Here's another "double" review of a monitoring system-this one orchestrated by F. Reid Shippen. The first viewpoint is from Reid, who many of you have met at the last three TapeOpCons. He was a mixer in 2005's Pot Luck Studio Project, he moderated the Mixing Panel in 2004, and he was a panelist in 2003. He's worked on hundreds of albums of all genres; he's won one Grammy and mixed on three Grammy-winning records; and his expert mixing has contributed to many Top-10 chart-toppers and Gold, Platinum, and Multi-Platinum sellers. The second viewpoint is from producer/engineer Jason Lehning. Reid may think Jason's claim to fame is being Reid's good friend (just kidding, Reid!), but others will recognize Jason's name on albums by Lyle Lovett, Bryan White, Alison Krauss & brother Viktor Krauss, Bill Frisell, The Derailers, Dolly Parton, Randy Travis.... and the list goes on and on. He spent the first part of the year engineering and co-producing the upcoming Guster album, and he just recently recorded a single for Tonic frontman Emerson Hart (which Reid will be mixing). Jason won his second Grammy this year. He's also a member of The Bees. I happen to own and love The Bees album Starry Gazey Pie. It's both sparse and lush at the same time, with beautiful pop vocal arrangements that remind me of the music I loved when I was younger and less jaded. And after reading Jason's opinion on the ATC monitors, I have a better understanding of why The Bees album sounds so damn beautiful. Anyway, getting back to the review... as I mentioned in my intro to the Dynaudio double review, all of us are picky about our gear, and that's why it's great we have so many gear choices. I might like something while you may find it unusable for your way of recording-even if the like/dislike is for the exact same reason! That's why it's interesting to read a double review like this. Even if you don't know any of their work, from what each of them says about the ATC's-and about mixing in general-it becomes very clear that Reid and Jason are both exceptional engineers with well-trained ears. While their opinions may differ, what they say objectively about these monitors is actually quite similar. Therefore, with this review and all the others we publish in Tape Op, I suggest you make your own choices starting with whatever knowledge you gain by reading the reviews and learning about the reviewers and their work, and then seeking out firsthand experience with the gear, if at all possible. So here we go... let's start with Reid's take on the ATC's and follow it with Jason's. We'll end with a statement from ATC founder and chief designer Billy Woodman. (SCM20ASL Pro pair $6500 MSRP, SCM0.1/15 Pro $6,750; www.atc.gb.net) -AH
I was in London recently, and it rocks. It's a killer city-full of culture, history, and an overwhelming sense of grandeur. Sometimes the UK comes off somewhat reserved and detached, but I discovered that the secret is in giving up any preconceived notions and enjoying the apartness of it all.
You know where this is going. I had the ATC combo for over a month, and I'm struggling to sum up the pros and cons without coming off too hardcore. So I brought in my good friend, engineer/producer Jason Lehning, to do a point-counterpoint with me. He loves them. Me, not so much. But first, let's do the numbers.
The SCM20ASL Pro is a really heavy, active, two-way design with a 6.5'' woofer and a 1'' dome tweeter. It houses two monoblock amplifiers, a 50 W for the tweet and a whopping 250 W for the woof, and it's wrapped in a die- cast aluminum cabinet that is, quite literally, built like a tank. The average human head weighs 8 lbs. These speakers weigh 60 lbs each, and they're the best constructed of any I've ever seen. Their amps will eat any voltage in the world, they have attachment points for the near-universal OmniMount system, and they'll push 108 dB max continuous SPL when asked. The design is gorgeous, but it leads to a placement problem. The enclosures are curved, which means that there is no way to lie them down on their sides. They must be oriented vertically by means of two fixed feet on the front corners and an adjustable one in the rear. Yes, I know that sideways is the worst possible orientation for nearfields (it has to do with phase coherency and dispersion-see Billy's comments below), but sometimes it's the best option. Like, say, if your console's meter-bridge is too high to allow the tweeters to be anywhere near on-axis with your ears if you stand the speakers up. I found that the angle of adjustment isn't enough to give me the placement I wanted on top of my desk. So, when used in the standard nearfield position on the SSL, they ended up firing about a foot over my head as I was sitting down. Which can be an advantage if your speakers are bright...
...and these aren't. In a word, these speakers are very British. They are refined, reserved, laid-back, and unsympathetic. Now, I mix on British speakers (ProAc Studio 100's-yes, they're bright; but granted, they're hi- fi speakers), and I recently switched, so I'm not scared of new speakers. However, the ATC's are truly British. Which is to say this: the soundstage is spectacular, wide, and deep, with true definition. The phase coherency is great, at least when I'm standing up (since they're unable to operate in a nearfield position-sorry). But the low end is lacking, and the top is gone. I discovered I was mixing everything a little boomy and bright.
The distortion measurements are ludicrously low, and the speakers reveal distortion in mixes better than any I've ever heard. They can reveal problems you didn't know you had, and as a clinical listening tool, they're great. There is absolutely no fatigue with these monitors at all. The midrange is fantastic, very even and contained. If your mids aren't right, you're going to hear it on these speakers. I found the low mids to be too boxy or boomy to my taste. The bass was very tight-but slight-and the speakers were unable to play at high volume without the red lights flashing. ATC claims these can be used as midfields, but half the producers I work with would blow them sky-high in an instant. Again, placement was a problem, since the upright arrangement forced us to set the speaker up a good 8'' behind the customary nearfield position, and I'm sure this contributed to the volume issue.
The SCM0.1/15 Pro subwoofer solved some of these problems. Simply, it is the best subwoofer I've ever heard, period. It sports 1000 W of power into the 15'' driver, with built-in level, phase, crossover, and contour controls. It weighs just over a million pounds, but it pumps out tight, clear, distortion-free low end like there's no tomorrow. When coupled with the satellites, the bass extension approached the range of a set of large midfields. It did, however, further highlight the extremely reserved top end of the SCM20ASL's.
ATC has a history that includes producing audiophile loudspeakers, and it seems to me that the SCM20ASL's share many of the hallmarks that I've come to attribute to speakers of that type. They are flat, distortion-free, beautiful in the mids, reserved, and expensive. I think that they would excel at acoustic music, jazz, and classical; and in fact, ATC is well regarded in film-scoring circles. I mix a pretty good smorgasbord of stuff, and I think these would work for less than half of it. If I were able to afford a pair with the sub, I would certainly consider them for my studio as a counterpoint to the more traditional speakers that I use, assuming I had some sort of financial windfall. They may well make me a better mixer, but I don't feel like I could rely on them as my primary speaker, mainly due to the problems with placement and their exceedingly neutral and therefore non-exciting character. I think most producers and bands I work with would find these "boring-sounding" and would end up second-guessing the mixes into oblivion. Secondary speakers-great. Primary for me-not a chance. Jason, what say you?
-F. Reid Shippen <firstname.lastname@example.org >
Let me start by being clear that as much as I love these speakers, I think of them only as a mixing monitor. The SCM20ASL is very soft sounding and not something I would track or overdub with. And it doesn't get very loud, either, so it's not a lot of use to me in the early stages of a record. Where it really, really, really shines, though, is in mixing.
Here's the thing with the SCM20ASL's. Only good mixes sound good on these speakers. When I first bring a mix up on the ATC's, every time, it's, "Jeez, I suck." The top is masked, the midrange is cluttered, and the bottom is mushy. And your mix will continue to sound like utter crap on these until you get it right.
But that's precisely why I love them, because these monitors tell me exactly what I need to do to bring about a great mix. Midrange definition is unforgiving-but telling- and it forces you to carve things out accurately. And when I start to lift the veil off the higher frequencies, I find that the quality of the top end I'm adding is always far better and travels better (to other monitors and other rooms) than most conventional nearfields.
I mix in lots of different rooms, and one of my favorite things about the SCM20ASL's is how well they adapt to various environments. It seems that no matter how strange a room you're in sounds (and I've worked in the worst), the ATC's are stone reliable and honest. There is a really useful detented pot on the back of each monitor that can boost the bottom end, and when I'm mixing in an unfamiliar space, I'll always start by listening to a few records and making this adjustment to suit the room. Another factor in how well they travel is the stereo imaging. I don't know the proper term for this [it's soundstage, Jason -Reid], but the monitors seem to have great "aim." I always feel like I'm getting an accurate picture of the soundscape, and that image remains intact from almost any listening position. In other words, it's easy to set these speakers up to pretty much ignore the conditions of the room you're in.
This audio stability comes at a price, though, and the things are cumbersome, to say the least. The tripod footprint is a little large, and the speaker doesn't always fit easily on conventional speaker stands or meter-bridges. And at 60 lbs apiece, given the amount of exercise most engineers get, you'll have to take a nap after you set them up. Do not let them fall on your gear.
I mix a really wide variety of music, and I think Reid is spot on when he says that these are great for softer, more hi-fi approaches. Jazz, acoustic, and R&B/pop mixes seem to fall into place effortlessly on the ATC's. [I beg to differ on R&B/pop, but hey... -Reid] With such amazing detail in the mids, though, I've sometimes found myself (on rock mixes, particularly) over-organizing the midrange, in effect, making the mix too clean. So on rock stuff, I have to switch back and forth to other monitors more frequently to double check the aggression of the midrange.
Here's the thing, though, and this is another reason I like them so much. I don't know any engineer who only listens on one kind of speaker. And I've never heard one speaker that does everything perfectly. I think ATC knows this and has capitalized on it. The ATC SCM20ASL Pro, while it doesn't do everything perfectly (no monitor can), does its thing better than any other monitor I've ever used, and I can certainly say that I've done some of my best mixing work on this model ATC.
- Jason Lehning <email@example.com>
Reid shouldn't worry too much about listening to the SCM20ASL below the axis of the tweeter. Firstly, the phase plane of the 20 is midway between the mid-bass driver and the tweeter and not on the tweeter axis. In fact the 20 has a very good minimum phase response, which is set at the factory. Secondly, loudspeaker systems with a vertical drive unit complement, like the 20's, will always measure better below the phase plane than above it.
When you place the 20 or any other two-way loudspeaker on its side (i.e., in a horizontal position), not only is the horizontal dispersion reduced from, typically, ±80 degrees to ±10 degrees, but also the important relationship between the direct and reverberant sound is seriously imbalanced. In order to place sound sources accurately in a sound field, not only must the phase response be correct (i.e., a true minimum phase response), but also the direct sound must be linear with frequency as well as the response of the reverberant field. To achieve this, the loudspeaker must have a broad and even dispersion with frequency. Just as many important judgments are made from the reverberant field (e.g., for percussive sounds) as are made from the direct sound (e.g., the positioning of sources in the sound field).
-Billy Woodman, ATC chief designer