BEN FEGGANS ON MASTERING WITH AMPHION LOUDSPEAKERS
Ben Feggans is one of Australia’s most in-demand mastering engineers. Working out of legendary 301 Studios in Sydney, he’s put the final shine on releases from Rüfüs, Ngaiire, Cut Copy, The Kite String Tangle, Dustin Tebbutt, Dappled Cities, Tuka and 360.
After cutting his teeth as a mix engineer with indie dance and electronic acts on the highly successful Future Classic Label, Ben made the transition to mastering at Studios 301 in 2005.
How long were you a mix engineer before you moved to mastering, and what led you to make the move?
I started mixing in 1998 after finishing an audio engineering course at SAE. I was mainly interested in pursuing film post production at the time, but I found the Australasian film industry was declining and it was difficult to get work. Being a former DJ of electronic music, I knew many people in the dance music scene so I began offering them my services for mixing using a studio in Surry Hills. Some of the mixed tracks were put on early releases from Future Classic so I thought I would have a shot at mastering their next release. I borrowed a Massive Passive and Tube Tech SMC-2B with Prism conversion and people were really happy with the results. Then I received a phone call from Jackie at Studios 301 looking for a mastering assistant- I went straight to her office and said “pick me- that’s always been my dream to work at 301!”
What’s exciting you right now in the Australian music world?
There is so much going on, and collaboration with other artists is much easier now. I’m enjoying the electronic/acoustic hybrid approach that many artists are using for music creation.
301 is one of Australia’s most iconic and venerated studios — whats does the future hold for it?
Well, there is a massive development coming towards the end of 2017. Studios 301 is building a state of the art complex in Alexandria that will be one of the worlds best. There will also be a unique service available for mastering announced after the opening that remains “top secret” for now!
What are some of the challenges you face when presented with a mix?
When you are mastering you are often correcting issues with peoples room acoustics and monitoring. They are doing what sounds best on their system, and sensibly pass it to a mastering engineer for a final translation check in a calibrated listening environment. The common issues are where many mixers struggle – sub bass, low end, low mids and vocal levels. Also too bright or to bass heavy depending on the speaker positioning. Often you have to “de-clutter” a mix so that other parts come through. I’m a big fan of pulling out the frequencies that are the problem leaving space for other frequencies to come through, rather than just boosting frequencies which eats up the headroom. There is a trend to have many buss processors on a mix- often these type of tape or saturation effects leave a stamp on the audio which gives you less flexibility when mastering. Having said that, the quality of mixes I receive from bedroom producers these days is incredible! If there a major issues with a mix I will consult with the artists and see if another mix can be done, which will end up being a better result after mastering.
How do the Amphions compare alongside the Duntech Sovereigns?
I think that the Amphions are very good at getting to the “character” of the sound, something they have in common with ATC. More like the truth of the sound without getting in the way. What surprised me about the Amphions was how organic they sound for a speaker without soft dome tweeters. They are also amazing when working on micro dynamics. The Duntech Sovereigns are very “big picture” which is ideal for mastering, big stereo image as well, they share a similar hi-fi presentation to the Amphions and complement each other well.
In June 2013 an extensive studio monitor comparison was started on Gearslutz by Audiovisjon. The “high end nearfield test” has attracted over 790,000 views and been responsible for a number of manufacturers ascending to the forefront of the professional audio industry. A new contender, Amphion, particularly sparked my interest. Another thread titled “Amphion… Beautiful” has attracted over 700,000 views on Gearslutz, and Amphion attribute this thread to a vast number of their sales. Movement was clearly happening by a relatively small manufacturer from Finland.
Although Amphion were initially not well known in professional user circles, Amphion has a 20 year long history designing hi-fi speakers. Amphion spent five years prototyping their professional range of studio monitors, and there are a number of different approaches used in the design.
Amphion has a philosophy that the cross-over of a loudspeaker shouldn’t be in the critical hearing range of 2kHz-5kHz. For this reason the crossover is set to a 1600Hz. The small one-inch tweeter cannot reach that low without support, so Amphion use a wave guide which is also used to align the dispersion of the tweeter to match it better with the midwoofer.
The waveguide is also used to align the phase response of the tweeter with the woofers. Secondly, instead of using bass reflex ports Amphion use passive radiators to tune the frequency response to the low frequency drivers. And finally, the Amphions are passive rather than active. There are a range of Amphion Class D amplifiers available that are matched to the speakers.
I had the flagship Amphion Two18 sent to me from Federal Audio to audition. They weigh a hefty 18Kg each due to their solid and internally braced MDF cabinets. The drivers used are a one-inch titanium dome tweeter and dual 6.5-inch aluminium mid/woofer, with dual 6.5-inch passive radiators on the rear, manufactured by SEAS in Norway. The white wave guide gives them a very unique appearance, reminiscent of the Yamaha NS-10. There are single speaker binding posts without the option for bi-wiring. The speakers were set up in Studios 301 MS-1 mastering room, mounted on heavy duty custom speaker stands, and placed in an equilateral triangle towards the listening position. The Amphion Amp500 was used to drive them. The MS-1 main monitoring speakers are Duntech Sovereigns driven by Pass Labs X.250 amplifier.
First impressions were positive — the sound was well balanced, with low end power and punch more than I imagined a speaker of this size could create. Their scale was obviously not to the same size as the mighty Duntechs, but the balance was in the same league as a mastering grade speaker. The low mids were particularly impressive- not scooped as with many smaller studio monitors. The midrange and top end was detailed and precise, but felt a touch harsh on material with a lot of forward midrange content, something that fabric dome tweeters tend to be more forgiving on. Reading the forums, users reported that the Amphions require some “break in” time, so even though these were demo units I left them playing some source material for a few days.
After experimenting with positioning I came to the conclusion that the image is improved with the speakers further apart, so you do need adequate distance between the speakers and listening position. After more listening and chin stroking I decided to swap the Amp 500 with the Pass Labs X.250 and voila, that’s the sound I was after. The sound became just a touch more natural compared to the Amphion 500 amplifier, and the slight edge in the midrange wasn’t as pronounced. Although Class D has an excellent reputation, my ears still prefer the Class AB Pass Labs sound.
So how do they sound? Musically accurate. They have more of a hi-fi speaker presentation, giving you an insight into the tonality and character of the sound with exceptional detail, but not so much detail that you become overly critical rather than listening to the big picture. This is a very difficult balance to achieve in a studio monitor. The low mids and low end work wonderfully together with the passive radiators, and the attack of the transients is exceptional, allowing you to hear powerful, articulate low end detail. Imaging is amongst the best that I’ve heard in a studio monitor. If you tend to visualise sound, the Amphions will blow you away with their glorious presentation.
Listening to studio monitors can often be very different to working with them, so I began working on a number of sessions. One aspect that I really enjoyed was the ability to use the Amphions at low listening levels. Due to their fast transients, I noticed that you could accurately hear changes when using compression and other types of dynamics processing. Small EQ changes are very discernible, allowing you to sculpt sound into pockets, chipping away part by part so that each frequency sits in the right place within the spectrum. Once this is correct, the music envelopes you with a powerful balanced, detailed sound. As others have noted, working with the Amphions is an absolute joy, and this is where they really stand out. Putting my mixing hat on, I think that the Two18 would be an outstanding studio monitor to work on. The smaller Amphion One15 have also been praised for their translation. The work was rewarded with excellent translation to the larger Duntech Sovereigns.
In summary, I was very impressed by the Amphion Two18s. Other mastering engineers also popped past for a listen and everyone gave them the thumbs up. I would class them as a hi-fi speaker that has the attributes of a studio monitor, and this is why they have become popular. So the ultimate accolade is that Studios 301 ended up buying the Amphion Two18s for use in the mastering room.
This article first appeared on Federal Audio’s website.