Studio monitors are integral parts of any recording, mixing, and mastering setup. They highlight the details of a sound much more accurately than your average speakers, without adding too much coloration or compression.
It’s most common for studio monitors to be used as a stereo pair, with one being positioned towards the right ear and the other towards the left ear. This creates what is known as a stereo field.
Manufacturers often sell single studio monitors, which causes some confusion over whether they can be used alone, or if they should be paired with another identical device.
Can You Use a Single Studio Monitor?
While it is possible to produce, mix and listen to music using a single studio monitor, it is not advised. To achieve a stereo sound, you’ll need to use a pair of studio monitors. This will make it easier to hear the individual sounds in a mix and to position them in the stereo field.
Do I Need Two Studio Monitors or Just One?
Like all music production and audio-related topics, there is a lot of subjectivity surrounding the use of one or two studio monitors. Some people may prefer to mix in mono, and therefore only require one monitor, but it’s fair to say that these people are in the minority.
What Will Happen If I Use One Studio Monitor?
Depending on how you use a single studio monitor, you will get different results. Most studio monitors are used with an audio interface, which takes the digital audio from a computer and outputs an analog signal to the monitors.
If you plug one studio monitor into a stereo output of the audio interface, which is usually labeled left or right, then you will only be able to hear that side of the stereo mix. This could mean that certain instruments or vocal tracks are less prominent, or don’t appear at all.
When most music is mixed in stereo, particular sounds and tracks are positioned within the stereo field. This means they are panned either to the left, right, or center, to a degree.
If you use only one studio monitor in stereo, this will provide you with only half of the full picture in terms of the mix of the audio, which is not ideal for listening, mixing, or recording.
Advantages of Using Two Studio Monitors
We’ll get into the technicalities of using one or two studio monitors shortly, but to summarize, the main advantage of using a pair is that you will be able to hear all of the sounds in the stereo field.
Panning is a huge part of modern music, as it gives the audio a sense of spaciousness and width. Using two studio monitors makes it possible to hear all of the different sounds in their position within the stereo field.
This results in a more immersive listening experience that cannot be replicated using only one studio monitor.
Mono and Stereo Playback
The terms mono and stereo are often used to describe music, but many people get confused about what they mean. Most people listen to and create music solely in stereo these days, but in the early days of analog recordings, mono was predominantly used.
To understand why using one studio monitor will produce vastly different results from using a pair of studio monitors, we need to explore the differences between mono and stereo.
What is Mono?
Put simply, mono audio contains only one channel. No matter how many instruments or tracks there are in the recording, they will all be recorded onto one channel, and consequently played back on one channel.
Mono is short for monophonic, which essentially means one sound. When audio is recorded in mono, all of the separate sounds are compiled into one single channel, which means only one speaker or a monitor is required to play the audio back.
Most recorded music was mono up until the late 1960s, even though stereophonic records were invented in 1957. This was because the average record player was designed solely for mono listening.
From 1958 to 1970, many popular albums were produced in mono and stereo, but after this period, there was a shift towards stereo recordings due to the advancements in technology.
What is Stereo?
As you’ve probably guessed, stereo audio is spread across two channels – the left and the right. This means that rather than all of the sounds being played equally, the two speakers can play different sounds simultaneously.
Stereo audio can only be achieved when you use a pair of studio monitors or speakers. If you use only one, then either the left or right stereo channel will play through that speaker.
The vast majority of modern music is mixed for stereo listening, with different sounds being spread across the stereo field and panned either left or right.
If a sound is panned completely to one side, it won’t play through the speaker on the opposite side. If it is panned slightly to one side, it will be slightly more prominent in that speaker.
When a sound is panned centrally, this means it will play at the same volume through both speakers.
Listening to music in stereo is a more immersive experience, whether you’re using headphones or studio monitors. Panning brings different sounds to life and creates separation between them.
This explains why stereo has overtaken mono as the predominant audio type. Mono can sound good in some cases, but it lacks the expression and flexibility that stereo can offer.
Can You Use a Single Monitor for Music Production?
Although it’s certainly possible to produce music using a single studio monitor, this method comes with several challenges, especially if you’re used to making music in stereo.
Mixing With One Studio Monitor
If you’re using one studio monitor for music production, you’ll need to switch to mono in your DAW. This will cause all of the sounds to come through one single channel, rather than being spread across two speakers.
Mixing in mono is a completely different process from mixing in stereo. You won’t be able to pan any of the sounds, and this could make it difficult to hear them as they all come through the speaker completely centrally.
One advantage to mixing in mono is that you can’t use panning to disguise problems within the audio tracks. If there are any phase cancellation issues, problems with EQ, or sounds that simply don’t sound right, you’ll hear them right away in mono.
Some producers like to begin their mixing process in mono, and then switch to stereo after a certain point. However, if you only have one studio monitor, you’ll be forced to mix the entire song in mono, which will have a huge impact on how it sounds.
If you’re hoping to create a vintage-sounding piece of music, perhaps mixing in mono would be a good way to achieve this. Just bear in mind that it will sound very narrow, and there will be no separation between the sounds.
Is One Studio Monitor Enough for Mastering?
Mastering is the final part of the audio production process. It involves analyzing the audio and smoothening out any inconsistencies, to ensure that the whole piece flows nicely.
Like mixing, mastering can be done using only one studio monitor, but it will be more difficult. There are certain aspects, such as applying EQ and compression, that won’t be affected too much by having only one monitor.
However, anything that involves panning the different sounds in the speakers will be impossible if you’re mastering using only one studio monitor.
In the early days of vinyl records, the audio would be mastered in mono, so it is possible. It will simply limit the number of tools you have to work with during the process.
Listening to Music with a Single Studio Monitor
If music was recorded in mono, listening to it on one studio monitor will make no difference to the way it sounds. Using a second studio monitor for mono music would simply cause the same sounds to play through both speakers.
This wouldn’t affect the tone, but would just make the audio louder as there would be two identical signals being played through each monitor.
On the other hand, if you listen to a stereo audio recording through one speaker, this will cause some sounds to be louder than others. In some cases, certain sounds may be completely inaudible, as they could be panned hard to the left or right.
It’s not advised to listen to stereo audio in one studio monitor unless you’re doing so to hear specific sounds that are panned to that side of the stereo field.
Using one studio monitor can still be useful for certain aspects of music production and mixing, but if you want to enjoy stereo audio with panning, you’ll need a pair of monitors.