Review: Dangerous Monitor ST

I fell in love with the Dangerous Monitor ST when I first experienced it firsthand at a recording conference in Tucson. I approached this monitor control system with skepticism; it seemed like another convenient niche product that would do little more than get us through the growing pains of our transition away from recording consoles. But the DMST is one of a small handful of top processors in a specialized category, and Dangerous team has imbued it with something special: sexy looking sound.

The Dangerous Monitor ST ($2,199) makes me feel as if the prettiest girl at school has sat next to me, session after session. But she’s also a National Honors Society, Phi Beta Kappa-type. When you’re done staring and come to realize that the DMST has its roots in one of the world’s finest mastering facilities, you may succumb quickly, too.

So why so much fuss over a volume knob? Within minutes of my first listen, the Monitor ST was schooling me on what studio monitoring can be. By comparison to its elite classmates, the DMST audio path is solely analog, no VCAs and no digital level controls. But even the Tin Woodsman had a brain, as this rack-mounted I/O and desktop remote carry on a secluded binary dialogue providing innovative control, while maintaining analog feel right down to the clicking relays.

Features

Let’s be realistic; in a sound recording, function trumps form. After all, they’re not looking at our work, they hear it.

But in the recording studio there comes along the gear that not only rewards us with handsome sound but also looks timelessly handsome. And, in some sectors of the audio business (especially here in LA), a savvy studio owner or manager knows when to say, “Buy that one. It looks cooler. The clients will be impressed by it.” 

And the Dangerous Monitor ST remote (the part you’ll be touching and lookin’ at a lot) is drop dead gorgeous. Dangerous gear designer Chris Muth built the mastering consoles for Sterling Sound, one of my favorite mastering houses, thereby imparting a sterling sonic reputation to the entire Dangerous product line. But how did some Weller-wielding circuit benders come up with the elegantly modern, almost futuristic, but grounded design for the Monitor ST remote? Visions inspired by lead solder vapors? Who cares, if it looks this good.

The remote’s shape is an aluminum bridge, arced low across a gradual, banked curve. Its brushed chassis is an aesthetic extension of your Apple 23- or 30-inch Cinema Display (or new iMac), though unfortunately the feet of the bridge don’t allow its underbelly to naturally clear the base of a display stand if you happen to want to place it there (like I do).

In the daylight, switches faintly glow gumball red, orange, green or blue, according to their function, and jump in intensity when engaged. At night or in a mood-lit studio, the buttons really pop. I’m one of a minority of engineers, however, who works in a room with lots of windows and natural light. So I’d love to be able to adjust the intensity of these glowing buttons to fully appreciate them in full Venice Beach afternoon sunshine.

Alternately, the ST remote looks like it could be a nav panel on the Starship NCC1701-M (as in Mac), if there were one. The pictures on the Dangerous website do not do it justice. You could be happy you bought the Monitor ST for its looks alone.

No audio runs through the remote; it is the desktop command center for the guts in the 1U rack, requiring a single shielded Ethernet cable link. Only Bluetooth connectivity could be more streamlined and convenient. If you end up extending the location of the remote past the included 25 feet of CAT5e (like I did), make sure you stick with shielded cable. 

Additionally, the two calls I’ve made to Dangerous resulted in the some of the most streamlined, appealing customer service experiences I’ve had: very personal, absolutely interested, respectful and solution-oriented. Incidentally, during those conversations, neither they nor I knew I’d be writing this review.

Main features of the remote: switching for three sets of speakers, including programmable in/exclusion of dedicated subwoofer outs; four analog inputs with +4/-10 gain control; auxiliary input; talkback switch; individual speaker mute/solo; mono; volume; dim; and setup mode. It seems like a lot of switches for a second, but everything is so well laid out and color-coordinated that it takes mere minutes to get a full grasp. There are four additional switching buttons ready for future implementation of DMST expansion offerings. Setup mode, in which the user programs level offsets between speaker sets, provides control of gain for inputs and determines with which set of speakers the subwoofer will be active.

I encourage you to dowload the PDF of the succinct, well-written manual (www.dangerousmusic.com/stsr.html) for all the specs on how the DMST can interface with your studio. 

The rack unit features convenient, continuously variable gain controls for the headphone jack, aux to main and cue, main to cue, and input four (for quickly matching levels between a mastered CD to your mix in progress, for example). There’s not only a built-in talkback mic on the front, but a jack on the front for your own, if you like. Also on the back are the Aux Input XLR’s slate out and cue amp out XLR, and the two 25-pin D-Subs for I/O. There is also an auxiliary talkback switch jack.

Yes, the DMST has a wicked powerful built-in 40-watt headphone amp that won’t fatigue while driving a live room full of headphones in series. And D-Subs are a pain, but this couldn’t be a 1U box with all the available ins and outs if they were XLRs. (Make sure you acquire the D-Sub breakout cables by the time your DMST arrives or you won’t hear a thing.)

A solid talkback system, the dim function, and selectable speaker mutes – these features reveal the frame of reference from which the functionality DMST was designed; it was to be a robust, no compromise console monitoring section for your desktop. For those who are tracking and using cue mixes, the DMST is flexible and powerful. I use the DMST in a non-tracking control room, so I use the headphone system only as an additional reference. 

The DMST offers a wonderfully flexible, and, to my knowledge, unique feature amongst other monitor controllers in this league: a mixable input. The aux in can mix in a single stereo audio signal to the monitor path. It has a separate level control on the front of the rack unit and dedicated XLRs, in back. It was designed with the idea of mixing in a click track, for example, for the musicians on the other end of the cue amp output. Two knobs on the rack unit allow for tailoring the amount going to the headphones versus the speakers, meaning the recording engineer doesn’t have to listen to the click at all — hallelujah.

Thank God Dangerous incorporated the facility to mix in a second signal, because there are those of us with a computer in the room whose output we’d sometimes like to always hear. I must know the very instant I get a new email or IM! I seriously have iChat going as a constant business communication tool, so I rely on the audible new message cue when the app is running in the background.

Most importantly, perhaps, are the various audio and video files I might be auditioning in Quicktime or iTunes or the Finder. Because the aux in is a separate audio path, some of the functionality normally associated with the four line inputs is not available: the dim switch, individual speaker mutes, mono button, -10/+4 gain control, and audio off when master volume is turned all the way down. For my application, I’ve had to be mindful about having the volume knob up too high with the DIM switch on, lest an email dings through, unaffected by the DIM switch. (Now, if only my G5 would allow for true discrete routing of system sounds versus other audio.)

Many users will be well accommodated by a stock Monitor ST. Yet Dangerous designed the DMST to be obsolescence-proof. The first major, currently available ST companion is the Monitor SR, a 5.1 surround expansion unit maintaining four multichannnel analog inputs and providing switching between two 5.1 and one 2.1 speaker sets.

Further expansion is possible via the Additional Switching System (watch out for that acronym), which will provide multiple input listening, 2.1 subwoofer management, surround bass management, D to A conversion for digital stereo and surround input monitoring with source switching, 5.1 fold-down, and even video switching. It’s good to know that this plug-and-play monitoring box of singular, pure analog purpose is the foundation of an expandable, highly flexible analog and digital monitoring control center.

According to Dangerous the A.S.S. will be available in January, with the stereo DAC and Video Switching cards. The rest will follow.

In Use

My wife asked me, “Is this the box that allows you to go to 11 and one micron above zero?” Exactly.

Whether you mix at a soft level, at the ideal point on the Fletcher Munson curve, or hot enough to warm a cup of Earl Grey on the back of your speakers, the DMST sounds consistent, balanced and stable. This is accomplished by each volume increment having its own idealized gain stage. The lower volume settings on even the priciest consoles can drift and fizzle a bit. The sound in a distant rack of relays clicking through volume changes is so relaxing.

Over the years, I have sometimes used an NS10-esque justification for limitations in my monitoring chain: “If I can make my mix sound great monitoring through this cheap mixer it will sound really awesome on good systems. Besides, it’s just a volume control.” Employing a ubiquitous small analog mixer or your average do-it-all DAW controller, I didn’t really think about it much beyond making sure I was going through the fewest gain stages possible and never a pair of channels with EQ. I worked hard, and my mixes did sound good elsewhere. Did I mention I worked hard? Clinging to this justification made my work so much harder. 

Fighting the illusions caused by bad stuff in the monitor path has the potential to hold anyone’s mixes under a glass ceiling. Let’s dispel the myth; the only way to make the best decisions about how to manipulate your recording is to come as close as possible to understanding what is actually there. The sonic integrity of the Monitor ST allows for one’s choices to not be influenced by the lies and aberrations of the monitoring chain: the speakers, the room and the monitor controller.

I confess, with bad monitoring I’ve killed warmth, over-panned, over-carved, mis-carved, de-essed too much and over-compressed, to name a few. But as soon as I started mixing with the Dangerous Monitor ST, I could more easily distinguish nuances within tones. I found myself making better choices about how to correct the bad and enhance the good, which can mean doing nothing at all. Starting to believe your plug-ins all sound the same? You’ll be able to tell more differences between the same old algorithms listening through the Dangerous. A few days after I set up my new Dangerous Monitor ST, I mastered an album in about an hour. The clients and the producer loved it. I felt confident as I was working that I was hearing what was really going on.

The DMST is an aural revolution in personal and professional monitoring. I can’t overstate the obvious quality increase I experienced when I switched from a common monitor controller to the Monitor ST. 

The main differences are clarity, purity, punch, natural sweetness and imaging. Imaging is a term I’ve always associated most closely with speakers. This sounds cliché, but I can safely say I had never heard imaging like this in the recording studio before the Dangerous Monitor ST. It helps that my desk has a diminutive profile and the speakers are on stands; very little sits between me and the sound source except 27 lbs of Apple Cinema LCD, and the sound holds up wonderfully.

Summary

Taste buds can instantly discern between refined, crystallized sugar and naturally occurring sugars, say, in fruits. Both are familiar tastes. Esters are inexpensive chemicals that mimic flavors found in nature like green apple. And I would argue many of us have not ever experienced the natural sweetness and truth of great playback system like the Dangerous Monitor ST. It’s the difference between banana flavoring and a real banana.

By uncovering the best of what’s actually in the source, the Dangerous Monitor ST has encouraged me to do less in my mixing instead of fighting the source. It’s also empowered me to carve deeply and more accurately, by giving me a more accurate, real-time reflection of the results of my choices. The Dangerous helps me make the most of the tools at my disposal. One could potentially more easily discern the difference between two Neve 1066 clone mic pres.

Analog-born engineers will remember how crummy high-frequency equalization sounded the first time you used an in-the-box EQ. It’s easier to make even one of these limited tools work when your monitoring system gives you accurate feedback. 

It’s one thing to be a dyed-in-the-wool analog devotee, but another to take the best of analog and digital and marry them into an effective studio solution. If analog inputs, gorgeous design, a beefy cue amp, expandability and top-flight sound do it for you, then you can’t go wrong with the DMST. If your needs involve more digital sources and surround monitoring, the DMST will accommodate to high standard, but things start to get pricey. For an additional $1,300 and a gaggle of D-Sub connectors, you can expand the DMST to 5.1. The A.S.S chassis starts around $229 with add-ons varying in price. A stereo DAC will cost around $800, for example. 

My wife is gorgeous, but I wouldn’t have wanted to marry her were she not also very smart and talented. Much was the same feeling when I fell for the Dangerous Monitor ST. Oh, yes; I was already hooked before I requested to write this review. 

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