This is a mature, third-generation product. As a hybrid DAW/analog studio owner, I'm now on my fourth monitor controller, and I'm very impressed with how Grace addressed so many of the needs and issues associated with a product like this that fulfills crucial control-room functions, whether tracking, mixing, or mastering - in digital, analog, or hybrid domains.
Here's a brief history of my monitor controller usage. 1. A long-forgotten $99 compact all-in-one controller. Pro: More flexible than the designed-to-fit-a-budget monitor section of the Soundcraft Ghost console we were using. Con: I remember it sounding just as colored as the Ghost's section - maybe even worse. 2. First generation Grace m904 monitor controller [Tape Op #41]. Pros: Sounds amazing! Much more versatile than the very limited monitor section in the Neve Melbourne 34162 broadcast console [#37] that we had just acquired. Con: Only handles two sets of speakers and no sub, so the mix guys were not happy. 3. A second-generation, mastering-quality system. Pros: Handles three sets of speakers and a sub. Sounds amazing! Con: The artist cue/headphone routing is confusing and convoluted compared to the Grace, so the tracking guys were not happy.
I still remember calling the folks at Grace and telling them I was getting a new monitor controller. It felt like I was breaking up with a girlfriend I still really cared about, but had grown apart from. But the folks at Grace, like an understanding ex-girlfriend, listened attentively and seemed to understand the reasons why I was dumping them, or more accurately, moving them into the B-room. Looking back, I think they not only listened, but they took notes.
This past year, I lost the lease where The Hangar was housed, and so I split the studio into two stand-alone facilities in two different cities. This gave me some forced downtime to consider what worked and what didn't. I had several dinner and drink meetings with some of my more regular engineers. One thing came up more than once: "Can we get rid of the monitor controller? The headphone routing is so confusing." At the same time, I was installing the older Grace m904 unit in the first of the two new studios and couldn't help but be re-impressed with its versatile routing, despite it only handling two sets of speakers. About then, I recalled seeing the new m905 at the AES show last year and being very impressed with it, but thinking it was not anything I would ever actually need, as I hadn't yet been forced to move out and build two new studios. At this point, I obviously did a bit of research into the m905 and took the plunge.
So, right in the middle of the second new studio build, the m905 showed up. I hate manuals, so I just went for it and installed the 2RU-height mainframe into the rack and placed the wired remote-control unit at my API 1608 console [Tape Op #81]. Upon powering up the system, my first thought was, "Damn, this thing is already broken!" The smartphone-sized color LCD screen on the remote was displaying numbers that were going up and down all over the place. Arghh! And then I realized the numbers were getting bigger as they followed the volume of the sound in the room. Damn, this thing has a built-in SPL meter. Clever! And things just went smoothly from there.
Of course the m905 sounds great, as you would expect from Grace Design. Feature-wise, it's very complete. It has three sets of stereo speaker outputs as well as two subwoofer outs; the latter can be set up as two assignable mono subs or a single stereo pair. As expected, speaker- selection, mono, dim, mute, and subwoofer-mute functions all get their own dedicated buttons. Eight additional buttons above and below the LCD are primarily the input select buttons, but they're also used for menu-accessible settings. Thankfully, the menus are at most two levels deep. Here you can configure, calibrate, and name your inputs and outputs, as well as change advanced settings. For example, mono mode can be configured for L+R sum, L-only to both, or R- only to both. Analog inputs include balanced, unbalanced, cue, and talkback. Digital inputs include two AES, one S/PDIF, one TOSLINK, and one ADAT (selectable in pairs 1-2, 3-4, etc.). In addition to the three sets of speaker outputs, there are AES and S/PDIF digital outs, as well as cue and talkback analog outs. Word clock I/O is also represented. A USB 2.0 port can connect the m905 directly to a host computer for stereo playback of standard PCM or DSD via DoP. (The AES and S/PDIF inputs also support DoP.) And interestingly, ten channels of digital audio can be fed to the host computer from the m905 (but there are clocking restrictions that you'll need to study in the manual if you plan to use this functionality with additional USB audio interfaces). The headphone amp even includes Xfeed. As Scott explained in his review of the m902 headphone amp [Tape Op #68], Xfeed is an all-analog crossfeed circuit that simulates a realistic loudspeaker listening environment while minimizing ear fatigue. All the routing options are super flexible, and importantly, the artist cue routing is dead-easy to use and versatile.
At every step of the way, when I thought I might need to crack open the manual (how does the subwoofer mute/solo button work?), I didn't, as the GUI on the LCD was so intuitive. The only time I referenced the manual was to sort out an issue with our new artist headphone amp/mixer, which was different from the one we'd spec'ed for our patchbay (with the m905 being an eleventh hour addition as well). As it turned out, the manual only verified that the Grace was working fine, but I had something configured incorrectly on the new headphone amp. The m905's routing was so flexible that it fit right into the new artist headphone system and patchbay without any new wiring. The new studio is up and running now, and we've had several sessions with different engineers. They've all made a point of saying how impressed they are with the m905.
If you are in the market for a high-end, versatile, great- sounding monitor controller for both mixing and tracking, I think the Grace Design m905 is really the only choice. I'm just hoping my last monitor controller ends up in a good relationship with a mix engineer; it's a great system, but it just doesn't meet the needs of our full-service studio like the m905 does. ($3325 street; www.gracedesign.com) -JB