When the recording world made the transition from tape
machines to computers, we gained a lot of flexibility—but we lost
the physical routing and monitoring controls that connected tape
machines and mixers to the outside world. Not for long, though:
Several manufacturers have provided the missing hardware links
for the soft studio, bringing hands-on functionality back into the
land of ones and zeroes.
This benefits more than just workflow; external analog level
controls offer another not-so-obvious advantage. Reducing
the level in a DAW before the final D/A conversion sacrifices
resolution, but with external control you can optimize levels in
your DAW yet still have total control over the final output level.
And an advantage of a single master level control is that, if you’re
using speakers with individual volume controls, once you have
them matched you don’t have to touch those controls again; you
can do all your level-setting from the monitor controller.
If you’re constantly re-patching, trying to switch among
different monitors and/or headphones, need to mute or dim
a DAW’s output when the phone rings, can’t figure out how
to work talkback into your system, or just need to be able to
adjust listening levels without changing levels in a software-based
Note: All prices are given as MSRP, followed by the “street” price.
Mackie Big Knob
Mackie’s Big Knob set the stage for similar monitor/switching management products.
This tabletop unit started the trend toward hardware supplements for your DAW. The rear
panel pretty much tells the story: Outputs include three monitor outs (with individual
level controls); 2-Track A and 2-Track B stereo outs, each with level-selection switches;
stereo output to feed your DAW; and studio output with level control. Inputs include
2-Track A and 2-Track B stereo source inputs with level controls, headphone mix input with
level controls, DAW mix input with level control, and RCA phono input (with grounding post)
for a turntable—remember those?
The front panel not only provides input and monitor selection, but also offers two headphone
outs and talkback controls. Other conveniences are a sum-to-mono button for checking mono
compatibility, and mute and dim switches, which provide instant level adjustments.
Mackie definitely got it right, because almost a decade after it was introduced, Big Knob is
still in the product line—and that Big Knob inspired a lot of other manufacturers.
Dangerous Music D-Box
Dangerous Music’s D-Box emphasizes a mastering-quality signal path.
Although Dangerous established its reputation with analog summing, monitor management
is also a big part of the story. With the company motto being, “You can’t mix what you can’t
hear,” the D-Box emphasizes a mastering-level audio path with a fixed-gain analog summing
bus that accepts signals from eight channels. For those who prefer to feed in digital signals, two
digital inputs (AES or S/PDIF) handle sample rates from 32 to 100kHz. Furthermore, the two
independent headphone amps are certainly not underpowered; they’re 20W each, which doesn’t
mean you want to blast your ears out, but that’s there’s plenty of reserve power for transients.
You can choose between two monitor outs, and there are plenty of useful touches: pan controls
for inputs 7 and 8, signal-present indicators for all channels, the ability to switch between inputs or
sum them, an auxiliary stereo analog input, mono switch, and built-in talkback mic.
PreSonus Central Station Plus
The Central Station Plus from PreSonus builds on the success of their lower-cost Monitor Station.
PreSonus is one of those rare companies that underpromises and overdelivers.
I’ve been using their Monitor Station ($369.95/$299.95) to choose among
speakers and headphones for years, but the 1U rackspace Central Station Plus takes the concept
up a notch. It offers stereo digital ins (TOSLINK or co-ax S/PDIF up to 192kHz), along with
three stereo analog ins (two TRS, one RCA unbalanced), three monitor speaker outputs with
trim controls, two line outs (cue and main), and two headphone outs. As expected, there are also
switches for mono, mute, and dim.
Those are the basics, but interesting extras include relay switching for the signal path to avoid
active electronics, dual 30-segment LED meters that you can calibrate, and an omnidirectional
talkback mic. But the “biggie” is the included CSR-1 remote control. A rackmounted unit won’t
always be conveniently located, but the CSR-1 can sit right at your mix position while offering
talkback and master level, and the same input and output selection options as on the rack itself.
TC Electronic Level Pilot
TC Electronic’s Level Pilot is a simple, effective analog
volume control for your desktop.
Sometimes all you really want is a nice, big, convenient knob so you don’t have to
alter your speaker settings, change the master fader on your DAW and screw up
your output levels, or reach around to the output control on your audio interface. And that’s what Level Pilot
is all about: It’s a big, sleek level-control knob, with stereo XLR input and output cables. Use the Level Pilot’s
analog control to set the level—cut it down to check the mix at low levels, or crank it up when the guitar
player wants to hear the sound at 11. Level Pilot does only one task, but does it well.
Focusrite VRM Box
|The VRM Box from Focusrite lets you switch among various monitors—virtually.
The VRM Box is a virtual monitor switcher. The premise is simple: You want to
check your mix in a variety of speaker-based listening environments, but need to mix
on headphones. Focusrite’s Virtual Reference Monitoring technology emulates the
characteristic sound and separation of mixing through 15 sets of speakers, distributed
among three different listening environments—from cheesy computer speakers in the
living room up to high-quality monitors in the studio. The ultimate results depend on
headphone quality, but you’ll still be able to do a “reality check.”
The VRM can either serve as your DAW’s main output, or insert inline with an audio interface’s S/PDIF
out (up to 24-bit/192kHz). It supports Windows XP SP3 or later, as well as Mac OS X 10.5 or later. And I
particularly appreciate Focusrite’s honesty in their ad copy: “Although monitoring with real studio monitors
will always be ideal, a Focusrite VRM Box will make your next best option a whole lot better.” Exactly.
|JBL’s MSC-1 adds Room Mode Correction technology to monitor switching and control.
The MSC-1 is a compact, tabletop monitor controller that switches between two
monitors, offers a headphone out, selects among three inputs, handles subwoofer
management, and includes a mute button as well as programmable EQ. But the star of
the show is JBL’s Room Mode Correction technology, which compensates for low-frequency
The good news is that the system works extremely well. Switching in RMC gives a
tighter, more accurate, more even bass over a very wide “sweet spot.” The bad news is that
the system is difficult to set up. It took me several tries, on a couple different computers (a
Windows XP laptop finally did the trick) to get the system working, so I can’t recommend it
for those who frustrate easily. (Once calibrated, you don’t need the computer any more.) But for
me, the hassles were well worth it—the MSC-1 is now a permanent part of my studio.
Radial Engineering MC3
|Radial’s MC3 follows the company’s typical design philosophy—effective, indestructible, and affordable.
Radial is known for rugged, high-quality, reasonably priced products that fill
needs other companies often haven’t identified, and the MC3 is no exception.
It has a 100 percent passive signal path (with 1/4" TRS connectors), so there
are zero issues with active electronics—there aren’t any. You can switch among two sets of monitors and a
subwoofer (with top panel trim controls, along with a phase switch for the sub), as well as drive headphones
with three paralleled jacks—two 1/4" jacks and one 1/8" jack (helpful, because a lot of engineers do a reality
check on earbuds these days). It also has an associated level control for headphones. Additional front-panel
buttons allow for dim, mono, and sub in/out. And, of course, there’s a master level control.
And that’s all there is to it—which is why the MC3 is a cool little box. It does what you need without any
bells or whistles, and most importantly, doesn’t color the sound in any way because the passive design means
that, by definition, it can’t.
SM Pro Audio M-Patch 2
|SM Pro Audio’s M-Patch 2 provides basic, rugged switching with a passive signal path.
Like the MC3, the M-Patch 2 features an all-passive signal path. Also as with the
MC3, don’t be fooled by the power supply input—it provides power for the LED
indicators and headphone amp. Situated in a half-rack housing, the two front-panel
rotary controls provide level adjustments within 1dB from 0 to –40dB for two
input sources: a stereo input from two balanced combo XLR/TRS jacks, or an aux
input that includes stereo unbalanced RCA phono jacks and a paralleled 1/8" stereo
minijack. The outputs go to two stereo sets of XLR jacks.
Front-panel controls are basic: stereo/aux input selector, two output selector buttons that can be enabled
simultaneously, mute, stereo/mono switch, and headphone amp with volume control.
The M-Patch 2 provides the basics of being able to compare two input sources (e.g., a CD and your mix)
and route to two different sets of monitors and headphones, and offers convenient level control.
A Designs ATTY
|The ATTY is A Designs’ simplest level control box, and its small size makes it suitable for live as well as studio applications.
ATTY is all about passive, stereo, line-level signal control with a single knob. It’s small (4-1/2" x 1-1/2"
x 3") and features all-metal construction, so it’s not only useful in the studio, but convenient for taking
The inputs are dual Neutrik 1/4" XLR/TRS combo jacks, with standard XLRs for the two outs. In
addition to the level control, it also has a mute button.
Because ATTY is designed to be more of a compact, general-purpose box than a full-blown monitor
controller, it suggests other uses—like cranking an external preamp’s gain up to get some grit, but then
attenuating the output before it hits the input of your mixer or A/D converter. But also note that if you need
something more sophisticated, A Designs also makes the 1U, rackmountable ATTY’2D passive line-level
controller with two stereo and two mono signal paths. It’s suitable for 5.1 surround as well as other generalpurpose
studio applications, and features individual mutes as well as a master mute.
|KRK’s ERGO provides basic switching, but its stellar feature is sophisticated room correction processing.
ERGO is conceptually
close to the MSC-1, as
the emphasis is more on
room correction than
ERGO (Enhanced Room
also requires computer-assisted
XP or higher, and Mac OS X 10.5 or higher) using the included reference
microphone. That said, you can still switch between two different sets of
speakers or one set and a sub, each with its own correction profile, and the
headphones output can monitor the main output or a solo/cue feed.
Unlike the MSC-1, ERGO corrects into the midrange (to about 500Hz)
and can not only work in stand-alone mode between an interface and
powered speakers without computer assistance (other than for setup),
but also serve as a FireWire audio interface where the outputs feed your
speakers, and your headphones can accept a DAW return.
The calibration process is time-consuming, but necessary for the system
to do its room correction magic. Once it’s calibrated, that’s it—and you’ll
hear a definite improvement in the “translatability” of your mixes.
|Samson’s C-Control is, not surprisingly, all about cost-effectiveness.
The C-Control is a tabletop unit designed specifically for DAW-based project studio setups;
for example, in addition to serving as a monitor speaker switching device, it has a convenient
routing matrix that allows for dubbing to any of three outputs.
Three TRS 1/4" stereo ins, and stereo unbalanced RCA ins, are complemented by three
balanced 1/4" stereo line outs (with one intended for cue) and stereo RCA line outs. Outputs to
monitor speakers include one set of 1/4" and two sets of RCA jacks, with dim, mute, and mono
switches for additional control.
It has a talkback section too, with push-to-talk and slate-to-tape, and the option to talk
to the cue out or a 2-track out. For additional monitoring, a headphone amp terminates in a
front-panel jack with associated volume control.
The C-Control offers considerable functionality given the low price, making it suitable for
smaller studios where budgetary constraints preclude a higher-end unit.
Coleman Audio QS8
|The SQ8 is Coleman Audio’s flagship monitor controller, which also does analog summing.
The QS8 Control Room Manager packs essential control room functions into a single
rackspace. As a control room monitor, the QS8 is passive and can switch between two stereo
sources (with a stepped attenuator), as well as send the selected source to one of two monitor
Cue mixing sums either a rear-panel stereo cue input or the control room signal from one
of the two stereo sources (with its own level control), along with a third aux stereo input,
which has a mono switch and input level control. The combined cue mix feeds an overall
level control before going to the internal headphone amp. With the right patching, this allows
for zero-latency monitoring when recording. Talkback dims the control room signal, and a
separate slate output is available for slating a track.
When set for analog summing, the two stereo ins can sum with the stereo cue input and
the third aux stereo input (although when in mix mode, signal path electronics are necessary).
Finally, the headphone amp has a single output with level control, and can monitor either the
cue mix or the QS8’s summed mix.
|Switching really doesn’t get much simpler than Hosa’s SLW-333.
The SLW-333 is a line-level, desktop-type
switcher that you can use as a 1-in, 3-out
device for selecting among three different
speakers from a single input, or a 3-in, 1-out
switcher for choosing among three signal sources.
All ins and outs use balanced, TRS 1/4" connectors.
Noiseless switching and a steel enclosure round out the
|Behringer’s Minimon MON800 represents the least expensive way to get into monitor control that goes beyond just basic switching.
Yes, the Minimon MON800 is under $70 and has a plastic housing, but it
provides what you need for inexpensive monitor control and is the least
expensive option in this roundup. four stereo ins (two 1/4”, two RCA),
1/4" cue out, 1/4" and RCA stereo outs, three sets of speaker outputs (one
1/4" with its own level control and two RCA with a shared level control,
although each set has its own enable button), and two phones/talkback
outs. The headphone amp has a single 1/4" output with associated level control.
In terms of extras, you’ll find six-LED stereo level meters, illuminated
switches, the option to send the talkback to either cue/phones/speaker A
or the 2-track out, and separate mute, dim, and mono buttons. Also, as part
of Behringer’s Mini Series, the Minimon MON800 can stack with other
members of the family, like the Minifex FEX800, Minimix MIX800, etc.
IK Multimedia ARC 2
|IK Multimedia’s ARC 2 room correction software can’t overcome horrible acoustics, but it sure can help.
This isn’t about speaker
switching, but as we covered
the KRK ERGO and JBL MSC-1
monitor control packages that
also include room correction,
it seemed only fair to include
a room-correction option for
those who already have monitor
ARC 2 includes a calibration microphone and requires a fairly
specific, but not particularly annoying, calibration procedure that tunes
more broadly than systems intended for pinpoint correction for one
sweet spot. However, the system works virtually, by using a VST/AU/
RTAS correction plug-in that corrects for room acoustic issues. You
mix and monitor with the plug-in inserted, and therefore mix for the
properly compensated room. When it’s time to send off the mix, bypass
the plug-ins and export—without the “corrections” you would have
added otherwise in your mix. I must admit it surprised the heck out of
me: ARC 2 not only works, but also works very effectively. (Incidentally,
it can also help show the effects of acoustical treatment.)
|The Kush Audio Gain Train consists of two modules; the Main Gain can be used stand-alone.
The Gain Train
consists of the Main
Gain, which has stereo in, stereo
out, a mono switch, independent
muting for the left and right
channels, DC-coupled signal path
(although this can be defeated for AC coupling), and metering using
a tri-color LED. As such, it’s basically an attenuator until you add the
Function Junction, which is the second element of the Gain Train. This
adds two stereo ins and outs (for a total of three stereo pairs), with
I/O on a DB-25 connector, and includes dual headphone amps and a
talkback system with level control. When active, talkback auto-mutes
The two units connect via a VGA-style connector, so you can just plug
one into the other and create a single unit; or connect them via a standard
DB-15 cable. As the cables trail out the back of these desktop boxes,
positioning them separately can be helpful for routing the cables optimally.