When it comes to making music, the quality of your sound is everything. As a music producer (or content creator), you need to hear the detail in the audio that you are producing.
As a general rule, music producers use studio monitors when they are recording and mixing tracks. Good studio monitors provide a flat frequency response, which allows you to hear your audio tracks exactly how they will sound when you release them.
You may think that a pair of hi-fi speakers, bookshelf speakers, or just a good pair of home stereo speakers will do the trick, but there is a reason professional music producers choose studio speakers specifically.
In this article, I will describe what type of speakers music producers use and why covering:
- What are studio monitors?
- What are hi-fi speakers?
- Why are studio monitors so expensive?
- What do we mean by a “flat” response?
- What are nearfield speakers?
- Why use nearfield speakers?
- How to use home stereo speakers for music production
What Are Studio Monitors?
Studio monitors (also known as studio speakers) are a tool which helps the production of good quality audio mixes. Studio monitors are intended to be acoustically unbiased and reproduce sound accurately, hence why music producers use them.
Why Are Studio Speakers Called Studio Monitors?
When we talk about “monitors” in the professional loudspeaker world, we are referring to a speaker that is designed to “monitor” audio.
Studio monitors are speakers designed for studio use or audio production with the intention of reproducing sound accurately without adding colourations. This means that these speakers are designed to be as unbiased as possible and reproduce sound as closely as possible to the original recording.
This allows music producers and audio mix-and-mastering engineers to make good decisions when mixing audio.
For example, if you own a studio monitor which adds a lot of bass to a recording as a result of the design, you may try to reduce the bass on your audio mix at the production stage.
When this recording is then distributed and played on other sound systems, it may lack bass as you cut it out in the production stage.
Studio monitors are designed to be as “flat” as possible, adding no enhanced sound qualities to recordings so audio engineers can really analyse a recording and ensure that it will play well on all speaker systems outside of the studio.
So really, monitors are intended as a tool for critically listening to audio and making sound design decisions
What Are Hi-Fi speakers?
Hi-Fi speakers are designed to enhance the listener experience and produce high-quality precision audio.
Hi-Fi speakers are mostly found in home theatre music systems and come in a variety of forms, such as floor-standing speakers, bookshelf speakers and desktop speakers.
Good hi-fi speakers will create an excellent listening experience for the average person.
On a great hi-fi speaker system, you will hear audio detail and music like never before. It is all about having a good listening experience overall.
With top-quality hi-fi systems, you can appreciate your favourite music and hear musical details that you may never appreciate on a standard pair of desktop PC speakers.
Why Are Hi-FI Speakers Not Used By Music Producers?
Logically, you may think “if hi-fi is the end product that the consumer will be listening to, why don’t producers mix their audio on hi-fi speaker systems?”
Music producers and audio engineers need to hear their audio recordings in a way that is unbiased and as accurate to the original recording as possible. This is important to ensure that the end result will sound good across a variety of devices.
Using hi-fi speakers in an audio production setting will only add colourations or “enhancements” that may not truly be there in the actual recording.
By using studio speakers that give an accurate representation of the original sound, when the final audio is played on any h-fi speaker system or any device, it will sound good.
Why Are Studio Monitors So Expensive?
Studio monitors vary in price from £80 to £10,000. The difference in price depends on factors such as the studio monitor’s ability to reproduce sound accurately, reproduce a large frequency range, have a good transient response, and have an excellent quality design.
Studio monitors are an essential tool for anyone creating and producing audio.
The cost of studio monitors can vary massively across the spectrum and it is not always clear why some studio monitors are so much more expensive than others.
Two studio monitors may appear to have the same specification but a big difference in cost, so what causes this?
Here are some reasons studio monitors can be so expensive. These reasons are not always apparent from the datasheet.
1. Excellent Sound Reproduction
The main function of studio monitors is to allow us to listen critically to sound and make a decision on what we are hearing.
This decision could be related to the recording quality, audio mix quality, or audio master quality.
Therefore, you need to ensure that the sound coming out of your studio monitors is accurate and as close to the original recording as possible. We really don’t want studio monitors to be adding colourations or enhancing the audio at all.
Unlike hi-fi speakers, where often there is a bass or high-frequency boost to make the audio sound more exciting, we want the sound to be accurate and “flat”.
2. Good Transient Response
In the simplest of terms, a speaker’s transient response refers to its ability to respond to the sound being put through it.
A speaker is a piston that responds to an input signal and moves air to create sound.
How quickly his piston reacts to the signal being fed to it will affect how we perceive sound.
A good transient response is a speaker that is “tight” and follows the input signal closely. The speaker will not be “flabby” and will settle quickly when the sound stops.
In other words, we want the speaker to have great reaction times!
To achieve this, the speaker engineering team will have to carefully choose the material of the moving parts in the speaker and ensure that they choose a material that is soft enough to move but stiff enough to give a fast reaction time.
In addition, how these materials interact with each other will have to be considered.
Designing a speaker with a good transient response involves selecting appropriate materials and engineering design time, both of which cost money and, as a result, increase the cost.
3. Wide Frequency Range
Humans can detect sounds in the 20Hz to 20kHz frequency range, however, reproducing sound below 30Hz is a bit of an engineering challenge.
The lower the frequency, the larger the speaker required.
When you reproduce low frequencies, you need physically larger speaker cones to move so much air. Larger cones mean more material, more packaging, and more handling costs.
When I was a music production student, I remember being told that if I can get a studio monitor that can reproduce sound as low as 45Hz, that would be more than adequate.
I have lived my sound engineering career with this advice and it has served me well.
Some of the new Mackie HR824 monitors have a specification as low as 35kHz- 39kHz.
If you look at lower-end monitors, their ability to reproduce so much bass extension can be limited.
What Do We Mean By A Flat Speaker Response?
A professional studio monitor should reproduce sound accurately and unbiasedly across the full frequency range.
We can judge the performance of the speaker by looking at its frequency response measurement curve.
It can be very hard to find frequency response measurements for a cheaper speaker, but here is a measurement from a Genelec 8010A studio monitor.
For the purposes of this example, let’s look at the bottom curve marked “desktop” in the above image.
Overall, the curve is relatively “flat” with a significant dip at 200Hz and another one around 5kHz.
Overall, I would judge this speaker as a good representation of sound, that may have some colouration around 5kHz, in the vocal region.
There is also a slight boost in frequency from 10kHz upwards, which might result in a slightly brighter sound.
Generally, however, this curve is relatively flat, as there are no major peaks, dips, or deviations.
We call this a “flat” response, as the curve is relatively flat. With a flat frequency response, you can be confident that you are hearing the sound accurately and can make better sound design decisions.
Getting this “flat” studio monitor response is desirable and takes more engineering and development hours to design by manufacturers.
Therefore, generally, the flatter the frequency response, the more expensive the studio monitor.
Now, there are many online debates about the frequency response of speakers. Personally, I have spent some time working on the development of loudspeaker applications and have had the opportunity to measure loudspeakers, look at the frequency response measurement curve, and then listen to the speakers.
Sometimes, the measurement curves don’t tell the full story and a speaker that might measure “well” may sound better or worse than what the measured curve represents.
No speaker system can produce a perfectly flat response, but the more expensive studio monitors can get closer.
What Are Nearfield Speakers?
If you are an aspiring music producer, then you need to know what nearfield listening is and what nearfield speakers are.
Nearfield listening is the process of using a pair of nearfield monitors, which are small studio speakers with a wide frequency range, and placing them about 4 feet apart and about 4 feet in front of you, to listen critically to your audio mixes. It is called “nearfield listening” as you are very close to the speakers.
Here is what a typical nearfield studio setup looks like:
Why Use Nearfield Speakers?
Nearfield listening with nearfield monitors is incredibly popular and many home content creators will automatically use nearfield listening without even realising that it is “a thing”, or in other words, a specific listening technique when producing audio.
The audio consultant, Ed Long developed the phrase and technique and the principle is pretty straightforward: because the speakers are so close to your ears, you will hear mostly what is coming from the speakers and less of your surrounding environment or room acoustics.
What Are The Advantages Of Nearfield Speakers?
1. Less Need For Acoustic Treatment.
The first main advantage of nearfield monitoring is that it reduces the need for, or at least takes the pressure off, having to acoustically treat your listening room or studio.
Because you are sitting so close to the speakers, you should be mostly hearing what is coming from the speakers with fewer room reflections.
Hearing what is truly coming out of your speakers and not your room acoustics is essential, particularly when you are mixing complex audio such as music
2. Nearfield Speakers Typically Produce A Clear Sound
Nearfield monitors are typically designed to produce very clear and sharp audio. Of course, the result will change depending on what nearfield speaker you use, but in principle, that is the intent.
Mixing audio, be it a music track, Podcast or any content, having the ability to listen in detail to clear speech and vocals, in particular, is really important.
The clear and sharp sound of nearfield monitors makes them a great choice when working on dialogue or vocals.
3. Nearfield Speakers Reproduces Sound Well
As a content creator, it might be tempting to stick to using headphones when producing your audio, but your audience will be listening on a range of devices, not just headphones.
Therefore it is important to listen to your content and music productions “out loud”.
Nearfield speakers will sound more similar to standard commercial speakers so you will get a very good indication of how your audience will hear your audio.
What Are The Disadvantages Of Nearfield Speakers?
The main downside of nearfield listening is the lack of bass coming from the speakers.
Nearfield speakers are small and although great for mid to high frequencies, do not output any significant amount of bass.
Therefore, you will often see nearfield studio speakers sitting alongside larger speakers which will supplement the bass.
For music production, the ability to monitor and listen to bass is essential however, for most content creators who are producing speech-only content, then the need to monitor bass is not essential.
If you can’t afford larger bass speakers or don’t need to monitor bass in your content, a great workaround is to have a good pair of headphones that can produce deep bass.
By checking your audio quality occasionally with headphones you can ensure the full sound spectrum (from the bass up to treble) sounds good.
How To Use Home Stereo Speakers For Music Production
Studio monitors are always the best speaker system for audio content production however, they are expensive.
If you are in a position where you use a home hi-fi system for your content and music production, try the method below which uses reference audio and many listening devices to check your audio production quality.
This is what I used to do before I could afford quality studio monitors and was forced to work with basic home hi-fi stereo speakers.
1. Use A Reference Audio Track
To make your audio sound good it helps to have a benchmark. Therefore if you are a music producer and want your music to sound like your favourite songs, pick a few of your favourite tracks to use as a reference track.
Similarly, if you are a content creator producing podcasts or audiobooks, pick the professional content that you want to sound like for your reference audio.
This will be your reference audio. This is your “audio target”.
2. Critically Listen To The Reference Audio And Compare
Critical listening is an essential skill in producing good quality audio.
Critical listening means focusing on specific aspects of the audio and really considering how it sounds.
Think about how the bass sounds in your reference audio. Is the vocal crisp and clear? What level is the background music?
You need to listen to the elements of the reference track and not the overall sound.
Now listen to your audio and how does it compare? Have you too much bass? Are your vocals clear?
This might seem weird if you are new to this as it takes some time to tune into different elements of a musical track. This may need some practice.
From personal experience, I think when you first start critical listening and comparing yourself to a professional audio recording, don’t get discouraged.
You are not trying to replicate their audio, just trying to identify where you can improve and what audio elements might be missing from your music productions.
3. Listen On Multiple Devices
The whole point of studio monitor speakers is to listen to an unbiased, true recording so you can mix and produce the audio in a way that will sound good across a variety of devices anywhere.
Take your audio and listen to it on as many speakers as possible. Try anything you can find from hi-fi speakers to PC speakers to headphones and even car speakers.
Without access to studio monitors, this is essential to do as you are moving your audio to different locations and truly hearing how it sounds across a variety of speaker systems.
It is important to listen to your reference audio also, so you can critically compare your audio to your favourite professional mix on all these speaker systems.
Even the most seasoned professional audio engineers with access to the best studio monitors will do this, as the end goal when mixing audio content is to ensure that it sounds good across all devices and speaker systems.
Music producers and professional audio creators use studio monitors when working with sound.
Studio monitors are a tool intended to help audio engineers listen to their audio recordings in an unbiased way, which are as close as possible to the original recordings.
Hi-fi speakers on the other hand are designed for the end consumer and will try to make music sound great, adding enhancements to make you love the sound.
When recording and producing audio content, it is really important to hear a true reproduction of what you have recorded, therefore studio monitors are the best choice.
However, often studio monitors are expensive, therefore many content creators use their home hi-fi system in the production of audio to help save on studio costs.
In theory, you can produce audio on any speaker system, but be aware of any “enhancements” that hi-fi systems may add to your audio content. Hi-fi speakers are intended to make audio sound good so may have a natural bass and treble boost built in that is not there in reality.
To start sounding like a professional music producer, you need to start critically listening to your music productions on a variety of devices so your music will sound good on all speaker systems.