I've writing about clocks in Tape Op for close to ten years now, and I can sum up my opinion on the often-ridiculously-touchy subject like this: Clocks matter. They make a difference in sound; and like any other piece of kit, one must use one's ears when integrating digital clocks into studio systems in order to judge their value. More importantly, one can't successfully generalize about the usefulness of any single model of digital clock, because — given all the converters and clocks out there — different combinations always deliver different results. Generalizations simply fail.
Andy Hong gave a concise, technical explanation of how and why different clocks and converters create successful and failed combinations in the review of the MUTEC MC-3+ master clock that we co-wrote along with Alex DeTurk and Matthew Agoglia. While technical discourse as well as measurements of jitter and other specs can be instructive, we are — as people making musical recordings — still left to make the final judgement with our ears.
And so, sometimes using an external clock makes things sound better, sometimes much worse, sometimes just different. I've heard robust 10M atomic clock systems defile the sound of a great converter, and I've heard relatively inexpensive external clocks like the MUTEC MC-3+ vastly improve the sound of well-respected converters. I've heard the soundstage of an elaborate mix get wider using an Antelope OCX, and I've heard the center image of the same exact mix grow stronger using the Crane Song HEDD 192 as a clock source (both great sounds). I've heard previously silent details emerge using 10M systems on jittery prosumer converters, and I've heard absolutely nothing notable happen throwing an old-school Apogee Big Ben onto a decent Lynx rig. I haven't heard it all, but I've heard enough to know not to generalize about pairing clocks and converters.
Anyone who comes down with the Final Answer on external clocking — or on digital audio at all... and especially those issuing high-school-level YouTube lessons on the Nyquist-Shannon sampling theorem, thus concluding that they've debunked the whole digital-audio industry's inquiry into improving sound, all while not revealing that the video was funded and issued by a company that developed Spotify's core audio-compression algorithm... ahem — yes, well, anyone like that is putting far too much stock in their point-of-view as well as brushing off the fact that digital audio is evolving before our very eyes (ok, ears), right now, as you read this. We have so much to learn still, and only humility and an open mind will allow real learning to take place.
So, with humility and an open mind, let's look at the Black Lion Audio Micro Clock MkIII, as Matthew Agoglia and I did in his wonderful mastering room The Ranch, and at my own studio, The Snow Farm.
What's most fascinating about this clock is that nearly everything we hooked it up to sounded great. We clocked an older Pro Tools rig (with the outdated Digidesign 192 Digital I/O) to the Micro Clock MkIII - sounded much better. A Forssell mastering converter — sounded great, though not better. My Aurora Lynx mix rig — sounded great, and better. The new Dangerous Music Convert-8 [reviewed in this issue] — sounded great, though not better. Obviously, we didn't try every combination known, but the consistency of the sound with the Micro Clock MkIII was impressive. A solid center image, big bass, and a depth to the soundstage that's typical of excellent, low-jitter clocking. We walked away saying, "That's a great little clock!"
BLA explains that "core technological improvements include lower-jitter crystal oscillators, higher-quality galvanic transformer isolation in the signal path, dedicated output drivers with better isolation, higher-precision signal division, and much heavier noise filtration throughout the circuit." Sounds good to me (and this description demonstrates today's constant refinement of successfully implementing digital audio). On the back of the Micro Clock MkIII is a plethora of outputs (AES/XLR, RCA/SPDIF, TOSLINK/SPDIF, and 6 × BNC), making this unit very easy to use as a centerpiece in a more complex studio where a single clock source is required to synchronize many devices. And remember, when a clock pairs well with your ADC and DAC, you'll get that audible improvement again and again for every conversion channel you use during tracking and mixing. Few pieces of equipment can deliver such comprehensive impact on your system.
In the final analysis, for just under $1000, the Micro Clock MkIII is an excellent offering, hopefully signaling the beginning of a price reduction for superior clocking that will, eventually, allow more and more recordmakers to get into better, jitter-free digital audio systems, putting their inferior, prosumer-grade systems finally to rest. The world of recorded sound needs that, badly. If you suspect your system could sound better, or you just need an affordable, high-quality, no-nonsense master clock to synchronize all your devices, definitely try the Micro Clock MkIII.