Pump Up the Volume

May 1, 2004 12:00 PM, By David Ogilvy

Manage Your Levels With Stereo and Surround Monitor Controllers

In the past decade or so, the studio environment has changed radically, but one thing that's remained constant is the need for a hardware device to adjust tracking or playback levels. In the old days of stereo-only production, a studio volume pot and a couple of push buttons did the job, letting the engineer easily choose from several playback sources, perhaps with a Monitor Dim (attenuator) switch and a Sum button for checking mono (phase) compatibility.

However, with surround mixing, DAW controllers and the virtual (onscreen) mix environment, your console's monitor control section may be absent or inadequate for the needs of modern production. To address this situation, many companies now offer stand-alone monitor controllers that range from simple passive volume pots to complex systems incorporating monitor control/selection, multichannel bus management and comprehensive talkback facilities.

So whether you're upgrading your “A” control room to surround or starting a home studio, let's look at what's available in monitor controllers.

The 7800 Master Module from API (www.apiaudio.com) puts summing buses, monitor control (volume/dim/mute/mono) with multisource switching (three 2-tracks, sends or the stereo bus), a stereo master fader and talkback/slate functions into a single-rackspace unit. The unit is usable stand-alone as a stereo monitor controller, or can be combined with Model 7600 input modules to form a complete console or workstation front end.

Adgil Designs (dist. by Sascom Marketing, www.sascom.com) offers a controller called The Director (MSRP: $4,950). Housed in a three-rackspace chassis, this programmable, microprocessor-controlled system can handle up to eight output channels and 300-plus inputs. The most recent development allows the unit to be configured with two separate 7.1 speaker systems and a stereo pair selectable from a remote (included). The Director can monitor several sources simultaneously, so it can be used as a line-level fixed 1:1 mixer for stems and sub-mixes. There's an insertion point before the level control for encoding/decoding mixes, and all access is through standard DB-25 multichannel connectors.

The ASP 510 from Audient (www.audient.co.uk) supports three 5.1 and three stereo sources and has six speaker outputs, all on DB-25 connectors. Comprising a single-rackspace main unit with a remote controller, the ASP 510 ($2,885 retail) includes an internal pink-noise generator. Each speaker output has a trim control, and eight record outputs are standard. Also featured are user-definable reference and dim levels. This device communicates comfortably with Dolby Surround, DTS and others, with an insert for external encoding/decoding.

The Blue Sky (www.abluesky.com) Bass Management Controller addresses the need for 5.1 bass management and volume control. Five XLR inputs/outputs are provided for the main channels, and one XLR input for the LFE and two parallel XLR outs for single or dual subwoofers. Except for a power switch, all controls for the single-rackspace BMC are located on a 6×8-inch remote with a large volume knob (operating in 0.5dB steps) flanked by switches for muting and preset reference level. MSRP is $725.

For surround sound volume control, the SR5.1 by Coleman Audio (www.colemanaudio.com) has six inputs and six outputs — all XLR. Muting and individual level control are available for each channel. No VCAs are used in this single-rackspace unit, and the stepped attenuator tracks to 0.05dB precision throughout its range. Also available is Coleman's A/B 5.1 Surround switcher, which is handy for comparing 5.1 speaker systems. Three groups of six inputs/outputs (balanced TRS) can be connected as one input to two outputs for comparing speakers, or two inputs to one output for comparing mixes. The A/B 5.1 is a passive unit without electronics in the audio signal path. Switching is done via relays. The A/B 5.1 retails at $595; the SR5.1 is $995.

Offering a discrete, Class-A audio path, the Avocet studio controller from Crane Song (www.cranesong.com) is a stereo unit with an upsampled, jitter-reducing D/A converter, three digital inputs, three analog inputs and a headphone system with talkback provisions. Also standard are dim, mute and mono functions, and a switch to select one of three speaker outputs.

The Dangerous Music (www.dangerousmusic.com) Monitor LT is available in stereo or surround versions. Each has four pairs of inputs (the fourth with variable gain), three sets of speaker outs and remote control. Also onboard is a 4-input cue mixer with talkback, to power a dozen pairs of headphones. All connections are balanced. Details are still forthcoming as these new units have yet to appear on the market. Slated for release this month, the stereo Monitor LT should retail around $1,700; the surround version is due in June or July. The company's popular Dangerous Monitor also has a surround version in the works. The stereo model ($4,999 retail) features three pairs of inputs, two sets of XLR speaker outs and remote control. Built-in D/A conversion, digital routing and digital inputs with active thrus allow the Dangerous Monitor to be used as a digital patchbay.

Retailing at $699, the SRM-80A from Furman Sound (www.furmansound.com) allows you to route a stereo signal to three pairs of monitors and four mixdown recorders. The single-rackspace box has an 80-segment LED meter (average/peak-switchable), trims, a headphone output with level control and buttons for dim and mono. Inputs/outputs are balanced TRS, and four additional sets of RCA ins/outs are provided for mixdown recorders. Its most unique feature is a pair of banana speaker inputs: One power amp can be sent to two sets of passive speakers through the SRM-80A. The optional SRM-RU remote control is $89.

Grace Design (www.gracedesign.com) celebrates its tenth anniversary with the release of the m904 (stereo) and m906 (surround) monitor controllers, two units designed to offer the same reproduction as its top-rated mic preamps. The m906 features balanced/unbalanced analog 5.1 inputs, multiple balanced stereo analog inputs and 24-bit/192kHz digital (AES3, S/PDIF, ADAT and Toslink) 5.1 and stereo inputs. All I/O and audio is handled by a two-rackspace rack; a compact remote provides control of all functions. The m904 is similar but designed for stereo-only applications, with multiple analog and digital inputs and a fixed-level 5.1 DAC output for direct digital transfers. All m904 controls are built into the front panel, but an m904b remote/blank front panel brain model is also offered. Standard are low-jitter s-Lock phase-lock loop word clock regeneration, a built-in high-current audiophile headphone amp, and 100dB range main and headphone level controls with 0.5dB step precision.

The LFE-4 and LFE-5 Bass Management Controllers from M&K (www.mkprofessional.com) take in five full-range XLR inputs and up to two LFE XLR inputs and allow redirection of the bass content to one or more subwoofers. Any LFE input(s) to the other channels are combined at the proper level, while providing an 80Hz highpass filter for the five main channels, an 8Hz lowpass filter for the subwoofer feed and a 125Hz lowpass filter for the LFE channel. The $999 LFE-5 has all of the features of the $800 LFE-4, plus mutes for every channel and a 6-channel volume knob. Although the standard mixing level for film is 85 dB, some film houses turn down the left and right surround outputs by 3 dB; M&K planned for this by including a -3dB switch for the left and right surround channels in the LFE-5. Mixing to 7.1 formats can also be accommodated; contact the factory for details.

Mackie (www.mackie.com) just released a $385 monitor switching, source and communications box called the Big Knob. Besides its level knob, controls include three buttons that switch between three sets of studio monitors, a built-in talkback mic, input source selection of up to four different stereo sources and dual headphone outputs. Additional switches include dim, mute and mono. Besides the trio of stereo inputs, Big Knob has a dedicated DAW mix input and a phono preamp.

Retailing at $3,195, Martinsound's (www.martinsound.com) MultiMAX EXR is a more affordable and equally efficient combination of its MultiMAX EX controller and remote. Virtually all forms of surround sound are supported, including IMAX, DTS-ES and SDDS. The MultiMAX EX and EXR have 16 speaker outputs, allowing for switching between various combinations of surround and stereo speakers. For example, two 7.1 systems, one set of stereo speakers and one mono speaker can be compared. Four separate 8-channel inputs can be auditioned, with additional inputs available if you choose the Wide inputs as another source. Multichannel connections are DB-25. Numerous options are available, such as the $1,995 Monitor Max Stereo Monitor Controller, which adds a mic pre, talkback functions and up to 10 2-channel inputs.

NHT-Pro's (www.nhtpro.com) Passive Volume Control (PVC) is an affordable ($150) volume control for mixerless DAW and nonlinear video production environments. Stereo level adjustments can be made from 0 to -40 dB, within 1 dB, and with ±0.5dB interchannel accuracy to -60 dB. The PVC features balanced connections: Neutrik combo XLR/TRS inputs and XLR outputs.

New from PreSonus (www.presonus.com) is Central Station, a stereo device with a remote, plus talkback and cue circuit functions. It boasts three sets of analog stereo inputs (TRS) and two sets of digital inputs: one AES-S/PDIF, the other Toslink. These allow users to compare earlier analog or digital stereo mixes with workstation mixes in progress. Each of the three sets of stereo outs have passive trims, and all switches are passive. Also standard is a 30-segment LED L/R meter and great DAC specs. Future plans include a switch that changes the unit from stereo to surround. The Central Station retails at $699; the remote is $199.

Offering a frequency response of 10 Hz to 100 kHz, the SPL (www.spl-usa.com) Surround Monitor Controller 2380 manages two surround and two stereo sources. Inputs are via D-Sub and RCA jacks. Its 1¼4-inch balanced speaker outs for stereo and surround are controlled by a discrete potentiometer. A slave output allows the stereo or surround input signal to be routed directly to a recording device. The slant-face desktop enclosure is handcrafted in Germany and retails at $769. The MTC 2381 Monitor and Talkback Controller is the latest in the SPL line, and can sit comfortably under a computer screen. XLRs provide output to three pairs of speakers, deriving signal from 12 inputs. Talkback and cue functions are complemented with a headphone out and a footswitch jack for the talkback section. Monitoring functions include mono, dim and muting, and a slave output can route the input signal to the SMC 2380.

Studio Technologies' (www.studio-tech.com) StudioComm line includes the 68A and 78, both single-rackspace units for controlling multiple surround sources. The 68A allows for 16 balanced inputs, organized as two 5.1 and two stereo ins; and the 78 supports two 7.1 surround mixes, with a total of 16 balanced inputs. Each has a remote panel controller (models 69A and 79, respectively), which includes mute/solo functions, input selection, level control and dim/mute buttons. The 79 also features a 4-digit LED readout for level display. Both the 68A and 78 units present 16 trim pots on their front panels for calibration of input signals. Input and output connections are 25-pin D-Subs. The 68A ($1,799 with 69A remote) handles one stereo and one 5.1 surround set of speakers. The 78 ($2,799 with 79 remote) manages one 7.1 system, but can be reconfigured for 5.1 ins/outs. Both units are designed to integrate with recording and film electronics, allowing automatic switching of the StudioComm's input source whenever the recording system changes between play and record.

The DS-M7.1 Digital Surround Monitor Controller from Tascam (www.tascam.com) is designed for 5.1, 6.1 and 7.1, as well as stereo, mono or LCRS. Eight input channels, eight output channels and 44.1/48/88.2/96kHz operation make the $1,899 DS-M7.1 a versatile contender. Digital ins and outs for the console and recorders vary from TDIF to AES/EBU and ADAT optical. Also featured are surround bass management, an insert for external decoding, individual channel mute/solo and a pink-noise generator. The front panel of the 3U device detaches for wired remote control.

David Ogilvy engineers, produces and teaches in the San Francisco Bay Area.

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