They’re used everywhere, and might be the most useful bit of gear you’ll own, but what are studio monitors for?
When producing music, the lengths that are taken to ensure that everything is of the highest possible quality. At the professional level, this can mean signal paths for individual recording channels that cost tens of thousands of pounds, or vintage, rare microphones that cost similar amounts.
An area that always commands a sizable chunk of a studio budget at all levels is that for studio monitors. You might well ask why what may seem to be just a set of speakers cost so much, and are so important. Why won’t any good set of speakers do the same job?
What are they for?
In simple terms, studio monitors are speakers that have particularly accurate response. You might have heard reference to how particular bits of audio gear can ‘colour’ the sound. A pair of studio monitors aims colour the sound as little as possible.
You might also have heard or read about ‘flat response’ monitors. This would basically mean that they do colour the sound of the signal playing through them. Sadly, this is not actually possible- all speakers colour the sound to varying degrees.
However, what a monitor will provide is a reference that is accurate enough for a producer to make critical judgements about a mix that will transfer to being played on other sound systems without sounding terrible (if it sounds good on these, it should sound pretty good on anything).
To expand a little on the term ‘flat response’; this basically means that the speakers respond evenly throughout the frequency range. So, no frequency range will be exaggerated or understated.
Though not truly ‘flat’ a good pair of studio monitors will provide a good level of accuracy here. This is important when making mix decisions.
Consider a set of speakers that understates a particular bass frequency by, say, 2db. If an engineer is mixing in this range, they will compensate for this ‘dip’ in the frequency range by boosting this frequency. On this set of speakers, this will sound correct.
If this were then played on a more ‘neutral’ set of speakers, then that frequency would be 2db louder than it needed to be.
Faster than the speed of sound…
Flat frequency response is not the only aspect that dictates whether a set of studio monitors is any good. Transient response is equally important and often overlooked.
Basically, transients are the parts of a sound wave where it changes from one state (either compressed or rarefied) to the other.
Think about it like this… A sound wave when displayed visually will have (usually) about half of it above the zero line, and half below. If the wave were silent, it would be a flat line across this zero line (see above).
When a speaker plays this back, the area below the line would cause the speaker cone to retract, and the area above it would push the cone outwards. If playing nothing, it would sit in the middle, motionless. Making sense so far?
Now consider the square wave; a favourite of synth programmers everywhere, this is apparently a very simple waveform. It simply transitions from the extreme compressed state to the extreme rarefied state alternately.
However, recreating this wave on a speaker is actually impossible. It takes a certain amount of time for the speaker to move from one extreme to the other. In an actual square wave, the cone would have to instantly ‘teleport’ from one state to the other, with no time between. As a result, in reality, when square wave is reproduced, it looks a bit more like the image above.
Still with me?
Back to studio monitors… this illustrates the importance of how fast a speaker can move, and accurately replicate transients. Effectively, it informs the listener accurately of where every sound starts and ends, and how everything actually sounds.
Why are they so important?
A good set of studio monitors should improve every mix that you do. They remove a lot of the guesswork, and provide an accurate picture of what is happening in the mix. If you can’t be sure whether what you are hearing is what is actually going on in your track, then everything you do is a guess.
Though monitors can be staggeringly expensive, there are plenty of good quality but affordable options from the likes of KRK, Yamaha, Adam, Alesis, and Tannoy, plus premium alternatives from brands such as Genelec.
These days, the vast majority of monitors are active (meaning that they have amplifiers built-in), rather than passive (require an additional amplifier), making them even easier to integrate into even small studio set-ups.
See the monitor section of our online store for a full range. To hear studio monitors for yourself, visit one of our stores (always call ahead to check stock of the items you wish to try before making a journey).
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Joe is a contributor for the Dawsons Music blog. Specialising in product reviews and crafting content to help and inspire musicians of all musical backgrounds.