How will producers hear music in years to come? As they celebrate their 20th birthday, ADAM Audio have ambitious plans for the next generation of studio monitors.
"We're not talking only about a speaker," says ADAM Audio's Christian Hellinger. "It's really a platform — with all these huge opportunities."
His colleague Stephan Mauer makes the same point: "In the end it's a platform, converting your audio signals to sound waves. In making that conversion process right and reliable, there's a lot to gain for the user."
They're talking about the value that can be added by digital signal processing. Already part of both ADAM's flagship S-series and their most affordable T-series monitors, it's something both regard as key to future development — even though some still see it as a sticking plaster to cover up a speaker's deficiencies. "That's a concern that I see a lot when talking to customers," agrees Stephan. "Some think that just because there's extensive means of correction available, we're using that to cheat, and would not care about the electro-acoustic tuning of the enclosure and the driver too much. But I can assure them that acoustics is still the strongest and the most looked-after discipline at ADAM Audio. You have to make sure the acoustic performance is right as a foundation. Then, you can look at exploiting the opportunities that DSP gives you.
"With a small entry-level speaker or budget speaker, you have more compromise. The DSP helps finding these compromises, without adding cost per correction. If you have an analogue circuit, and find that there is, for example, an irregularity in the crossover region of one driver, where it's actually supposed to roll off smoothly, but it's still contributing too much in this certain band, you think, 'I'd love to attenuate this peak.' In the analogue electronics, you would have to add a filter circuit, which adds cost, and also your electronics design may already be finished. With the DSP, we just add another band of EQ in the firmware, and we have it done.
"Nowadays, usually drivers are the bottleneck of a speaker's performance, not the electronics. It's the drivers that can benefit from any improvement, and anything you can shave off [the cost of] the electronics while not compromising the quality, you can invest on the other end."
Playing With Matches
One application for DSP is to compensate for the inevitable variations between individual speakers. In the S-series, this is a matter of small adjustments to the relative volume of each driver, as Stephan explains. "Of course, we have incoming QC, and we have strict rules for the suppliers of our drivers, but we measure each S-series speaker during production, and we can dial in a quarter of a dB for the mid-range, or something like that. We don't have to think about matching pairs for the S-series, because they're all just that close."
It can also be used more creatively. "What is really powerful is that you can change the character of the speaker. In the S-series we have two kinds of flavours: one is more neutral and really flat on-axis, and dialed in to be transparent as a converter. Then we have another mode, Uniform Natural Response, which is a more musical response that goes back to the early ADAM speakers, which had a less neutral tone to them. We also have the flexibility of firmware updates, so potentially, there could be a third voicing. In the S3H, we have a third voicing called Classic, which is modelling the old S3A. There are other manufacturers who are looking into making a small closed-box wide-band speaker out of a three-way, by just driving the mid-range, or decoupling the woofer — all that kind of thing. It adds more versatility to the speaker, and I think what is in the future is to make the speaker support the creative to make the right decisions.
"Over beer, we've talked about, 'Wouldn't it be nice to have a speaker that has analytics? Like a mastering plug-in, but you don't use a mastering plug-in, but your speakers?' If your bass drum and your bass are overlaying in a bad way, for an intermediate or entry-level user, to have help that's coming from a speaker, because the speaker knows the signal."
Then, of course, there's room correction. ADAM recently partnered with Sonarworks to incorporate the latter's technology in their speakers; and as Stephan points out, there will be advantages to having the corrective EQ carried out within the loudspeaker rather than in the source device. "If you have your speakers running room correction, you can switch your source independently of a plug-in or virtual soundcard. Or, you could even work with an analogue console and switch your source onto each pair of speakers, and they would all work perfectly without an external processor, or a manually dialed-in system."
Stephan Mauer: "Nowadays, usually drivers are the bottleneck of a speaker's performance, not the electronics. It's the drivers that can benefit from any improvement, and anything you can shave off [the cost of] the electronics while not compromising the quality, you can invest on the other end.
Most of these applications for DSP are already familiar, but ADAM Audio also have a more ambitious vision for the future. The key idea here is that the DSP doesn't only improve the performance of individual speakers: it allows them to work together intelligently with the rest of the studio.
"Everyone is talking about 'smart home' stuff," says Hellinger. "Your fridge is telling you, 'Hey, you need some more milk, should I buy that?' You say yes, please do it and tomorrow milk is just in front of your door. Let's try to adapt that, just as an idea, to your studio. Let's call it Smart Studio or Studio 2.0. Let people focus on the music, on their creative work. They shouldn't waste that time thinking 'How can all these things work in my studio the best way? How should I connect them? What about the room acoustics?'"
Stephan Mauer fleshes the concept out with examples. "Imagine you have a speaker and you have a subwoofer, and they are all part of a connected system. They talk to your control PC, or your tablet, or whatever, and they just know, 'I'm an ADAM speaker and there's also a sub in the system. I have a bass-reflex woofer. My tuning frequency is here and there. I'd rather cut off before the bass reflex system of the monitors kicks in, to keep it tidy in terms of temporal response, and use an asymmetric crossover for bass management between these particular models, so I suggest setting the corner frequency of the crossover to 117Hz for the sub, and 125Hz for the satellite.' You can do that when the speakers talk to each other. These are all ideas to make setup easy, make it more reliable, provide more functionality, and ultimately get the job done faster for the user.
"There is also the challenge of gain staging. We can help somebody to avoid starter problems, like, 'Do I turn up the speaker, or do I turn up the interface'? I bet there's thousands of hits when you look that up online, and of course, there's value in understanding that, but also there's value in not having to dive into these aspects too much and ultimately avoid making it wrong as a user. If the interface on a computer knows about the gain structure in a speaker, instead of lowering the analogue output voltage on its output in order to attenuate the level, like you would do it today, it could tell the main volume in the DSP to just attenuate there, after A-to-D conversion that happened at a perfect gain level."
Solutions to this particular challenge may well emerge from ADAM Audio's new status as part of the Focusrite group, but Christian is aware that the 'smart studio' will only happen if the industry as a whole comes together behind new standards. "We won't change that only from ADAM Audio, but we definitely want to be part of this very interesting discussion. How could we make these things easier? More intuitive? Of course, it's not only about the gear in the studio. It's also: how does your studio talk to your mobile devices? How cool would it be if you could make your setup at home from an acoustic perspective and take that with your mobile device into another studio and you could just get the same environment so you can continue your work because it still sounds as you are used to and not totally different? How cool would it be if you could just put on your headphones and just continue working?"
Stephan also sees DSP as offering the potential to help guide future product design. "What you can think about is analytics. There is still headroom to make better products, by knowing how the products are used. How often does a user change presets and settings? Does he do it manually, or does he do it via the remote control? Tracking this and providing this to the manufacturer is something that can be really useful. Of course, there are concerns of data security around that, and that has to be addressed. There's probably a button in the future that will say, 'Don't send data home.'"
"At the end of the day, though," concludes Christian, "there is no master plan where we can say, 'Yeah, if you follow exactly this kind of research, then you will get a number-one best seller.' If you only listen to the user, there wouldn't be any product which might be a revolution. What the user doesn't know is possible he will not ask for! If we can add something to our products which is exactly this little bit on top, even if no-one asked for it before, then from my perspective, you've got the perfect product."
To Sub Or Not To Sub?
One of the big debates among both speaker designers and studio owners is whether the advantages of dedicated subwoofers outweigh their disadvantages. ADAM Audio's position is clear. "I'm pro-subwoofer," says ADAM's Stephan Mauer. "If you have a full-range speaker that plays down to 20Hz at full power, it's probably pretty big, and it uses a pretty big or multiple bass driver. It's far away from being a point source for the upper bass and it's likely hard to fit into your environment. So there may be a reason to say, 'I want to have a relatively compact main monitor, and I'm getting all my low frequencies below 50Hz from a dedicated driver that is not interacting with the other transducers so much.' It just takes off the load of a speaker, so the speaker doesn't need to be full range, which comes with lots of benefits. The sub can put it somewhere where it's useful for my listening spot in terms of room modes, and I don't have that flexibility with my stereo main speakers, because I just have to be in a stereo triangle symmetrically in the room."
The signature feature of all ADAM loudspeakers is the accelerated ribbon tweeter, still made by hand in the company's Berlin headquarters. As Stephan Mauer explains, it's a technology that sidesteps some of the main problems with more conventional designs. "The most common tweeters are dome tweeters. They have a certain material that they use, a fabric, metal or whatever, to achieve a good spot between being light and being strong mechanically. Then you have a voice coil that sits on a voice-coil holder, which just adds weight. There's a lot of weight that has to move, and in order to get sufficient output, you can have a larger diaphragm. That will not help you with a very high-frequency extension; or you have a larger excursion which doesn't help you with THD; or you add a lot of weight, because you have a really big voice coil.
"The ADAM tweeter uses a membrane with conductive lines on the back, like a PCB, which is then folded. It sucks in air and presses it out in between the cavities that are created by folding it like an accordion, and the way it does this is really very efficient in accelerating the air particles versus excursion of the membrane material, which is basically what it comes down to. Instead of moving far out and in to get the excursion, our diaphragm needs very little movement to create high output. Very little movement means you have low distortion. So you have low mass, you have low distortion, you have a really good output. The membrane itself is super-light, which makes it easy for it to move and be controlled at very high frequencies, and with a very good impulse response. It stops immediately, because there is no ringing after the signal has stopped.
"In the past years with the introduction of the S-series, we've also introduced waveguides as a means of controlling the dispersion of the tweeter and also the mid-range driver, ultimately giving you a more consistent sound when you move off-axis, and also gaining efficiency."