Posted 6 years ago / Review
As a child I used to drool over pictures of dream studios. Knobs, faders, meters, a fat studio chock full of gadgets, that’s what I wanted. In 2000 I opened my studio, and indeed it was full of nice stuff. A blessing? No. It was way too much. In search of my own sound, I started to minimalize. I chose only the things I really needed, to do the work I really wanted to do. By limiting the amount of gear, and assembling my toolkit carefully, I’d be able to focus more on my creative process.
A real world user experience
Anyone who’s ever been in my studio will remember the two custom green ATCs. And maybe also the Grace Design m906, the 5.1 monitor-controller that I’ve been happily working with for years. Grace recently launched a new stereo model, the m905. The Grace importer, Ulmt van der Linden (of Helios), came into my studio with it. “Here you are, first one. Just do a test.” Ulmt van der Linden just walks into my studio with an m905. WTF? I’m momentarily back where I started — licking my lips. This must be where the internet phenomenon of unpacking videos came from: sharing that indescribable feeling you got as a kid, full of anticipation, whenever you got something new.
Inside the box there are again three boxes. One with the 2U rack mount mainframe, and two half-boxes with the remote control, cabling and manual. The remote is remarkable for its big display. The flexible remote cable is long enough for a large control room.
In fact the monitor-controller replaces the monitor section of a mixing board in the DAW-based studio. You can connect 10 digital audio channels via all the common formats (ADAT, AES, S/PDIF, TOSLINK). There’s a direct USB input, and the m905 even has support for DSD audio. Still a niche format, but certainly a welcome ‘audiophile’ addition. The power supply is discreetly built in, and of course there’s wordclock in and out. The inputs for CUE and an external talkback mic (detail: this comes with a true Grace pre-amp, switchable +48v) make the back panel complete. There are three speaker set connections, and a separate output for a subwoofer. All this balanced in XLR. The digital output is extremely handy: you can plug a level meter into it.
Briefly, the design philosophy of Grace: everything that comes out of your studio speakers must be from a reference point, and therefore all your signals must be processed in the same way. Only then can you monitor sources objectively. Grace does this by routing all the digital signals through the same DA circuit (digital-to-analog conversion). That way you can compare digital sources 1:1 against each other, for example when you mix to a reference track.
If I may speak for myself: good design works better. And the gear from Grace Design really is a celebration for connoisseurs of, uh, good design. Both mainframe and remote are fantastically formed, inside and out. Inside? Yes, a couple times I have unscrewed my m906 to have a peek at the technology within. From layout to choice of materials, everything is thoroughly considered. On the display, with adjustable brightness, you can easily read out various items. Input level, speaker level, headphone level — but also the sound level as dB(A). The built-in mic (in the remote) continuously measures the sound-force in the studio. This way, you can very easliy calibrate the monitor speakers, so that the display level matches the actual level. Brilliant discovery by Grace. If you like, the same built-in mic can double as a talkback mic. Again one less cable, always a good thing. (And if the dBA meter gets in the way of your creativity, you can just turn it off.) What's more: the adjustable feet let you precisely tilt the remote to your desired angle.
The m905 has one big volume knob, the steering wheel of the studio. Press in on the knob, and you switch from main to headphone. Press a bit longer and you switch to your preset favorite level (for me that’s 72). The volume steps are absolutely precise (weighted increments of 0.5 dB), and as you turn the knob you don’t hear any relays ticking in the mainframe, as with the Avocet or the Dangerous Monitor ST. Next to the steering wheel there’s a medium-large talkback button. This lights up when you press it, and is easy to see both for you and the director sitting beside you. Again, excellent. Beyond that, there’s a similar button for the main monitor, and a series of smaller illuminated buttons for other functions. With the soft buttons on the display, you choose your input. Here you can also name your in- and outputs so the names show up on the display — for example, “Pro Tools” as input selection and “ATC” for the output monitor. Grace is all about details. So the remote now comes with an outer finish that makes greasy fingers a thing of the past. Or the assignable monitor volume damping for when you press talkback. All these little things play a big role in the user experience. Also, the remote is totally intuitive, you get it right away.
The m905 is newly designed and built from the ground up. The sonic performance is, as usual with Grace Design, absolutely terrific — and with the m905, as far as possible even more refined. I entrusted it with my own work from Pro Tools, and quite honestly I can’t soon detect a difference from my own m906. As a digital to analog test, I resurrected an old CD player by connecting it digitally. As soon as the s-Lock hooks in (clock-regeneration, with extremely low jitter), you can hear what a good DAC can do for you. The distinction from the CD player’s direct analog output is just unbelievable. The conversion sound of the Grace is open and transparent, detailed and musical, unusually “calm” and never tiresome. I got an irrepressible urge to rediscover my entire music collection.
There is one feature that would make the m905 even more complete, and that is a built-in loudness meter, so that for example you could assess an R128 mix. With such a big display, it’s a bit strange that no one thought of that. But beyond that, I’m completely enthusiastic. You can be assured that with the m905 — together with a good set of monitors — you can work at a mastering level. From experience I can say that Grace makes tremendously reliable gear, and provides top notch service. The m905 is an intuitive, trustworthy, beautiful controller. The sound is fabulous, the functionality sublime. The m905 is, for me, a perfect centerpiece for the studio.
Thanks to Ulmt van der Linden for making this test possible. This review is not sponsored.
Words & photography: Paul Cupido