Choosing Studio Monitors
You might know that you need a set, but how do you go about choosing studio monitors?
A good pair of monitor speakers is one of the most essential tools for creating great mixes. Essentially, they are the interface between the music and the engineer’s ears, providing an accurate picture of what is actually happening in the mix.
If you’ve decided to equip your studio with a pair of monitors, great! There isn’t another piece of studio equipment that will have a more profound effect on the quality of your mixes.
You may be looking at the huge variety available and wondering which to put in your studio. To help, here’s a mini guide to choosing studio monitors…
Does size matter?
The first decision you are likely to have to make is the size of monitor to buy. To an extent, the type of music or audio you intend to record will be an influencing factor on your choice.
As a rule of thumb, the bigger a speaker is in terms of driver (woofer size), the better it will reproduce low frequencies. So, if you intend to produce Dubstep or Drum and Bass, you may well want a bigger speaker that will enable you to hear the low bass frequencies more clearly.
It should be noted that the range of human hearing is 20Hz to 20kHz. It should also be noted that below 40Hz, sound is not perceived as pitched, but ‘felt’. It is these sub-sonics that can be used to add weight to sounds, however.
At the other end of spectrum, if you aim to produce acoustic guitar-based folk, you will use very little of the lower frequency range, and are likely to be able to use a smaller set of monitors without issue.
The other factor that should be considered when choosing which size of monitor to buy is the size of room in which they will be placed. Bass frequencies have a lot of energy, and if these frequencies are played in a small room, well, to put it simply, they’ll bounce around all the walls and colour your judgement of these frequency bands.
If your studio is small, in many ways it’s better to keep monitors smaller. It’s a trade off between the requirements of the genre in which you’re working and the limitations of the room.
Five or ten years ago, the first decision you would likely have to make would be ‘passive’ or ‘active’ monitors. Passive monitors require an external amplifier to power them, whilst active monitors have amplifiers built-in.
Nowadays the vast majority of monitors are active, with passive monitors now very rare. So, we won’t dwell on this point…
Studio monitors can be loosely divided into two main designs: infinite baffle designs, and bass reflex designs.
An infinite baffle design is the simpler of the two. Its defining feature is a sealed cabinet. Without getting too bogged down in the mechanics, the idea is that sound from the rear of the speaker is sealed away from the front.
This doesn’t quite work perfectly, however. Because of the sealed cabinet, the speaker meets a greater resistance when moving inwards, than outwards. They also have limited bass response when compared to their ported counterparts.
Bass reflex designs are not sealed, and instead feature a bass reflex port. This is by far the most common type of studio monitor design. The port is effectively ‘tuned’ to particular, chosen frequency bands, with the effect of enhancing bass frequencies.
There are some drawbacks, however. As these are chosen and ‘tuned’, some, poorly designed models, can have the effect of boosting a narrow section of bass, and nothing outside. Not ideal when you need flat frequency response…
The other issue is time smearing distortion. Put simply, this is a type of cabinet resonance that causes transients (the start of a sound, where it changes from a resting state to being at a peak or trough) to become distorted, and detail lost.
Most good monitor manufacturers, such as KRK, Genelec, Yamaha and Adam have ported designs that manage to keep time-smearing distortions to a minimum, however.
Whilst there are many great reviews to read of just about any monitor you care to name, the best way of choosing studio monitors is to audition them.
There are some rules that are worth following when it comes to auditioning speakers…
- Try to ensure that speakers can be quickly (if not instantly) switched between. If it takes longer than a few seconds, you’ll struggle to remember how the first pair of speakers sounded.
- Don’t try to compare more than two pairs at a time- it will be too confusing.
- Make sure that the volume of each set of speakers is the same. It’s easy to kid yourself that something that’s louder is better…
- Bring an appropriate selection of audition material with you. Ideally, you should have some well-recorded tracks from the genres in which you intend to work, but other examples from varied genres will also help. Aim to illuminate all key aspects of the speaker’s performance- frequency response, and any colouration, peaks or dips, transient response (how it deals with complex, and very detailed material, and any loss of detail that occurs when it does), performance at low and high volume levels, and dynamic response (jazz or classical recordings are often a good choice for this, as they tend to be very lightly compressed).
- Place the monitors in an appropriate listening position, at ear level.
- Give your ears a break – if you’ve been listening for 20 minutes straight, your ears will be getting fatigued. Take a few minutes break.
- Take your time…
There are, of course, other considerations that will greatly affect the perceived accuracy of studio monitors – acoustic treatment in the room they will be placed, for example. However, the information above should make the selection process a bit more straightforward…