In my experience there is no greater creativity killer in a studio than bad headphones mixes. This includes not having enough different mixes to please each member of the band, group or ensemble. In recent months I have been researching better ways to give my artists the best, most flexible monitoring system I can and in this article, I am going to share what I have come up with something that will work equally well both in the studio and out on location.
The Old Way
Since buying my Audient ASP8024-HE console I have been using the 2 cue sends (A and B) for the main headphone mix in the drum room. Call it overkill but I like a stereo mix in my cans while recording drums and research has been untaken by one of the leading IEM system providers MyMix to show that listeners don’t need a stereo headphone or In Ear Monitor (IEM) mix as loud than a mono one, showing that a bit more time and effort can also help save your hearing.
The old system has served me well when I am recording in the drum room on my own. However, more and more I’m working with multiple numbers of players in the studio. This means sharing my drum heavy mix or just giving them a control room mix into their headphones from the main console headphone jack. It’s far from ideal. All of this has meant that I have been on the lookout for a flexible yet affordable solution that can give me 4 or 5 mixes in the studio with the option to add more if I need to.
The four big players in the personal monitoring solutions market are MyMix, Aviom, Hear Technologies and LiveMix . There are also a number of components that you can add to studio and live digital consoles to give personal monitoring control by brands like PreSonus and Behringer, but all of these require heavy investment (around the £5000 mark give or take for a 6 way system) or a complete change to my recording and mixing platform which in turn would require heavy investment. But there is one thing that all these systems have in common, their use of AoIP (Audio over Internet Protocol) for their connectivity and that got me thinking. Could I use Dante in my studio to configure something not quite as “personal” meaning I would still have to tweak levels but still very flexible? And I believe that I have come up with the answer.
In an ideal world I wanted the ability to run 4 or 5 different monitor mixes within the studio. One of these will always be the stereo desk cue mix A and B (stereo) feed to the drum room and one can be the control room console mix from the headphone jack of the desk so I’m looking for 4 independent mixes into some kind of headphone amp for each mix for under say £2000.
My Recording Platform
I am an HDX user and when I’m not testing other gear for Production Expert I record with an Antelope Orion32HD interface connected to the HDX card in my PC with 2 mini Digilink cables, giving me 64 channels of I/O. However, adding up all my desk preamps and hardware preamps I own, I only ever record up to about 30 channels. So that’s 34 channels of I/O not being used!
After a bit of head scratching and digging around online I realised I could split the two Digilink cables and run these off to different types of HD device. If I kept port 1 routed to the Orion32HD for the primary recording and playback through the console and use the I/O count from the other port to run my monitoring. In that same head scratching session I discovered the Focusrite Pro Refurbished page. Here I found a Focusrite Rednet 5 Dante to HDX bridge for well under the RRP and I do mean well under! This 2U rack unit would convert my unused and unloved second mini Digilink connection into 32 channels of Dante. Now we are getting somewhere.
In a recent recording session with the Elite String Quartet where I only used Dante enabled Rednet mic pres and monitoring I knew that Focusrite made some very smart units in the form of the Rednet AM2 headphone and line output unit and the X2P which features headphone and line level output as well as 2 Red series mic pres. So if I ordered 2x AM2 and 2x X2P units I would get 4 very nice headphone amps as well as the added bonus of 4 extra mic pres.
Designing The System
They say that some of the most legendary songs have been written on the back of cigarette packets. Well, I don’t smoke and I have a little black book where my notes, scribbles and potential moments of genius go. You can see below the initial plan for the new hybrid HDX/Rednet recording and monitoring solution. As both the AM and the X2P have twin ethernet ports I would just daisy chain the system together. This meant less cable running around the studio and no need to change my small TP-Link 8 port switch for something bigger.
The aim of this system was to help make recording sessions all about the music, not about the tech. A good headphone mix can help that but one of the biggest of buzz kills can come from a Pro Tools crash, and we all know they happen at the least opportune moments. To that end I decided to incorporate my Tascam DA-6400dp 64 channel Dante hard disk recorder into the rig. This way I can pretty much leave the DA-6400 running throughout a session and use it like we used to use a DAT machine, but this time it would be a full multitrack not just a stereo mix.
Dante Controller And Rednet Control Configuration
One of the nice things about the Focusrite Rednet products is that there are 2 software applications that you can use to manage them. To setup and assign the Dante channel routing for each device you use the Dante Controller by Audinate (the creators of the Dante protocol). On a day to day basis once the system is built and set up you should not need to touch this. Focusrite’s Rednet control is where you can see what is going on with all the connected Rednet hardware and where you can control the mic preamps in your Focusrite units. In this case the 4 mic preamps in the 2 X2P units.
Below you can see the two main applications Dante Controller and the Rednet Control.
The other very handy feature of Rednet is that it pretty much sets itself up for you. Just connect your devices to your switch or in my case to each other then back to the switch and in most cases it all just works.
With all the devices located on the system all I had to do was decide how to configure them. Anyone who has used to a cross-point matrix system will be able to configure Dante Controller very easily. Just route your outputs or Transmitters as Dante calls them to your inputs or Receivers. You can see below how I have routed the 2x AM2s and the 2x X2Ps for both headphone feeds and microphone sends from the X2Ps.
Pro Tools Template
So by now you are probably wondering how I am going to control all these extra outputs? Well, the template below might look more than a little daunting but it’s no more complex then routing to a reverb using Aux tracks. Each track has 4 sends, which route to an Aux with then outputs to one of Dante outputs. In the Pro Tools I/O setup, group your outputs into batches of 16. A 1-16 and B 1-16 are is the I/O to the Orion32HD and C 1-16 and D 1-16 is the I/O to the Rednet 5 and the Dante network. I have also built 2 effects sends into the tracking template so if singers want some plate or room reverb they can have it.
As you can imagine, keeping a digital rig of this size in sync is very important. One thing that did jump out to bite me was that I wanted to keep the Orion32HD as the digital clock master. I hooked all the devices Word Clock I/O together using 75 ohm BNC cables but there was an issue. Even with the Rednet5 looking like it was receiving and locking to Word Clock I was getting a strange pulsing and clicking in the cans and on the recorded audio.
After a couple of calls to the brilliant Technical Support team at Focusrite they narrowed it down to a setting buried in Rednet Control. For the Rednet 5 to lock to an external clock you have to do more than just plug it in. By clicking the spanner icon in the Rednet 5 panel of Rednet Control you can force the Rednet 5 to lock to external Word Clock. Thanks to Ed at Focusrite Support for fixing this for me.
The final part of the puzzle was to route Dante into the Tascam DA-6400dp. As I’m tracking pretty much one to one across the console I can map the I/O from the Rednet 5 straight across the inputs of the DA-6400. Yes I know I do end up recording the headphone mixes in this way but I’m still finessing the final routing for the DA-6400. Call this a work in progress. The other Transmitters are configured from duplicating the track outputs from Pro Tools channel by channel.
A Surprising Benefit To My New Monitoring Solution
Mine is a very small studio. If you have ever seen any of my videos you will know it’s a very compact space. Using the Focusrite Rednet X2P units and their 2 built-in, very high quality mic preamps I can set an artist up to record in the house and just run a long network cable down the garden into the studio network. Or if it’s a nice summers day I can put the keyboard or bass player outside on the deck, sometimes the best place for them.
Using The New System
So far I have had 2 sessions in the studio since installing the new monitoring and both have gone very very well. I’m still tweaking the template session as artists make new and different requests but none of these have been too taxing on me or the system. It works, it sounds great and I can give performers the mix they need to create great music. It’s also fast. Most of the gear in the studio does not change that much so once it’s set up and working it’s good to go. Getting performers comfortable with their mix is very quick as I’m already 75% of the way there before we start.
The system came in under budget and well under what I would have spent if I had gone for an off the shelf solution. Yes I agree those other solutions do in most cases give performers the control to tweak their own mixes but a great many artists don’t want to be bothered with that stuff. They just want to perform and not worry about the tech and that is what my new monitoring rig gives them.
In short, I didn’t think that an AOIP system like Dante really had any place in a small studio like mine. I thought that Dante was for big multi-room studios or education establishments with massive networks and network administrators. Well it turns out I was wrong. Dante is as flexible and scalable as you want or need it to be. You also don’t need a system administrator or have a degree in advanced networking to get it up and running. After all, I’m a drummer and even I can do it.
Thanks to the team at Focusrite for their help, advice and support in putting this system together.