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Review of the
It took me a long time to decide upon a mic preamp for Tweakheadz Lab. Years actually. Why so, you might ask? It's because I had become quite proficient at making do with what i had. I'd been using mixer preamps for several years and had learned all sorts of processing tricks to make my mics sound good. Before that I was using Hi-z unbalanced mics, the kind you get at radio shack for $35. Probably over 60% of the songs on my MP3 site were recorded with these and i had to be really careful.
So when it came to getting a preamp, first I had to get decent mics. When I got the Rode NT1 and the Cad e200, I was sort of in heaven. Finally the day has arrived to get an honest-to-goodness preamp and I have made up my mind. My choice, the Focusrite Platinum Voicemaster Pro.
My requirements for the preamp were as follows:
1. Has to sound good with no processing
2. Has to sound better with processing
3. Has to have a compressor and gate
4. Needs some kind of exciter or presence boost as my quiet bassy voice needs all the help it can get.
5. EQ and Tubes, optional.
The Focusrite met all these requirements, and it is now here in the lab!
Perhaps the most impressive feature of this preamp is that it is an excellent all-in-one solution for your acoustic recording needs. You get a Class A preamp for your microphone as well as the ability to plug in Hi-Z inputs such as guitars and basses and also any line level source such as synths, and feeds from mixer busses. There is a great collection of processors. While these are geared towards vocal processing, they also work with acoustic instruments.
Of course you get switchable phantom power, a phase switch and 60db of gain on the mic input. There is also an output knob where you can boost the signal another 6db if needed. (Chances are you won't, but it is nice to have). You also get a variable hi pass filter which blows away the "low cut" switch on mixers and mics (10-400hz).
2 controls here: Threshold and Release. Essentially, it's a noise gate that clamps down when it gets quiet. Very cool, even in a noisy room one can make a clean recording that sounds dry as a desert.
Focusrite explains this referring to an old trick producers use using Dolby noise reduction. You record with noise reduction on and playback with it off for a presence boost. Except here the mid range and hi frequency emphasis is fully tweakable, letting you tailor your specific amount of coloration.
Next in the chain is the optical compressor. The usual controls are here, threshold, release and makeup and you get switches for "hard ratio" and "slow attack". Of course you can completely remove the compressor from the chain like the rest of the processors and route it before or after the eq with one of the many switches. By the way, there are 18 switches on the front and 22 knobs.
I liked the tube sound least of the processors, but I have never been a fan of things that muck up the signal. Perhaps i need to play with it some more.
Sort of like a 3 band eq optimized for vocals. The high frequecny control is called "Breath" and can be switched from 10khz to 14khz, depending on how "breathy" you want it. The range is from -8 to +8db. Plenty.
The mid range is also + or - 8db, in a "shape" that is controlled by a second "absence" knob. The absence knob gives you up to 10db of cut for removing narrow mid range frequencies, a "scooper" so to speak.
Finally we get to the low end. The range here is from -12 to +8 and it is called "warmth". The frequency is tweakable between 120hz and 600hz. No, you will not be able to use this as a sub-bass processor, but you will be able to acentuate some analog sounding lower mids.
The last processor is the de-esser with a setable threshold and "cut" frequency between 2khz and 10khz. This is to get rid of those nasty SSS's and Tttt's that might come in if you have the eq and vintage harmonics full blast. (if you do ramp these up you will find your vocal is as crisp as a fresh bag of chips.) Hmmm, must be time to eat again.
You are probably wondering what the deal is with this. Well, here's how it works. There is a stereo input and output on the back and a headphone jack on the front. Basically, you can take a stereo feed off your mixer (for example, if your board has a "studio out" you can use that, or just use the board's headphone out and plug that in the line in jacks. So you connect the cans to the Voicemaster headphone out you hear a duplicate of the board's headphone out. Now come the cool part. The preamped and processed signal is mixed in with the headphone feed and you can vary the voice and the mix. So if you like to really hear yourself in the cans, just give the vocal more of a percentage of this headphone mix. It's called "latency free" because you are monitoring direct off the Voicemaster, not going through the CPU and soundcard before the vocal gets to the board. This mix does not bleed into the recorded track, it only goes to the headphones and the monitor outs on the back (which don't need to be connected). Might sound complicated, but believe it, its dead simple and effective. No more upsetting the board's faders so the vocalist can hear themselves against the music. No more "my voice is echoing in these headphones, fix it!"
You can spend up to $3000 on a preamp that does nothing but amplify a signal, that is, the preamp is little more than a "wire with gain". Many studio pros prefer this approach and add outboard compressors and processors as needed. People that can afford to do that are not in the market for a Voicemaster Pro. The product is aimed at people like me and maybe like you, who want one box to take care of their preamping, compression and signal shaping needs. The nice thing here is how all the components in this box work together. The simple layout makes it easy to go section by section processing your mic till you get it just the way you want it, then its just a simple matter to record it to the computer or multitrack, the level already optimized and overages unlikely. Sometimes more is more. With the Voicemaster, I think it is.
Good luck with your recordings!