Control room monitors are a tricky thing. They need to really perform to allow us to hear the nuances in the mixes we obsess over. At the same time, they need to help us deliver a mix that will translate to a $50 boombox, a car stereo, and a full-blown home stereo. To make things more difficult, we all hear things a little differently and therefore have different preferences in what we want our monitors to deliver. Some people are able to create great mixes on NS-10Ms, but I never could get used to them; there were too many things that I had to remember to compensate for in order to get the mix to translate. So then the question becomes, what monitor works for you and the way you hear things? Well, one great option to check out is the ATC SCM16A.
ATC is a British company that has established a reputation for designing and building extremely high quality studio monitors over the past 35 years. The SCM16A is a recent addition and is the entry-level monitor in their professional active series. It is a bi-amped, two-way design with a soft-dome tweeter and an 6" woofer. The internal amplifiers deliver 200 watts to the woofer and 50 watts to the tweeter, and they operate in Class A mode up until two-thirds maximum power. The rear panel has an attenuator control for overall level-matching with other systems, as well as an adjustment for contouring the low-end response. These are definitely designed from the ground up as "pro" speakers. The curved, trapezoidal cabinets are made from heavy aluminum and are somewhat similar to the cabinets of the slightly bigger SCM20ASL (Tape Op #49), which are the next model up in the line. The first thing you notice is that these things are built. They look as though they could survive a direct hit from an artillery shell and show barely a scratch on the paint. They weigh almost 40 lbs apiece, which is a fair amount for speakers of their somewhat small size.
So how do they sound? Impressive. Before using them in a session, I checked out some mixes that I was very familiar with. Although they are in the category of nearfield monitors, you could certainly use these as main monitors. They have amazing low end for cabinets of their size, especially if you adjust the LF contour up a bit. They give you a solid feel for the fundamental frequencies of the low end, without sounding "false" or overly hyped. Although the low-frequency response is very good, the 6" woofer won't give you the complete, extended low-frequency response of a true full-range system. If these were my only monitors, I would probably opt for the addition of a powered subwoofer to deliver the last half octave. The other striking thing is the stunningly fast response of the speakers. The transients hit you in the forehead. There is amazing life and sparkle to the response. This is partially due to the approach ATC uses for cone construction using a technology called CLD. With CLD, two lightweight cones are sandwiched together for greater damping and reduced mass. Along with this comes incredible imaging-about the best I've heard. The horizontal soundstage is impressive, with exceptional detail. There was no effort in placing instruments in the mix. But in addition to the left/right imaging, I noticed a dimension to the center image that was lacking in other speakers. You can hear nuance. You can hear subtle EQ changes. And they deliver nuance effortlessly, even at fairly aggressive levels. Now, due to their fairly small size, they do reach a point where they run out of headroom, but it happens at a louder level than you might expect.
The speakers are fairly well-balanced, although they are quite present in the upper midrange. At first, I perceived this as overall brightness, but upon closer listening, I noticed that the presence lift didn't extend all the way up the range. To my ears, they don't seem quite as present above about 8 kHz as they do from 3-7 kHz or so. Now this isn't anything at all like an unpleasant spike in the response, it's more like a contour that leans towards the upper midrange. This makes them very forward-sounding speakers, but not at all harsh. If you are inclined towards wanting your monitors to be incredibly smooth, these may not be the right choice for you. Since they sound so forward and detailed, you must mix along those lines to ensure that your tracks have life and detail on other systems.
I mixed several types of tracks on these monitors to check the real world translation. The first project was one that had heavily stacked vocals. Getting the vocals to correctly cut through the mix while not being sibilant can take some tweaking-and I didn't hit it right on the first attempt. My first mix had too much on the very top end to balance correctly. After checking the mix on several systems, I went back for another attempt. With a better understanding of the HF response of the SCM16A, I was able to dial it in correctly on the second attempt. After that, I mixed a fairly straight-ahead rock project. I was able to get good articulation on the electric guitars and vocals, good placement of the bass and kick, and the high end of the hi-hat sat well with the top end of the vocals and the acoustic guitars.
Any monitor has a learning curve, and for the SCM16A, it would be making sure you understood the relationship between the upper-mid and high-end frequencies, which to my ears is a bit different than I'm used to hearing. With minor trial and error, I quickly became comfortable with what the speakers were telling me. I came to appreciate how fast I could zero in on an element of the mix and fine tune something specific. The $2800 street price for a pair makes them a bit of an investment, but they certainly deliver a tremendous amount of performance. If they fall within your budget, they are certainly worth checking out. ($3500 MSRP pair; www.atc.gb.net, www.www.transaudiogroup.com)
Tape Op is a bi-monthly magazine devoted to the art of record making.