What Are Near-Field Studio Monitors?
Whenever you read an article about professional sound recording or recording studios you may stumble across the term, "near field studio monitors" or speakers. In this article, we examine just what these speakers are, as well as when and where they are used.
There is a big difference between studio monitors and high-quality desktop or hi-fi speakers, especially in the way they produce sound. As we are focusing on studio monitors, specifically near-field monitors in this article, I won't be discussing the differences with desktop speakers in detail again. I already discussed it in detail in another article, which you can read here.
Before moving on to near-field monitors, lets let's take closer look at studio monitors in general.
In essence studio monitors are still speakers, but the sound it produce differs from speakers for a reason. An audio specialist once summed it up best; "Speakers aim to hide the flaws in you recording while studio monitors aim to expose them". And that is exactly what they do.
The purpose of studio monitors is to help the audio engineer or recording artist to work with the audio production in its "working" unfinished state. It is during this process that flaws in the recording will be addressed. From correcting imbalances and adjusting gain on your different audio tracks to addressing distortions in the sound - all are performed by relying on the feedback from your studio monitors (and headphones).
This is the single most important reason why studio monitors must be able to give you the most reliable and honest representation of your recorded sound. And that is also why the sound you hear from studio monitors are normally not as rich and always pleasing as that of a "normal" pair of speakers.
Instead of the rich and room filling sound (with an artificially boosted bass) that hi-fi speakers are supposed to deliver, studio monitors provide you with a more flat sounding, but very accurate and detailed sound. It will also highlight any flaw or imperfection in your recording, allowing you to immediately address it.
The big advantage of working with studio monitors is that you can rest assured that if you are satisfied with the sound from your studio monitors, it will sound great on any speaker system you choose to play your finished product on.
Now lets look more closely at near-field studio monitors and what makes them different.
Near-Field Studio Monitors
Near-field studio monitors are still studio monitors, so all the requirements that apply to studio monitors apply to near-field monitors as well. This also means they differ from normal speakers in the same way. (Actually even more so due to its "near-field" characteristics. We will get to that shortly.)
What makes things a bit confusing is the fact that studio-monitors are often referred to as near-field monitors and vice versa, and this is not always technically correct. All near-field monitors are studio monitors but not all studio monitors are near-field monitors. The difference is minor but significant.
To really understand how near-field monitors differ from other speakers and what their advantages are, we are going to have to get a bit technical. But lets first use a simpler explanation that will make more sense. It will help to make make the technical part more understandable.
In essence, near-field monitors allow the broadest range of sound frequencies to be played back to the user/sound engineer at a fairly low volume and at a close proximity while maintaining all the sound detail to preserved and edited.
Let us look at it in more detail. As a listener, we suffer from what is called "Equal Loudness Contours". This means we are experiencing sound frequencies differently at different volumes. For example, while your mid tones (including higher-mid and lower-mid tones) are loud and clear to your ears at a certain volume, very high and very low frequencies are almost inaudible at the same volume. In order for the detail in the lower frequencies to be heard properly, the volume needs to be turned up and the sound played very loudly. This is obviously not realistic for long periods of listening as it can be damaging to your hearing, and details in the mid tones can get lost at these high volumes.
This is where the advantage of near-field monitors come in. By using smaller-than-usual drivers (woofers) for the low frequencies, these monitors manage to "compact" the whole sound frequency, making it possible to balance and equalizing the volume of all frequencies enough to be listened to at a much lower volume and at close distance.
To get into even more detail, lets look closer at sound frequencies. The whole spectrum of sound frequency audible to humans, ranges from 20Hz to 20kHz. Traditionally, most high-quality speakers and big studio monitors take care of this spectrum by dividing each frequency up to be send through each of the 3 appropriate drivers (tweeter, mid and woofer). This leaves us with a scenario ending up in "Equal Loudness Contours", as discussed in the previous section.
With the considerable reduction in size of the biggest driver (woofer) in near-field monitors, some of the lowest frequencies get cut out, limiting the lowest frequencies down to about 75Hz (compared to the lowest audible 20 Hz).
This "compacted" sound allows the engineer to listen to all the frequencies in the sound spectrum from just a few feet away and at a much lower volume for an extended period of time. This has 2 advantages. It allows the the most audible mid tone (including mid-high and mid-low) frequencies which we are most sensitive to, to be emphasized and edited.
The second advantage, as already mentioned, is to listen and edit low frequencies at an acceptable level. Once satisfied, the end result can always be tested and evaluated on bigger studio monitors or high-quality speakers.
And the biggest advantage off-course, is that the ability to make audio quality sound as good as possible within the constraints of a near-field monitor, as well as the clear and honest sound it provides, almost guarantees that it will sound great on almost any other speaker system.
This has been quite an in-depth look at near-field monitors and how they work. I hope the explanations helped you to better understand how these monitors work, as well as their benefits, and not make things more confusing.
To summarize, it is just important to emphasize that desktop/hi-fi speakers are meant to work with the finished sound and make it sound great, while near-field studio monitors are meant for working with the "unfinished" product and produce the most accurate and honest feedback to enable you to make the necessary adjustments to produce the "perfect" end product.
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Catch you in the next article and happy recording!