by Craig Anderton
Let's cut to the chase - TC's asking you to pay for a volume control - so why not just buy a metal chassis at Radio Shack, stick in a dual ganged control, and solder some cables to it? Done!
Well, first of all, let's establish why you would even want a "master volume control" for your studio. If you use powered monitors, they'll usually have some kind of level adjustment; but it's generally designed more for set-and-forget than constantly changing the level. And the outputs from D/A converters might not even have level controls, so you have to adjust levels from within software, or by adjusting the speaker settings.
Because I switch my speakers among various sources, I really needed a way to be able to grab a knob and compensate for level differences, turn the volume down quickly if there was some malfunction, and of course, lower the level when the phone rings! This became sufficiently important that I bought a PreSonus Monitor Station (I even wrote a review about it) so I could adjust volume with one master knob, as well as switch among various inputs and send to various outputs.
But a Monitor Station costs a lot more than the Level Pilot, and sometimes you don't need switching functions too; you just want a knob. Is Level Pilot the knob your workflow's been craving all these years?
I wasn't kidding, it really is just a knob. But it's a TC knob, which means its industrial design is on the Apple end of the scale. It's substantial, both in size and weight, with a rubber pad on the bottom that minimizes slipping on your desktop.
The control has a wonderful feel, and a "future retro" vibe.
As to making connections, there's an approximately six foot breakout cable with dual male and female XLR connectors. This is a multiwire single cable, that at about the five foot point, separates into separate XLR conductors for the two ins and two outs.
However, the connectors can't plug into two devices that are any more than 24 inches apart (that's an absolute maximum). So, you may need to resign yourself to getting extension cables, particularly if there are unbalanced runs along the way. Incidentally, if you do need to feed unbalanced connections, TC includes some wiring diagrams on the back of the packaging - a nice touch.
Having only one cable exit from the Level Pilot is a major plus. Not only does it minimize clutter, but if you want to move the knob, or put it on something, it's not at all awkward to do so. Incidentally, no power supply is needed; the knob is completely passive.
This part is for the solderheads, but it explains why some of the design decisions TC made were good ones.
I started probing around with a ohmmeter, and found a few items of interest. First, the control uses a 10kohm potentiometer, which is a good load for almost all of today's "line" outputs. Second, the taper is logarithmic, which I expected but nonetheless, it was worth confirming this. Third, the outputs connect to the control's wipers. This is as it should be: The potentiometer places a constant load on the output stage from which it receives signal, and turning down the level brings the monitor speaker inputs closer to ground.
There's no capacitor coupling, which eliminates possible frequency response and phase shift issues. However, if you're feeding the Level Pilot with something that has a DC offset, you may hear crackling as you turn the control. This shouldn't be a problem with properly-designed gear, but if you do hear crackling, measure the quiescent output of the signal going into the Level Pilot, and check to see whether there's DC offset. There may be a trimpot inside that needs to be adjusted to eliminate the offset. There are also full instructions on what kind of cables you need to use for various scenarios.
The “cable cheat sheet” is right on the packaging...very convenient, and much appreciated.
Way back when, I did session work at the Columbia studios in New York on West 54th street. One of the consoles there had a gigantic output control - I don't mean a knob a few inches in diameter, but more like a lever that traced an arc about the size of a small bicycle wheel. You could do absolutely amazing fadeouts, because the resolution was incredible - not just because it was analog, but because the lever travel was so long.
The Level Pilot isn't equally big, but it brought back some of that vibe because it's the biggest knob in my signal path! You really can feel the difference in the ease of dialing in precise level settings compared to smaller knobs.
$90 for a knob may seem like a lot, but the Level Pilot is to knobs as flying first class on Virgin Atlantic is to enduring economy class on Delta Connection. And indeed, it's very convenient to have what's basically a "master volume control" for your entire studio.
This is one of those pieces of gear that you look at and think you really don't need it. And in some ways, you don't. But if you don't have a master volume control and end up getting one, you'll probably wish you'd done it sooner.
Craig Anderton is Editor Emeritus of Harmony Central. He has played on, mixed, or produced over 20 major label releases (as well as mastered over a hundred tracks for various musicians), and written over a thousand articles for magazines like Guitar Player, Keyboard, Sound on Sound (UK), and Sound + Recording (Germany). He has also lectured on technology and the arts in 38 states, 10 countries, and three languages.