The Essential Guide To Monitors

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Welcome to the MusicTech Essential Guide. This time around, we’re going to look at the most important items in your studio setup, the ones that you listen to the results of your production endeavours on: your monitors.


Now we get to the important bit. Yes, really. We can’t emphasise too much how important your studio monitors (call them speakers if you like) are. We started this series looking at the inside of your production computer – the DAW and virtual instruments – and then we looked at the interface for your software to speak to the outside world with.

Last time, we looked at the start of the audio signal chain and what you use to record stuff into your computer: the humble microphone. This time, it’s the other end of that chain, where the results of your work come together. The studio monitor is that end point and it’s the most important part. Why so?

Well, consider this: you’ve bought the greatest microphone in the world; the finest interface; you’ve spent shedloads of cash getting your computer up to speed and filling it with great software and you’ve combined it all to make the best tune anyone will have ever heard. Now you need to hear it properly through decent monitors to mix it for release and for that, accuracy is the key. Let us explain why.

Rewinding a little, most consumer-grade (as in cheap) speakers for hi-fi – and we mean the kinds that come bundled with CD/MP3/radio systems – sound good because they are ‘coloured’. The bass or the treble might be emphasised – nudged up a bit, to make the speakers sound bigger than they are.

You can handle the truth

Okay, keep that thought and fast-forward with it to your recording studio. What happens if you have colouring in your studio monitors? What happens if they have extra bass without you knowing? The answer is that when you mix your music, you will have to turn that emphasised bass down, but that means that when the resulting track is played on another system, it will sound bass light, all because your studio monitor is not telling you the truth. It is not being accurate. The truth is key…

To explain, we’ll introduce some of speaker technical terms, but hopefully won’t get too bogged down in the jargon. We’ll start with ‘frequency range’. This is the range of sound a speaker is capable of delivering. Humans typically hear this range (measured in Hz or Hertz) from the low bass end of 20Hz to the high treble of 20kHz. In reality, there are few people – especially older people – who can hear the extreme ends. The quoted frequency range of a monitor is how much of this range it can deliver, so the wider it is, the better. Most good monitors go down to around 40Hz and up to 20kHz, which covers the bases.

And so to ‘the truth’. If you were to plot a graph of the frequency range of those cheap hi-fi speakers we just mentioned, they might have an obvious bump in the bass end or treble end where they’re coloured to sound better. Studio monitors try to have a completely ‘flat’ response. Flat means accurate. Flat means truth.

You can get some idea of the flatness of a frequency response by just looking at a graph of the response (which many manufacturers provide) or looking at the spec which might be written as ‘40Hz – 20kHz +1dB/-2dB’ (where ‘dB’ is decibel or sound level). This means that the variation the frequency response could be as much as 1dB higher or 2dB lower in certain areas, therefore very slightly coloured. Obviously, the lower this dB figure, the flatter the response. Expensive monitors get down to a fraction of a dB over certain ranges.

When you first encounter a truly flat monitor, you might be disappointed at first, because as you are comparing it to a coloured speaker, it will sound flat and not particularly exciting, but you will hear all of the detail. As you get used to it, you will appreciate the sound more for this, more for the breadth across the stereo range and the height and depth of the sound. A truly great monitor will open up your mixes in these three dimensions and allow you to place elements of your music in pinpoint detail wherever you like, both in terms of frequency and stereo space. We’ll be dealing more with this art when we come to the mixing part of the process.

So, to sum up: monitors are the important part of the studio because they let you hear your music accurately. If you hear the truth when you mix, then what you mix will be heard more accurately on people’s systems.

Anatomy of a monitor: front and back

A) Tweeter – The high-frequency driver delivers the treble in your monitor playback and is usually made of titanium or aluminium. You can also get soft-dome tweeters that radiate outwards for a larger sweet spot.

B) Cabinet – Again, you need a stiff material to build a studio-monitor cabinet. This helps cut down resonance at certain frequencies and allows the speaker to handle large transients which you might get from unmastered music.

C) Woofer – The woofer delivers your booming (actually, hopefully not too booming) bass and as such is constructed of a hard material to deal with it – sometimes this can be military-grade Kevlar, on some high-end monitors.

D) Acoustic port – Also known as the bass reflex port, this is a useful addition to some monitors, which helps speaker efficiency by increasing sound waves outwards by redirecting the pressure from inside the speaker.

E) Main input – This is an XLR input, although some speakers will have jack inputs, too. You take either the stereo left or right output from your interface or mixer and plug it in here.

F) Other controls – Some speakers will come with other controls around the back to adjust parameters, such as the Sensitivity (see main text) in this case. You can also find volume dials here.

G) EQ controls – Some monitors have additional EQ controls – which might seem odd, as they’re supposed to offer flat responses – but these allow you to adjust the speaker to suit your room. We’ll cover more on monitor placement soon.

H) Power and standby – Look out for a Standby Mode, especially useful for studio monitors as it switches your monitor to standby when it’s not in use for a certain period. Great for long sessions, where you might be doing other non-mixing tasks.

Specs versus price

It probably won’t surprise you to hear that accuracy costs. We were in one of the greatest studios in the UK recently, listening to studio monitors that cost £80,000… each. It was quite unlike anything we’d heard before, pretty much like the band were playing around us. Before you go running to the hills, we’ll say that while it is true that the more you pay, the better the monitor, the good news is that you won’t have to spend £160,000.

However, we always say that if you have a budget for setting up a studio from scratch, be prepared to spend a large portion of it on your monitors. What’s the point of spending thousands on your studio gear when the speakers you are monitoring with are lying to you?

And so to more pointers that you should understand when buying monitors. The first term you’re likely to come up against is active or passive. This is easy. Active monitors have an amp built in to drive

the speakers, passive ones will need to be matched to a separate amp. Our advice – general, as always – is to stick to active monitors, as the amp has been designed with the speaker at the same time. The overall sound should then take into account both components. Having said that, there are some great passive speakers in our Buyer’s Guide, but active monitors take the hassle out of amp matching.

Next up, it’s nearfield, midfield or farfield. This is simply the listening distance the monitors are designed for. Most studios use nearfield monitors, as the listener tends to sit close by, at what is called the ‘sweet spot’ – the point in an equilateral triangle between the monitors. It’s at this point where less interference from the room plays a part and also one where the producer can listen to their mix at lower volume levels. (It’s important to monitor at low levels so you don’t get fatigued over long mix sessions. Your ears are important, even more important than monitors!).

Good vibrations

Next up is the monitor driver. This is the round surface of the speaker and most monitors are two-way or three-way designs, that is they have two or three drivers in each speaker. It’s this part that vibrates to create sound waves. In our microphone guide last time, we explained the technical detail of how the mic converts sound to an electrical signal. Well, monitors essentially do the reverse of that process, so think of the driver as the diaphragm part of a mic.

The biggest driver, the woofer, handles the lower bass frequencies. The smallest, the tweeter, handles the top treble frequencies. The midrange driver in three-way systems is for the, you guessed it, midrange frequencies. Some systems include the low-end driver in a separate box called a subwoofer.

The advantage of a subwoofer is that it can extend the low-end range of systems that require extra reach; plus, having it in a separate box means the rest of the speaker can be smaller and therefore more flexible in terms of placement. Some monitors have what is known as a coaxial or dual concentric design where the smaller tweeter is mounted in the centre of the larger woofer. With Genelec’s latest coaxials The Ones, this is said to enable you to listen in a more varied range of positions (not just the sweet spot) which is called off-axis listening.

Are you sitting accurately?

The sweet spot

Think of yourself sitting at the third point of an equilateral triangle to find the sweet spot where your head goes (this chap could do with moving in just a tad). You also want to be sitting with your ears at the right monitor level

Under pressure

Next up is power and it might surprise you to learn that more power doesn’t mean better. Most people monitor at sensibly low levels, so don’t need more than (a very general) 50 watts in a system, but If you are monitoring in a big room, you will need more power. A better figure to look at here is the Maximum SPL or Sound Pressure Level. This gives an indication of how loud a speaker can go before it distorts and is measured in dB. Look for anything between 85 and 110dB.

The speaker sensitivity is also key here – it tells you how much volume you are going to get with the given power. The higher the sensitivity figure, the greater the volume you will get. Look for anything with at least 88dB. Above 100dB is good. Lastly, in what has become our ‘dB section’, is the S/N or signal-to-noise ratio figure. Again, the higher the better here, as it’s a measure of how much signal you want to hear versus the noise you don’t want to hear. Look for anything above 70, which is a bit ho-hum. Anything above 100dB is far better.

We’re done with tech specs, but you may also hear about ‘transient response’. This is the monitor’s ability to follow big changes in sound. The tighter this is – which we will mention when reviewing monitors – the better, as it means greater accuracy overall. The design and build of the speaker cabinet – the box around the drivers – is also important. You want to be looking at
a stiff material (and manufacturers use everything from dense wood to plastics), so the monitor doesn’t vibrate or resonate at certain frequencies.

This also helps the transient response. The same goes for the material drivers are made from – it has to be durable and tough. Finally, it’s also possible to use headphones, as your monitors and many companies have sets specifically designed with flat responses to do this. Proper monitors will still give you a wider picture, but having a good set of headphones to AB mixes is also a good idea. Which leads to…

Extra sets

You want speakers to tell you the truth, simple. Yet listening to the truth can be wearing over long periods – a flat response can be a harsh one – which is why it’s worth considering another set of vibey monitors to mix with as well as an accurate pair. When we review monitors, we try and give a picture of which camp they sit in.

For really long sessions, you’ll want to listen to speakers that excite you and spur you on and that might mean something with less accuracy. At the end of the session, though, turn to an accurate set to fine tune. It sounds lavish, but we’d recommend two sets if you can afford it (and some headphones, too, if you’re feeling flush).

Click here to see our budget-based buyer’s guide