We continue our series talking about what we use in our studios by the Pro Tools Expert Team. In the previous article we shared our Pro Tools Control Surface choices, in this article, we share our current studio monitor controller solutions with the reasons behind our choices. Most users control their monitors with the built-in facilities in their audio interfaces, however, some of us use dedicated units. Read on to find out what we use to control our studio monitors.
Please share your monitor control solutions in the comments below.
SPL Monitor & Talkback Controller Model 2381 - Dan Cooper
I purchased the SPL 2381 monitor control not long after I took delivery of my Pro Tools HDX rig in 2012. My previous Pro Tools system was a Digi 003 factory control surface/audio interface. The Digi 003 was a great audio interface with a really nice, if maybe a little basic, monitor control section. When I installed the HDX card and connected the Avid I/O I was forced to use the built-in monitor control section in my Avid C|24 control surface. I expected the C|24 monitor control section to be the same if not better than the Digi 003, sadly I found it to be almost unusable. The main monitor control dial on the Avid C|24 is this horrible digital control knob that requires 3 full turns to go from zero to full. I found the sound quality of the C|24 monitor section equally as disappointing. After a few months of putting up with the C|24's poor quality monitor section I decided my studio needed a dedicated monitor controller that could deliver brilliant sound quality and flexibility.
I didn't have a budget in mind as I really didn't know what to expect from a dedicated monitor control unit. Through some research, I found the SPL kept coming up with great reviews. The following features are what caught my attention:
Lots of I/O: This unit doesn't have dsub connectors, instead it has six stereo inputs on the back (four balanced and two unbalanced sources), balanced XLR outputs for three loudspeaker pairs, slave output. All the I/O I needed at the time with extra for when I needed it down the line.
Monitoring: Source and loudspeaker selection, mono, dim, mute, switchable headphone output
Talkback: built in microphone, separate output, footswitch input
Cue-Mix: separate output, musician level, mix level and volume controls
Apart from the great I/O this unit also sounds absolutely amazing. What's also great is that it hasn't gone wrong or developed any problems in the 5 years of punishment I've given it. I remember hearing a noticeable improvement in my Adams P22A monitors when I first starting using this and to this day I feel as though purchasing the SPL 2381 monitor controller was one of my good studio gear purchasing moments.
It is a little on the expensive side at nearly £600 but as I said, it hasn't gone wrong, the pots feel great, it sounds amazing and I have extra I/O for future studio monitoring setups.
Avid HD Omni - Mike Thornton
I spent ages looking for a new monitor controller when I was upgrading my monitoring from my old Rogers LS3/5a to my PMC LB1 and TB1 surround system. I was looking at all the candidates but I had my Eureka moment in a conversation with Russ, when he suggested an Avid HD Omni. So I did some more digging and I found it would do everything I wanted, including surround foldown, talking in my Mac audio on the optical input so I didn't even need to switch from Pro Tools to Mac audio which I was doing before. In a subsequent conversation with Russ, he offered to sell me his HD Omni which he had modded with a quiet fan.
The installation had some complications as I was adding a second Avid interface to my Pro Tools HDX system. Consequently I needed to run 2 BNC cables, an Avid Mini DigiLink and an Optical cable round my studio from my computer cupboard to my desk, which is a 15m cable run. The BNC leads were easy to source, the optical cable wasn't too difficult but it took me a while to track down a long mini Digilink cable but the 50 foot one did the trick at just under £100. I have cable ducts built into my skirting all round the studio so it was just a matter of using the existing draw string left in the ducts for just this eventuality to pull through the new cables and hook them up. Now I have both interfaces, the HD Omni and my original 8x8x8 attached to my system.
The price (even the list price) is not unreasonable when you compare it to other monitor controllers and the Pro Tools integration is complete!
Audient ASP8024HE And Trinnov D-Mon - James Ivey
One of the most difficult aspects of working for Pro Tools Expert is that my studio is very rarely the same from week to week. Now this is great because it means I get to try out some of the latest and greatest gear but it can also be a challenge as I just get my workflow settled then it's all change again. To that end I'm sure mine is one of the most complex monitoring systems. The heart of my studio (since December 2016) is my Audient ASP8024HE console and at the heart of it, is the monitoring section allowing me to select from 4 stereo inputs and route these to 4 different sets of speakers or headphones. These all have their own input and output gain or volume controls along with all the normal stuff like Dim, Cut and Mono check. Where things get complicated is where the signal goes next, and that is off to my Trinnov D-Mon room correction system.
The D-Mon not only acts as my room correction but it is also my bass management (as I have a sub in the studio). It also allows me to route the output of the console and connected devices back into my Mac Pro for recording. This is particularly useful when making screen capture videos and I want not only the audio from my Pro Tools session (be that on PC, RADAR or Mac) and my voice over mic to be recorded back into my Mac by Screenflow, the screen capture and editing software we use for videos of this kind.
This is the main control panel for the Trinnov D-Mon. The main volume is controlled by an attached USB volume control but to be honest is normally set to zero since I have had the console. I can also control the routing for the Trinnov's internal headphone amp which is very handy to have for when I am monitoring all the signals going back to the Mac for a screen capture recording.
The session routing window (below) is how I route the I/O of the Trinnov system. I have a 4 processed output system meaning I have room control on 4 of the outputs (I am only using 3 controlled outs as I have a 2.1 system). The other 4 outputs are assigned to send the clean unprocessed signal back to both the Mac and Radar so I can record to either of these. It sounds complicated I know but it works.
Apogee Maestro 2 - Russ Hughes
I've jumped around a few monitor controllers, both hardware and software, but without wishing to sound like a broken record I've been trying to simplify my workflow in the last year or so.
The Apogee Maestro 2 software that works with my Apogee Ensemble has a great feature set that covers all my needs which are;
- Routing of multiple sources with Zero latency monitoring when tracking.
- SPDIF input of my Mac for playback of stereo sources.
- 4 different mix set-ups for monitoring to speakers and headphones.
- Selection of inputs and outputs via the Maestro 2 interface either via mouse or using my iPad running Duet software.
The Apogee Ensemble is a great sounding interface and using the internal software means the lack of external hardware reduces the possibility of coloration via other monitoring hardware.
It's simple and it works.
RME Fireface 802 & ARC / TotalMix FX - Alan Sallabank
When I first installed my own 5.1 system, I had a BlueSky BM1 monitoring controller, which worked in the analogue domain. Unfortunately it was only 5.1 and suffered with noise issues. When I pushed up to 7.1 and indeed when I got my RME Fireface 802 with Advanced Remote Control, I decided that I'd try and look "in the box".
I've put my own adaptation on the use of the TotalMix FX system that comes with RME interfaces. This is an incredibly flexible piece of software that really allows you to take full advantage of the RME interface and its DSP. It's integration with the Advanced Remote Control makes it totally intuitive. I can assign all the buttons and even the rotary encoder to any function in TotalMix. In my case I have them assigned to different setup snapshots, and the rotary encoder assigned to variable main volume control.
This is because I have several different monitoring configurations that I regularly switch between in the course of my work -
- 7.1 Cinema Level Mixing
- 7.1 EBU R128 Mixing
- 7.1 Internet Streaming Mixing
- Stereo TV Mix Review
- Voice Over Recording
- ADR Recording
The three mixing snapshots just change the overall monitoring level. I won't detail these as that's a whole other series of articles in itself. The Stereo TV Mix Review snapshot mutes the main 7.1 monitoring and un-mutes the the analogue output to my stereo TV speakers.
In the Voice Over snapshot, it enables the mic amps and routes zero latency monitoring back to the artist, along with embedding the talkback mic feed, and dimming the main monitoring when the talkback is engaged. In the mixing snapshots, all this is disabled, so the monitoring cannot accidentally be dimmed by someone leaning on the talkback switch. The difference with the ADR snapshot is that the artist doesn't get foldback down the cans from the mic signal - this is to avoid howl round, which can be very painful for all concerned. Plus also we always record ADR with at least two different mics simultaneously. Actors don't get foldback on set, and I've found it can influence their performance negatively.
I've stayed "in the box" with all this as I don't subscribe to the "loss of resolution" argument when using a digital attenuator vs an analogue attenuator, which is what the SPL monitor controllers and Universal Audio monitor sections use. I've done AB comparisons, and the only difference I can perceive is an increase in noise in analogue monitor systems. It also means that I'm actually able to control my monitor and talkback system by remote, so can do remote attended reviews easily and know for certain what level my clients are listening at, and to which speakers.
Apollo Twin - Julian Rodgers
In the strictest sense I don’t have a monitor controller. My Apollo Twin is the closest I come as it is a large, dedicated volume control which sits on my desk but a proper monitor controller can be used to switch between two or three inputs and between two or three sets of monitors, preferably with some facility to trim the outputs for level matching purposes. The Apollo doesn’t do that.
What the Apollo Twin does do is offer easy access to my monitor and headphone level with the option of muting the monitors by pressing the knob. It’s a very natural arrangement and one which I got used to and took for granted almost immediately. Like most things which are intuitive in use you really notice their impact when they are no longer there. I have been “looking after” a Red4Pre for the past few weeks and although it is a lovely thing with a very accessible hardware control for monitor level on the front, I have found it a bit of a drag having to reach over and change the level from the front panel, so much so that I have found myself CMD-Tabbing to the Focusrite Control software and controlling my monitors from there!
Proper Monitor Controllers
If I ran multiple pairs of monitors at home I’d think more seriously about investing in a “proper” monitor controller but as with so many items of studio equipment things like that can open up money pits into which to throw your hard-earned cash. I never really understood how something as simple as a monitor controller could vary in price as much as it does until I first used a Cranesong Avocet. It's a serious piece of equipment which carries a serious price tag but a properly designed monitor controller should buffer transparently to mitigate impedance issues and track consistently through the entire volume range with no distortion and maintaining precise level matching between channels - something which can’t be guaranteed by simply ganging two potentiometers together or by using VCAs. The Avocet uses many fixed attenuators to guarantee performance through each step around the knob and the sound of all those relays clicking in and out as the different paths are engaged tell you exactly where all the money went. A lovely thing but my pockets are far too shallow!
Universal Audio Apollo Twin - Peter Barter
I, like Julian, also use the Universal Audio Apollo Twin as my studio monitoring controller. Combined with UAD console software it provides me with some basic tactile volume and muting control of my Genelec’s and headphones. I love that as a desktop unit, it can always at arm’s reach and that controls are easy and intuitive however, my one minor grumble would be that I have to run all the cables on top of my desk which is a bit unsightly. For my current setup though it is more than fit for purpose, sounds fantastic and does everything I need it to do.
When the time comes to upgrade to something more fully featured I would most likely look for a dedicated option that is rack mounted with a desktop control module. In my opinion this would provide the most flexibility, ergonomic comfort and keep the cable clutter out of sight.