Musicians are a strange lot. For some reason they like to hear themselves when performing. It’s even worse when they’re recording. Then they want to not only hear themselves, but to have a decent mix of the other musicians in their headphones. And since each musician is special, they want to have their own independent headphone mix to reference. What a bunch of prima donnas. . . .
But if you’re recording musicians in your studio, sooner or later you’re going to actually need to provide them with a dedicated monitor feed. If you only want one headphone mix, most mixers and DAWs are capable of creating a cue mix and feeding it to an aux send or output. But if you need multiple, independent headphone mixes, and you want to provide each musician with control over what they hear in their phones, then you need a more powerful solution. Aviom manufactures their modular Personal Monitor Mixing System to address exactly this situation (among others, such as creating a digital snake or splitter, a distributed audio system, and so on).
The Aviom system uses a Local Area Network (LAN) protocol called “A-Net” as the means for transmitting up to 16 channels of digital audio to an unlimited number of outputs. At its most basic level, here’s how it works: an AN-16/i input module accepts up to 16 channels of line-level analog audio from your mixer or DAW, via 24-bit/48kHz analog-to-digital converters. The digitized audio signals are sent via CAT-5 cable to A-16II Personal Mixers. Each A-16II can independently mix the 16 channels of audio down to stereo, which can then drive headphones, in-ear monitors, or other monitors. The A-16II provides control over the level, pan, mute, and solo for each channel. There’s also master volume, bass, and treble controls. Pairs of channels can be linked for stereo inputs, and channels can be grouped. Sixteen presets store and recall mixer settings. Multiple Personal Mixers can be connected, so each musician can have their own A-16II, and therefore control over the mix they hear in their phones. The A-16II can either sit on a tabletop or be mounted to a mic stand with an optional MT-1 adapter.
The Aviom system can be expanded from there, in modular fashion. The rackmount A-16R mixer and a complementary remote control surface, the A-16CS, are offered as an alternative to the “desktop” A-16II. The AN-16/i-M input module can accept either mic- or line-level inputs. The A-16/o output module acts as a digital-to-analog “breakout” box, converting the A-Net signal back to 16 line-level analog outputs.
The A-16D is a 1-in/8-out A-Net distribution box, allowing one A-Net input module to feed up to eight mixers or output modules. It can also provide power for eight A-16IIs. Any number of A-16Ds can be chained together to create a massive system. For really big systems, the AN-16SB System Bridge allows up to four 16-channel A-Net streams to be carried over a single CAT-5 cable for a total of 64 channels of bidirectional audio. For example, you could create a digital snake with 48 “sends” and 16 “returns.”
For users of Yamaha digital mixers, the Aviom-16/o-Y1 mini-YGDAI card allows 16 mixer signals to directly feed an A-Net system in the digital domain. The 01V96, DM1000, 02R96, DM2000, PM5D, and PM1D are supported.
Each device in an A-Net system can be located up to 500 feet from the next device. Aviom specs A-Net as having “sub-millisecond” latency, so audible delays aren’t a problem. Because A-Net is carried as digital audio over CAT-5 cables, ground loops aren’t an issue.
For this review, we took an Aviom system to Nashville’s Dark Horse studio, replacing the facility’s normal headphone distribution system. The system we installed consisted of an AN-16/i Input Module, an A-16R rackmount mixer with A-16CS Control Surface, three A-16 Personal Mixers and two A-16II Personal Mixers (the A-16 was an earlier version of the A-16II), and an A-16D A-Net Distributor.
From the beginning, the Aviom system was easy to implement. The fact that it uses CAT-5 cables for interconnect instead of analog audio lines made cable runs simple — a godsend in a studio like Dark Horse, where the recording rooms are quite spread out. The various modules are well thought out, although in certain instances it would be nice to have A-Net distribution built-into the input module, rather than in the A-16D. The system was immediately put to use on a tracking session consisting of drums, bass, piano, percussion, and two guitar stations with excellent results.
On a “traditional” headphone distribution system, there are faders for adjusting the levels for each channel of audio on each musician’s mixer. On the A-16II, settings are adjusted by selecting the desired channel, then changing the parameter you want. The session musicians had no problem adapting to using the Personal Mixers, although some found having to select a channel before adjusting channel volume slowed them down a bit.
The original A-16 Personal Mixers weren’t powerful enough to drive headphones to the levels required by some musicians. The newer A-16II Personal Mixers were much more powerful; only one hearing-challenged individual was disappointed with the levels he could achieve in his Fostex T-20 phones. The A-16II worked fine with all other headphone models we tried.
The sound quality of the system was good; there were no complaints from the session musicians. Even better, the system has proved to be durable and completely reliable. It’s been in constant use at Dark Horse for four months at this writing without a single problem.
When all was said and done, the Aviom Personal Monitor Mixing System performed exactly as advertised. The fact that it’s modular and configurable makes it useful in a wide variety of applications, and scalable for use in small to large studios. Long cable runs, easy expansion, and tons of flexibility mean that it will work almost anywhere. Unless your cue/headphone monitoring needs are limited to a single basic feed, the Aviom system is a solid solution.