Sterling Modular founder Jim Maher believes that acoustics matter when choosing furniture for an audio working environment. Having used products from his competitors as well as from general office and furniture stores, I can testify that the choice of desk has a massive impact on the acoustic signature of a room. And after spending a few months with a Sterling Modular console, I have learned that while studio furniture from different manufacturers may look similar, in use they are anything but similar.
Let's address some housekeeping issues upfront. I've heard some confusion regarding an association between Sterling Modular and world-renowned mastering house Sterling Sound. The shared use of "Sterling" in the names is a coincidence, even though just about every studio in Sterling Sound's Chelsea building is outfitted with Sterling Modular products. The second item deals with trying to utilize consumer furniture for your studio desk. I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but you're probably shooting yourself in the foot if you don't have a real studio desk. Of course, it depends upon the construction of your item, but most general-office computer desks have two problems. First, they are not acoustically damped, which means they often vibrate at a sympathetic frequency to the sound in the room. It may be 250 Hz, it may be 700 Hz-it depends. But this is bad news. It means your desk can change the perceived level of some wavelengths of audio, and it can be especially troublesome when you use a subwoofer. The workarounds are bad options; EQ or room-correction software means adding more money and more things to your monitor chain unnecessarily (and while room-correction software may work to a limited extent, furniture resonance is beyond what it's intended to fix). The second issue is that a desk not properly designed for an audio environment will contribute comb-filtering to the sound hitting your ears from the monitor speakers. Obtuse-angled reflections off the surfaces of the desk can have delays of less than 30 ms (the threshold for your brain to process the separation of a reflected sound from the original). Bad news.
Currently, Sterling Modular offers six different versions of preconfigured "Plans" as well as custom-fitted consoles for mixers and control surfaces (e.g., API, Digidesign, Euphonix, Toft, SSL, Yamaha, etc.). Most of Sterling's desks are covered with a durable black laminate, while the topsides and lean bars are accented with wood. Red oak comes standard and looks like the warm oak furniture found in many homes. Other hardwoods such as maple, bubinga, and mahogany, are available as cost options.
Many mastering engineers choose the A or B Plans, which feature two or more gear bays in a straight line, left-to-right. I purchased the Plan E, which features three wraparound bays. The desk arrived in four flat boxes. Kyle assembled the unit before I knew what happened. Poor Kyle. Every time I have to rewire my mastering desk in order to test new review gear-which is often-he gets conscripted into doing all the work. He hated my old desk so much he wanted to get the Sterling Modular set up immediately. As he assembled the desk, I was impressed with the precision joints and the quality of the materials. If you're a woodworker who wants to make your own desk, the time it would take you to pull this off, combined with the cost of comparable materials, would not make economic sense. The weeks it would take to get it right could be spent doing billable work that would more than pay for the Sterling Modular.
The first thing you notice when seeing the desk (and it isn't immediately obvious from the marketing photos) is that many of the solid panels you expect to find are actually frames covered in black acoustic cloth. Thus, the audio is free to pass through much of the desk. Instead of a big slab-of-a-unit in the middle of your room (causing an acoustic shadow and creating reflections), the Sterling Modular greatly reduces mass between you and your monitors. As a functional godsend, four of the Plan E's panels are detachable, allowing immediate access to gear, wiring, and the inside of the desk. With my old desk, you had to unscrew the gear and pull it out of the rack to reach the wiring. Due to the weight and expense of mastering gear, this required two people to do a simple task like adding a side-chain cable. Almost no patching could be done with the gear racked; my old desk had no access to reach or see where you were working. An additional benefit of the Sterling Modular fabric panels is greater air circulation, which is good for the health and lifespan of Class A and tube-based gear. I no longer need rack fans to cool the bays. That translates into less noise, less heat, and less wiring. Nice.
The second thing I observed about the Plan E is that the gear bays are flatter and lower, which decreases the amount of "stuff" between your ears and your monitors. If a flat table has a slope of zero, my old desk's gear bays sloped up and away from me at approximately 25 degrees, while the Sterling Modular comes in at about 20 degrees. (I threw that in for AH. He loves numbers. Here's another one: 7.) [Good thing I had you guys actually measure the angles, because the real figures are 19 degrees for the old and 15 for the Sterling Modular. -AH] And instead of a meager 8 rack units (RU) available in the left and right bays, the Plan E gives me 12 RU per side, 8 RU in the middle bay, 12 RU in the front lower bays and 12 RU more in the back. That's a total of 32 RU versus 16 RU on my old desk. [Yes, I love numbers, and (12x2)+8+12+12=56. There are 56 RU total, with 32 in the upper bays. -AH] With all of the extra rack space, I removed two side car racks from my room, which further decreased the number of reflective pieces in my space-not to mention the Sterling Modular's extra RUs would have saved me several hundred dollars had I started with the Plan E.
Now, I know Doug Sax and Bob Katz have these cool setups with nothing between the listener and the speaker. But I don't work like that. I need to lean over gear and mull things like a demented scientist. It just makes me feel like I'm doing a better job. (Sometimes we wear white lab coats, but this is a review, not a therapy session.) I'm not claiming the Sterling Modular is the same as having no desk, but it's much less sonically intrusive when compared to every other option I've tried. From the acoustically-transparent fabric panels to the lower overall profile, the many refinements add up to subtract obstructions.
Speaking of monitors, there is always the issue of the computer display. In a few years, 60" to 80" LCD displays will be affordable, and we'll all have them on the back wall behind our monitor speakers. But until then, most of us are stuck with the sub-30" variety. My first thought was to set my 20" LCD display on the shelf behind the center bay. This sort of worked, and had I been using a larger screen, I might have kept that configuration. But the monitor was a bit farther away than I was used to working, and the bottom of the
screen was slightly hidden by the top of the bay. (Taller engineers won't have this issue.) I called Sterling Modular, and they shipped a radial LCD arm. We affixed the arm mount in the center of the desk, cut off the excess pole. (The main support is purposely long to accommodate a range of setups.) I was able to set the display a good 10" closer to my eyes, while floating it a few millimeters above the center bay. It couldn't be more perfectly placed if I wanted it to be.
Working with the Plan E is a pleasure. Because the layout is more compact and wraps around me, I no longer have to roll my chair 2 ft to the left or right if I want to adjust settings. I am always in the sweet spot relative to my speakers, and I can reach all of the gear with ease. This has reduced stress on my lower back and increased my working speed. I put my Legendary Audio Masterpiece (Tape Op #67) in the center bay, allowing me to reach any control at will. As I've already noted, the lower profile and smaller acoustic footprint have improved my listening experience. The center image is more focused, and now it is much easier to localize instruments in the left-to-right field.
I cannot overstate how important your monitoring chain is in audio production. And you can't ignore the fact that your work area physically resides in the middle of your chain. But, I can just hear some of you asking, "Would you really spend as much on a studio-desk as a compressor?" My answer is an unequivocal yes. The Sterling Modular Plan E is as important to my mastering environment as any gear it holds. (In fact, I put one of my prized analog babies on eBay to pay for my review unit.) There is no way I would go back. With the Plan E, I have less obstruction between monitors and my ears, I sit in the sweet spot, I can reach all of my gear, I can rewire with ease, I got rid of three other racks, and the computer monitor floats exactly where I want it. I enthusiastically recommend Sterling Modular to any audio or video engineer for the improved ergonomics, customizable configurations, reduced sonic impact, and significant rack space. The Plan E is a real workflow improvement for me. (Plan E starts at $2958; www.sterlingmodular.com)
Tape Op is a bi-monthly magazine devoted to the art of record making.