Let’s start this conversation off by stating the obvious. You cannot properly record or mix music if you cannot accurately hear what you are recording or mixing. If music is more than a hobby, and you are working with low to mid-level monitoring with your computer and DAW, your next purchases should be a high-quality monitor controller and a good set of reference speakers. Compressors, EQs, and effects are sexy. They “do” something, and may look stellar in your rack. But if you can’t hear what any of them are actually doing, you are doing yourself and your clients a disservice.
Once you can hear what is actually going on with your recordings and mixes (and you may be shocked at what you are missing), you can and will make smarter choices in regard to matching preamps and mics to sources; positioning mics; and using compression and EQ more effectively (and sparingly) and less as corrective devices. You will also get to where you are going more quickly and with fewer detours.
The B26 Orca is an all analog, 2RU-height “monitor manager,” designed to let you route your choice of input to choice of output. In back, XLR connectors in stereo pairs provide three mix inputs, two return inputs, two speaker outputs, and an output for driving external meters. There’s also a single XLR input for a talkback mic. Additionally, a pair of RCAs is employed for a consumer-level (-10 dBV) stereo input.
Up front, the unit is essentially divided into two halves. The left side, labeled “Studio,” serves the artist, while the right side, labeled “Control Room,” serves the engineer. Each side has the same source-selection switches (Mix A/B/C, 2 Track A/B, and RCA) and a pair of LEDs that change color (green, yellow, orange, red) depending on signal level. The control room level is set with a big knob turning a stepped attenuator, which utilizes audiophile-grade, 0.1% matched resistors, while the artist side gets separate studio volume and headphone level potentiometers. Each side also gets a headphone jack (Studio Phones and CR Phones). In the middle of the unit is a button and level knob for talkback, as well as buttons for speaker selection, monitoring in mono, and choosing studio or control room for the meter output.
Anyone that has had their hands on a Burl Audio product knows that everything about the construction is top notch, and the Burl B26 Orca is no different. The front panel is well laid out and provides plenty of options for routing signal. The knobs all have a high-quality feel. The switches are latching Studer-type buttons, as found on the Burl B32 Vancouver Mix Bus [Tape Op #99]. They operate with a satisfying click, and when engaged, a small strip of color is visible, letting you know that the selected feature is enabled. Importantly, the unit boasts a direct-coupled, discrete, Class A, capacitor-free signal path.
I chose to connect two versions of my stereo mix, summed externally in my Burl B32 Vancouver from Pro Tools stems. Mix A has bus compression and EQ, and Mix B is straight out of the summing box. It is nice to switch between the two to really hear what the bus processing is doing to the mix. Unfortunately, the B26 Orca does not have onboard facilities for calibrating input levels, so level-matching between sources has to be done at the sources or through other means. This becomes even more challenging if you have two sources that are at -10 dBV, like a CD player and an Apple Airport Express, since the B26 Orca provides only a single unbalanced stereo input. (I use an Airport Express for wireless streaming of tracks from clients’ phones and computers.)
While mixing, I had to use the Studio Phones jack to monitor the control room source because the CR Phones jack does not have its own volume knob separate from the main control room level. BURL felt that adding a potentiometer here would have reduced performance of the headphone output, particularly in the case of left/right tracking at low volumes, and adding a second precision stepped attenuator would have been cost-prohibitive. The downside of BURL’s approach is that if you use the CR Phones jack, you may have to turn up or down the volume as you switch between speakers and headphones.
The talkback feature is straightforward. I wired a Beta 57 to the talkback input, and it worked as expected and had plenty of level.
I believe it was Theodore Roosevelt who said, “Comparison is the thief of joy,” and it certainly rings true in this case when comparing my old monitor controller to the B26 Orca. When audio first passed through the B26 Orca, I felt like I had a new pair of monitors. My PMC nearfields, which have always sounded great, sounded renewed. The depth of field and tonal balance were just fantastic. The bass was full of body, clear, and tight. Center image was very well defined, and at every volume level, the tone and image remained constant, and there was never harshness even at more extreme levels. Also impressive was how constant the stereo image and tone remained as the levels were decreased. Mixing at different levels is essential for perspective, but on lesser monitor controllers, low-level monitoring does not always paint an accurate picture of frequency and stereo-field balance. The B26 Orca performed nicely is this regard. The feeling of this unit is immersive; even at these low levels, I felt the music was all around me, and it made the sweet spot wider.
I had swapped out my old monitor controller for the Burl mid-project, during a few days off. To my surprise, with the B26 Orca in play, I was made aware of a subtle high-frequency phase issue that was occurring between my drum overheads and a guitar subgroup that was patched to a pair of outboard EQs. This slight latency in the return was creating an issue, and I had not heard it clearly with my previous setup. It was at this point I started to wonder what I had missed before.
I also listened to some previous mixes (both mastered and unmastered) as well as a collection of some well- known (to me) references. Listening through the B26 Orca revealed the good, the bad, and the ugly, across the board. The point being, if something was well done, it sounded great. If it was something that fell short, it was obvious. I guess I’m the sorta guy who would prefer to have a friend tell me I missed a spot in back when I was giving myself a buzz cut, so I can fix it and get on with my day. Burl = friend.
For subwoofer integration, I used a standard setup of connecting my mains to the sub, and the sub to a pair of speaker outs on the B26 Orca. The bass sounded tight and well defined, making low-end level choices much easier. There was a dramatic difference in this regard when comparing my mid-level monitor controller to the B26 Orca, with the Burl coming up aces.
After mixing a couple different artists of different genres using the B26 Orca, I feel comfortable issuing an opinion. And it is a no brainer. My B26 Orca mixes are better. The low end was right the first time, and everything was where it needed to be – the reason being that there was no guesswork involved. I heard what was right and what needed work. I made level, EQ, compression, and effects choices based on clear information.
The B26 Orca is very hi-fi, and it is obvious that the folks at Burl take tone very seriously. It provides for a very clear and open image both side-to-side and front- to-back. It is very easy on the ears for long mixing sessions, and it added accuracy to my already accurate monitors. So where do you go from here? Definitely not back to a compromised listening situation. If you are looking for a well-featured and beautiful-sounding monitor controller that is built like a tank, the Burl B26 Orca is certainly worth a look.