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 project—read on.
Note: All prices are given as MSRP, followed by the “street” price.
Mackie’s Big Knob set the stage for similar monitor/switching management products.
Mackie Big Knob
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’s D-Box emphasizes a mastering-quality signal path.
Dangerous Music D-Box
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.
The Central Station Plus from PreSonus builds on the success of their lower-cost Monitor Station.
PreSonus Central Station Plus
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’s Level Pilot is a simple, effective analog volume control for your desktop.
TC Electronic Level Pilot
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.
The VRM Box from Focusrite lets you switch among various monitors—virtually. Focusrite VRM Box
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.JBL MSC-1
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 acoustical problems.
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’s MC3 follows the company’s typical design philosophy—effective, indestructible, and affordable. Radial Engineering MC3
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’s M-Patch 2 provides basic, rugged switching with a passive signal path. SM Pro Audio M-Patch 2
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.
The ATTY is A Designs’ simplest level control box, and its small size makes it suitable for live as well as studio applications. A Designs ATTY
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 onstage.
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. KRK ERGO
ERGO is conceptually close to the MSC-1, as the emphasis is more on room correction than switching; similarly, ERGO (Enhanced Room Geometry Optimization) also requires computer-assisted setup (Windows 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. Samson C-Control
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.
The SQ8 is Coleman Audio’s flagship monitor controller, which also does analog summing. Coleman Audio QS8
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 speakers.
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 feature set.
Behringer’s Minimon MON800 represents the least expensive way to get into monitor control that goes beyond just basic switching.
Behringer Minimon MON800
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’s ARC 2 room correction software can’t overcome horrible acoustics, but it sure can help. IK Multimedia ARC 2
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 control systems.
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. Kush Audio Gain Train
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 audio.
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.