Reviewed by Thom Monahan ©2012, Tape Op Issue 91
With every recording session, there’s one piece of the puzzle that never rests; it’s constantly in use, informing every decision that you make – and that’s your monitor controller. You’ll use different mics, mic preamps, and dynamics processors; switch between speakers; and order food from a different place every night; but your monitor box will remain the heart of fidelity for all of your work – the one thing that’s always in the chain. You can have great speakers, amps, and even a fantastically tuned room, but if you’re feeding them a signal that’s not-so-great (like that terrible deli you just got takeout from), you’re at a disadvantage. If you want to add clarity and fidelity to your whole system and workflow, this is the place to start.
Dangerous Music has a solid reputation for the highest fidelity and utmost build quality founded upon their heritage of high-end mastering gear operating in high traffic, no fail situations. Their newest monitor control box, the Source, is not designed to sit locked down in some high and mighty Temple of Sound; it’s made to be on the move and in the trenches – with a price point to match. It’s conceived from the same fundamental Dangerous DNA to boot.
The Source is small enough to slip easily into a laptop/messenger/carry-on bag. It’s easy to set up and a joy to use. Afterwards, just toss it in with everything else, and you’re off to your next appointment. Portability is the core idea, but don’t let the small price tag and compact form deceive you, because its fidelity and flexibility are appropriate for studios of any size and caliber.
There are four stereo inputs – two analog, one digital, and one USB – while stereo outputs are manifested in two headphone jacks driven from a single amp, two speaker outputs, a line-level out, and a digital pass-through. More on these later, but I’ll mention now that the digital input has its own D/A converter independent of the USB input’s converter. One of these Dangerous DACs is worth the price of admission alone, and having two is almost ridiculous.
Looking at the front panel, it’s immediately clear that the Source has three areas of control: headphones source, speaker source, and speaker selection. Each of the two source sections offers its own independent set of four input selector buttons, allowing you to choose any input – or any combination of inputs, including all four mixed together. For example, you can set the headphones up with an artist’s mix sent from your DAW combined with a zero-latency signal coming in through analog inputs, while the speaker section is listening to another mix entirely coming from the USB input. I found my fingers making quick, back-and-forth changes to the source selections for whatever I happened to need, without a thought, after less than a couple hours of use. Dead simple and seriously flexible for sure!
The speaker selection section has two buttons, allowing you to choose which of the two speaker outs you want enabled. For example, you can toggle between A and B speakers if you have two pairs of speakers connected. Or, if you’re feeding just one main pair of speakers plus a subwoofer, you can flip the subwoofer on/off while the main speakers remain latched on. If you’re not already a Dangerous user, you might be wondering at this point how two buttons can handle these seemingly disparate switching behaviors. Well, there’s an easy procedure that allows you to change each section’s button field from single-selection to multi-selection mode. In both modes, the selection buttons will also “momentoggle,” another signature feature common across much of the Dangerous line; if you push and release quickly, the button will latch and remain latched until the next push, but if you push and hold, the button will latch and then unlatch when you release it.
A good example of how this works relates to a major missing feature of the Source; there is no built-in talkback mic. Dangerous suggests that the user connect an external talkback mic (through an outboard preamp) to one of the analog inputs. Then, when you want to throw a quick word into the headphone mix, you can push and hold the analog input’s selector button, say your bit (“Rolling!”), then release. If you want to expound at length, you can push and release to turn on talkback, wax poetically, and then push and release again to turn off talkback.
Talkback in a mobile setting has a lot of solutions. Before all this fancy gear, I used to just run a crappy dynamic mic equipped with a switch all the way to a small guitar amp in the live room. To add to the awesome, I taped a picture of Dennis Hopper’s face from Interview magazine (back when it was large format) onto the amp. Believe me – I probably should still be doing the same thing. That amp got a ton of respect! By the way, all of the buttons have colored backlights, so it’s easy to see at a sideways glance what state the Source is in.
One particular feature of the Source is its front-panel 1/8” jack for the second analog input. Old school purists might scoff, but I think it’s great; these days, 1/8” is by far the most requested cable by clients in every session. This input is actually gain- matched for an iPhone, but you can change an internal jumper to set it for -10 dBV level instead. This jack has gotten a ton of use in my sessions with the Source. Everyone always has a 1/8” device full of something headed my way – laptops, phones, iPads, whatever. Not having to scramble for an adapter makes my life a lot easier.
The USB input is a wonderful feature that requires a driver for Windows (head to the Dangerous website) but popped up hassle-free on my Mac. It solves the eternal issue, “Where is my system audio going to go?” The digital pass-through output is also a welcome feature; you can, for example, monitor an external A/D converter with the Source while simultaneously passing the converter’s output to your recording device. (By the way, the Source will clock at any standard rate you throw at it, which is just simple and makes it awesomely zero hassle.) The additional line-level output is useful for routing the same source (or mix of sources) that’s going to the speakers to other devices as well – another headphone amp, a recorder, or perhaps a set of meters. Smartly, this output bypasses the speaker volume knob. Interestingly, there are two DC power jacks, one of which is for daisy-chaining a possible accessory (say, a talkback module – we’ll see), and the included wall- wart power supply can be used anywhere in the world and comes with international adaptors, making this a truly portable piece of gear. All of the connection points are super sturdy and solid, and you could easily drag the unit right off of a desk tripping over a headphone cable because the jacks are definitely not popping out.
The minuses for the Source are few, save the talkback workaround. There’s no mono button – a bummer for some, but not a deal breaker, considering you could always set up a secondary master fader in your DAW and set it to mono. Having an independent headphone output to follow the speakers would be cool, but it’s not that big of a deal since you can use the line-level output to feed an external headphone amp.
The Source’s fidelity is open and uncolored but seriously musical. I loved listening to music through the Source and just found myself wanting to crank it all the time. It has massive headroom and sounded great. The distortion specs are ridiculously low, but the signal is not sterile; it’s really vibrant. Even when I’m employing gear that generates all kinds of odd colorations and harmonic distortions, a clear signal path from my DAW to my speakers is incredibly important. One day, I’m rocking sweet old tape saturation tones, and the next, I’m deep in the heart of bit-crushed madness with tracks recorded on iPhones. A clear monitoring system removes variables and gives me something I can count on. Granted, you can always listen to familiar music and learn your speakers in whatever space you’re in, but if that monitoring system is cloudy, you have one massive coloration through which you have to navigate. During a recent month-long tracking session in a makeshift Brooklyn basement, the Source worked flawlessly, day in and day out, with my MacBook Pro and interface. And when we took days off, I just threw the unit in my bag and brought it back to where I was staying for its high-quality DAC and amplification as I edited and processed tracks on my headphones.
It’s not a do-all, Swiss Army Knife box, but I think its feature set is incredibly well thought out; and what it does, it does exceedingly well for the money. For anything beyond, you could easily connect other gear while relying on the Source as the central point. If you’re running around tracking on the fly, or you’re a touring DJ or electronic artist, this unit would be indispensable. But even for any studio, I really think this is a great box for just about any setup that needs a reliable, high-quality monitoring router. I’m really happy that Dangerous headed in this direction, leveraging their history and experience building mastering-grade gear to make a high-quality mobile monitor controller that is affordable. I think the Source is a killer deal and an investment that will pay off handsomely over time.