Very few monitor controllers deliver all the functions our Technical Editor deems essential. This one does — and at an attractive price, too.
British manufacturers Drawmer probably need little by way of introduction... but just in case, the Yorkshire‑based company named after chief designer Ivor Drawmer have been making cost‑effective but high‑quality analogue audio processors since the early 1980s. There can be few who aren't aware of the company's original DS201 noise gate, which remains one of their most popular products. Moving into the new century, Drawmer started making digital products too, with some excellent master clocks and clock distribution units, as well as the superb DC2476 Masterflow mastering processor.
The latest addition to the company's product catalogue — and something that has been a surprising omission until now — is a monitor controller, called the MC2.1. This is a relatively simple, but well thought‑out active controller, with provision for three sets of stereo speakers (plus a summed mono output), three sets of stereo analogue inputs, two independent headphone outputs, talkback, and a pleasingly complete set of signal-checking functions.
There are a great many monitor controllers on the market: active ones, passive ones, simple and complicated ones, some with independent output‑level trims, some with input‑source level‑matching functions, others with integrated D‑A converters, some with artist cue monitoring and talkback... and so on, and on and on!
In practice, everyone wants, needs, or expects something slightly different from their 'monitor controller', so there's no single perfect product for everyone or every application. However, the one thing that is completely non‑negotiable is a totally transparent signal path and, sadly, that's why a lot of budget monitor controllers can be discounted. Cheap active electronics tend to colour the signal to some extent, lack headroom, and often introduce unwanted noise and distortion — and that's really not what you want in the final stage of your monitoring chain!
Coming from the Drawmer fold, though, we can be sure that the audio quality of the MC2.1 will be well up to the task. But rather than make assumptions, I carried out a standard set of bench tests using an Audio Precision analyser to find out exactly how well this device performs. Running quickly through the technical specifications, the MC2.1 accepts up to +21dBu on its balanced inputs, and even then still manages a THD+N figure of just 0.0014% (‑96.5dB). The output headroom margin is 6dB higher, and can be driven up to +27dBu before it clips. The signal‑to‑noise ratio measures ‑100dBu from a 0dBu input, and the dynamic range is 122dB — matching the performance of the best 24‑bit digital converters. Stereo crosstalk is better than ‑85dB, and separation between input sources is better than ‑95dB.
The frequency response extends virtually between 'DC and daylight' — it measures ruler‑flat within 0.1dB between 20Hz and 50kHz, and the ‑3dB points are 6Hz and something in excess of 100kHz. Being an active device, there are also no concerns about different impedance loading or practical cable lengths affectingperformance in any significant way, or of unwanted control interactions — things that can (and often do) afflict passive controllers. This is a solid, well‑engineered active controller that does exactly what it says on the box, with very high‑quality and utterly reliable performance.
The MC2.1 is housed in a fairly deep, free‑standing box (although it can be bolted down to a desk surface if required), measuring 215 x 81 x 272 mm (whd) and weighing 2.5kg. The rear panel sports the usual IEC mains inlet with integral fuse holder (switchable internally for 115 or 230 VAC operation), an on‑off rocker switch, and an array of input and output connectors. There are two electronically balanced stereo inputs, one on XLR connectors and the other using combi sockets to accept XLR or TRS plugs. The unbalanced stereo Aux input can be connected either via a pair of RCA phono sockets or a 3.5mm jack socket; these separate input connections are internally summed and routed to the single Aux source selector switch.
A sextet of male XLRs provide the three stereo speaker outputs, with a seventh XLR carrying the mono sum of the stereo 'A' output. This can be used to feed a single mono check speaker, for example, or a mono subwoofer. All these outputs are individually buffered and provide symmetrically balanced signals. Finally, a TS socket provides a unbalanced direct line‑level output from the internal talkback mic preamp, should the talkback signal be required elsewhere.
Hidden on the underside of the unit are seven recessed trimmers which adjust the levels for each of the speaker outputs. The allocation of trimmers to outputs is marked in clear white legends, and on the review model they had quite a light action. However, apparently future models will have stiffer trimmers which will make alignment easier and more stable. Despite their overall 80dB range, the trimmers have linear tracks which mean that 6dB of attenuation is at the halfway point, so fine level matching is not as difficult as might initially appear.
The front panel is just as straightforward as the rear. Starting on the left‑hand side, there are two quarter‑inch stereo headphone sockets, each with its own volume control. There is plenty of drive available, with a 0dBu source input producing +17.5dBu into 600Ω at the headphone output when the volume control is turned up full. These headphone signal source follows the monitor control selection and includes any polarity, mono, dim and cut switching. If talkback is activated, the source level in the headphones is attenuated by 12dB so that the talkback can be heard more clearly. Slightly oddly, though, the main monitoring path signal isn't automatically dimmed when talkback is activated.
Moving to the right, two rows of six independently latching push‑buttons are clearly divided into four functional blocks (source, speakers, cut and output), and every button has below it an associated status LED. The top row provides the Output Speaker selection (A, B and C speakers), as well as Left output Cut, Mute and Right output Cut. The lower row provides input‑source selection (balanced inputs 1 and 2, plus unbalanced aux), left channel polarity reverse, mono and dim. Another push‑button activates the talkback function — which latches on — while a small rotary control directly above sets the internal talkback mic gain. A bright blue LED in the bottom right‑hand corner indicates when the unit is powered.
The last control — and the most important — is a large rotary volume knob that sets the output monitoring level, although this has a surprisingly light feel to it and there are no discrete level or gain markings around the volume control, just a series of dots. This was a deliberate decision, as it was thought that decibel markings would be rendered meaningless because of the unknown settings of the speaker trimmers. I don't follow this logic, though, as the whole point of the trimmers is to be able to set (and match) a specific reference listening SPL for the speakers in the room. That should be achieved with the volume control at '0dB', and then any up/down volume changes can be calibrated in decibels relative to the pre‑set listening level. So I'd still like a proper decibel scale, please!
None of the button arrays are interlocked, so you can route the output to any combination of speakers (allowing one set of speaker outputs to feed an analogue meter unit, if desired), and you can combine any combination of inputs. If you want to perform A/B switching you need to press both buttons together and hope the first releases as the other engages. This is one of those 'Marmite' features that some people will love and others will hate, but with some practice I was able to perform A/B switching between adjacent channels with one finger quite reliably! There's no input level trimming facility in the MC2.1, so if you want to mix source signals together, or just compare them in A/B switching, their relative levels must be adjusted externally from the sources themselves (if possible).
The separate left and right output cut functionality is quite rare on monitor controllers generally, and especially on the more affordable designs — but this is actually an extremely useful function. Sometimes it's very helpful, when trying to identify a fault, to listen to one channel on its own, for example, and when checking the derived mono sum of a stereo source, listening on only one speaker provides a much more representative impression than listening to a phantom centre image (especially in respect of the bass balance). Looking back to my BBC training, 'mono on A' was one of the most used facilities of standard BBC monitor control panels!
One interesting and unusual aspect is that although the separate left and right cut switches act in the expected manner for the speaker outputs, their operation has a different effect on the headphone outputs. What actually happens is that the 'cut' channel's signal is muted and replaced with a low level (circa ‑15dB) of bleed from the uncut channel. This more closely mimics what is heard via loudspeakers, where both ears can hear the remaining active speaker, and it avoids the impression of having one ear hacked off!
The Mute button does exactly what it says it does, muting all the speaker output channels, although it doesn't affect the headphone outputs at all. This is intentional and means that someone could carry on working via headphones even with the main monitors muted. All of the outputs are also automatically muted via relays to avoid power‑on/off thumps from reaching the monitors. The Dim control introduces 20dB of output attenuation — useful if you want to check the balance at low level, or hold a conversation with someone without upsetting the master volume knob — and the mono button sums the left and right channels together to create a summed mono output, while simultaneously attenuating the summed level by 6dB to avoid reducing the headroom margin or producing a large volume increase.
The 'phase reverse' switch flips the polarity of the left channel prior to the mono button, so that whereas pressing the mono button on its own gives 'left‑plus‑right', pressing both together gives left‑minus‑right — the stereo difference or 'Sides' channel. This is an incredibly useful function for aiding the alignment of stereo mic arrays or other two‑channel sources (given the same signal amplitude on both channels, adjusting the level of one channel for the deepest null when listening to the Sides signal guarantees accurate stereo matching), but also for identifying the damage done by over‑zealous lossy data-reduction codecs!
The volume control knob is often a weak area in the design of monitor controllers, with poor channel‑matching or tracking resulting in unwanted stereo‑image shifts. To avoid this pitfall, Drawmer have used a custom quad‑track potentiometer configured with interleaved and paralleled connections. This clever approach minimises tracking variations extremely well, and I found that there was never more than 0.25dB difference between the two output channels at any volume setting, including very low levels. Although there's no identifying reference mark around the volume knob, unity gain is achieved with the knob at the two o'clock position, with a further 12dB of additional gain available if required.
When it comes to monitor controllers, I'm pretty fussy — about not only the quality but also the feature set. The BBC's training is deeply ingrained in me and I simply couldn't function without proper stereo‑difference monitoring, and separate left/right cut facilities! That's why my primary studio monitor controller is a Crookwood M1, and my main location controller is a custom‑made unit to my own design. I also use a Grace Design M902 sometimes, or a TC Electronic BMC2 (which does have stereo‑difference monitoring), but neither have the full signal‑checking feature set that I consider essential, and nor do 90 percent of monitor controllers on the market, regardless of price.
The Drawmer MC2.1 is one of a frustratingly small number of products that provide the core functionality of mono summing, stereo difference, and individual speaker cuts that I consider essential, and that alone earns it a big tick from me! The sound quality is also very impressive indeed, with excellent technical specifications and no discernible audible character or veiling whatsoever. That is a fantastic achievement for a product at this price and with such a complete feature set.
The manual is comprehensive and very well‑written, with a lot of helpful explanations about how to use the facilities, and especially on how to properly align the monitoring system and speaker levels.
It is a fact that the non‑interlocked output switching will appeal to some and frustrate just as many others, but the inclusion of a separate summed mono output from the 'A' speakers is a very welcome and useful facility. Also, as I mentioned earlier, the output level trims would be much easier to use if the range was greatly reduced — a trim control needs only 10‑20dB range, not 80dB! Drawmer tell me that they've now addressed this.
The non‑interlocked button issue also applies to the input source selection, but I found the mixing option very useful indeed. A lot of monitor controllers include digital inputs so that digital sources can be compared via the same D‑A converter, and while that approach has merit, it also adds to the cost and can be counter‑productive if the D‑A isn't exceptionally good. I think it makes more sense to use an external reference D‑A with the MC2.1 to ensure that quality isn't impaired.
The 'signal conditioning' facilities all do exactly what they should, too, although I was surprised that the main outputs aren't dimmed when talkback is active. If the talkback signal is routed to speakers in a live room I can see potential howl‑round problems occurring there. Also, the latching talkback button will catch out many, despite the yellow warning LED — I'd prefer a non‑latching button myself, but Ivor Drawmer tells me that providing that function wasn't entirely straightforward, given the price constraints.
The large volume knob feels a little light in its rotation, which is surprising for a quad‑ganged potentiometer, but it's much less of a problem in practice than the complete absence of any level markings. It's often very handy to be able to adjust the listening level up or down by a specific amount (to help judge relative loudness, for example), or to reset the listening level to a specific value, and I hope Drawmer reconsider this point. At least there's plenty of space for chinagraph marks!
Nevertheless, despite these few grumbles and niggles, I have to say that the Drawmer MC2.1 is a really great monitor controller, offering excellent audio quality and a very welcome feature set, with minimal practical compromises, and at an extremely attractive price. The MC2.1 will undoubtedly make other manufacturers sit up and take notice, and I'll certainly be recommending it very highly.
Monitor controllers vary dramatically in the features and facilities offered, so making comparisons is very difficult. The Presonus Monitor Station is well‑equipped and costs roughly half as much as the Drawmer MC2.1, but it lacks stereo‑difference monitoring, individual output cut and some other facilities. It's also not as clean or quiet. The Mackie Big Knob is also less expensive than the Drawmer, but again its technical performance is inferior and it lacks the stereo‑difference and individual speaker cut facilities. Of comparable quality and price is the SPL 2Control, though again this lacks some of the features I regard as essential. Indeed, almost every other broadly comparable monitor controller lacks at least some of those features, and most are more expensive to boot.