At its core, recording, like any creative endeavor, is about us making decisions one-by-one, until they all pile up on each other to form something meaningful from the raw material - in our case, the performances and sounds in front of us. If we're lucky, it's just "flow," and we're not even aware that we're making decisions - we're just "doing." And for us, the most important tools (outside of ours ears and well-being) are our monitors. Everything we do, we do using them as our guides and counselors. They sit dead-center of the whole production process.
Our monitors are our trusted companions. We get to know their foibles and triumphs; where they shine and where they cause us heartbreak; how far they're willing to help us along. And sometimes, like in any long-term relationship, we fight or see things different ways, but we figure it out. In the end, we have to rely on our speakers, if not to tell us the truth, then at least to show us the path.
We can think faster than we can listen (just remember this the next time someone starts going on about something you don't want to pay attention to), and our monitors put out a lot more information than we can easily absorb. We need to find partners who speak our language, or at least a language we can learn. I think we can all do great work on all kinds of speakers - it's just how much effort we have to put into it. We can learn the language of any speaker system in time, but that given system may require so much of our energy understanding how it translates, it can make something simple feel like a great effort. We suffer from decision fatigue as much as we can suffer from ear fatigue, and it can sap our energy and creativity insidiously over our days. I'm not sure I was aware of how much energy I was putting into my day-to-day listening until I got a chance to start working on a pair of ATC SCM25A three-way active loudspeakers. And after spending some time with them, I think they just may become my new guides, therapists, and designated drivers - because they make all my recording and mixing tasks just feel easier.
Designed to be positioned horizontally, the SCM25A is the smallest and most affordable model from ATC's battalion of massive monitors. It features a 7'' paper-cone woofer, ATC's ubiquitous 3'' midrange dome, and a 1'' soft-dome tweeter - all hand-made, and tri-amped with 235 watts each. The crossover points are listed as 380 Hz and 3.5 kHz. With only a 0-3 dB continuously-variable bass boost and 0-6 dB input attenuation trim, they lack the battery of room-compensation controls that are found on most monitors these days, but I'm not sure that this is a liability. I've lost a lot of time nerding out with the controls on most monitors, only to realize that they sounded best closest to flat.
ATC monitors are regarded for midrange detail, and the SCM25A is no exception. During initial listening sessions with the list of songs that I play to familiarize myself with any new room or monitors, I immediately noticed details that I had never heard in songs that I had listened to hundreds and hundreds of times. I know that sounds a bit hackneyed, but seriously, when I put on "Modern World" by The Modern Lovers and discovered reverb underneath the snare for the first time, actually heard the texture, and felt like I understood why they chose that level and that particular reverb, I was stunned.
When the SCM25A pair first arrived, I was just about to start another round of overdubbing for a record with the Chris Robinson Brotherhood. We had done some initial tracking earlier in the year, followed by a couple of weeks of overdubs before everyone had to take a break for their respective tours. Comprehensive roughs had been made, and everyone had been sitting with them for the last few months. We had a laundry list of changes and plenty of work to go back and cover again, as the tenor of the record was becoming darker and less "live." I had spent a day or so listening to the sessions on my old monitors and knew we had a lot to get through.
Even knowing that the ATCs were going to expose more, opening up the sessions on the SCM25A pair was a bit of a revelation. The CRB record has a lot of fuzz guitar work, heavily saturated keyboards, and lots of layers competing for vocal space, and the amount of midrange detail I heard was startling at first, but just so immediately useful, and initial rebalancing was quickly completed. Possible traffic jams of chord voicings were easy to identify, and as we set in to track, it quickly became apparent that some of our concerns with the roughs would be easy to remedy. The focused bottom end of the ATCs made for quick and easy cleanup, and I didn't have to sweat jettisoning extemporaneous lows and low-mids; it was just easier to hear what was needed and what wasn't.
Our guitar tracking had been traditionally heavy on stompbox usage, and we had a seriously extensive collection of fuzzes and overdrives in front of us. While we tracked and listened in the control room with the amps in the iso room, CRB guitarist Neal Casal and I found that choosing effects was easier and quicker through the ATCs. We were able to work much longer before hitting the end of our creative and decision-making prowess. I did, however, have to watch my volume; like any sports car, the ATCs were eager to get going. As I watched my overall level more, that's when I noticed how solid the imaging was on the SCM25As regardless of volume. And I could see it in the players' performances while they were tracking to the SCM25As; they just found their pockets easier and sat their parts in the tracks quicker.
ATC suggests that you experiment with tweeters-in or tweeters-out placement to see what works best for your room; for me, it was tweeters on the outside. It may just be habit, but the sound field just felt a little too small and a bit cramped with tweeters-in. I was pleased to discover that the improvement in imaging over my old monitors allowed me to catch a drift in the outputs of one of my stereo compressors, prompting a thorough pot cleaning. It was subtle, but I could hear it.
ATC also provides some foam slugs that fit into the bass ports to tailor the bottom end. The "port bung," as ATC hilariously calls it, supposedly drops the bass about 1.5 dB centered at 80 Hz, with a corresponding bump of 1 dB lift below 45 Hz. I wasn't comfortable with how these bungs seemed to change the bass in my space, but I can see where this feature could be an asset in certain situations.
A small thing that I noticed was that the sweet spot of the ATCs seemed a bit shallower in depth than other monitors produce in my space. I've had luck in the past that my room seemed to have a fairly long throw, and musicians on the couch behind me were able to get usable and accurate information without having to move forward. It wasn't a huge issue, but long-time visitors to my space mentioned that the image and balance changed more than they were used to hearing when they came up towards me. Two factors were probably contributing to this. My old monitors were oriented vertically with their tweeters above ear height, which I'm sure led to better imaging in the back of the room. And ATCs are known for their wide dispersion, making for a larger sweet spot in width, but also resulting in more energy spread to the sides, potentially increasing the amount of off-axis reflected energy in the back of the room.
One of the major day-to-day positives for me with the ATCs was the aforementioned detail in the midrange. I think it's pretty safe to say that I fell in love with that midrange dome. Crafting sounds on the SCM25As was a joy; the clarity and openness of the midrange had me pulling back compression, as it was easier to identify artifacts and smeariness. I felt less like I was finding ways to assemble sounds, and more like I was just easily gravitating towards tones that peacefully coexisted.
The results I got during tracking paid off with an easier mix. I tend to switch monitor sets often, trying not to stay too long on any one pair - finding my balances in the comparisons. In my studio, I also have a pair of NS-10M speakers and Avantone MixCube one-ways [Tape Op #55, #88], and translations with the SCM25As were surprisingly easy. I'd have to say that in the past, switching to NS-10Ms from just about anything else always required a bit of midrange readjustment, as I would have pushed certain frequencies harder, and the NS-10Ms would always have me rein them back. With the SCM25As, I found myself not having to redo my work as much, as the balances held together really well to the other monitor sets - especially with the traditional arbitrators, the Mixcubes. Switching to the MixCubes, gatekeepers to the real world, would bring me back to reassessing the bass frequencies, making sure they could be heard on smaller drivers. I found that I could easily set low mids on the SCM25As without completely reconsidering the low end when I moved to the MixCubes.
The SCM25As contributed to a better mix flow as I was able to set something and move on, instead of having to approximate and then see-saw back-and-forth between monitors in order to build solid mixes. I was able to reduce compression and use less EQ, and because my decisions were better, sooner, and earlier on - and my choices were bolder and more confident - I felt like the SCM25As helped me push myself further, and with better results. The only bummer was that I wish that I had installed these monitors in my studio sooner.
The biggest payoff was experiencing the best translation I'd ever gotten out of my studio when I took the finished CRB record to JJ Golden at Golden Mastering. I've rarely, if ever, had a record where I didn't have to revisit vocal levels, and CRB's music can get pretty dense with psychedelic jam-ology competing for vocal space constantly. I had brought instrumental and vocal stems with me in case I needed to rebalance anything, but each song came up solid. I really felt that I had the ATCs to thank for that.
Every step of the way through tracking and mixing, the SCM25As provided accurate and trusted counsel and were a joy to work on. My decision-making process felt more streamlined, and the technical parts of tone-building went quicker. I spent more time on performance, flow, and just enjoying myself. I still feel like I could achieve the same result on other monitors, but it would take more energy and effort, and lead to longer, more tiring days. And frankly, it wouldn't be as much fun as working on the ATCs.
At nearly $8000 for a pair, these monitors are no small investment. But they are real- world tools that help me work more efficiently and keep me focused and creative for longer periods of time - while they sit at the heart of every decision I make. For that, I feel the SCMS25As are totally worth it. ($7980 pair street; www.atcloudspeakers.co.uk)