by Anders Johanson January 10, 2021 10 min read
Studio monitors are speakers designed to reproduce the full frequency range of audio sources without coloring the sound. While many speakers are designed primarily to enhance the bass and treble frequencies, making drums and cymbals sound louder and vocals sound clearer, "full range" speakers attempt to give a more accurate reproduction of the source material. Noise in the signal gets added by the electronics powering the speakers, so studio monitors have very high quality electronics with as little noise as possible. They also are designed with the goal of being as non-reactive as possible to the sound. Some speaker designs can make a subwoofer sound ten times louder or a quiet sound completely inaudible just by their design. Monitors are also designed to be placed a certain distance from the listener with the ideal distance being 2 to 4 feet. If they are placed too close or too far away, the sound will be different and the volume will need to be adjusted for optimum quality. The advantage of speakers like these is that you can play your mixes exactly how they will sound on every consumer speaker, whether it's a car stereo, boombox, home surround sound, or even a tin can.
Here's a scenario that you've probably experienced in your music production career. You make a track, and after listening to a couple of reference songs, you try to get your work to sound as close as possible to the reference material. During this process, you use the cheap speakers that stand on your desk or, perish the thought, your laptop speakers. Your logic here is that if you can get your mix to sound as good as the commercial reference tracks, then it doesn't matter what speakers you use (we've all made this mistake before). The horror starts when you play the finished mix on your phone and realize that everything sounds as if you haven’t spent any time on mixing at all. The hi-hats are too sharp and pierce the ear; the snares are too thin, and the bass is either overpowering or non-existent. Meanwhile, on the very same phone, the reference tracks sound perfectly fine. Well, guess what? You just got tricked by those speakers on your table. If you want to never fall into this pitfall again, you will definitely need a pair of studio monitors to mix your tracks.
Studio monitors allow you to hear everything that's wrong with your mix because they have a flat frequency response. While consumer speakers mask the errors, studio monitors reproduce the sound exactly how it is without any coloration. If you can get your mix to sound right on your studio monitors, chances are quite high that it will be just as good on any other system as well. That's not to say that testing your final mix in different environments won't be necessary. You'll still want to listen to the finished track in the car or on your friend's home stereo speakers, but overall you'll spend a lot less time fine-tuning things because the foundation of your mix will be solid.
So far, we've only talked about studio monitors in the context of mixing, but they are also needed for mastering. Sometimes mastering studios will use the same monitors as mixing engineers, but more often than not, their equipment will be a lot more expensive and much bigger in size. Not all studio monitors are made equal, and generally, mastering studios want the best monitors money can buy. The job of a mastering engineer is to make a client's track sound amazing both on typical home stereo systems as well as on massive PA systems used at concert arenas and outdoor festivals. Especially for mastering, it's important to be able to pick up rumble in areas as low as 20Hz. For that reason, the best mastering engineers work in state of the art rooms with huge and ultra-expensive monitors that make it possible to hear low-end issues that you'd never think existed. In short, studio monitors used for mastering are on a whole different level, and skilled engineers who have access to such fantastic equipment are always in demand.
Mixing on studio monitors is a good start, but you should also always consider the room you are working in. Sometimes mixing in a space that is less than optimal sonically can lead to bad mixes even if you're using quality studio monitors. Not everyone is ready to treat their room acoustically, and that's why many producers resort to mixing on headphones as a shortcut. Studio headphones indeed eliminate the room as a source of coloration, but they can introduce a set of new problems of their own:
The best solution is to use both studio monitors and headphones. A pair of quality studio monitors is all you need if you mix in an acoustically treated room. In all the other cases, it's beneficial to reference your track on headphones as well. Not only will you have an additional layer of quality control that will improve the balance of your mix, but you will also be able to hear pops and clicks that would've been hard to notice otherwise.
Buying studio monitors is a big decision because they'll become the number one output for all your mixes. You'll have to invest some time to get to know your monitors thoroughly and learn how their sound translates to other systems. Moreover, the purchase will be quite expensive since a pair of budget monitors will cost you around $500. You must understand that every recommendation you see online is subjective and almost always based on personal taste. The only way to find the studio monitors that are the right fit for you is to try a lot of them. Ensuring that the store where you'll buy your monitors from has an accommodating return policy is crucial. Usually, stores accept returns if the monitors are in constant rotation, but it's still a good idea to inform yourself about the details before making the purchase.
To get the most out of your studio monitors, you need to treat your room acoustically as much as possible. Many beginner producers focus too much on the equipment and neglect their mixing environment entirely. That's a big oversight because your room is just as important as your monitors. It's not for nothing that professional recording studios spend thousands of dollars on acoustic treatment. Of course, it doesn't mean that you'll have to invest the same amount. You can treat your room DIY style for as little as 50 bucks by building some frames from a batch of stone wool and covering them with cloths. This solution will provide enough insulation to control for bass frequencies and won't break the bank. If you want to get the most out of your studio monitors, it's essential to mix in a room that's working with you and not against you, so don't skip this step.
Staying on the subject of mixing environments, make sure that the size of the studio monitors fits your room. There's a widespread belief in the producer community that you should always go for the biggest speakers you can afford. The thought behind it is that big monitors have big cones capable of a more accurate bass response. There's undoubtedly some truth to that statement, but you should always take into account your mixing space. If you are working in a small or even tiny room, then the traditional 8-inch near-field monitors will be simply too big. They will put out too much sound and overwhelm you. The truth is you can buy 5-6 inch speakers and work on them for years without ever looking back. The sound output will be manageable, and the range of frequency response will be decent enough for you to get a good feel for what's happening in your mix.
Before deciding what studio monitors to buy, you should figure out your budget first. Checking out the setups of professional studios can easily lull you into the belief that you need expensive monitors that cost thousands of dollars, and that's simply not true. We're living in exciting times, with many companies making quality speakers for almost any budget. The downside is that having so many options can lead to choice overload. It's vital to know how much you can spend because it'll be a lot easier to make a decision. Below, you'll find a selection of studio monitors in the $500 to $700 price range. It isn't the rock bottom, and you could find cheaper alternatives, but the most popular monitors tend to be priced in this segment.
If you want to go for a brand that has established itself in the music industry and is the darling of many professional mixing engineers, then Yamaha should be your choice. It all started with the famous Yamaha NS10 monitors that became the standard in the recording community. The Yamaha HS8 is the latest rendition that stays true to its roots with the black box and white cone design. This monitor has a frequency range between 38Hz and 30KHz and a built-in amp that will provide you with plenty of headroom. The sound of Yamaha HS8 is extremely flat and accurate. On these monitors, you'll be able to hear even the smallest changes in compression and effects. The 8-inch woofer is enough to feel the low-end, but if you want to go for smaller monitors due to room constraints, then consider the HS7 or HS5 versions that carry the size of the woofer in their names. A pair of Yamaha HS8s will cost you around $700, which is very reasonable for the quality you'll get. Overall, these monitors sound very transparent, look great, and offer fantastic value for the price.
The JBL 308P MKII monitors are regarded by many as the budget king in the near-field monitor sector. Two monitors for a stereo setup will run you close to $500. The JBLs look unassuming except for the Image Control Waveguide that surrounds the tweeter. It makes the monitors look quite plasticky, but this is the same design that the JBL M2 Master Reference monitors use, and a pair of those costs almost $23,000. The purpose of the waveguide is to enhance the stereo imaging, and it does so successfully. The effect isn't noticeable if you sit too close to the monitors, but at a distance of 5-6 feet, you'll feel like you're right in the middle of the music no matter where you're in the room. Other than the waveguide, the JBLs are pretty similar to the Yamaha HS8s. They sound nearly as flat and have a good bass response. Some would even say they are more pleasant to listen to because they offer a bit more detail in the higher frequencies. However, a common complaint about the JBL 308P MKII monitors is the audible hiss when no sound is played. If you find yourself being annoyed by it, consider other options.
KRK is another brand that’s been making studio monitors for a long time. The KRK Rokit monitors have been traditionally very popular among EDM producers and DJs. If you’re a fan of Flume or Skrillex, then it’s not unlikely that one of your favorite tracks was produced on these black and yellow speakers. Despite their popularity, the KRK Rokits used to get a fair share of negative feedback from the mixing community. Many people found previous editions of these monitors too bass-heavy and muddy. However, with the Rokit 8 G4 version, KRK improved many areas for which their monitors were criticized in the past.
It would be a mistake to overlook the new KRK Rokit 8 monitors because of the shortcomings of the previous generations. The G4s have a lot of things going for them, cost around $600 for the pair, and could be the hidden gem in this price bracket.
Writer and musician based in Charlotte, North Carolina, where he lives with his wife, Hannah. Extensive career as both a writer and a musician previously working with brands such as Fox Sports, Yahoo Sports, and Sports Illustrated. As a musician, Anders has played in several bands throughout the last decade, and has experience in touring, booking, band management, engineering, producing, mixing, and composing. Anders has recently composed music for short films and media presentations in universities, and has launched a podcast focusing on giving musicians and artists a place to talk about their work and the process behind their creation.
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