What are the near field monitors, probably most of you know. If not - these are studio speakers or headphones, that allow to create and balance proper mixes, optimal for variety listening equipments. What they are not - they are not "easy listening hi-fi systems" for ordinary use, although some of them (but not for all people) - serve well in both scenarios: sound studio engineering and at home listening.
A few parameters, related to such hardware are: translation, flat frequency response, detail accuracy (dynamics involved). What it means in practice?
Translation is a concept, that says: if you create your music on this equipment - your music will sound well on different systems, from hi-end hi-fi, to multimedia. Flat frequency response means, that neither bass nor high frequency is amplified or damped, nor the mid is colored in some significant way. On your hi-fi equipment for ordinary use - you probably like give more bass or to get more highs, to enjoy better the music you listen to. monitors will give you "flat" but very detailed sound, Everything "equal". details refer to component/ingredient sounds (their shapes and colors), their localization in space and their relation to each other. Many cheaper "hi-fi" systems offer something that is just blended, everything is there, but you don't know exactly in what way. Detailed sound means, that you will hear something as if it was real, not from speaker. this is in short terms.
You must understand, that the sound has inside a lot of psychoacoustics, which means, that "similar sounding" sonic components - can be very different in nature, and various speaker systems - emphasize these differences in unpredictable way, which then - you hear, and say - "what to %$!?"
How to use them monitors? Do you need them?
If you create music, oftentimes - you must guess - how much gain do you need for sub-tracks, how much and where some filtering or dynamics. You must guess, because your ordinary system either will not give you a translative reference or it will blend this part, that is responsible for translation. How can you know what to change if you hear no difference? How can you know what to change if you don't know, whether this what you already have - is enough or not enough? This are the points, where monitors come in. Small difference on two subtracks (like 1 to 3dB of gain which mean 10 to 30% per subtrack) can make a huge difference, I experienced that.
Here begins the tricky part. What kind of monitor speakers to buy? They are priced in very wide range, from less than 200 US dollars (pseudo monitors; real one begin around 400 US $) to thousands of USD.
Not far ago, I decided for headphones Audio Technica ATH-M50, and a few months later - near field monitor speakers from KRK, model RP5 G2. To my ear they correlate in about 80% (the rest is probably because of speaker/headphones difference). Both are good for listening and studio needs, although for some - they can sound a bit too analytic (on one hand - many details, on the other hand - no overhighs, no pumping bass); I like them, because now I can rest, listening the music as it is.
If I knew 2-4 years ago, what is the audible difference between hi-fi speakers I had and basic monitor equipment - I would not think twice. But I had no opportunity to hear it, so I was not sure, whether they are exchangable or not.
People argue what kind of monitor speakers you should buy. From my experience, if you have "whatever" (but at the same time real and recommended) monitor speakers (like these from KRK), then this is enough for you. What you need do is to learn how to use them, and that is the point.
Monitors will give you basic reference for your sounds in several ways. They will show you how sounds a well remastered CD, like Tubular Bells II from Mike Oldfield. What you need to do is to remember, how it sounds and how it feels, and to memorize that "this is the right sound". Then - whatever else you do - you will remember level differences, and this will give you the overview of your work. In time - you will discover, that hearing sounds - you see their physical magnitude, and where they are located (far or close); thus you will recognize whether the soundspace represents something real or absurd. You will begin to feel right gain and EQ levels, even if you will not know the audible difference. Then you will begin to reshape your soundspaces in your mixes.
If you learn these things on different monitor speakers (which sound a little bit different) - the result will be the same or similar, because what you really learn - will be the reference, based on well remastered materials you encountered. Plus - your perception will receive none of colorings related to psychoacoustics of sound (for example - then same gain difference on highs produces very different result on lows - see the hearing curve on wiki), and this - it will be not stressed so much.
Eventually - using monitors - you will also learn the differences between your monitors and ordinary speakers or headphones. Thus - you will use your normal favorite equipment (even if it's cheap) properly for studio purposes (Audio Technica headphones sound cool, but they are not light, and I for example - prefer clip-ons), from time to time going back to monitors, to check your self, or to hear things which were not distinguishable on your favorite hardware.
So - you don't need to spend too much money.
You need to get something basic, and learn to use it.
Have a nice play and fun with it!
p.s.: one word about warming up the headphones and speakers. Yes, after several hours of work - they sound differently and better. We have checked it on the same model of headphones; one copy was fresh and not used for a few moths, and other one - was used on a daily basis.
Great info, Ayamahambho!
I'd also like to add about conditioning / breaking in your monitors. Personally, I use Adams A7X's, which have an awesomely clear and level response (my mixes have been multiplying in quality ever since I purchased them a year ago.)
When you first purchase your monitors, take some time to get to know them. Have you ever noticed how after a long time working on a track, you may add reverb, then come back the next day and say "Wow, thats way too much! What was I thinking?" Your ears get used to the monitors (and sounds) if you repeatedly use them. It took me about three months to become fully comfortable with my nearfields- I was so used to the colored/different tone of my previous ones that I had to literally retrain my ears.
Listening to commercially produced music that you know inside and out is fantastic; the more familiar you are with a track, the easier it is to readjust your perception of the tracks values. After switching, I told my wife that I didn't realize that the bass on X track was actually tonal instead of a bassy smear.
Be patient and pick what is right for you. When I shopped around, I carried a reference CD / MP3's that I knew inside and out, and had the salesman put them through each monitor. Many times stores will have their own music running through, many times intended to give the most flattering impression....
The goal is assessing Clarity, Consistency, and Coloration.
Since investing into nearfields, I can honestly say I would and could not go back- once I heard a more truthful representation, I realized how shaped and colored regular speakers / hi-fi systems are.
Again, thanks for sharing your thoughts and experiences, Ayamahambho!
Do these nearfield monitors connect directly to the headphone output on my computer, say a MacBook Pro?
Do I need to need to bring my laptop with me to the audio store? Won't the signal to the monitors be significantly better from some high-end amplifier?
Geoff, technically you can route it with the right cables. But it would require workarounds for level control, needlessly so when audio interfaces are cheap and nice quality these days. So get yourself a USB or Firewire powered interface. Monitors can be "active", meaning they have their own built-in amplifier. You'd only need to feed it line level. Bring a CD of some music you know very well to the music store. It's really hard to judge speakers in that setting, though. More important than which particular model of monitor to get is to cater the right kind of setup that fits your needs within your budget, as far as monitor size and particular arrangement. I.e, two small mains with a sub, two bigger mains alone, two medium sized mains, etc. This will be determined by the music you make, your room dimensions, and your living arrangement. For example, I have 6-inch monitors and an 8-inch sub (which is on the smaller side, as subs go). This is because I live in an apartment and can leave the sub off a lot of the times to not bother neighbors at wierd hours. If you make gentle piano music, you can certainly get away with a couple 6-inchers and be fine. If you're producing Dubstep, for example, it'd be hard to manage without accurate bass. Which itself is as reliant on the room itself than just the gear.