Can you hear your music?
That sounds like a simple question. You can play your projects on any speaker you have available, even cheap ear buds. But how much are you hearing?
In music production, accurately hearing sounds is incredibly important and inadequate monitoring is a definite handicap(although it’s not catastrophic). Would you expect a graphic artist to do their work with a pair of foggy goggles on? They can still see colors and shapes, but not with definition and clarity. The results could be good, but are most likely as blurry and skewed as the artists vision.
With poor monitoring, you’re doing the exact same thing with sound.
Most engineers will never know what they’re missing until they step into a treated room with professional monitors. Then, they notice that there is a rich world of frequency and texture beyond the capabilities of headphones. There is simply no substitute for a solid pair of monitors if you want to do quality work in the studio.
Why Monitors Matter
Many people are confused about the purpose of monitors. After all, they do just appear to be overpriced speakers. So what makes them different?
Simply put, monitors are made to convey the truest possible “image” of your music. One of the goals of a manufacturer is to make the most neutral sound, meaning that no frequency is overly emphasized. A so-called flat response is perfect for removing the bias that consumer grade speakers bring to the party – creating disproportionate frequency response in a particular range.
Of course, there is no such thing as perfect sonic neutrality, and some monitors (the Yamaha NS-10 springs to mind) are actually known for their very specific bias. All monitors have some bias. You can’t get away from it.
Speaking of bias, consumer grade speakers strive to make the most pleasing music experience. Speakers often have tremendous bias and nobody blinks an eye. Most people aren’t audiophiles and wouldn’t know the difference between an mp3 and a FLAC file. For them, speakers are just fine for hearing their favorite songs.
Strangely, audio engineers are often looking for something more ugly, or at least honest in their listening environments. A gnarly, unflinching portrayal of your productions is actually what you need to improve the sound and make it translate to any system. If it sounds good on reference monitors, you can be sure that it’s going to translate to laptop speakers. That’s the idea, anyway.
So Many Options!
Choosing a good pair of monitors might look a little daunting. The market is flooded with options that all claim to do more or less the same things. Which ones are right for you?
Before you get caught up with indecision, set a budget and look in that price range. You can find useful monitors in your budget. And what you’re after here is utility. Don’t get distracted by fancy equipment. Look for something affordable that will help you make music.
Then, decide whether you can really tell the difference between two pairs of $500 monitors. Chances are that they both sound awesome. It would take years of using monitors, day in and day out, for you to appreciate the fine nuances discussed in audio engineering.
These are details to waste your time obsessing over. Time better spent working with a pair of monitors, making killer mixes, and actually appreciating their strengths. At the end of the day, the monitors you have are going to do you more good than the monitors you think about having. Buy wisely, but don’t deliberate endlessly.
Most readers will just be in the market to buy their first pair of studio monitors. In that case, there are a few concerns to address.
Active vs. Passive
What’s the difference? Basically, passive monitors require an external amplifier and possibly a dedicated crossover to increase the signal for the monitors. The setup is considerably more elaborate and expensive but can be perfect for a professional studio.
If you already have an amp you love or you want an arsenal of monitors to A/B your mixes, then you might be in the market for passive monitoring.
On the other hand, active monitors have built-in amplifiers that make them stand alone units that are ready to connect to your interface and get down to business. And they’re absolutely perfect for low profile home studios. You are saddled with a very specific amplifier at that point, but this won’t hinder many home studio owners.
Room Size, Speaker Size
Before you settle down to buying, the size of your studio or the room that you’ll be monitoring in should be measured. The smaller the room, the smaller the monitors should be. While you might wince at the reduced bass extension of smaller speakers, just realize that you can’t take advantage of them without a room to let those long wavelengths develop. Accuracy increases as speaker size is matched to room size.
Bigger monitors are also a temptation towards mixing louder, though small monitors can still put out a lot of sound. If you’ve ever tried mixing at high volumes, you may be aware of the associated hearing fatigue. You can work longer, more effectively, and more safely at moderate volumes than you can with the volume at 11, so don’t turn your nose up at smaller monitors!
To Subwoof? Or Not to Subwoof?
This is a personal choice, since some music is intended to be listened to with incredibly hyped bass. Monitoring with a subwoofer can give you an unrealistic perception of bass frequencies that won’t translate to the majority of systems. So for the average producer, just a pair of monitors will have enough oomph to do the trick. If you’re devoted to bass music, then you might consider picking one up. Just make sure that you turn it off from time to time so you can hear what most of the world hears.
Pro Monitoring for Everybody
To get the best results with your monitors, check out our guide for optimal monitor setup. We cover monitor placement, a quick guide to acoustic treatment, and cheap ways to improve the sound of your room.
There’s more to it than meets the eye, so take some time to set them up right. Your tracks will thank you later.
Identifying the best monitors for the home studio was no easy task, but we picked the most favorably and frequently mentioned monitors out there to share with you. Even at seemingly insignificant price points, these might revolutionize how you hear your music and work in the studio.
KRK Rokit 5
The KRK Rokit series delivers powerful sound at very competitive rates. They may just be the quintessential monitors for the home studio. Find out why they’re perfect for you.
Presonus Eris 5
Presonus as perhaps best known for their software and interfaces, but not as much for monitors. If you’re going to join an already crowded party, you should do it like Presonus did with the Eris Series. Read on for our review.
One thing that aspiring home studio owners should take to heart is that you don’t always have to spend a fortune to improve your studio. If you’re on an extremely prohibitive budget, then you might appreciate the price-point of these monitors. It’s hard to believe that quality sound exists at such a deal.
Avantone Mix Cube
Very few home studios can or need to accommodate large speakers, so why not take that aesthetic to the limit? The Avantone Mix Cube employs a classic design for the boxiest possible sound for mono monitoring of your mix. Sounds terrible, right? Read our review to find out way ugly might just save your mix.
Famous and infamous for their NS-10 monitors which are widespread throughout the audio world, Yamaha is also active in the budget monitor category with the HS line. Of course, comparisons to the NS-10 are inevitable, and there are some similarities, as we discovered.
Happy Ears are Productive Ears
As you explore a world of higher fidelity, remember that no monitors alone will give you complete accuracy. Keep taking the time to check those mixes on any system you can. You’ll find that even the worst speakers have something to show you about your mixes.