Audiolinear AXIS by Arthur Stone
Axis of Love:
The word axis usually applies to a centre of rotation e.g. the space between north and south poles of a planet, the mythical Axis Mundi, or of a rotating wheel on the axle; axis can also commonly refer to geometric symmetry e.g. Celtic knotwork or fractals. Jimi Hendrix named an album after it.
The Audiolinear Axis acts as a central loci in the studio too; things revolve around it and it adds a symmetry between creation/manufacture and perception/monitoring.
Simply put, the Axis is a monitor controller connecting 4 input sources to 3 output destinations (usually monitors); it is 100% analogue (no digital components/signal path) and has 100% passive electronics (no active electronic components).
Through the review the Axis proved to be first-rate: reliable; great ergonomics and functionality; high-quality sound. Gear of this quality doesn't come cheap but on balance the Axis is a great investment if you need a no-frills monitor controller built to last a lifetime.
The choice of types of analogue inputs and outputs is well-judged given the space available: jack, mini-jack and RCA-phono. The input jacks can be TS or TRS and the output jacks TRS. Some may begrudge the lack of XLR but AFAIK this would adversely affect the signal path given that XLR requires extra circuitry; the important thing is that the Axis sounds great. The only real downside (as such) is having to obtain XLR<>jack cables. The RCA and mini-jack are obviously useful for home/project studios but I'm sure larger, professional studios use these sockets too on occasion.
The I/O components are certainly professional quality with Neutrik jacks, Schurter mini-jack, and Switchcraft RCA/Phono sockets: with the ALPS output trims, stepped Elma volume attenuator and the tasty rotary dial, the unit is a step above similarly-priced units without being too over-engineered.
The performance specs are impressive: a conduit big enough to handle any source. I'm no expert on electronics specs but the accuracy from DC to 530kHz and +35dB maximum input seems more than reasonable. The noise floor is the same as source and the cross-talk below hearing. The impedance, 100Ohm source (input) and 10kOhm load (output) are in the ballpark of my analogue and digital gear; no issues in use. Whatever the specs, more importantly, the Axis sounds great.
Price: £700 UK - $799 US
Built like an Aston Martin Land Rover using Swiss parts:
In terms of build-quality (as cars) the Axis is like a Land Rover – the old ones that last forever. Handmade from the best quality components. A Swiss Army Landrover. Thick folded steel that needs substantial mechanical force to shape (or deform) it. The moveable parts – the push buttons and dials - feel like they have decades of reliable service in front of them. Audiolinear offer a 3 year warranty for the Axis but it does appear to have much more longetivity than that, in my opinion. If I were out in the desert, then this is the monitor controller I could rely on; in the home studio there isn't a sense of over-engineering, steampunk or industrial chic. There's a lot of common sense in the Axis's design.
The designer, Steve Begg, brings forty years of industry experience, now as owner, director and principal design engineer at Audiolinear "specialising in design of ultra-high-end studio products." He was employed at Aston Martin and this experience is relevant in terms of the design, component and materials knowledge and measurement tolerances; another relevant CV point (curriculum vitae rather than control voltage) is Steve's work at Neve in the 90's on the Capricorn mixing desk and designed the 256-channel audio hub and also the VU meter system.
Passive electronic circuits differ from active ones in that they cannot introduce net energy into the circuit (whereas active circuits can amplify the signal by adding power/energy). Active (powered) circuits and components can use electrical energy to control current; a passive circuit cannot. The audio signal – a modulated electrical current – moves through the Axis's passive electronic components via a short, simple signal path and through the output onto the next device, an active powered monitor or amplifier which will add gain to raise the signal to the required energy level. The Axis cannot add gain as it is passive – instead it attenuates or reduces the signal using resistors. One major advantage of the passive circuit is it's linearity and low distortion; just what is needed in a quality monitor controller.
The gain stages (as opposed to the Axis's attenutation) are in the connected devices. The input sources will be at their normal levels (as you'd use with a powered monitor controller with an active gain stage/amp) whilst the output signal is reliant on the active monitors (or monitor amp's) gain stage.
I use a DAV passive summing mixer, and mics and electric guitars that require external gain stages from preamps and line amps; I like the ability to choose which amp I use as I can control the character, timbre, and dynamics of the music.
The difference with the the Axis's role is that the gain stage of the active monitors that is is sending signal to is onboard and (hopefully) designed to fit perfectly with the monitor. There's much less risk of the monitor controller amp getting weird with the monitor amp as would happen earlier in the chain with mics, guitars, and passive summing mixers.
The final stage of creative output – to the monitoring system – is linear yet uses each piece of gear at it's optimum and as it was designed to operate.
The idea of 'attenuation' or reducing/turning down took a while to understand when I was starting off in audio. Where should the uppermost possible position – the zero, be? At what sound level?
Setting the zero point – the loudest position on the dial - at a predetermined dB level, allows the user to accurately repeat the reference level across sessions and projects. This reference will depend on the type of monitor, closeness to monitors, room size, and other variables such as the type of project (e.g. VR/gaming, film, pop, classical, etc.) but above all the primary consideration is that the level should be safe for any prolonged listening sessions to avoid ear damage.
There is some consensus as to a good range of listening levels and also regulations and professional standards in commercial and public environments. The Axis reference marking can assist in creating and maintaining a reference in relation to other professional and collaboration or publishing standards as well as within our own in-house projects.
I needed to connect small Focal CMS40's, larger 3-way ADAM S3V's and a studio wedge. I turned to Bob Katz's Mastering Audio: the Art and the Science (other manuals are available); I also read widely on gearslutz.com and elsewhere. Bob says: "An experienced engineer can make a good mixdown just by listening and without looking at the meter. The key is understanding how to use the calibrated monitor control. In simple terms the monitor level control is calibrated so that the 0dB position produces 83dB SPL with a pink noise calibration signal." Katz, B. (2002:168)
My listening position is 3-4 feet from the monitors so I settled on a reference level of 82dB and played a -20dBFS pink noise through the Axis and monitors and then recorded the pink noise using a measurement mic and Sound Devices metering. From here, I adjusted the gain on the S3V's, CMS40's and Studiomaster wedge and further tweaked with the on-Axis's attenuators. A rough, approximate set-up that worked for the review.
It takes 5 mins to figure the Axis out; five more to connect the cables. The smaller Alps rotary-dials allow fine-tuning of attenuation (-20 to 0dB) to each output (A, B and C) and although this is post-main attenuation this means the relationship of monitor level to the large dial position is consistent.
In operation everything is intuitive: simply select input source(s) and output destination(s) and turn the large rotary to your preferred position. The input push-buttons can be multiply-selected so that any combination of input sources will be sent to the output; similarly the output buttons can be multiply selected so that the input source(s) can be sent to 1, 2, or 3 destinations simultaneously.
With imagination, the simple 4-in/3-out 'mixer matrix' can fulfill a variety of studio routing tasks beyond simple monitor control. For example, I can bring in DAW mix L/R as a stereo input and send that to the main monitors; I can assign the same source to a different output, to a recorder, and now I can monitor the record path. If I take the out from the recorder and insert that into a second input on the Axis I can then A/B the original source with the recording.
The Axis could also be pressed into service as a mixdown device e.g. routing several synths in and then selecting inputs and outputs to the mix. An output can also be sent to an analogue-to-digital converter or tape-machine.
The MONO and DIM buttons are well-positioned and intuitive to use; another useful addition would have been a reverse stereo or R/L but in general, the spacing and positioning of controls is ideal – all within fingers reach and easy to learn.
The aluminium alloy rotary monitor dial (64mm/2 1/2" diameter) attenuates in 2dB steps from 0 to -30dB and 5dB steps down ro -65dB attenuation. Off position is fully off. The contacts are gold-plated copper alloy with ceramic wafers. Swiss. Mmmm delicious! The resistors (of sequential value for each of the 24 steps on the dial) have a 1% tolerance and this is all hand-built/wired by humans.
The ridged edge of the dial has a good haptic texture being smooth to the touch yet having a non-sticky, non-glossy, much like a pebble on the beach. The vibration created when rotating the dial is pleasureable and it purrs softly like a cat.
I mentioned the Axis in a thread about passive monitor controllers in Gearslutz Mastering forum: the consensus was that despite the Axis's sonic pedigree the minimum 2dB gain steps were too large for mastering (where maximum 1dB steps are preferred). AFAIK this would be possible using different resistor values. For mixing and general studio use I found the 2db steps between 0 to -30dB (followed by 5dB steps) perfect.
I like gear that doesn't unecessarily interrupt my workflow. Following Noel Burch's 'four stages of competence' we go though stages of learning: unconscious incompetence (we're not aware we're incompetent); conscious incompetence (we become aware of our incompetence); conscious competence (we try hard to be competent); and finally, unconscious competence, which is a natural effortless competence as 'second nature.' Using the Axis quickly becomes second nature.
Due to it's dark colour and intuitive use I soon forgot the Axis was there and got on with synth noodling and mixing. The light metallic dial is quite contrasted against the unit's body in darker light but also I found it possible to just reach out and the dial 'appeared' in my hand. This reliable presence is aided by the weight of the Axis – not too heavy but seemingly anchored to the wood desk on it's rubber feet, and this despite all the attached cables hidden neatly around the back.
The stereo channels were perfectly matched (right down to silence using the impressive ADAM S3V 3-way midfield monitors). The trim controls (high-quality, smooth turn, ALPS audio potentiometers) were really useful in fine-tuning the output to a variety of destinations: e.g. small, mid and large monitors.
"I'm sorry Dave; I'm afraid that I can't do that."
You remember the famous scene from Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey? HAL, the computer' is playing up and Dave the spaceman is f#cked. We've all been there right? The updates, the drivers, the operating systems, software conflicts and wasted hours (of a life) trying to find passwords, or retrieve or actuate online authentication.
Although cutting-edge in performance the Audiolinear Axis harks back to a better time before the idiosyncracies of the audio Matrix. It works without a computer attached. Enough said.
The Sound of Silence:
I've always loved the sounds of music from diverse geographical regions; the novel rhythms tones, timbres, and melodies – and later hearing similarities and factors common to many 'musics' like harmony or cross-rhythm. In the early 90's my traveller friend took me to Portobello Road market to buy a Goa Gil cassette tape: a mix of Frankfurt-style techno with elements of the music and culture of 1990's India, specifically Goa. I took a deeper interest in the philosophical side of Indian classical music; I learnt mainly from non-Indian musicians who had travelled there. My friend suggested that a traditional composition would draw the listener through emotional stages: happiness, longing, sadness, fear, calmness, etc. and he stressed the importance of the silence between the notes as being of equal value to the notes themselves (looking at you Miles Davis!).
So my 'obsession' with silence began. I hear music in the silence. Some silences are different to others. Listeners can perceive changes in the room tone. Daniel Lanois discussed 'room tones' and the importance of capturing a room tone 'studio silence' to add to later edits e.g. as a background to crossfades, to make the edits plausible to the listener.
So, legendary producer Joe Boyd is giving a Red Bull lecture and he's discussing why his records do not sound so dated: he deliberately set out to make it so. No giveaway gimmicks or gear-character to destroy the verity of timelessness.
I was always looking to create that timelessness in my music long before I'd heard of Joe Boyd or Daniel Lanois (although I had heard music they'd help create); it's almost as if there is a Platonic ideal within music and if achieved can render the music immune to the entropy and hubris of time and cultural evolution.
The Audiolinear Axis is, in my opinion, a device that will not destroy that audio idyll. It will never be the weakest link in the chain; it is not a device that leaves some colour or imprint that will be recognised in the future as specific to a time or date.
The Axis is a beautiful instrument that produces silence.
I'm a fanboy of the Axis but in a modest, understated way. There's nothing hysterical or brightly-coloured. Just calm. It's neutral and dependant only on the input signal and will do no harm. The insight here is that high-quality 'clean' devices do impart a sound by their absence (in a Gestalt sense of figure-and-ground); the audio sounds better than without.
The Audiolinear Axis inspires confidence in not being the weakest link in the signal chain: it is solid and professional and is 'low-maintenance' physically, and also in terms of not hindering the workflow. I enjoyed using it. The dial purrs.
Sound quality: 5/5 Suitably impressed. Obviously this is dependant on what you feed the Axis but I liked what I heard whether that was lo-fi or high-quality source material and whether it was the Focusrite Saffire, Sony Mini-disc, Technics 1210 turntable, CD player, RADAR conversion or Sound Devices; it also handled live instrument tracking (guitars, synths, etc.) beautifully. Worked with a variety of monitors: small Focal CMS40's, larger ADAM S3V's and also a stage monitor for live tracking/jams.
Bang-for-buck: 5/5 I think the price is fair given the quality and cost of the components – also the value added by Audiolinear in the design, implementation and manufacture of the Axis. Quality costs and whilst there are certainly cheaper monitor controllers they do not have the same design or quality of components. I like to evaluate purchases against their potential length of service in the studio (and reliability); if the Axis is good for 10-30 years (as it feels) then it's around 50p to a £1 a week for a first-class, high-quality monitor controller.
Ease of use: 5/5 Just what is needed: the unit is anchored by it's modest weight and rubber feet and doesn't move around; just enough individual buttons and dials to be easily 'muscle-memoried' – the ergonomics are a perfect cortical homunculus for the busy engineer/mixer's right (or left) hand: monitor dial centre and large; push-buttons either side.
Features: 5/5 This is more than just a device to adjust the level of your monitors; it's like a mini-mixer or patchbay too, and with imagination can be very flexible in bringing a small studio's audio connections together. A standout feature is the quality of the signal path components – this is where the money has gone and what you're paying for – where it's important.
Credits and references:
Audiolinear AXIS - The zero compromise passive monitoring controller
Dolmatov World Tree design: By Далматов К. [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
'Star Chart' By I, Dennis Nilsson, CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3262268
'Celestial Pole' By Dbachmann, Tom Ruen - Own work by uploader, based on PD image en:File:North_ecliptic_pole.png, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=6390943
Product images used with permission of Audiolinear; additional photos by Arthur Stone