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Your First Studio Monitors | Music Making for Techies 101

Check the previous post in the “Music-Making for Developers and Other Techies” series

Photo by Techivation on Unsplash

Disclaimer: product links below may include my referral code. If you buy something by following those links, I may get a small commission. It won’t cost you anything extra but this way you support the writing of this series.

As your music-making journey progresses you will inevitably develop a desire to have studio monitors, or simply speaking — speakers. Some may argue that monitors is a thing you definitely must have. But, as I mentioned above, for someone just starting out investment in good studio monitors would be overkill. Primarily, because even the best monitors will sound “wrong” in an acoustically untreated room.

Having said that, besides just looking cool, monitors can still be useful even if you can’t afford to convert a room into a professional grade studio. Compared to the headphones you already have studio monitors provide a substantially different outlook on the stereo image. While headphones perfectly isolate the signal in the left channel from the one on the right, the sound coming from both speakers bleeds into both of your ears. And just having an additional reference point for how your music sounds never hurts.

As you could have guessed by now, I advocate for not overspending on studio monitors even though the temptation will be there. Unless you plan to get into professional mixing and mastering business. In that case, though, this book is probably of limited value to you.

There are different kinds of studio monitors for different scenarios, but what you are looking for and what we will cover here are Active Nearfield Monitors. “Active” means that they have amplifiers inside of them and “nearfield” means that they are meant to be placed close to where you seat.

Entry level studio monitors

You can spend anywhere from less than a $100 per pair to thousands for one speaker. I’d argue that you shouldn’t spend more than $200 per speaker for your first studio monitors. Even if you “grow out” of them, you can resell them or use them as another reference point along with the fancier ones. Or some people even put their cheaper monitors on top of the more expensive ones so that their cats can hang out on the speakers without giving you a heart attack.

At the lowest end of the sensible studio monitors you’ll find the so-called prosumer monitors. Those are usually sold in pairs that cost somewhere in the $100-$200 range for two. A good example of monitors in this category are PreSonus Eris E3.5 and E4.5 (the number stands for the woofer size in inches). Besides being sold in pairs they also have a feature rarely found once you go even one level up — they can be connected directly to a headphone jack on your laptop without needing to have an audio interface. Additionally, there’s even a Bluetooth version enabling you to put them to another use as your home media speakers. And if that’s not enough they also require just one power outlet for two speakers. Technically, having just one amp for both speakers is one of the things that makes them cheaper and “worse” compared to the next level on the scale. But you can’t ignore the fact that these may go into your “bedroom studio” where every power outlet matters.

PreSonus Eris E4.5

If this doesn’t look serious enough for your taste, you can level up a bit, and that’s where I think you should stop. Entry-level professional monitors have 5” woofers and sell for $100 and above for one speaker. Pretty much every mass-market manufacturer under the sun would have an entry level speaker at this size. KRK, Adam, Yamaha, PreSonus, JBL — to name a few — all have 5” studio monitors for under $200 apiece. And I don’t think you can go wrong with any of the brands I mentioned and some others as well. So, just look up what you can get where you live, read some reviews and, basically, go with your gut, heart, and eyes. And I’m serious about the eyes part. Aesthetics is not something to dismiss for studio equipment and especially at a level where all similarly priced entries will give you similar sonic results.

Extras for your monitors

When buying studio monitors the first thing to remember to buy at the same time is cables. It’s no fun when you get your shiny new speakers just to discover you have no way to plug them in (ask me how I know this). Also, remember to research what type of cables you need for your specific speakers. Your interface most likely has TRS outputs, so that’s what you need on one end of the cable. Your speakers, though, may have TRS, XLR or both inputs. Also, make sure that you get two separate cables and not one stereo cable (your speakers won’t stand side-by-side, hopefully).

One more thing to consider is where you are going to place your monitors. You can find diagrams online of the perfect placement of the monitors and one is likely included with your purchase, but essentially the goal is for soundwaves from both speakers to converge where your ears are.

It’s a good idea to invest a little into monitor stands. And not only for the acoustics, but also to free up your desk space. Even 5” monitors occupy a fairly substantial area, especially when placed at an angle as they should be. Make sure that the stands have a correctly sized base for your speakers (not too small or too big) and the height can be adjusted to fit your needs. In case you have a standing (or rather a height-adjustable) desk, you may want to go for desk mounted monitor stands as you wouldn’t want the sound to blast into your belly when in standing position.

We wrap the part on the gear you may want by reviewing your first microphone options.

This is a chapter from the book I’m writing. I will be posting a new chapter each week. But there’s a way to get new chapters early or even get everything I’ve written so far and support this endeavor. Click here for the details.

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Alan Mendelevich

Alan Mendelevich

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I run AdDuplex - a cross-promotion network for Windows apps. Blog at https://blog.ailon.org. Author of "Conferences for Introverts"