The Complete Guide to Recording Studio Speakers
If you walk into any decent production studio, you’ll find a good set of studio monitors inside. At first glance (and first listen) they may seem like another set of hi-fi speakers, like Bose or Harman/Kardon sets. But there’s a key difference between studio monitors and ordinary speakers — no matter how expensive.
It has to do with the purpose of the speaker. Home stereos and other speakers meant for entertainment seek to be as pleasing to the ear as possible, put out decent volume, and make listening to music and other audio as enjoyable as possible. Recording studio monitors, on the other hand, have only one purpose: to be accurate, even when that sounds bad.
Recording studio monitors are necessary in a home recording studio.
The goal of a set of studio monitors is to deliver a perfectly flat response across the frequency range of human hearing, at a level volume. This is much different from the goal of a Bose speaker, which seeks to optimize the listening experience through crossover distortion, equalization, soft compression, and other features. Such techniques are great for a listening speaker but horrible for a monitoring speaker. This is because of a very simple rule:
Whatever frequencies sound best in your monitors will be the weakest in your mixes.
Think of it this way. A speaker that hypes the bass in your mix will make your kick drum sound like a sledgehammer, a thump you can feel in your chest every time it hits. Maybe it’s a little too powerful, so you turn the kick drum down in your mix a bit until it’s sitting just right. That was the only change your mix needed – now it’s perfect!
So you pop it in your car stereo to take a listen. All of a sudden – your kick drum isn’t even in the mix, there’s just some kind of papery slapping sound where your sledgehammer used to be. Where did your powerful bass go?
Any boost at specific frequencies made by your speaker will translate to a reduction in those frequencies in your mix, and that’s bad. Every speaker has these little quirks, but they never go the same way. While your speaker may hype the lower mid frequencies, another may underrepresent them. In this situation, you’ve reduced your lower mid frequency information and their speaker also reduced it – now it’s gone. The ideal solution is to buy monitors that are as accurate and as flat as possible throughout the frequency range. While the best monitors can cost between $1000 and $35,000 for just one speaker, you can pick up some great active studio monitor pairs for under $1000 pretty easily.
However, none of these speakers are perfectly flat, and chances are your mixing room isn’t either – even with plenty of home studio acoustic treatment!
That leads to the second rule of proper monitoring:
If you can learn how the sound of your monitors translates to a variety of other speakers, you can overcome the deficiencies in your monitors and room.
You need accurate studio monitors – no engineer, home or professional, can do without them. The good news is that you can buy average-quality monitors between $300 and $1000/pair and overcome their deficiencies simply by learning the monitors. This means listening to your favorite records on them over and over, as well as on other speaker systems like a home stereo or your car. Before long, you’ll know exactly how your monitors sound in relation to these other systems and can mix accordingly. Do your studio monitors typically sound weak in the bass? When finishing your mix, push up that frequency range by a dB or two.
How active studio monitors work — and why that’s important
Every speaker has to deal with its audio crossover, which causes the main differences between most speakers. A crossover is a type of filter that’s used in speaker design. Since a typical loudspeaker driver can’t possibly cover the entire frequency range of human hearing at an acceptable volume, crossovers break the frequency range up into bands. These bands then receive individual drivers. Ideally, a crossover will split the audio information into different frequency bands, while preserving their frequency, level, and phase perfectly. The ideal way to do this is a matter far beyond the scope of this article! Needless to say, it’s a matter of constant debate.
There are two ways to amplify a monitor. An active studio monitor will have included amplification and an active crossover. This means that the frequencies are split, amplified by separate amplifiers, and then routed to the drivers. However, in a passive studio monitor, the overall audio signal is amplified before being split and routed to the drivers. In these monitors, you need your set of passive monitors, which you’ll then match to an amplifier. This is an art in itself! The advantage to passive systems is that they’re typically a bit cheaper. Further, if you want to upgrade or your speakers go bad (happens), picking up new unpowered monitors is much cheaper than buying a full new active monitor system. However, active monitors are a system that have already been precisely put together by the manufacturer in a way you can’t match at home. Even better, active crossovers are more accurate than passive crossovers!
Buying active studio monitors
Here’s the studio monitor buying procedure:
- Buy decent, accurate studio monitors
- Learn your monitors
- Attend the Grammy awards as a nominee
The best way to buy monitors is to go into a shop and try them out yourself. But if you don’t have a local shop, or you want to go with a perennial favorite, then I have put together a short list of reputable monitors that you can choose from below.
Note: We are not affiliated with any of these brands and do not receive payment for promoting them. These are monitors that I have used myself or which have reputations for quality. All images and products are from Zzounds.com.
$500 and Up
Note: The Behringer B3031a’s are the monitors I’ve used for the past 8 years, and I have absolutely no complaints. They sound way above their price point and are among the few sub-$1,000 monitors with ribbon tweeters. If you can’t decide on a set, these are my best budget recommendation.
Appendix: How Recording Studio Monitors Work
The physical enclosure of a speaker is vitally important to its functionality. The cabinet, along with a monitor’s crossover and amplifier design, constitutes almost all that matters in determining the speaker’s sonic character. For this reason, paying attention to the speaker enclosure design and materials of a prospective purchase are very important. The primary purpose of a speaker enclosure is to stop sound generated at the front of a driver (a woofer or tweeter) from mixing with sound at the rear of the driver and to house all the drivers, amplifiers, and other integrated electronic parts.
At its simplest, a speaker enclosure can be simply a flat plane with holes cut in which to mount the drivers. However, interference from the rear of a driver with the sound emanating from its front will cancel out wavelengths larger than the dimensions of the baffle (the flat plane). However, sealed systems keep the rear interference away from the driver, therefore massively increasing the monitor’s bass response. This is done by building thick cabinet walls, curving the inside of the enclosure to diffuse reflections, and occasionally thin lead sheeting. Internal reflections are often further dampened by acoustic materials. The main non-electronic components of speaker enclosure design you must understand are the construction of the woofer and tweeter, and the housing of its drivers.
Woofers are drivers intended to reproduce bass and mid frequencies. These are the larger driver you’ll find in a monitor, in order to accurately produce the longer wavelengths of lower frequencies. Similarly, they are very ineffective at producing high frequencies, because they are simply too large to vibrate at the correct speed.
A woofer is made up of a few components. The first is the dust cap, which cosmetically covers the internal components of the driver and helps protect it from damage. The next is the diaphragm, which pushes in and out in order to create pressure waves and reproduces sound. It’s typically in the shape of a cone and is commonly referred to by this name. The cone is attached to a voice coil, which is within the magnetic field of a permanent magnet. Together, the voice coil and magnet create the motion of the driver by receiving the electrical signal. As the voice coil is fed signal, it changes whether the cone is attracted to or repelled by the magnet – therefore creating movement. The materials of the driver are all mounted into the speaker enclosure.
Cones are ordinarily constructed from polypropylene plastic or paper. There are three main qualities that designers look for in a cone: lightness of weight, absence of ringing, and stiffness. Polypropylene plastic is light and stiff but has a tendency to ring. Paper is quite stiff and resistant to resonance, but it’s often quite heavy. Coating the paper enhances its good qualities, but causes the cone to get even heavier. Some manufacturers use more exotic materials. These include Kevlar, woven fiberglass, carbon fiber, titanium, and aluminum. Each has its own positives and negatives in performance.
Tweeters are intended to handle the high-frequency information in a signal. These are quite small, in order to vibrate sufficiently quickly to reproduce waves in excess of 15kHz. They are constructed quite similarly to the woofer, but with some notable exceptions. Instead of a cone, modern tweeters are commonly a soft dome or a thin aluminum ribbon. They operate in the same way – a voice coil within a magnetic field which receives electrical signal, in turn causing the diaphragm of the tweeter to move.
Soft domes and ribbons are made from a variety of materials. Domes are ordinarily made from metals (normally aluminum or titanium) or from woven fabrics (ordinarily silk). The metals offer a brighter sound that some people find harsh, while the fabrics are unsurprisingly soft-sounding, but can lose definition.
Ribbons have experienced a resurgence in popularity in speaker design just as ribbon microphones are becoming again a viable recording choice. The advantage of a ribbon tweeter is that it disperses sound more evenly and at a wider angle, increasing the “sweet spot” in monitoring. Ordinarily, ribbons are constructed from aluminum. However, sometimes you’ll find ribbons made from plastic film.
Bass Reflex vs Acoustic Suspension
There is a significant difference in operation between a bass reflex or an acoustic suspension design. Bass reflex monitors have ports to allow air to escape as the diaphragm pushes back and forth. This allows the woofer to move further than it would be able to in a sealed system, therefore reproducing even lower frequencies. This seems like a positive, but reflex systems also sound slightly muddier and are less responsive than their non-ported counterparts. In an acoustic suspension system, the drivers are mounted in an airtight enclosure. This restricts their movement, raising their lower limit for reproducing bass frequencies. In return, they offer a very tight and accurate response, one many believe is more optimal for monitoring than a bass reflex system.
There is no consensus as to whether a bass reflex system or an acoustic suspension system is better suited for monitoring. However, it is an important factor to consider when comparing potential studio monitors.
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