Engineer/journalist Russ Long conducts a Q&A with TEC Award-winning studio designer Carl Tatz for an in-depth conversation about his MixRoom™ and PhantomFocus™ System projects
Nashville, TN: Carl Tatz, principal of the recording studio design firm Carl Tatz Design LLC, has been designing award-winning studios for over a decade, driven by his acclaimed and ever-evolving PhantomFocus™ System (PFS™) monitor tuning protocol.
Russ Long has written over one hundred audio reviews for various industry periodicals and blogs and is currently a writer for Pro Sound News. He has also engineered and/or mixed multiple gold and platinum albums over the past three decades, and his work has been featured in a wide range of television shows and motion pictures.
Russ sat down with Tatz recently to ask him to explain his work, and in particular the PFS and his TEC Award-winning MixRoom™ concept
Russ: I know you've been nominated three years in a row for the coveted TEC Award, and won recently for your MixRoom™ concept. Give me the background.
Carl: The MixRoom concept was originally distilled from our custom-designed control rooms and has now evolved more or less to supersede those designs. The actual concept is to combine our architectural acoustic approach that includes some proprietary elements, like the Acoustic Lens™ and my Carl Tatz Design Signature Series™ modules by Auralex Acoustics, with the PhantomFocus System in a turnkey control room design. It can be applied in a ground-up project or be equally successful adapted to work in an existing space. These rooms are designed from the PFS out, and because of that, the entire control room becomes a single integrated system constituting a mix environment without peer.
Russ: Who are your MixRoom clients, why do they choose Carl Tatz Design, and what are their expectations from working with you.
Carl: Our clients range from the seasoned pro who has moved into a personal space and feels that at this stage in his successful career, he deserves not to have to struggle and second-guess his mixes anymore, and wants to award himself with a high-performance and beautiful-looking room. Or to the working professional who wants the latest technology that will help him become the new seasoned pro. Another strong drive can be for the client to have a facility that impresses his clients, expanding his aura of professionalism, whether it’s just a MixRoom or a full studio. Some clients work alone and rarely have visitors but want to be inspired by their work environment every day. I suppose they choose us because of our reputation, and their expectations are very high because of it. So far, knock on titanium; we’re batting a thousand.
Russ: Can you explain exactly what the PFS is?
Carl: Yes. In the simplest terms, it is a turnkey monitor tuning protocol that works with any brand of speaker in any qualified space and includes hardware, software and hands-on implementation of my proprietary monitor tuning protocol that renders a monitoring experience unequaled by any other monitor or technology in the industry.
Russ: And what exactly does that mean?
Carl: Right. What that means is that you are going to hire someone (CTD) to take responsibility and come into your control room after a careful pre-assessment of its acoustic layout and in a two-day on-site process, leave you with your monitors sounding the way you always dreamed monitors should sound – and that’s a great understatement.
Russ: How does that happen?
Carl: It happens not unlike a great mix is achieved by a great mix engineer. An artist or producer will hire a mix engineer to mix his or her record based on previous work that that engineer has done. Every engineer has a method he or she uses, and although creative options do not apply in the PFS implementation as they would in a mix (i.e. higher or lower guitars or vocals), a unique method does. The methods and protocols of the PFS are proven and very consistent from system to system.
Russ: What hardware is involved?
Carl: A near-field PFS includes a pair of our PhantomFocus™ Sound Anchor stands; a dual subwoofer system that varies depending on goals of power and low frequency extension; the PFS DSP Processor, of which there are three versions, depending on whether or not it is a two-channel, Dual two-channel or 5.1 system; and the PhantomFocus eChair™, which perfectly postures the engineer in the PFS sweet spot. There are also various ballast and mounting modules. It's a very comprehensive system, hence turnkey.
Russ: So there’s a Phantom Focus chair? Interesting. What’s up with that?
Carl: Yes and it’s amazing. The eChair (engineers chair) is designed by a former champion racecar driver and is the perfect companion and an integral part of the PFS. It’s really comfortable for long sittings, excellent for your posture, impossible to slump in and perhaps most importantly, essentially “locks” the engineer into the sweet spot position. It replaces the Aeron chair as the default studio engineer chair.
Russ: Can you describe the typical scenario for a PFS installation?
Carl: Sure. I will initially have my clients send me photos and dimensions of their control room as well as engage them in a conversation about what their goals are for monitoring. They may choose to continue to use their existing monitors, or often I will be asked for my experienced opinion of what monitors I would suggest for their room if they are considering an upgrade. I calculate the modal and boundary issues based on the information I’m given and if necessary, make acoustic treatment or occasionally structural recommendations prior to the install. A common issue is the computer monitor positioning. Very often the client will have a 20” video monitor mounted between the two speakers that greatly degrades the imaging, so we specify a 55” or 60” HD or 4K, wall or stand mounted TV set back to open up the imaging window between the speakers.
Once the basic PFS criteria are met and we have an understanding of the control room acoustics and layout, including the console positioning options and monitor choice, my assistant and I will schedule a visit to perform the two-day implementation and commissioning.
Day one is dedicated to the physical set-up of the monitors, subwoofer system, console positioning, and TV mounting using four sets of lasers. I call this the rhythm section because unless it’s in the pocket, there’s no sense continuing on polishing a turd. Day two addresses the application of the PFS Processor and tuning; at the end of which time, the system receives its final commissioning and hand-off to the client.
Russ: What does the PFS Processor do?
Carl: Several things, and all are aimed at phase correction between the two monitors and between the monitors and the subwoofer system. This is achieved using proprietary crossover points and slopes with up to 66 bands of parametric equalization per channel at our disposal.
Russ: There is school of thought that says it’s better to design your control room properly and use acoustic treatment to tune your monitors, and that EQ only causes problems like phase shift and frequency anomalies in and outside of the sweet spot. Can you address this point of view?
Carl: Excellent question. It is common knowledge that the anechoic chamber frequency response of a speaker has little to do with how it performs in the real world, i.e. in a control room over a console. What is not as well known is that the speaker performance cannot be corrected with acoustic design, treatment and positioning alone – in fact not even close when comparing it to PFS performance. EQ definitely causes phase shift and that’s the good news. What happens when you place monitors in a room is that they react to the modes, boundaries and console surface in a dramatic way. You can minimize this to some extent by following proper placement protocols and applying appropriate acoustic treatment, but in the end the room is still “EQing” the monitors; that is, it’s causing phase shift. So how do you correct phase shift? With phase shift – enter phase corrective equalization.
The other half of the argument is that if you EQ the sweet spot for accuracy (along with crossover manipulation and other phase corrective measures in the PFS) then the rest of the room will be inaccurate. Well, the rest of the room was always frequency inaccurate and now it’s frequency inaccurate in a different way, and who’s to say off hand that it’s now more or less accurate than it was before? The point here is that there can be only one truly accurate position in a room, and that is centered in front of the monitors. I’m not inventing this situation with the PFS – the laws of physics dictate it to be true. There are longstanding myths about this and that’s why you hear comments like: “These monitors have a really wide sweet spot” or “The acoustics in this room are so smooth I could mix anywhere I stand” or “Monitors should be placed upright and not horizontal because of phase alignment changes away from the center” (if you’re making mix decisions from the side of the console instead of centered between the monitors you might want to consider a new profession), or such-and-such acoustic treatment widens the sweet spot. Rubbish. If you think about it for a moment, as an example, if you are sitting at the console centered between the monitors and you move your head to the left, even a few inches, you are going to be closer to that speaker, and not only will that speaker be a little louder, but the frequency and phase response will have changed in the mid and high frequencies in both channels. So you can extend that to being anywhere else in the room, and the phenomenon is magnified because now the low frequency modes come into play.
And that’s OK because generally speaking, monitors sound pretty good throughout a well designed and treated control room as long as you stay away from the walls and center length of the room where the modal bumps are the strongest. You’ll also notice if you listen carefully that certain bass notes can be attenuated if you step into or sit in a modal null point in the room. In a control room with a PFS this is also true, although the difference between the sweet spot and the rest of the room is so pronounced that it’s like walking into another room when you sit down in the listening position. And this is what everyone really wants (whether they realize it or not) – one position that is extremely accurate to make mix decisions.
It is worth mentioning here that some speaker manufacturers over the last few years have addressed this problem with their own proprietary self-tuning DSP, and I will venture to say that this can result in an improvement, although it only addresses the equalization of the monitors. However, as an example, I don’t think you’re going to find Bruce Swedien in a software plug-in to mix your record. Not that I am comparing myself to this great engineer but the point is that the PFS requires a hands-on, intuitive approach to achieve its stunning performance. It requires the "human" element of listening and tuning – not just relying on some electronics to take care of a problem – and that's where I come in. The PFS is the marriage of physics, electronics and a knowledgeable and experienced audio specialist that together creates a new standard for studio monitoring.
Russ: Very interesting. With that said, what percentage of the PFS does the PFS processor contribute?
Carl: I would say one third. Another third would be the physical set-up based on the room calculations and listening tests and the final third would be knowledge, experience and elbow grease.
Russ: Can you describe what the PFS experience is like sitting in the sweet spot?
Carl: In a word, no – nothing can take the place of the jaw dropping impact of sitting in a PFS sweet spot. However, I can tell you that you will experience these things:
• Your mixes will transfer accurately to whatever speaker system they are played on. Every speaker manufacturer promises this, but in this case it’s actually true.
• The speakers will seem to disappear – you won’t be listening to speakers anymore – you’ll be listening to the source, and it can be an emotional experience.
• Mix time will be cut in half.
• The center image will seem almost tactile as if you could reach out and touch the vocalist and easily find its pocket in the mix – in your face or set back.
• Because frequency dips and peaks are effectively eliminated, there is no longer any masking going on, and for the first time you will hear everything in pinpoint detail with sonically holographic imaging - left to right, forward and back.
• If you pan from 2 o’clock to 2:30 o’clock – you’ll hear (see) it.
• You will not be guessing about the low end ever again – definition so precise you can hear the string windings on a bass guitar.
• Working will be a pleasure with no more second-guessing.
Russ: What would you say to someone who is about to upgrade to new monitors?
Carl: Investing in new monitors can be exciting, full of hope and anticipation for a brighter sonic future, and they all have different personalities, tonal characteristics and imaging qualities, as well as a certain visual sex appeal. However, it has been my experience having worked with dozens and dozens of different speakers in many environments, that regardless of the monitor of choice, you’re still going to have the same room-degrading frequency response problems. Depending on the budget, you would be far better off holding onto your existing monitors and implementing a PFS. It‘s a hard thing to convey to someone who hasn’t actually experienced the PFS and has that new monitor fever. Most recently, a mastering engineer who just spent 30K on new reference monitors for his room contacted me. The speakers came with a DSP self-tuning package, and he asked me if I would like to see the before and after frequency graphs. Because of the uneducated placement suggestions by the manufacturer, the “before” graph was horrific, with multiple 15dB dips in the low end, and the after frequency response curve, achieved by absurd amounts of EQ, was misshapen. All this was compounded by the fact that the high frequency drivers shot over his head. His previous monitors were excellent, and had he gone the PFS route he would be a happier and richer man today.
Russ: I’m fortunate to have experienced mixing on a PFS, and I found it nothing short of stunning. I’m curious, does it use any sort of psychoacoustic DSP to achieve the results? In other words, are you using an effect like a Spatializer or Aphex Exciter to create some the sonic “magic”?
Carl: Absolutely not. Understandably, it may seem like seem like magic, but it’s really only old-fashioned physics and know-how properly applied using our proprietary protocols.
Russ: Your website offers some acoustic tools. If someone were to set up their monitors per your recommendations using these tools, how close to the PFS would they be?
Carl: The Null Positioning Ensemble™ (NPE™) diagram found in the Acoustic Tools folder in the Library section of the website is a major piece of the PFS that sets the stage for its remarkable imaging when positioned according to the axial mode calculator that is also provided in the folder. If you were to set up outside in an open field, the NPE might be all you would need. Of course, back inside, the room’s boundary’s and the console reflections create the phase anomalies that are so frequency destructive. The PFS addresses this. So to answer your question of how close would you be? It would not be the PFS by any means, but I will say that your imaging would definitely improve, as would your frequency response if you followed the example, again provided in the Acoustic Tools folder.
Russ: Thanks for taking the time to shed some light on your MixRoom and PhantomFocus System technology. As you know, I’m no stranger to your work, but it’s nice to gain a better understanding of the individual components and how they work together to create such an amazing experience.