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As you bring in more gear and evolve your studio space, you'll soon come to realize that you've quickly outgrown this style of set-up. With expansion, it can become more difficult to route the signal where you want it to go.
For instance, how do you connect multiple sets of speakers? Or surround sound? Or even just a subwoofer that you can turn on and off? What about cue mixes, headphone amps and the talkback mic? That’s where monitor controllers come in.
Monitor controllers do much more than the name suggests. In addition to just controlling the level of your monitors, they also allow you to control what you hear.
Many engineers choose to include multiple sets of monitors in their studio. It’s not uncommon to see professional recording studios feature a pair of near-field monitors, a pair of far-field monitors, and one or two small cube-style monitors.
These different sets of monitors each have their own quirks, and allow you to hear how a track translates to different types of speakers. Rick Rubin famously keeps an old-school boombox in his studio for reference.
Monitor controllers typically feature multiple outputs so you can toggle between monitors with ease. Without a monitor controller, you’d have to crawl behind your desk and reconfigure your output connections manually.
In addition to toggling between speaker sets, monitor controllers allow you to independently engage/disengage a subwoofer. This lets you reference the low end regardless of which speaker set you’re using.
Since most monitor controllers have a dedicated sub of LFE (Low Frequency Effects) Output, they also feature an independent crossover, which allows you to control which frequencies are sent to the subs and the mains, respectively.
Many subwoofers include foot controllers and built-in crossovers, but without a monitor controller you wouldn’t be able to use the sub with more than one set of speakers.
When mixing, it’s important to see how your tracks will translate to different systems. In addition to referencing different sets of speakers, many engineers like to see how a track sounds in mono.
Most monitor controllers allow you to switch from mono to stereo with the push of a button. This is more than simply disengaging the left or right speaker — it actually sums the left and right channels and sends the sum through both speakers equally.
If you frequently mix in surround sound, monitor controllers allow you to mute and un-mute specific speakers, like left, center, right, and surround left and right. This allows you to focus exclusively on what comes out of a particular speaker set to finetune your mix for a particular environment.
Many monitor controllers feature additional inputs. These are typically used to monitor something other than your DAW through your studio monitors. This feature is most commonly used to connect and monitor external playback devices — anything from a CD player, to a tape machine, to your phone! However, some units like the Mackie Big Knob or Universal Audio’s Apollo Twin MKII series actually feature additional preamps that can be used for recording as well.
Monitor controllers aren't just for the engineer in the control room — they're also for artists in the live room. Monitor controllers offer independent headphone mixes, as well as options to monitor the main mix. Most monitor controllers also feature built-in headphone amplifiers to power these mixes, as well as options to use your own headphone amp and distribute to multiple performers.
Perhaps one of the most useful features on a monitor controller is the built-in talkback mic. Talkback mics are used to communicate with artists in the live room. By including the talkback mic in the monitor controller, it keeps you from using one of the inputs to your DAW. Without a talkback mic, you'd have to play "baseball" with the drummer and try to get them to read your hand signals as you shout at the window in vain.
As an added bonus, many monitors include a "slate" output, which is fed by the talkback mic. This can be fed to a speaker and used as a talkback monitor in the live room, or even routed directly into your DAW — perfect for scratch vocals!
There are a lot of choices when it comes to monitor controllers. While it may seem like they all do the same thing, each unit actually offers a unique set of features, so take some time to assess the needs of your studio before trying to decide which box works best for you.
Also, it’s important to keep in mind that not every studio will need a monitor controller. If you only use one set of speakers, and record everything in your control room, you may not get as much use out of a monitor controller. But, if you find your signal flow is limited by your interface, it may be time to expand...
Here are a few suggestions. If you’re looking for something small to get you started, check out the Mackie Big Knob Studio+ or Presonus Monitor Station V2, which are commonly used in home studios or with mobile set-ups. For something a little more feature-heavy, check out the Dangerous Music Monitor ST, which is a pretty common tool in many mid-sized recording studios.
And if you’re looking for something to fit a world-class recording and mixing space, there are certainly a number of tried and true best sellers that are beloved by engineers around the world. The Crane Song Avocet IIA, Dangerous Music D-Box+, Grace Design m905 and Antelope Audio Satori have all become modern classics.
In addition to creating a better workflow for your studio, some monitor controllers can actually play a role in making your room sound better. The Trinnov D-Mon series plays the traditional role of a monitor controller, but also uses their Optimizer technology to perfectly tune your monitors to the acoustics of your studio.
Remember, every studio is different, and the whole purpose of a monitor controller is to improve your workflow and let you spend more time creating! Take some time and find the right monitor controller for your studio signal flow needs.