For the past few months I've been evaluating a very nice stack of equipment made by Dangerous Music of New York City. These four devices function as stand-alone units as well as connected together to form a system that addresses many of the logistical problems that one encounters when recording to a DAW without a traditional console.
Problem 1: Mixing in the box blows. Part of the allure of a DAW, particularly a Pro Tools system, is the ability to mix music at home without going into a studio. My problem has been that it rarely sounds as good as mixing on a traditional console. There are a bunch of opinions as to why this is, and I have to admit that the Digidesign 48-bit mixer sounds much better than their former 24-bit version, but it's still very hard to get a decent mix inside a DAW. Enter the 16-input, two-output 2-BUS. The idea is that you can use the DAW's automation and plug-ins and then route audio tracks to individual analog outputs, which then get combined in the analog domain by the 2-BUS. This also gives you a convenient place to patch in analog outboard gear without signals having to go back into the system via additional A/D conversions and without the resulting latency. The combination of the 2-BUS's analog summing and the ease with which it integrates with my existing analog equipment made for consistently better (and finally usable) mixes from my home studio. The ability to easily recall mixes means that I can switch projects at will and revise projects as necessary. I don't know if it's the outboard gear, the analog summing or just the sound of hitting the analog mix bus hard, but the 2-BUS put a smile on my face. One of the mixes even went straight from my basement to commercial radio (but don't hold that against the 2-BUS).
Problem 2: Monitoring. The Dangerous Monitor is an extremely high quality monitor section with everything you'd find on a large analog console and then some. Source selection (three analog and four digital), mono combining, speaker mutes and polarity for each channel, alternate speaker selection, VU meter offset and a stepped volume control are all here-and the audio path is of the highest quality. One unique feature of the Dangerous Monitor is a common onboard D/A converter (custom designed by Troisi) for all digital inputs. It works with signals up to 96 kHz, and 192 kHz capability is being developed. I've seen this done in some very high-end studios and thought it extravagant- until it came time to mix. Comparing mixes to other sources can be tricky because many devices with internal D/A converters have differing sonic characteristics, and level matching between the various sources can be a pain. The Dangerous Monitor sidesteps this problem by routing all digital source material through its onboard D/A. Awesome.
Problem 3: Headphones and talkback. Perhaps the best thing about the Dangerous MQ is how it integrates with the Dangerous Monitor. These two together make up what would typically be the center section of a large-format recording console. The MQ has VU meters (Yay!) and digital metering, as well as a pair of beefy headphone amps with level, source selection, mixing and talkback. The MQ connects to the Monitor for metering and talkback/dim functions and also has a built-in talkback microphone. It comes with a remote talkback switch as well (but don't let the bass player get a hold of it). Dangerous put a couple of features in the MQ that make setting up cue mixes easier. You can feed the two stereo cue inputs from either the Dangerous Monitor's selected output signal or a separate stereo mix (via rear panel XLR's). You can also mix in and pan two additional sources to each headphone send-assignable to either mix. The extra input could be useful for a "more me" type headphone control or a no-latency headphone monitoring option if needed. Headphone outputs are XLR on the back and 1/4'' on the front, which makes it convenient to plug in a pair of headphones for yourself and hear exactly what the performer is getting, while sending the rear outputs to an external headphone amp.
The fourth item in the Dangerous line is a simple eight- channel stereo Mixer that links seamlessly with the 2-BUS, allowing you to bring things like reverbs and keyboards into the mix without having to put them back through the computer. I'm forever attached to an AKG BX 20 spring reverb and some analog delays that I can't live without, and the Mixer makes it easy to use them on a mix, although I usually wind up printing them to the computer in case I remix somewhere else. This Mixer could also be perfect for any number of uses where a small, high-quality mixer is needed.
The Dangerous product line is not inexpensive. The Monitor is particularly pricey due to the onboard D/A and uncompromising build quality and audio fidelity. It is, however, arguably the most important piece of equipment in the rack as you evaluate everything through it. I'd venture a guess that the Dangerous Monitor is cleaner and more accurate than just about any console monitor section and is more on the order of something you'd find in a mastering house-not surprising as Dangerous' chief designer, Chris Muth, has designed specialized mastering equipment for studios like Sterling Sound. It may seem like overkill, but it's given me a taste for truly hi-fi monitoring that's going to be hard to live without. The integration of the Monitor and MQ's metering and talkback functions made tracking at my home studio much easier. I'd forgotten what a difference simple things like talkback remote, good metering and good headphone amps make.
The Dangerous system combines to be more than the sum of its parts. It's as high of an audio and build quality as you'll find anywhere, and the thoughtful design does away with most of the problems you'll encounter when putting together a home or mobile recording environment. Its portability is a big advantage as even a small recording console can be a real pain to move and set up. With this stuff and some powered speakers, you could conceivably set up just about anywhere and have all the functions of a large format console at your disposal. (Monitor $4999, Mixer $2599, 2-BUS $2999, MQ $2999; www.dangerousmusic.com)