Quick question... What is the most important piece of equipment in your studio? The obvious answer is you and your ears. Back in the day, the quality of the monitoring is what separated good rooms from great rooms. These days there are more studio monitor choices available than ever before, and most of these speakers are affordable and tend to be self-powered and of the nearfield type -sufficient for home studio use and for the most part they sound decent. A quick visit to any good music retailer with a monitor switching setup in their demo room will educate you on the wide tonal varieties and differences available.
At WaveLab we have an amp and passive switcher connected to multiple pairs of speakers. These are NS-10Ms, Roland RSM-90s, Audix 3As, a pair of old JBL 4408 enclosures with Radio Shack tweeters and woofers, JBL bookshelf speakers, and a big pair of Sony speakers we call the "Frat Boys". We mostly use the Audixs as our studio monitors, and I have been mixing on those for many years now. We use the "Frat Boys" to check low end as they put out crazy bass. The bookshelf speakers are way up in the air and about 70 ft apart and faithfully reproduce the sound of a coffee shop. The JBL/Radio Shack speakers cover the "speakers rescued from the trash" sound, and the NS-10Ms are well... NS-10Ms. All in all, it gives us the ability to quickly check our mixes in real-world scenarios.
The first year we conducted a Pot Luck Studio at TapeOpCon 2005 in New Orleans, we were introduced to ATC speakers courtesy of TransAudio Group and ATC. The speakers for "big" playback were the ATC 150s with SCM20ASLs as nearfields. Ben Lily of ATC came over from England and helped us set up the studio. We were able to create a really good listening experience for the engineers and attendees that first year.
Post-Katrina, and the two years the conference was in Tucson, we continued using the ATCs as our Pot Luck speakers, but since we were in a smaller room, the 150s were too large for the space. Instead, we put them in our larger general assembly room for playback during panels. The setup was a Denon CD player, a Mackie Big Knob, and the ATC 150s on each side of the stage, in a wide hotel ballroom with a fairly high ceiling. No effort went into tuning the large room. To say the ATC 150s filled that room with sound is an understatement -they were amazing. The Pot Luck that year started with the SCM20ASLs (powered) as the 50s did not show up until Saturday. The 20s had to handle the first drum clinic, and despite the best attempts at blowing them up, they handled the punishment and held on throughout the day. Obviously, with their larger size, the 50s were much better for playback to the 70-plus attendees, but those 20s were impressive on that first day. When my engineer Chris Schultz and I heard the SCM20ASLs, we thought maybe we should look into a pair for WaveLab -but that would mean incorporating a pair of powered monitors into our set up. When I found out ATC was going to make a passive version of the 20s, I asked TransAudio if we could check them out.
Now even though they have the same nomenclature at the front, the active SCM20ASLs are a very non-traditional looking speaker. The speakers and amplifiers are encased in a cast aluminum enclosure and have rounded corners (see review Tape Op #49). The passive SCM20SL monitors reviewed here are traditional looking with a rectangular black ash wood box, but what is most noticeable is the lack of a bass port anywhere. The only speakers we have without a bass port or vent are those NS-10Ms, and they are most known for their lack of low end. This is not the case with the ATCs. In fact, the ATCs have a passive dome as the dust cap of the 6.5" woofer that helps define the mid range and reduces low-end distortion, and the low end is really tight and revealing and most importantly, very accurate.
At TapeOpCon 2007, I had a late night conversation with ATC's Ben Lily, and he explained all the technicalities to me about how they are designed and built. Suffice to say it was clear that Ben is no salesman -he's an acoustician with the passion for speaker design and sound reproduction. Ben was mathematically telling me what I had already learned with my ears -ATC builds phenomenal monitors and you can really hear the difference.
What these speakers brought was the true accuracy of my stereo field during mixdown. This took me a while to figure out, as I first had to overcome some challenges and preconceptions when I added them to my speaker array. When we put up some mixes from the computer and switched over from the Audixs to the ATCs, what was immediately noticeable was the ATCs were quieter than the other speakers. I found this disconcerting at first as the whole reason I like having passive monitors and the switcher is that I can freely jump between monitors and not be fooled by the old Fletcher Munson curve. So we broke out the trusty Radio Shack decibel meter and used that to find how much extra output we needed to get them as loud as the other monitors. Then we questioned if we had hooked them up correctly as the high end seemed funny. The speakers have dual connections, so if you want to use a bi-amped system you can. These two sets of jacks are bridged with a flat piece of brass that jumps between the dual positive and negative screw-down connectors. Ultimately, we removed the jumpers, stripped the speaker wires long enough to insert through both the woofer and tweeter lug holes, tinned the wire, and tightened down all four lugs on both speakers. This made for a much more solid connection, and now the tweeters were definitely working.
We proceeded to listen to the ATCs while occasionally jumping back to the Audixs. It was during the first few minutes that we all agreed (Nick Luca was also present that day) that the ATCs where much more accurate than what we had been used to. Every little nuance was more pronounced and the stereo image was much more intact, even when you moved your head out of the middle position between the monitors -just like those 150s in that big room at the conference. We could not wait to mix on them.
Over the next few months, the ATCs helped us refine our mixes beyond what we had ever achieved before. Every little lip smack, pick noise, bass thump from vocal plosives, distortions intentional (and thankfully those that were unintentional), 60-cycle hum, tape hiss, preamp noise, and compression artifact you can think of were much more apparent in the ATCs. Suddenly, I had to work harder to get the mix right, and it changed the way we were tracking as well. No longer did the speakers mask all the detail. We found that if we mixed with the Audixs, that once we had the mix where we were happy, a listen on the ATCs would make you go back in and go after the subtle parts of the mix. It was usually going after the lower mids and working harder to make more room for all the colliding frequencies. It was not like the ATCs made this giant dramatic difference overall -they are not overly bright or hyped on either the top or the bottom. The real difference is that they are so even that you realize that you are hearing all the frequencies accurately, so they really help you balance the mix. We were mixing a group that had huge arrangements with percussion and multiple players, and the ATCs allowed us to really get the congas and the drums sitting together well. What had the potential to be a mess turned into an organized hierarchy of frequencies, as we were able to really differentiate all the instruments thanks to the accuracy of the monitors. They also are less fatiguing on the ears, which is always appreciated. Now when we switch over to all the funky speakers after getting the mix on the SCM20SLs, it sounds even better on those speakers than before. I find the Frat boys are still real bass heavy but not so boomy on the bottom, the little speakers are not all freaky with mid frequency mush, and the mixes are clearer across all formats and especially those pesky MP3s.
Now the SCM20SLs travel with me to mix gigs at other studios, and having a pair of monitors I really trust and understand helps immensely. When I mixed J Crocker at Top Hat in Austin this spring, JJ Golden, who mastered the record, commented to me how those mixes were well balanced frequency-wise, and how he did not have to do as much in the mastering. Good passive monitors deserve a good amplifier, so if you don't already have one, the powered versions might be better for your studio.
Today, good audio is attainable on a budget, but truly great audio requires more money and effort and is ultimately more rewarding. The ATCs are not cheap, mass-manufactured speakers. These are designed by ATC's owner, Billy Woodman, and hand-built in the UK -subsequently costing more than your average nearfield monitors. But if you plan on making records for a living, this is an investment that will last over your career, as listening is what we do. Who wants to listen to substandard monitors all day long? ($3500 MSRP; www.atc.gb.net, www.transaudiogroup.com)
Tape Op is a bi-monthly magazine devoted to the art of record making.