A very simple answer to that question would be: To make music.
Music is food for the soul. It’s an old adage and is true enough even today. From simple instruments to orchestras, music became more beautiful and more complex over time. Audio engineers became part of the process for mixing music. Hearing the purest sounds from the music sources became necessary. And that is what studio monitors are used for.
This is underselling the uses of studio monitors a bit, but reproducing the purest form of a sound is what studio monitors were created for. They are used in recording studios, home studios, and film and TV studios. Wherever pure sound reproduction is needed, studio monitors are used.
Studio Monitors vs. Speakers
A simple comparison between studio monitors and speakers (which almost everyone is familiar with) can clear things up. When speakers reproduce a sound, whether it’s from a single instrument, a vocal source or another sound source, they “color” the sound.
Coloring the sound means enhancing certain frequencies, and subduing others. This makes the listening experience better. Though it’s desirable when you are listening to music, it can be counterproductive when you are making music.
In making music, you usually have to do something called mixing. It means adding different audio sources: vocals and separate instruments, to create a single track. For that, you have to hear the purest form of every sound. So then you can mix them up the best way to create beautiful music.
If you have sounds that are already modified (from speakers), you may end up mixing them in an unbalanced way. Some sounds might be too obvious, while the others so subdued that you don’t even hear them. This is what studio monitors are used to prevent.
Use of Studio Monitors
From the explanation above, people might consider studio monitors very different from speakers. The fact is, studio monitors can be used as speakers. You cannot use a speaker to do the work of a studio monitor, but you can use a studio monitor as your speaker.
This is the primary purpose of a studio monitor: To help you in the process of making music. Studio monitors come in a wide range; from small studio monitors good enough for a home studio, to ones big enough for professional studios.
A studio monitor provides you with the sound exactly as it is. This helps when you want to modify that particular sound yourself, to go along beautifully with the others. Though a headphone helps with the exact sound as well, it’s too focused.
When you hear a sound reproduction through studio monitor, you are hearing it in an open environment. Headphones muffle every other sound, providing a closer perspective.
Hearing the music through monitors is more accurate because you will listen how the music will actually sound like. People will be listening to the music in various conditions, and monitors help you make music in a way that will sound beautiful in all those conditions.
Radio stations are another place for studio monitors. They let the broadcasting team listen to the sounds exactly as they are going out, without any coloration and effects. Listening to the true and honest sound allows the broadcasters to make necessary modifications in it.
Monitors allow the detection of any abnormalities in the sound. This helps in fixing or fine tuning the audio sources or recording equipment.
How Studio Monitors Help in Making Music?
Now that we understand the most important function of studio monitor is its help in mixing music, let’s take a look at how it does that.
Pure Replication of Notes
You must have heard that studio monitors produce pure sound, without any enhancement or modifying frequencies or without coloring the sound in any other way. How do studio monitors do it? They do it by distributing frequencies between two output units called woofers and tweeters, and using special cones for producing sounds.
When sound is produced used via a speaker, it is distorted minutely because of its mechanical limitations in producing sound. A speaker cone is pushed outward for positive amplitude of sound, and pulled inward for negative. When the notes switch, the transition is not instantaneous.
The sound a speaker produces switching between amplitudes is not very accurate. Studio monitors minimize this effect by distributing the frequencies and using especially made cones to produce the sound in its purest form.
Their build allows them to produce a flat frequency response (as opposed to speakers that boost low and high end notes) giving you the music exactly how it is, so you don’t have to mix it using guesswork.
Most speakers designed for home studios can be called near field monitors. It means that they are designed to be placed just 1-2 meter away from the listener. They are usually placed at ear level and directed towards the listener, creating an area called a sweet spot.
In the sweet spot, the person mixing can listen to the exact sounds without them being reverberated through walls and other obstacles in the room.
For larger studios, far field monitors are used. They can be placed a few feet behind the mixing desk. They can deal with louder sound and have a wider sweet spot. Far field monitors need acoustically designed spaces.
Studio monitors are physically robust. They are made with the parts and a design that let them handle repeated high volumes and unexpected sound bursts. Unlike speakers who get to play the already mixed and compressed sounds.
People mixing music have to hear repeated high bases, sometime for hours to get the feel of it. Studio monitors can cope with these repetitions without affecting sound quality.
Things to Know Before Using a Studio Monitor
There are a lot of variables that go into choosing the right studio monitor. The first thing is to not over shoot, while it’s desirable to choose the best studio monitor; the best is not necessarily the biggest one. Choose according to your studio dimensions.
The second is to choose either active or passive studio monitors. Most of the studio monitors used for home studios are active, which means that they have their own amplifying unit and you don’t need an external amplifier. Active is usually the right choice. Passive monitors, on the other hand, may be a bit cheaper and allow you extra fine tuning of your tracks when coupled with an external amplifier.
Choosing near field or far field monitors depends upon the size of your studio. An acoustically designed large studio would fare better with a far field monitor that has a large sweet spot. Near field monitors, with a narrow sweet spot are better for home studios.
Design wise, most studio monitors have two units, a woofer for low to mid frequencies (40 Hz to 5kHz usually) and tweeters for high frequencies (2kHz to 20kHz). Some configurations employ a third unit, called a subwoofer to specifically handle lower frequencies and bass reproduction.
Frequency Response Range
An important element to consider in a studio monitor is its frequency response. The range of frequencies that a studio monitor can cover is normally less important. More important is the monitor’s ability to produce all the frequencies in its range without distortion.
A desirable frequency range is 50Hz to 20kHz. It is important that with the frequency range, you check the error margin which, for example, is indicated as ± 5kHz. The adequate number here is 3 or lesser.
Total Harmonic Distortion (THD) and Wattage
Just like frequency, THD is a measure of accuracy of monitors. THDs usually have a harmonic distortion and noise added value of less than 1%. For this number, lower is better.
Wattage is important to understand the power of your monitors. For home studios, the power output falls somewhere between 10 to 60W per monitor.
Breaking-in the monitor
For the best output, make sure you break in your studio monitor before using. The parts of the monitor need to be adjusted to the workload and studio dimensions. Tracks containing music and notes of all frequencies can be played for 10-20 hours so that the cones adjust and the output is fine.
Studio monitors are used for making music. They are a very important tool when you are setting up a music studio. Choosing the right monitor can reflect greatly in the music you make.