Mastering is an art form, the crucial final engineering step in the process of releasing music. Many articles have been written to help creative individuals, working professionals and even business partners understand what this process is and what the hopeful outcome could or should be. I have participated in many of these discussions.
Here, in addition to the review of this powerful new SPL system, I’d like to talk a little bit about opinions and the importance of what they bring to the table. It will also serve as something of a disclaimer, as I am an SPL user. The world of mastering engineers, and the products developed specifically for the market, is relatively small. I don’t consider this a conflict; I consider it a win for users and the industry alike.
As a mastering engineer, my clients come to me particularly and precisely for my opinion. How I developed that authority is certainly through years and years of experience, practice, trial and error, and by paying very close attention. Over the years, I have had the great fortune to work in many excellent facilities, and some perhaps not so great. Even my own! One thing they have in common is a playback system with some sort of controller to get the audio signal to the speakers.
This is the one part of the system where there is no room for compromise. I am often asked what I believe is the most important piece of equipment in my room. My immediate answer is the monitoring environment, which is far more crucial than any single piece of equipment.
If I am to use my opinions to help guide the sound of a record or musical release, then I need to be confident that what I am hearing is exactly what is being sourced. If the monitoring environment is compromised in any way, then so are my decisions. It’s like that old saying, “If you are on the wrong train, then every stop is the wrong stop.” Within this system, there needs to be a central hub to direct the audio from its source, through all the necessary components, out to the monitors and capture device.
I had been paying attention and listening to an increasing number of pieces of the SPL product line for years, and I found the company’s developments intriguing. They had been building equipment to a 120V rail platform. I started small with the Phonitor.
I don’t often listen through headphones when working, but I find that on a restoration or very detailed noise-reduction project, they can be a very useful way of digging right in. I very much liked the sound coming through the Phonitor. As the company released more products around a cohesive design philosophy, I reached out to Hermann Gier to inquire about the DMC console that they used to make.
There was actually a second motivating factor for this inquiry: I needed to expand my channel count past my current console restriction to handle upcoming immersive audio projects. He told me that the company does not make the previous console any longer due to cost, and, frankly, he said that very few mastering engineers would even consider purchasing one. I then asked if he had enough spare parts to put one together for me.
We had a great discussion about that console and its design. And as I thought we were about to wrap up the conversation, he asked me what I would want to see in a console. He said that he had been thinking about SPL’s high-rail-voltage circuits and how that might apply to a new console that would adapt to new formats.
It turns out that acclaimed engineer Ronald Prent, who was instrumental in development aspects of the original large SPL console, had been thinking along these same lines and had had similar discussions with Hermann. The big questions were how to incorporate all that SPL had learned from the original design into the new gear, while maintaining function, usability, simplicity, and even space and cost parity.
So Hermann and I spent months talking about features, workflow and other aspects of the realities and needs of a mastering facility. Many iterations were drawn up; for example, some had meters included, some had built in D/A converters, some had headphone outs. One even had a built-in cup holder. (Kidding.)
Related: SPL Ships 3 New Products to Expand Its Mastering Series Hardware Line, July 24, 2018
As we discussed the number of channels, we tried to predict what the surround or immersive needs might be in the future. Next was assessing the pros and cons of each refined design until it became clear that the path forward was to create a modular system that would not require an engineer to commit to internal converters. Many mastering engineers spend a huge amount of time and expense choosing the converters that allow them to get the most out their signal. In mastering, it’s a preference akin to any engineer’s preference for speakers.
We streamlined, removing unnecessary or redundant functions such as extra channels, meters or headphone amps. After the whittling had brought the main console down to the core functions, we focused on options so that engineers could incorporate components into a system as the need arose. It was to be a modular system that could be tailored to the needs of individual engineers.
Prototypes were built and tested; Hermann sent me the first two pieces, the DMC Stereo Mastering Console and the MC16 Monitor Controller. (Note: In late summer, SPL announced the release of three new mastering products, including the two I received, along with a significant update to the versatile PASSEQ.)
After wiring up a simple playback chain for the DMC, I sat down to listen. Whenever I have critical listening to do with any new piece of gear, whether it is an EQ, software, cables, power supplies or whatever, I spend a considerable amount of time listening back and forth with many different types of material before coming to any conclusion. I listen to multiple styles of music across different formats such as tape, Hi-Res or other, some of which I have worked on and others I am very fond of and know extremely well. This allows me to get a bigger, broader picture of how the audio is handled.
The result? Wow! This was unrestricted sound coming through my speakers. I don’t think there is any doubt that the high rail voltage contributes to the “ease” with which the audio reached my ears. Of course, this was part of the design goal from the beginning: The signal path had to be clean and direct, engaging only the components in the path that absolutely had to be there, nothing else. No extra components in the circuit to add noise, distortion or degradation.
The second hardware component in the system is the MC16, which allows two sources of up to 16 channels of audio to be monitored for those working on Dolby Atmos, DTS:X, Auro3D, Sennheiser Ambeo or any other multichannel format. Knowing that the future of audio is always evolving, SPL designed it so that multiple MC16s can be added to the DMC core. Very smart. This opens the system up for use in object-oriented production, from games to film to emerging AR/VR formats. 22.2 playback? No problem. 62.4 audio? No problem. Fantastic! Future-proof!
Related: Field Test: SPL Passeq Passive Equalizer, by Michael Cooper, March 1, 2007
I choose to use external gear for the majority of my processing. I like the sound and feel of analog equipment when making adjustment to the projects I work on. The DMC was built to be a stereo console with many simple, yet thoughtful controls for recording gain adjustment, polarity changes, trim, additional speaker outputs (which would certainly appeal to mix engineers), a selectable send to a headphone amp, external meter outputs and a second set of outputs to feed a second recorder, such as a tape machine.
I sometimes use those second outputs to add a dynamic processor to capture one of the two sets of master outs to facilitate a more dynamic vinyl master, while at the same time giving a little more push for the CD or digital release version. (Sometimes budgets do not allow the time for a recommended separate master for each format.) The DMC even has a dedicated GPI switch, in case you want to engage a talkback (mix, tracking facilities), trigger the door unlocking for a client, or turn on a light. (Not kidding.) Of course, there are all of the needed monitoring options of the different sources, Dim, Mute, mono/out of phase, etc.
The next component in this line will be the Hermes. I received the prototype in mid-November. What will it do? In the DMC, you can insert a side signal path for processing. Some engineers will choose to use a pathway to reconfigure their path based on the needs of each session. The Hermes will allow an engineer to have up to eight different pieces of external gear (EQ, Comp, etc.) connected to the insert path. The beauty of this is that it will allow the engineer to re-order their external equipment and save the paths as presets for common use chains.
But wait, there is more. Two—not one, but two (!)—assignable parallel blend controls to add different amounts of any two processes. Fantastic! And there will be more components to add to this flexibility. I’m not sure I can talk about them just yet.
SPL has made a very thoughtful, excellent sounding modular console core and ancillary components for almost any studio situation. And they have done so while holding to their exacting sonic standard that appeals to audio professionals at the highest level. I’m very happy to have been part of the process of bringing the user side requirements to the design stage, and I’m even happier to have the finished product in my studio.