monitor. A large, traditional monitor used in specialized installations with an infinite baffle in professional music studios. These expensive monitor setups reside eight to 10 feet or more away from the listening position.
S/PDIF — Abbreviation of Sony Philips Digital Interface Format. Interface for digital audio that uses either optical or coaxial cables for transmission. S/PDIF is based on the AES/EBU standard and can provide two channels of 24-bit/96kHz audio in one direction. Only use 70ohm S/PDIF cable to make a S/PDIF connection.
SPL — Sound Pressure Level. The measurement of the volume, or amplitude, of a sound wave. SPLs are measured in decibels (dB).
Sound wave — A series of compressions in the air that transmit sound. Sound waves are represented visually by a wavy, horizontal line with the upper part of the wave indicating compression and the lower part indicating rarefaction.
Subwoofer — A driver used to reproduce very low frequencies and sometimes housed in a separate enclosure from the woofer, midrange driver, and tweeter.
Surround sound — Multichannel audio system that creates a 3D sound stage. Developed by Dolby Labs, surround sound typically includes 5.1 channels, meaning a center channel; l/r front channels; l/r rear channels; and a subwoofer. A second configuration, 7.1 includes two surround speakers at the sides for a more encompassing audio field.
Sweet spot — The optimal listening position for studio reference monitors. Provides the listener with the right blend of tonal balance, stereo separation, detail, and overall sound image. In general, the sweet spot for a pair of near-field monitors is three to five feet in front of and just in between the pair, with ears about the same level as the top of the woofer and bottom of the tweeter. Your head and the two monitors should form an imaginary equilateral triangle. Some monitors have a wide sweet spot that is easy to find, while others require more experimentation with placement.
THD — Total Harmonic Distortion. Nearly all electronic components distort the audio signal that passes through their circuitry to a greater or lesser degree. The measurement of this distortion is usually represented as a decimal percentage of the signal; i.e. — <0.03%. The closer the percentage is to zero the less distortion and the more transparent the sound. Typically the specification for THD actually refers to THD+N, which is THD plus Noise.
Transient response — often used to mean slew rate, which is the ability of the speaker to accurately track fast changes in amplitude, which results in clear, clean, accurate sound. Since a low slew rate can result in bad transient response, the terms are sometimes used interchangeably in reference to speakers. A speaker with a high slew rate has better transient response and therefore sounds more accurate. Transients are critical bits of high-frequency sound our ears and brains use to recognize sounds.
Treble — Refers to the high-frequency portion of an audio signal usually from 3kHz up to about 20kHz. Also generically refers to notes with a high pitch.
TRS — Stands for Tip, Ring, Sleeve. TRS is a balanced circuit that uses a phone plug-style connection with three conductors (the tip, the ring, and the sleeve) instead of just two (the tip and the sleeve).
Tweeter — The high-frequency driver in a multidriver speaker.
Unbalanced — An audio circuit whose two conductors are unequal at ground, usually because one conductor operates as a ground. An unbalanced audio circuit is more susceptible to noise problems than balanced circuits. Noise can be combatted by keeping cables as short as possible.
Woofer — The low-frequency driver in a multidriver speaker. Woofers are designed to accurately reproduce low frequencies which requires more movement of the driver than high frequencies. Woofers used in very low-frequency applications are called subwoofers.
XLR — Balanced, circular three-pin connector typically used for microphone and line-level signals. Each pin is a separate channel, but pin 1 is always ground. The connection was developed by Cannon and is sometimes called a Cannon connector.