How to Choose and Use Studio Monitors
Gallagher, Mitch, Acoustic Guitar
Studio monitors are one of the most important tools for creating great home recordings. Here we show you how to shop for and set up a pair that will meet your budget and provide great sonic results.
When you're making recordings, what really matters is how they sound-the performance and the audio quality. Everything else-the gear, mic positions, editing, effects-is just part of the process that gets you to that recorded sound. Arguably, the most vital link in determining the quality of your recorded tracks is your monitors. If your monitors aren't accurate, you won't get a clear picture of your recordings, and you'll make bad decisions about tone, effects, and the overall mix.
Especially if you're on a budget, you may wonder whether your home-stereo speakers might do double duty as studio monitors. Unfortunately, even nice stereo speakers make poor studio monitors. They're not designed for the critical listening engineers have to do; they're meant to make all types of music sound great, which isn't helpful when you're trying to discern sonic flaws.
PASSIVE AND ACTIVE MONITORS
One of the first questions you'll face in your hunt for new monitors is "passive or active?" Passive monitors are typically more affordable, though the price of the monitors by themselves is misleading because they require a separate power amp and speaker cables for operation. Active monitors have a built-in amplifier and electronics. If you already own a great power amp, passive monitors may be a good route. Otherwise, actives are the way to go. Because they're self- contained, actives are more convenient and portable than passives, and the manufacturer can optimize the sound quality by building-in a well-matched amplifier and other internal components.
FLAT BEATS PHAT
The next consideration in your search is finding a pair of monitors with a flat frequency response-meaning they reproduce every frequency with equal volume, without emphasizing a particular frequency or range of frequencies. This is of vital importance, because you don't want the monitors to add their own "sound" to what you hear. For instance, if your monitors emphasize bass frequencies instead of letting you hear the pure, uncolored sound of your recordings, you may end up EQ-ing your recording with less bass than you should, which will cause the low end to sound weak on other systems. It's also important to look for natural dynamic response; the speaker should follow the dynamics of the recorded performance in a natural way. Some monitors can sound compressed, and don't give an accurate picture of the dynamics, especially with delicate acoustic tracks.
Unless you're recording death metal, hip-hop, or dance music, you don't need monitors that can emit skull-rattling sub-bass frequencies. Instead, you want solid, realistic low-end response; avoid a "woofy" (loose) bottom end that obfuscates mixing and EQ decisions. Also, look for monitors with very rigid cabinets. They should feel rock-solid and shouldn't vibrate during playback, as this can color the response of the monitors.
AVOID EAR FATIGUE
Sometimes monitors may sound a bit harsh. Remember, they aren't tuned to sound pleasant, but rather to be revealing. Plus, we tend to do our critical listening at fairly close distances. This can cause what engineers call "ear fatigue," which means the ears are tired and are no longer hearing accurately. (Long listening sessions or high volume levels can also cause ear fatigue, and even hearing damage. Take frequent "silence breaks" during long sessions to let your ears recover.) You're going to be spending a lot of hours listening to these speakers, so make sure they're easy on your ears!
Most home recordists use a "nearfield" monitor setup, in which the speakers are within three to five feet of their listening position. For these setups, I recommend two-way speakers with a woofer between five and eight inches in diameter, and a ¾- or one-inch tweeter. …