Just how do studio monitors work? A good pair of studio monitors are one of the most important parts of your studio setup. They can have a huge effect on the quality and end result of your productions. I think that without decent monitors, you’ll never get a true and honest picture of the music you’re creating.
Monitors are different compared to consumer-level loudspeakers that you would connect to your home hi-fi system. These hi-fi speakers that you use to listen to your CDs and MP3s actually ‘color’ the sound that you hear, as they tend to emphasize certain frequencies to give you a better listening experience.
This usually means that the low-end and high-end frequencies will be accented and boosted slightly, a feature that we really don’t want to have in our studio monitors.
Studio reference monitors are designed and built differently to regular hi-fi speakers. They have many features that lend themselves to being used in home and professional recording studios:
- They have the nearest you can get to a flat frequency response, meaning all frequencies are outputted equally and nothing is boosted or cut. This means that what you hear is a true representation of what your mix and production sounds like.
Hi-fi speakers boost the low-end and high-end – think of a frequency curve like a smily face. This gives the music you’re listening to at home a positive shine. However, when you’re making music in the studio, you need to hear the audio as detailed as possible with no boosts or cuts from the monitors.
- They are built more robustly to cope with the demands of the studio. You’ll see this in both the physical construction (tough and sturdy housing for the speakers) and the strength of the speaker cones. Some producers I know may be working on a bass sound for a few hours straight. They’ll playing the same phrase over and over again to get it right. The speakers need to be able to withstand this sort of constant low-frequency work.
- Monitors are usually active (the amplifier is built into the monitor). Hi-fi speakers are usually passive (the amplifier driving the speaker is external). There’s more on active vs passive monitors further down.
Closed Design vs Ported Design
- Closed monitors are designed exactly as the word implies – the casing is completely sealed. They tend to produce very accurate sound with a great deal of punch. However, the bass response isn’t as good as a ported monitor.
- Ported monitors will have a port or vent in the design. This helps to produce a deeper bass tone, hence why ported monitors can also be known as bass-reflex designs. But ported monitors can lose out on their accuracy due to the vented design.
How Do Studio Monitors Work – The Different Types
There are a few different possible setups when it comes to monitoring in the studio. You’ll need to choose one to follow in your own setup.
- Near-Field Monitoring: when you read about studio monitors for a home studio setup, it will usually be in reference to near-field monitors. This is the setup I use and that you’ll want for your own studio.
The near-field monitors are usually placed around one-two meters away from your position behind the mixing desk or your computer (where you’ll be recording and mixing with your DAW). The two monitors are angled so the sound is directed towards your head.
Because they are close to you, the sound is pretty direct and isn’t affected too much by the sound of the room. This is the ideal scenario in a home studio as the room is usually not acoustically designed.
- Far-Field Monitoring: this setup is usually found in commercial studios, due to their larger size and ability to cope with louder volumes. The monitors are normally found a few feet behind the mixing desk, mounted into the acoustically-designed walls.
- Subwoofer: a subwoofer is a specially designed monitor, placed on the floor (usually under the desk and in between your two monitors) and responsible for outputting bass frequencies. The exact frequencies reproduced can vary from monitor to monitor, but is usually around the 20-200 HZ range. It’s not a necessity to have a subwoofer and it’s a bit of an extravagance. But if you produce music that will mainly be played in clubs, then you might want to consider using one.
How to Use Studio Monitors – Placement in the Room
The monitors should ideally be placed on their own dedicated monitor stands. This helps prevent them from vibrating the surrounding areas that they’re in contact with. Also, try to avoid placing the monitors on flat surfaces as this can result in comb-filtering, which won’t give you an accurate picture of what you are playing. Ideally, place them on their own dedicated monitor stands with fitted isolation pads.
When you set up your monitors you want the stereo picture to be as clear as possible. To do this, you want the two monitors to form a triangle with your head when you’re listening to them. The distance between the two monitors also needs to be the same distance from your head.
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Active Monitors vs Passive Monitors
These two terms refer to whether the studio monitors contain their own amplifiers or whether they require a dedicated external amplifier to power them.
- Passive: these monitors don’t have their own inbuilt amplifiers, so they require an external amplifier to power them. This means you have an extra expense where you have to purchase another piece of equipment. You also have to think about amp’s features in connection to the monitors – things like the power rating and the crossover frequencies.
- Active: these monitors are powered by their own amplifiers enclosed in the monitor’s casing. There’s no need to purchase an extra amplifier to do the job, and the built-in amp will be perfectly matched to the monitor’s speakers. This can cut down on the cost of setting up your studio. It’s also a lot more convenient and simple to connect and configure. I always recommend getting active monitors as these are the type I always use.
When it comes to powering your studio monitors, what you use depends on the type and design of the monitors. Power is measured in Watts, and the higher the wattage the better the sound will be.
Monitors with higher wattages will produce sound that is clearer and more detailed. They will be able to handle higher volumes, and you’ll hear even the smallest changes in your studio gear like your compressors and limiters.
There are three main types of amp setup you’ll see when it comes to studio monitors:
- Single-amp: the audio signal is sent into the amp so it can be boosted to a level that is useable by the monitors. Before the signal leaves the speakers in the monitors, it is divided into two by a ‘crossover network.’ This crossover splits the signal into two – the low bass frequencies are sent to the woofer, and the higher frequencies to the tweeter.
- Bi-amp: the crossover network now comes before the amplifiers. The crossover divides the signal into lower and higher frequency signals and feeds each signal into it’s own dedicated amp. Each amp then sends the audio signal to the monitor’s tweeter and woofer.
- Tri-amp: this uses the same idea as the bi-amp setup, but instead of two amps there are three amps. The crossover network divides the audio into low, mid-range, and higher frequencies. Each signal feeds into a dedicated amp, which then feeds the woofer, midrange speaker, and tweeter.
The most common type you’ll see in a home studio will be either the single-amp design or the bi-amp design. This is especially true for near-field monitors.
Cables & Connections
So how do studio monitors work with the the different types of audio cables? The mainly come in two types – balanced and unbalanced.
- Balanced cables are protected from electrical interference from other devices. XLR cables used for microphones are balanced, as are jack plugs used for instruments like guitars.
- Unbalanced cables don’t have this protection and will often suffer from electrical interference. Using shorter cables can reduce interference, but it’s best not to use them in the first place.
You want to use balanced cables wherever you can. Electrical interference is not something you want in your home studio! You can actually convert an unbalanced signal into a balanced signal using a DI box.
Studio monitors will often have a range of connection types that can be used. These include:
- TRS jacks
- XLR cables
- RCA/phono cables
- S/PDIF jacks (S/PDIF transmits digital audio)
We started this article with one question – how do studio monitors work? Hopefully you can now see how the design and the type of monitor can have a big effect on the sound you achieve in your home studio.
When it comes to getting your own studio monitors, I definitely think it’s worth getting active, near-field monitors. They’ll help you to monitor and mix at relatively modest volumes, but will still provide a flat, clean, and accurate sound which can only serve to improve your mixes and productions.