Raising the standard
With the rise of the project studio, the term ‘reference monitoring’ has lost much of its significance. One Australian company wants to see it restored, however, and audio standards raised
‘I’ve been in this business since the 1960s – all my working life. Back then most people were owner-operators and the focus of equipment that they made was on quality. Today, the attention is focused on the amateur and semi-pro market because of its size, and professional standards are being neglected.’
Neatly framed in a single observation, Frank Hinton has summed up the frustration of a generation of audio engineers. Excited by the ability of technology to open the doors of the recording studio to succeeding generations of players and technicians, and their evolving musical ideas, they are also dismayed by the loss of skills and understanding that the mass market has brought about. But this one plans to do something about it.
Frank Hinton is a Melbourne man – the brains behind leading distributor ATT Audio Controls and its sister company Classic Audio Designs, established to ‘research, develop and manufacture high performance audio products in Australia’. Recently this has seen him invest a considerable amount of time and energy in restoring something of the old order in the form of a new loudspeaker design. Dubbed Grover Notting, this is neither a replacement for the Yamaha NS10M nor an updated alternative to the Auratone. Instead it is a well thought-out and carefully designed close-field cross-reference loudspeaker for recording studios of all levels.
‘I talked to one of the established professional loudspeaker designers about this some time ago and he reckoned I was harebrained,’ Mr Hinton muses. ‘But I know there are professionals out there looking for a better alternative to computer speakers, ghetto blasters, transistor radios and all the other means of referencing a recording to the real world.
‘In recent years, a high proportion of audio systems and devices have been developed with their focus on the hobbyist sector,’ he elaborates. ‘This market is larger than the professional/industrial market and inherently price sensitive, so these products are often designed to a price point and manufactured accordingly. More often than not, they are feature-rich, but sometimes performance poor, and they find their way into the professional/industrial sector where they fulfil a need.
A case in point: since Yamaha withdrew the NS10M during the late 1990s, countless ‘replacement’ models have appeared from manufacturers around the world. Yet none have been awarded its status. Introduced as a domestic model, the NS10M found an unexpected place in professional recording as engineers and studios adopted them as a cheap and ready means of connecting acoustically optimised control rooms with domestic listening systems, as well as a familiar reference between different recording studios. Few, if any, liked it as a loudspeaker, but it met a very real need and was forgiven its many shortcomings.
In contrast, the boom in ‘project’ studios brought about by advancing technology and tumbling equipment prices celebrated it. Largely unaware of its coloured frequency response, its inability to deliver lower frequencies and its unsuitability to ‘industrial’ operation, the NS10M was offered a welcome place alongside sequencers, samplers and low-cost digital recorder-editors in dance music studios. Without a set of ‘main’ monitors for critical listening, this was the final stage of quality control for many recordings and the beginning of Mr Hinton’s dilemma.
As for the Auratone: ‘We wouldn’t make an Auratone-type loudspeaker because it no longer represents domestic listening conditions or present technical considerations… We were interested in having a crack at doing things better. We are not interested in boardrooms, we’re interested in reinstating quality audio in the professional environment.’
The initial impetus to move into speaker design came in form of a phone call from Gerry Duffy, the founder and CEO of Labsonics audio postproduction studios. ‘It was probably during 2002, when we received a call from an old customer and friend,’ Mr Hinton recalls. ‘Gerry needed a properly designed, application specific, cross-reference audio monitor, to use throughout Labsonics. What he was using was no longer appropriate, and he couldn’t find a suitable replacement – he was happy with his primary audio monitoring, but the critical cross-reference was missing.
‘We couldn’t help him at the time,’ he continues, ‘but we also discovered there was no relevant product available, nor was any manufacturer interested in looking at this vital area of monitoring. In the ensuing years we heard variations on the same theme – we heard of postproduction facilities using tiny PA speakers and TVs, mastering suites referencing to computer speakers that became obsolete every three months, mix engineers running back and forth to their car to make assessments, producers using their laptops and many engineers and facilities actually working without a cross reference or second opinion
It wasn’t until 2007 that the project began to gather speed, however. Mr Hinton approached manufacturers with his thoughts – again without success. ‘In December of 2007 we determined to develop our own product, to be designed and manufactured in Australia,’ he says. ‘We had already received significant feedback from all areas of the audio industry, so we were quickly able to go to the prototype stage. In the prototype development process it became obvious that it was not possible to satisfy the broad needs of the entire industry with one model, to do so would be a compromise. It became apparent that two models were required.’
Two models were duly designed and prototyped, and then presented at the Australian Entech trade show in February 2008. These were then field tested and refined throughout 2008, and went into production by the end of the year – being made entirely in Australia. ‘I found that there was an unbelievable amount of nonsense talked by cabinet manufacturers outside of the audio business,’ Mr Hinton reports. ‘Many manufacturers outsource to China, and I’m not against off-shore manufacturing where it is appropriate, but there was an opportunity here to support local businesses.’
The monitors are aimed at all music recording, mixing, mastering/editing, television/film postproduction and broadcast applications, and are intended to occupy minimum space. The design turns its back on the use of a ported enclosure that uses resonance to extend the lower frequency response in favour of an infinite baffle (sealed) approach. The cabinet itself is made of dense, void free, maximum density MDF and, with particular attention paid to determining the most suitable internal damping, are claimed to be virtually vibration-free. Inside their cubical enclosures, the Grover Notting CR1 and CR2 use a single 100mm and 148mm ferro-fluid cooled driver from Scandinavia, offering 100Hz to17kHz and 60Hz to 12kHz response respectively. Apart from carful selection of the drivers, the principal benefit of using a single driver design is that all of the issues related to crossovers are neatly avoided.
The suggested amplifier pairings for the CR1 and CR2 are channel in the order of 50W/100W and 50W/200W, but Mr Hinton recommends greater caution with valve amplifiers and also revives a warning that would be familiar to old-school engineers, but which may save less experienced ones making an old mistake: ‘Amplifiers should never be run into clip while driving the monitors,’ he advises. ‘If the amp is overdriven, the waveform will clip and pass a lot of harmonics through to the monitors and the transducer may be damaged. The amplifier will perform much better if it is allowed a reasonable degree of headroom.’
Of the two passive designs, the CR1 is aimed towards postproduction and the CR2 towards music applications. ‘In a professional environment, you should make every effort to produce a professional product, not simply meet a price-performance point for a particular market,’ Mr Hinton asserts. ‘If you are building a monitor loudspeaker, you must have linearity in the information band – in this case, from 80Hz to 11kHz. We have specifically addressed the phase errors that accompany the use of crossovers, and the digital “glassy” sound that people complain about is often caused by high-frequency nonlinearity.
‘There are a lot of manufacturers using cheap components, but there is good stuff available,’ he continues. ‘It’s not about sex appeal, it’s about functionality – how well does it actually work?’
What the Grover Notting speakers are not, is a technically ideal reference monitor. Instead, they bring the concept of cross-reference monitoring up to date in the professional field. The systems have been designed with careful component evaluation, complimented by no compromise enclosure architecture and critical/strategic damping techniques. Mr Hinton believes that reproduction is virtually free of harmonic distortion and practically eliminates the potential for phase complications. This provides an accurate reproduction of the typical sonic performance of domestic appliances and at minimal listening fatigue potential. While the small infinite baffle enclosure design doesn’t provide the opportunity for extending low frequency response, it does deliver the tight bass performance required to assess the low end of a music programme.
There are also two-way models in the pipeline. ‘We are actually in the midst of a major principle monitor development programme,’ Mr Hinton reports. ‘We have realised that we have the resources to offer a different approach to audio monitoring that could be embraced by professionals worldwide.’ As these depart from the single-driver approach of the CR1 and CR2, a principle monitor brings new challenges that involve new proprietary technologies – not yet ready for open discussion. ‘Our monitors have to be either relevant to people’s needs or different from the other options available, or we will not release them,’ Mr Hinton asserts. ‘But we have recently produced a number of two-way close- and mid-field prototypes, which are being enthused over in the test phase, by many end-users. In a nutshell, we feel that we have now proven to ourselves and are quite confident we can extend our capability.’
Whether the CR1 and CR2 can aspire to the role vacated by the NS10M and Auratone remains to be seen, but they certainly offer a welcome alternative to the many close-field monitoring options that presently exist. As does the philosophy of a company that is prepared to place audio quality over marketing efficiency.
Classic Audio Designs, Australia: +61 3 9379 5025
Published in PAME January /February 2010