Studio Monitors – What they do, and why you need them

Studio monitors are high quality speakers designed for a recording studio. The main difference between a monitor and another speaker is the attention to precision. 

When you listen to a mix, you (as recording engineer) need to know exactly what is there or the mix will not work well.

A bad mix might play nice on one system, but on the next, it might sound horrible. It is absolutely critical that you hear it correctly while you are mixing.

Studio monitors are available in many sizes, shapes, colors, and of course, price points. For most people doing home recording, you won't need the most expensive monitors. Some can even get by with just using headphones.

You really should use studio monitors for serious audio work.

Headphones vs. Monitors

Headphones are an excellent way to keep tabs the mix. In addition, they are a great way to start out a studio. In fact, that's how I started. But I couldn't believe the difference it made when I got a set of studio monitors - I could actually hear!

Headphones will give you a closer perspective on things, and you can learn with them, but I think monitors are essential for producing quality recordings.

A studio monitor is built from the ground up for accuracy. It won't give you a nice and pretty sounding mix; it will give you the dirt that is actually there. 

Of course, the more you pay, the more accurate they will be. If you want pretty music, get some home theater speakers. If you want to learn to record, get some studio monitors.

A nearfield monitor is designed to be placed within a few feet of you, the listener. This does several things - first, it eliminates most of the reflections from walls in the room. You need to hear what is going on, not the room reverb of the mixing room. (Headphones are the best isolation in this respect.) Then, it gets you close to the sound, not far away.

Nearfield studio monitors

Nearfield monitors are by far the most popular and smart choice for a small studio, not to mention economical. The other option is to get some big speakers, and mount them in a wall in a big room.

The main drawback to smaller studio monitors is the limited bass response provided by the smaller speakers. The simple way around this is to get a set with a subwoofer. The sub takes care of low frequency sound, and the monitors get the rest. You don't need a sub, as in absolute necessity. 

I use a set of 6.5" monitors now (Event TR6), without a sub. But I can see drawbacks, and have a CD out that I'm kind of embarrassed by, because it has too much bass in it.

Why does it have too much bass? Because I put too much bass in the mix. The monitors didn't give me what I thought should be there, so I put more bass in. It ended up being too much.

A sub would have solved the problem. It would have given a more accurate sound for the bass.

You don't need anything bigger than nearfield monitors. 

The Event 20/20BAS is a monitor I would look at seriously. It's priced right for a small studio, but it has some killer features - rock solid bass, smooth response. All the things you need in a set of good monitors.

Active vs. Passive

There are two types of nearfield monitors when it comes to amplification: active and passive. An active monitor has the amplifier built in to its system. A passive one has no amplifier - you need to have a separate amplifier. 

It's really simple to tell the two apart. Active has an amplifier (remember two As), and passive does no work (kind of). 

What does this mean to you? If you use passive monitors, you must have a separate speaker amplifier. For me, it's not worth the extra bother of having yet another piece of gear around in my studio. I use active monitors. They may cost a little bit more up front, but you really don't need the quality of passive monitors unless you are a pro studio.

Monitor Hookups

You will want some sort of balanced cable, such as a TRS (1/4") or XLR (microphone) cable to hook these critters up. My current set of monitors accepts XLR cables. So I got a patch cord with a XLR on the one end and a TRS on the other to go from my MOTU 828 to the monitor.

They use a standard computer power cord, so if something happens, I can quickly swap it out with another one.

What monitors should I get?

It depends a lot on what your budget is. A good rule of thumb is you get what you pay for. Get as much as you can afford, because monitor sound is something that will directly influence your mixes.

I use a pair of Event TR6 active monitors, and really like them. However, they have been discontinued. Bummer. Check out the Event 20/20BAS for a better substitute. It's a newer version.

Here are a few models that I think are noteworthy.

The Yamaha HS80MActive(Amazon) - Yamaha makes this industry classic - I read some reviews of this one, and it looks like something I want to upgrade to (if not the Event 20/20, above). 

You can get it in a stereo kit WITH a subwoofer. That's the one I'm looking at. 🙂 You might want to check that one out (zZounds).

From what people are saying, it is a very, very good quality studio monitor, especially for its price point. Don't ignore that. 

Another model worth noting is the Yamaha HS50M(Amazon, or zZounds) Active Studio Monitor. It comes in at 70 watts of power, as opposed to the HS80M's 120 watts. 

The HS50M runs cheaper in price - you can get a pair for about the same price as a single one of the HS80M. It won't sound quite as good or balanced either. That's just the trade-off in quality and cost.

Studio monitors are essential in the recording process. Use them well, and don't skimp on quality. 

When you get your set, don't forget to think about how to control them. Where is the volume knob going to be?

About the Author Lee Weaver

Lee started his career in recording with an auspicious goal - record tracks of his own voice singing in harmony. As a hobby project, it didn't have the funding to go to a studio and pay for someone to do it for him. Like many of you, he pulled himself up by the bootstraps to learn the art of recording.

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