It has always been a priority for me to provide the ability for each member of a band to dial in her or his own headphone mix during a tracking or overdub session. It was essential to me when building my first studio nearly 15 years ago, and the long-discontinued Oz Audio Q-Mix HM-6 boxes [Tape Op #37] gave me that functionality in a very affordable, robust package. When setting out to help producer, musician — and now studio owner — Shahzad Ismaily put together Figure 8 Recording in Brooklyn this past year, I started doing research about which modern cue system we could employ that would give us the ultimate monitoring flexibility for a two-room facility (that sometimes operates as a single space), at a reasonable price point. Shahzad had had good experiences as a studio musician using Aviom's 16- channel digital mixers, so I started there, and honestly never really looked back. While the upshot is that we are extremely happy with our system, it is not without a couple minor concerns, which I will describe below. But let's start at the beginning, with installation.
When trying to decide between an analog and digital multichannel cue system, there is one factor that really makes it an unfair fight: cabling. For Figure 8, I calculated our cue line runs at around 1600 ft total for both rooms. That amount of high-quality (Gepco or equivalent) 16-pair analog cable would cost roughly $5,000, whereas that amount of shielded Cat 6A (Ethernet) cable was well under $500. (And that's for the good stuff — Aviom systems will work over unshielded Cat 5e as well, but I wanted to future-proof our runs.) In addition to cost, there's also the question of conduit space. Gepco 22 AWG 16-pair is approaching an inch in diameter. You can get at least four Cat 6A cables in that same amount of conduit space, which was absolutely essential to us in the end, since it allowed us to put a couple spare lines through each in-wall run. A side benefit of running Cat 6A to every panel in our studio is that there are now convertor boxes for many other types of data to run over those lines. We're running USB, MIDI, and HDMI (for getting video to the recording spaces for film scores and the like) over the spare lines with great success, but we can allocate those jacks to the cue system with a simple crosspatch.
One of our main requirements for the cue system was that we could patch to any panel from either control room, so a percussionist downstairs could easily overdub onto a session running upstairs, for instance. This was achieved quite easily with a couple of simple, affordable Cable Matters RJ45 patch panels in the machine room, where all cue lines terminate. Via short Cat 6 jumpers, we can patch out of either of the two Aviom distribution systems into any of the cue jacks in the building. When deciding on a distributor, we chose Aviom's stripped-down half-rack A-16D over the more full-featured D800. At four times the price, the D800 offers a bunch of features that we figured we would never use, such as support for up to 64 channels and direct integration with digital mixing consoles. The A-16D functions like a simple PoE (Power over Ethernet) switch (as they're called in the networking world), and the only catch is that it doesn't provide its own power for each of the eight Ethernet lines; you need a separate 24 V wall wart for each line you want to drive. With eight extra wall warts, you still come in way under the price of a D800, and luckily, the power supplies can be attached to the back of the A-16D in whatever rack enclosure you have it in, so there is still a single Ethernet connection to each personal mixer which provides both power and audio, eliminating extra cabling and mess in the live room.
Speaking of the personal mixers, there are currently two options: the A320 and A360. The A-16II mixer some of you may be familiar with (the clunky blue thing slightly resembling Boba Fett's face mask), has been discontinued, and frankly there are a few features I was surprised to see Aviom do away with. One is the ability to daisy-chain boxes; both the A320 and A360 require a "home run" directly to a distribution hub. The other, at least vis-à- vis the entry level A320, is knobs. The A320 has only two knobs: a Master Volume and a rotary encoder. The latter determines either channel volume, channel stereo position, or master tone settings, depending on which button you press before turning it. Normally this kind of multifunction encoder drives me crazy, and I was a little disappointed to see it when the A320s first showed up. But now, after using the A320 daily for a few months, I have come to embrace it, as it cleans up the face of the mixer significantly, and is actually less intimidating for non-techy musicians. I figured there would be a learning curve for musicians using the A320 for the first time, and there is, but it's very short.
At the opposite end of the spectrum is the A360, which has a ton of extra features and functions, like built-in decent-sounding reverb, an internal mic for piping in some of the ambient sound of the room around you, tone controls for each channel in addition to the master controls, both mini and 1/4'' headphone jacks, and an analog mono output of your mix for feeding a speaker or an amp. Plus, it's got more knobs, for people who aren't intimidated by them. Additionally, if the A360 is connected to a D800, it can transmit its digital mix back to the D800, which is useful for driving wireless in-ear monitors from a central location. But I would say most of the features are more suited for large theater or live productions, and seem like overkill in a medium-sized studio setting. (Touring musicians take note: bringing an Aviom system around with you for driving your in-ears or wedges would absolutely slay; if I still toured extensively I would invest in such a thing in a heartbeat.)
I haven't mentioned the AN-16/i v.2 yet, but it's quite essential, being the "input module" which does the A/D conversion for the whole system. It has sixteen TRS inputs (and sixteen TRS thru jacks), which allow you to take outputs from your patchbay, recorder, or mixing console to feed the A-Net's 16-channel system. You can select an input level for each pair of inputs (four steps from -10 dBV thru +22 dBu), and you can also very conveniently gang each odd/even pair into a stereo input (with stereo width and balance control available at the personal mixer). Conversion happens at 24-bit, 48 kHz, and honestly sounds extremely good. We have had numerous musicians comment on how good they think the headphone system sounds, and how it really allows them to feel as though they are "inside" the music. Being a digital system, there is a very small amount of latency introduced, but even when coupled with the slight latency when monitoring through a Pro Tools HDX card, not a single person has complained about things sounding late or phasing with what they're hearing in the room, which I have experienced with other digital cue systems.
Of course, how good the system sounds depends largely on which headphones you use, and this brings us to my one real caveat about this system. I would not say that these are the quietest headphone amps on the planet, especially on the A320 (both the A360 and the discontinued A-16II mixers get louder, and sound slightly better, to my ears). There is a fair amount of self-noise in the onboard amplifier itself, which is present even with all input channels all the way down. The good news is twofold: one, since the feed is digital, the noise doesn't increase at all as you turn up each input channel (unless the signals themselves are noisy, of course); two, with the proper headphone choice, this noise falls below the threshold of annoyance for almost all types of music (and we work on a lot of very quiet music here at Figure 8). Low impedance headphones are the trick — our 38 Ω ATH-M50 headphones [Tape Op #63] work for more types of music than the 250 Ω Beyerdynamic DT 770 we have. The lower impedance gives your headphone amp more headroom, so the Master Volume can live around noon to 2 o'clock, where it sounds best. In any case, I don't plan on using the Aviom system for critical precision headphone monitoring, as that's not what it was designed for.
I have a few tips for getting the most out of this system. The first is to make your own Ethernet cables. Terminating twisted-pair data cable with RJ45 connectors is really easy, and the tools are dirt cheap and widely available. For the interconnect cabling from the wall panels to the mixers, I used Belden 1305A Multi-Conductor UpJacketed CatSnake cable, which is actually Cat 5e, and has a very nice "ruggedized" feel to it, almost like a mic cable. You will never ever want to use an unruly off-the-shelf Ethernet cable again once you've used this stuff. If you use the A320 mixers, I would suggest terminating one "regular" RJ45 on the mixer end and one Neutrik etherCON connector on the end attaching to your panels, which should have their own female panel-mount etherCON jacks. If you use A360 mixers, you can put etherCON connectors on both ends — even better! etherCON ain't cheap, but if you hate dealing with RJ45 connectors as much as I do (broken tabs, crappy strain relief, hard to disconnect, etc.), you'll be very happy you spent the dough. Thanks to the fact that networking supplies are incredibly cheap, you're saving so much money on the rest of the system, you should splurge a little on those connectors. Lastly, buy one Aviom stand adapter and cheapo mic stand for each mixer you have, and strap the Ethernet cable to the stand for extra strain relief. The A320 especially is very light, so I much prefer it mounted on a stand instead of sitting on a tabletop. It's not built like a tank, but the tradeoff is that it's very portable (and affordable).
This is a really fantastic system that allows small-to- medium studios to get sixteen channels out to their performers via individual portable stations, taking the burden off the engineer to please everybody's monitoring desires — a frankly impossible task if you have only one stereo cue send. As for price, each of our rooms' five-box systems came in just above $4000, including cabling, which is a lot compared to my old Oz Audio Q-mix HM-6 system, but it's an excellent deal considering how much easier it makes the most quintessential component of performing well in the studio — hearing properly.