Quite possibly one of the most understated pieces of equipment in any studio is the monitor controller. Whether it is built into your console or control surface, interface or a stand alone unit, there is a more than fair chance that this is the piece of kit, with which you interact the most, with the exception of maybe your keyboard and mouse. With this in mind, in this article we are going to share the seven key features or attributes that all good monitor controllers should have.
1. Plenty Of Connectivity
It should go without saying (and you will hear that a lot in this article) that as the output and control hub of your studio, the monitor controller needs to have a suitable amount of high quality analogue and digital connectivity.
What Should You Be Looking For?
Let’s start with outputs. These are normally for main or nearfield monitor speakers. A good monitor controller should give you ability to switch between at least 2, if not 3 or more pairs of speakers. Monitor controllers can often control more than just speakers. Two or more outputs for stereo headphones is also handy, and it’s even better if these have some kind of level control, and it gets better still if the multiple headphone outputs have individually controllable volumes. The Audient Nero (see above) has 4 headphone outputs each with its own volume control.
The monitor controller is the final hub for all audio sources heading for our speakers and headphones. These days it’s not just the permanently installed kit we have to worry about, like our audio interface but often we are asked to plumb phones, laptops or other portable devices into our monitoring rigs and be able to route these inputs to any input or output. A good monitor controller should be able to accommodate at least 3 if not 4 input sources and route them to any of its speaker or headphone outputs.
Digital inputs are now also becoming a welcome addition to high end monitor controllers. Top dollar units like the Crane Song Avocet feature AES/EBU I/O but it is more common to see an SPDIF or Optical port on the back of a unit. Again the Audient Nero features both SPDIF and Optical input.
Everything In Balance
Having plenty of inputs is one thing, however those inputs need to be solid, stable and balanced to stop any interference getting into your monitoring path. I’m not going to dive too deep into what the difference between balanced and unbalanced audio means (you could always google it) but normally, if your connection format has 3 connections like the Tip, Ring and Sleeve in the case of a TRS 1/4 inch jack or the 3 pins of an XLR connection it will probably be balanced, meaning that unwanted electrical noise will be rejected and not get into the signal path. 2 pole or connections like RCA Phono or Tip and Sleeve (TS) 1/4 inch jacks are unbalanced and ideally should not be used in your monitoring setup.
2. Clean Audio Path
You are feeding your monitor controller with the best quality balanced signal you can from your interface or other playback devices and if your amp or active speaker system is connected correctly, you should be on to a winner. But if your monitor controller is introducing distortion to the signal at any level then you are not hearing your audio accurately. Now we often use the term distortion to mean overdrive or clipping in a signal added for creative reasons However in other signal paths and especially in a monitor controller distortion should be avoided at all costs, as strictly speaking any kind of unwanted change to the signal is a distortion of the original. It’s a bit like a weed, which is a plant that isn’t wanted where it is. Distortion is an unwanted change in the signal and in most cases is an issue in most places within your studio. The monitor controller you choose should have a clean and clear audio path and to make sure you are hearing the audio you are monitoring without any unwanted changes. You can read up on the quality of a unit and plough through the technical specs but when it comes down to it the proof is always in the audio pudding (to mix my audio metaphors) or the listening.
3. Plenty Of Headphone Outputs
As stated earlier in the outputs section, a good monitor controller should also offer you at least 2 pairs of controllable stereo headphone outputs. One pair for the engineer as there are always times when you need to be able to monitor with the speakers off and at least one pair for a second engineer or artist working in the control room with you.
4. Stable Stereo Image
It might sound ridiculous to add this as a “must have” feature but you would be surprised how many times you can listen to a track at a low level and then listen to it at a louder volume only to notice that the stereo image is different. This can be due to many factors but the main one is the signal path through the device and the quality of the components used to control the level of the output signal.
We asked Audient to comment on the stereo image issue and how they worked around this problem or the new Nero monitor controller.
Most low-cost monitor controllers use traditional dual-gang pots, these tend to cause mismatches in levels between left and right channels. Instead, Nero uses digitally controlled analogue attenuation for all volume controls, using precision-matched resistor ladder networks. This technology also allows us to implement features like programmable speaker trim without the user needing to worry about left and right level matching.
5. Dedicated Subwoofer Control
Some of us mix or will at the very least check our mixes or masters using a subwoofer speaker. To be able to control the routing and muting of this speaker is very handy and should be something you look if you are using bass management in your monitoring set up.
6. Clean Clear & Easy To Use Layout
This section really does speak for itself. It is all very well having control of you system but it the device doing the controlling is hard or unintuitive to use then it’s not really fulfilling its role.
You should be looking for a nice big solid main volume control and a button for mono check, so you can check mono compatibility. There should be buttons to reduce the volume by a preset amount, often called dim as well as a mute, cut or speakers off button.
The units above both have the main features I require in a monitor controller but where the Nero on the left is simple to use and configure the incredibly powerful Crane Song Avocet is a much more complex unit to configure and use. The desktop remote control of the Avocet is a really nice feature but for many studios the Nero has all the same features right in front of you.
7. Talkback Microphone Input & Control
One of the best ways to keep control of a session and the vibe is to keep the lines of communication open. Being able to talk to your artist in the studio over headphones or via the monitors is really important. Having a monitor controller with a built in mic or mic input with listen back is a great way to keep the studio clutter down and take the hassle out of communicating with the artists.
The Audient Nero has a feature called Smart Touchpoints. This is a smart way of storing your preferred routings for single button recall. You can quickly make sure your sub is always assigned to a particular set of speaker outputs or save a particular input routing to any of the headphone outputs.
5.1, 7.1 And Beyond
Most of the more cost effective monitor controllers only deal with stereo input sources. However there are plenty that will deal with up to 5.1 surround outputs, some that will go up to 7.1 and some of the more costly systems will run a full Dolby Atmos rig from 9.1.2 and upwards. If that is what you need then be prepared to dig deep into those pockets as most of these units are custom configured to your needs often via both software and hardware. We have a comprehensive 7.1 and above monitor controller article which covers this in much more detail.
We hope you have found this article helpful. You can also check out what some of the Production Expert team use in their studios for monitor controllers in our Team Monitor Controller article.
Let us know what you are using to control you monitors and both what is working and not working for you with your current setup.