Friday, August 23rd, 2019

Rock Steady! Unity Audio on designing brutally honest loudspeakers

By editorJune 1, 2012


Unity Audio Ltd was formed in 1995 by Managing Director Kevin WalkerKevin’s keen interest in music started at an early age, playing drums in bands when he was 13.  He soon became very interested in how records were made and built a semi commercial studio recording many bands over a 10 year period.  During this time he also started in sales at the original Turnkey shop in Hendon, one of Europe’s first pro audio stores catering for not only the professional commercial studio, but also the new wave of more affordable equipment for the growing home recording studio market.

At 21 he decided to go into manufacturing with two friends that were also in the business and formed a company called QuPlay Ltd.  Their first and only product, the QP1, was an ingenious remote control for analogue tape machines which could be configured to work with all the major machines at the time, Studer, Otari, MCI, Soundcraft etc, and record punch in and punch out points could be programmed along with autolocate and loop points.

“ Although the QP1 was innovative, and we sold a fair few, I was young and inexperienced and I learnt many lessons!”  After a few years Kevin folded QuPlay and went back to work with original Turnkey director Andrew Stirling to work in sales for his new company Stirling Audio where he stayed for 10 years.  In 1995 Kevin felt it was time to leave and form his own distribution company Unity Audio Ltd where he secured distribution for the UK, and internationally for many top professional brands such as Audioease, Adam Audio, DynaudioAcoustics, Burl Audio, Cartec Audio, Chandler Limited, Empirical Labs, Elysia, Earthworks, Great River, GRM, Kush Audio, Little Labs, Soundtoys, Telefunken and Thermionic Culture.  Kevin still plays drums, and still loves recording great musicians!

Kevin van Green studied industrial design before embarking on a career in music, first as a musician and later as a recording engineer during the 1980’s and 90’s.  Kevin’s passion for well recorded music led him into the Pro-Audio industry; his company – then named “Go – Digital Ltd” – was formed in 1988 specializing in Pro – Audio products and later drawing commissions to design studios for artists such as Vince Clark, Terry Britten & Depeche Mode.

Now trading as Green & Green Audio Ltd, Kevin focused his design ability & technical background to the manufacture, in their West Yorkshire factory, of selective Pro-Audio products – whilst still continuing to design distinctive studios and acoustic treatments for a wide spectrum of clients. Most recently – a fabulous ground up Studio build for Rimshot Studios in Kent, completed this year.

Kevin van Green’s reputation for quality and industry experience led to a request from Unity Audio to design a range of active Studio monitors and Hi-fi speakers. By setting new standards in speaker design, and in collaboration with Tim de Paravicini, Kevin has succeeded in creating and developing truly innovative monitors: The Rock & The Boulder.  Kevin van Green is currently working on a creative project with Lee Mavers (The La’s).

Kevin Walker takes up the story of how they got into studio monitor loudspeaker design:

“I really like these monitors, I can’t stop going to them! They’re not flattering at all, so they make you work hard to achieve the results, but that’s how a true studio monitor should be. The bass detail and speed is quite staggering. The Rocks do exactly what Unity Audio claim, they are ‘Brutally Honest!” Alan Moulder – Producer. Credits include: My Bloody Valentine, Depeche Mode, Wolfmother, Foo Fighters, Death Cab for Cutie, Them Crooked Vultures, Nine Inch Nails, The Killers, Interpol, The Smashing Pumpkins, and Yeah Yeah Yeahs.

“We decided to design and manufacture our own range of professional monitors from scratch, to overcome the shortcomings found in most commercially available monitor systems, and that will deliver what true professionals expect.  A brutally honest tool on which you can base the most critical decisions without a second guess or hesitation.  This has been achieved by assembling a team of professionals with impeccable credentials in the areas required to produce a new standard of monitoring.  I wanted to produce something different, using new materials and designs, and so I approached studio designer and acoustician Kevin Van Green to develop the Birch Plywood cabinet and Corian front baffle; while the amplifier, rather than an off the shelf approach, is a bespoke discrete Class A/B design from one of the best designers in the business, Tim Di Paravicini, whose company Esoteric Audio Research produces some of the finest amplifiers around.

“After testing many woofers we selected reputable German manufacturer ELAC for its quality and consistency – for The Rock a 50kHz ribbon HF and 6.5-inch woofer are used.  The reason we chose a folded ribbon tweeter is because of its low distortion characteristic and this means less listening fatigue.  Also its wide dispersion characteristics yield a larger listening sweet spot.  The larger 3 way Boulder’s takes this one step further, with its unique ELAC dual concentric tweeter / midrange arrangement allowing a more natural dispersal over a wider frequency band and totally eliminating any phase discrepancies between the mid and tweeter, being a point source unit.

“We wanted to produce a brutally honest monitor and we’ve certainly done that, our measurements indicate this.  The cabinet is sealed and it has no port, which is unusual for studio monitors, but the difference in bass accuracy is incredible.  It also has very good low-end extension too.  From the start we decided not have any EQ controls – the sound is what you get.  If you can’t deal with the accuracy The Rock produces, then it’s not for you, simple.  We’ve consulted with many producers and engineers and they welcome such a monitor.  The 3 way Boulder that was launched recently does however have a few subtle, but useful rear panel tweaks, a +/- 2.5 dB mid and a +/- 2.5dB 10kHz EQ shelf.”

Rock and Boulder designer Kevin Van Green, and Unity Audio director Kevin Walker both believe the three most important issues for any monitors are;

1) Accuracy : Above all they must be detailed and not misleading in any way. If it’s there, we want our users to hear it, warts & all. Good mixes need to sound good, bad ones need to have their flaws revealed.

2) Listening fatigue : Engineers work long hours and critical decisions have to be made with confidence at the end of a 14 hour day as well as at the beginning.

3) Translation : Work should be able to be moved to different rooms on different systems but still retain all the original detail, dynamics and balance. The Rock and Boulder were designed with this in mind.

Do you favour designing professional monitoring speakers for a listening environment which is fairly dead or for a more ‘natural’ listening environment

Acoustician Kevin Van Green.  “It would be impossible to design a speaker to satisfy all room types.  We produce monitors that are stunningly accurate.  This is the reference point.  Better to be aware of the limitations of your room rather than hide it.  Issues can be fixed if necessary.  We have to assume that pro users will have a pro approach to room acoustics and will have some form of tuning implemented to reduce room colouration.  A room should be neither ‘dead’ nor ‘live’, but a balance of the two.

Small rooms are more difficult to tune than large ones as there tends to be a build up of standing waves at the same frequency. A room that is a perfect cube is the worst starting point for this reason. These rooms need the most tuning, simply deadening the walls will not control low frequency standing waves. The better the tuning, the flatter the room and therefore the better the speakers will sound. Controlling the bass in the room can be the most problematical. I have designed the Unity monitors as sealed boxes with no ports. The reason for this is that it allows the lower octaves to roll off in a more natural way at 12db per octave rather than ported designs which fall away at 24db per octave. Bass instruments can be accurately balanced and you can hear the notes played rather than the one note drone of the port. Even in poorly tuned rooms this is a real bonus”.

For Metropolis Mastering engineer Miles Showell, a 27 year wait for a near-field monitor worthy of sitting on his mastering console is over…. “I don’t usually use near-fields, in 27 years I’ve not found one that I’m comfortable with for long periods of time. We’ve all tried many near-fields over the years at Metropolis and never found one that we’d want to use until I auditioned The Rocks. These are offering something different, we instantly understood them, and equally important, so do our clients. Everyone that has come to master here loves The Rocks, they’re all impressed by the amount of bass a small cabinet can produce and the level of detail.” Miles Showell, Crispin Murray – Metropolis Mastering

Is there a significant difference in design approaches for nearfield loudspeakers as apposed to for ‘whole room’ monitoring.

“Its impossible to work for long periods of time with large monitors.  No-one in pro audio monitors like this anymore. Our ears are too precious to be damaged in this way.  Occasionally an engineer will switch to ‘the biggies’ for the ‘vibe’ the extra volume gives, but only for short periods of time.  High volume masks flaws in recordings.  This is not something I recommend.  The Rock (nearfield) and the Boulder (near/mid) are designed for accurate monitoring for long periods of time at reasonable levels, which won’t damage hearing !!  The class A/B amp designed especially for these monitors is fully discrete.  This is for sonic quality and smooth but fast delivery of power when needed.”

How important are the frequency sensitive directional properties of speaker systems and are there other important issues to consider when designing monitor speakers to offer a stable stereo image?

“The design of the cabinet is critical for stability of image, not just to look pretty.  Especially important is the baffle, or front panel onto which the drivers are mounted.  It must be strong so as not to flex and dense so that it doesn’t sing.  Added to that can be problems caused by edge diffraction. How it’s shaped has a significant impact on performance, especially imaging.  My choice of Corian (a man made granite substitute) laminated to plywood for all Unity speaker baffles, is unique in speaker design and manufacture.  We machine it to shape in order to achieve the optimum sonic quality.  Our listening tests proved to us that top quality ply wood is superior to MDF.  Voicing is more natural.  The construction of the laminate makes it more rigid, and when correctly braced, has minimum flex.  The stability of the cabinet gives stability to the sound.”Coming back to listening environments, a reality seems to be that many people are trying to monitor in less than ideal acoustic environments.  They may make an attempt to deal with the worst of the room’s standing waves and may sometimes over deaden the listening environment.  Is there anything which can be done within the monitor speaker design to lessen the effects of poorer listen environments?  Can DSP processing play a useful part?

“The Rock & Boulder monitors are analog, something we are very proud of.  It would be very difficult to bolt on some form of digital room correction at this stage.  Digital has a long way to go yet before it can match analog for pure audio.”

Are there significant advantages in designing monitor speakers and their power amplifiers as a ‘matching pair’?

“Unity Rock & Boulder monitors are all active. We have maximised the performance of our drivers by designing the amplifier to work specifically with them.  The advantage of an active monitor in a sealed cabinet like ours is the speed and dynamic of the woofer.”

Mike Crossey is another prominent UK producer that has been recently blown away with the Unity Audio Rock active two-way monitors. “I wasn’t even in the market for a pair of monitors until I heard The Rocks. The soundstage on them is huge though unhyped and true. They are very impressive indeed. I used to spend hours agonizing over the low end, The rocks just get me there so much quicker than before.” Mike’s already illustrious CV includes Arctic Monkeys, Razorlight, Foals, The Kooks, Black Keys.

What advice would you give to readers in respect of selecting and installing monitor speakers (and power amps) for their studios?

“Selecting monitors for professional use can be a tricky business, especially in a music store.  What initially sounds impressive is not necessarily the right choice.  A lot of speakers are ‘hyped’ to make everything sound good or impressive.  In our opinion this is not a good characteristic for a studio monitor.  Listen to the bottom end, can you hear notes clearly, evenly and in balance ?  Is the top end over pronounced or harsh ?  Listen to the vocal.  Is it natural sounding ?  An overly bright or bass heavy speaker will mean mixes will turn out thin or lightweight.  The best option is to audition them in your own room.  When installing them the general rules (for near /mids) are to set them in an equilateral triangle with the listening sweet spot for optimum performance.  The tweeter should be at ear level.  They will sound better if they are mounted on suitable stands rather than perched on the meter bridge of the mixing console.  The distance from the back of the speaker and the wall should not be the same as the distance from the side wall to the side of the speaker.  Avoid reflective surfaces around the speakers, better to deaden this area.  Listen in mono and if there’s a hole in between the speakers move them closer together.  Little changes will make a difference.”

Our thanks to both Kevins and all the team at Unity Audio

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