Photos: Mike Cameron
Many SOS readers are as short on space as they are on money, so Samson, already well-known for their cost-effective mics, monitors and processors, have stepped into the breach with their new series of half-rack processors. The steel construction of the units is robust and attractive, and profiled plastic 'bumpers' allow several of these units to be stacked for easy desktop use. The kit also includes screw-in feet that can be used to support the lowest unit in a stack and these also tilt the units to a suitable angle. All the units run from included AC power supplies.
The three units under review here comprise a four-channel headphone amplifier, a fully-featured stereo compressor with presets, and an ingenious stereo monitor controller, but these are only the beginning of the range — apparently there's at least a tube mic preamp and an optical compressor in the pipeline, and possibly more useful little units to follow.
With so many powerful virtual instruments and effects available within music software, it's perfectly possible to set up a computer-based recording system without a mixer, but there are elements of the traditional mixer that it's difficult to manage without, especially if you're using active monitors. For example, you need an easily accessible physical volume control, perhaps a monitor Dim button for when the phone rings, and a mono button to see if your mixes collapse into a lifeless heap when played over a mono system. Then there's talkback, the ability to select different two-track machines for playback, and a headphone out. Samson's C*Control provides all this and more.
Essentially, the C*Control duplicates the master section of a mixer and, in addition to its main stereo mix input, it can also switch to three further stereo sources. Stereo input level monitoring is implemented using a pair of six-segment LED meters. What's more, it can even mix these inputs, which is useful if you simply want to use your guitar preamp to play along with a CD or one of your songs in progress. There's no input level control though so levels must be controlled at source. As well as being monitored via speakers, the stereo mix can be sent to three stereo recorders at the same time (any one of which can be used as a monitor source via the input selectors), and there's switching for up to three sets of studio monitors. The third monitor output may be on at the same time as either of the first two making it suitable for feeding a subwoofer or for driving separate playback speakers in the studio area. Clearly much thought has gone into the monitor switching system, not least because, if the Speaker B button is pressed down, the Speaker A button toggles between Speakers A and Speaker B, whereas if the Speaker B button isn't down it simply turns Speaker A on or off. The routing also makes it virtually impossible to feed an output back into an input, which would produce electrical feedback.
C*Control includes an integral electret talkback mic (mounted in the front panel) that can send into the cue mix or into the two-track outputs, where a rear-panel jack allows remote talkback switching using an optional 'normally open' switch. The speaker outputs dim whenever talkback is operated. A headphone amp with its own level control is built in, and a stereo cue output feeds the selected stereo input to an external headphone amp or other cue system. Using talkback momentarily overrides the source in the cue output but does not affect the headphone output.
The first three inputs are on balanced jacks operating at a nominal +4dB level, while the fourth is on phonos and operates at -10dBV. A single stereo level meter monitors the overall input level. All three two-track outputs, plus the stereo mix input, are active when selected, so to prevent a two-track machine in record mode from feeding back into its own input, the correspondingly numbered two-track output is muted when a two-track input is switched on. This is a wise precaution, but because of this you also have to remember to deselect all three two-track inputs if you want to use the talkback to record a verbal cue to tape, otherwise nothing will happen. Two of the two-track outputs are balanced on TRS jacks at a +4dB level, while the third again uses unbalanced phonos at -10dBV.
To the immediate right of the meters is a headphone jack and its associated level control. This always monitors the input and is not interrupted by the talkback facility — talkback only routes to the Cue outs (balanced jacks) or to the two-track outputs, depending which of the two non-latching Talkback switches is depressed. A talkback level control is fitted.
The speaker-system outputs are at line level (the first is on balanced jacks while the other two are on phonos), so are suitable for feeding both active monitors and passive monitors driven from a power amplifier. A master level control affects all the speaker outputs, while Speaker B has a further volume control (which you could think of as a trim control) allowing it to be balanced with Speaker A. If a subwoofer is fed from the Speaker C outputs, its level must be calibrated on the unit itself, after which it tracks the main volume control setting along with Speakers A and B. The Dim switch knocks down the speaker output levels by 20dB to allow talking or answering the phone without disturbing the volume control setting and there's also a Mute button for when only complete silence will suffice. Mono sums the left and right channels for compatibility checking.
Headphone amplifiers are one of those unglamorous, but nevertheless essential components of any studio where it is necessary to provide headphone feeds for two or more musicians. Samson's C*Que 8 provides four independent channels of headphone amplification designed to work into virtually any impedance of headphone. Each channel has two outputs (one on the front panel, one on the rear) enabling a total of eight sets of headphones to be driven at one time. The stereo inputs are on balanced TRS jacks on the rear panel, but there's also a further Inject input (stereo TRS) on the front panel that allows a mixer send or other source to be added to the phones mix, so that a vocalist can have a mix with more vocals in it, for example. A pair of Link outputs enable further headphone amplifiers or other devices to monitor the headphone feed.
In situations where stereo use is not needed, the unit can be switched into dual-channel mono mode. The Balance control is used to adjust the stereo balance of the line input in normal stereo operation, but this changes to adjusting the mix of the two inputs in two-channel mono mode. A single button switches between the two possible modes of operation. In stereo mode, the main stereo input is mixed with the stereo Inject input, where the level of the Inject signal needs to be set at source. In dual-mono mode, the line and Inject inputs are mixed to a mono signal and fed to all channels. If one input is a mix and the other is from, say, a vocal send, the Balance control can be used to set the level of vocals in the monitor mix. The input Volume control affects both the main stereo input and the Inject input.
Unusually for such a modestly-priced headphone amp, the C*Que 8 also has a switchable EQ contour circuit built in to impose a 'smile curve' on each of the four headphone feeds, much like the loudness button on a hi-fi. There's also a level meter (for signal presence confirmation) and a rotary volume control on each of the four channels, with a separate meter to monitor the input line level. Threaded mounting holes are located in the bottom of the case, presumably to facilitate stand mounting, and a block diagram of the unit is screened on the top panel to clarify the functionality when the manual is not to hand.
The C*Com 16 offers dedicated stereo compression based on a choice of 15 presets or fully manual operation. Its balanced jack I/O can be switched to +4dbu or -10dBV operating levels using a rear-panel switch, and there's also a side-chain insert point for adding equalisers or other processors — if, for example, you were setting up full-band de-essing. Because the side-chains of the two compressor are permanently linked, it isn't of course possible to treat two separate mono signals.
Conceptually, the C*Com 16 is pretty straightforward and is controlled via a 16-way rotary switch that selects one of 15 compression presets or the fully manual adjustment mode. Red and green LED indicators show which preset is currently selected and there's a six-segment gain reduction meter that is used in conjunction with the Sensitivity (essentially threshold) control to set the desired amount of compression. Curiously, the Sensitivity control only has a -10 to +20dB range, so if the incoming signal is quite hot, as it could be coming from a soundcard, it might be difficult to set the compression threshold low enough. The remaining Ratio, Attack and Release controls work only in manual mode and there's a further Output control that works in all modes to provide make-up gain when the peak level has been pulled down by compression. A further meter can be switched to monitor the input or output, and the compressor has a bypass button, but there are also some additional features worth mentioning.
Because heavy compression can pull down the level of high frequencies within a mix, the C*Com 16 includes an Enhance button that uses a dynamic filter to restore the high end during periods of heavy processing. Furthermore, the compressor side-chain provides a soft-knee characteristic up until the signal has exceeded the threshold by around 10dB, after which it stiffens up to apply a more assertive hard-knee compression at the ratio set by the user (or the preset parameters). Samson call this SKD — Smart Knee Detection. The manual also talks about programme-dependent attack and release time modification (AEG) but it isn't clear whether this applies only to the presets or to the manual mode as well. Such a feature is especially useful on mixes where the dynamics of the piece are constantly changing, as the compressor is able to adapt its behaviour accordingly.
The presets available cover most eventualities, from smooth and aggressive vocals, through bass guitars, guitars and percussion to stereo mix compression. Dedicated presets are included for limiting and enhancement, with a particularly useful Stereo Master preset that manages to be reasonably transparent while still adding weight and density. Once a preset has been chosen, it is only necessary to adjust the Sensitivity control to get the required amount of gain reduction, but, as stated earlier, this isn't always easy, even on the +4dBu setting, because of the limited range of the Sensitivity control. Once the right degree of compression has been established, the Output control can be used to match the subjective level of the signal to that with the compressor bypassed, which makes assessing the effect of the compression much easier.
The C*Que 8 provided a clean, loud headphone feed when tested with a number of different types of headphone, and all the controls worked exactly as they should. The knobs are a little small and fiddly and the legending a little too easy to hide with your fingers when you're making adjustments, but there's nothing serious to complain about. Between the two modes of operation, most small studio monitoring requirements can be met with reasonable flexibility and, overall, the C*Que 8 delivers an impressively solid performance at a very affordable UK price. There are more versatile systems around, but none which can compete with the C*Que 8 in terms of ease of use or UK price, and I think Samson have struck a good balance here between complexity and cost.
The C*Com 16 offers nothing particularly new, as we've already seen preset compressors from the likes of TL Audio and Focusrite, but that doesn't detract from the fact that it is a good-sounding, easy-to-operate compressor that can be used on mono or stereo signals. In manual mode, it works conventionally and sounds 'right' on most sources. It has enough range to make things sound very obviously compressed, but the sound stays focused and musical all the way. I also liked the Enhance button, as this adds a subtle but welcome high-end lift to the sound, and helps maintain a sense of transparency during heavy compression. In fact I think a lot of users would probably switch it in when mastering, just because it sounds good. As with the other boxes, the C*Com 16 also looks smart, it seems well engineered, and its performance exceeds what you'd expect for the cost. I know that many users feel nervous about setting up manual compressors, so for them the C*Com 16 provides an affordable way to dip a toe into the water using presets before wading in with the fully manual mode.
Setting up the C*Control proved to be extremely simple, and the illuminated buttons make it clear what mode the switches are in, although it did take me a while to work out why the talkback to two-track didn't seem to work at first. Everything worked as proclaimed on the tin and, though I found the talkback mic a little noisy, it didn't affect intelligibility and didn't get onto the recordings (other than when slating the two-track feed), so it's not a problem. The signal path through the C*Control was very clean and having the ability to mix inputs is a true luxury. I found it useful to patch the input from my audio interface into the stereo mix input and then to bring the output from my keyboard line submixer into the next input, as this allows me to isolate either source and check for quality problems. The mixed output can then be recorded to a two-track machine or, alternatively, one of the two-track outputs could be fed back into the computer's audio interface to allow the MIDI parts to be recorded as audio. As you can mute the mix input without muting the feed from the line mixer, this is extremely easy.
A product like the C*Control is long overdue and I hope it won't be too long before Samson build something similar for surround monitoring, ideally for no more than twice the price. The C*Control covers all the obvious 'master section' functions including talkback, and in making the four stereo inputs usable at the same time it solves one of my own problems, which is how to feed an additional small mixer into the monitoring system along with the computer's stereo output so that I can plug in instruments when rehearsing. Combined with the C*Que 8 headphone amplifier, which would stack above or below it, the C*Control neatly meets the entire monitoring needs of a typical computer-based studio. In my view this is a seriously useful piece of kit that anyone with a workstation or music computer system should not overlook, and for coming up with such a practical niche product Samson deserve to sell C*Controls by the container-load. I've a feeling this one is not going to go back!