Pt 18 – The Acid Test – Part 1

At long last – music.

After months of gruelling work, the build is finished other than studio two (nearly there) and a week or so of painting, snagging and carpet laying.
Studio one control room and live room are ready for tuning. Boffin extraordinaire, Murray Harris, finally rigged my experimental monitor system – vintage Tannoy Lockwood Majors loaded with 1960’s dual concentric Red drivers, custom ATC subbase in concrete enclosures, Tannoy supertweeters and a combination of two massive EAR tube monoblocks and a Yamaha PMC5002 power amp.

And the result?

I always use Steely Dan’s ‘Aja’ album for testing monitors and rooms, not because it’s my favourite album (indeed, I don’t have a copy at home) but rather because it’s the best recorded album I’ve ever heard. The instruments are beautifully tracked in the best studios by the best engineers and with the best musicians. Highs and lows are tight, full and controlled, definition is faultless and the overall sound solid yet open. In short, it’s the ultimate test.

Murray’s painstaking attention to detail has resulted in a stunning sound. One reason I like Tannoys is because the dual concentric design makes them uniquely phase coherent, and if you want to know what this means in practice, come and have a listen. The detail, definition and imagery are remarkable. Quite simply, the system offers hifi reproduction of the highest standard. But what is equally gratifying is the fact that the sound remains the same no matter where the listener stands. As opposed to just about any other monitor system I’ve ever heard, the sound is identical everywhere in the room – there is no sweet spot as in most studios. The bass doesn’t disappear at the back of the room or become exaggerated in the corners. Fritz’s control design has worked almost to perfection, a tremendous achievement.

I say ‘almost’ because inevitably some tuning is required. The lower midrange lacks weight, with the bottom snare or that throaty quality in vocals being a little indistinct. Turn the monitors down, though, and the balance improves – an indication that this slight imbalance is down to the room. This was anticipated, though, and the design has allowed for the addition of further bass traps to tune the acoustics.

And then I experienced a piece of pure magic. Impressive thought the monitors are, once Murray switched over to balanced mains everything in the track immediately gelled. Suddenly the band became ten degrees tighter, the bottom end kicked and despite having heard the album a hundred or more times, I became aware of nuances and production touches that I’d never noticed before. If I had doubts about the value of balanced mains, they were banished in an instant.

Murray explained it simply; we’re accustomed to listening through an unnoticed noise floor that masks and muddies the sound. Unnoticed? Only because this noise floor is always there so we assume this is the norm. But…remove the noise floor and all that remains is the music, unmasked and unsullied. Hearing is believing. One day I hope you have the opportunity to witness such purity of sound; you’ll know exactly what I mean.

Yesterday was an exciting day. After almost six months of building, our team has passed the first true acid test with flying colours. The control room sounds as fantastic as I could have hoped, on a par with or better than the best rooms I’ve ever worked in (and that includes a lot of top studios, believe me). Sure, we’re not quite there but we’re already closer than I’d dare to hope.

So with cables being laid ready to install the equipment as soon as the alarms are active, we’re almost ready to run sound tests in the live room. If the results are anything like as good as the control room, I’m going to be a very, very happy bunny.