Focusrite VoiceMaster ProMicrophone Preamp Compressor EQ

The VoiceMaster Pro, the newest product in the Focusrite Platinum Series, was a PAR Excellence award winner at the 2002 AES show, and for good reason: never before has so much been available for so little.
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The VoiceMaster Pro, the newest product in the Focusrite Platinum Series, was a PAR Excellence award winner at the 2002 AES show, and for good reason: never before has so much been available for so little. Targeted squarely at the project studio, the Pro lives up to its name, offering professional processing at a price accessible to all. Focusrite promotes the box as an able all-in-one voice recording tool, but they're selling it short. As you will see, I was also able to use it on guitars with good results.
Product PointsApplications: Studio, live sound

Key Features: Mic preamp; downward expander; Vintage Harmonics; optical compressor; tube emulation; EQ; de-esser; low latency monitoring; optional digital output card.

Price: $750 optional digital output card, $250

Contact: Focusrite/Digidesign at 650-731-6300, Web Site.

Plus

+ Acts as a standalone A/D converter

+ Great-sounding de-esser

+ Quiet mic preamp with plenty of gain

+ Lots of I/O

Minus

- Absence control heavy-handed
Features

The front panel is well-laid out and, in all but a few cases, anyone with moderate studio experience should be able to figure out the unit without cracking the manual. However, after the initial out-of-the-box euphoria and experimentation phase, I would highly recommend reading the well-written manual cover to cover. It is packed with thorough explanations of each section plus additional information titled "Obtaining Good Quality Sound," "A Beginner's Guide to Compression/EQ" and some FAQs with answers.

Front panel features include a blue, LED-lit peak output meter, the master output control (offering an additional 5 dB of boost if needed) and a global bypass button. Because there is a good chance that this unit will be used as a front end for a DAW, Focusrite has provided for latency-free monitoring with a headphone output. The controls are simple but complete and include: FX return level, mix control between the external stereo mix input and live vocal, and headphone level control.

The back panel is loaded with I/O options including: a second XLR mic input, separate TRS line input, insert send/return, pre de-esser output (+4 dBu), main output (+4 dBu), unbalanced out (-10 dBV), unbalanced mono FX send, balanced stereo FX return and stereo monitor input/output. For those in need, there is also an optional digital output section available that operates at 44.1 kHz, 48 kHz, 88.2 kHz and 96 kHz. The card includes a S/PDIF RCA output and an external word clock input on a BNC connector.

Even though the unit is mono, you can also use the box as a standalone stereo converter by using the balanced TRS ADC external input to access the second channel. There is an ADC lock light on the front to indicate that the unit is in sync with the word clock input.

In Use

Due to limited space, I'm going to explain the unit as I tested it -- laying out each section individually and listing my observations and experiences. The unit is broken down into nine separate sections, seven of which have meters providing feedback as to what's going on in the different operations. Nicely, all processing options can be individually bypassed.

The mic preamp section on the far left contains both an XLR and instrument input, phantom power button, polarity flip, input gain, high-pass filter (18 dB per octave cut variable from 30 Hz to 400 Hz), six LED level meter and mic/line button.

I experimented with three mics on vocals and acoustic guitar, a Shure KSM141, Royer Labs R-121 and a Neumann KM 184. These are not your usual vocal mics but I chose them for a reason. The Royer, because of its dynamic nature, usually needs a hefty amount of gain and the Focusrite provided all I needed. I was pleasantly surprised during the test with the Royer that the noise floor was remarkably lower than I expected. In fact, when I cranked it wide open, the room was louder.

The other two mics were chosen for their open nature because on an initial test I found the preamp to be on the dark side, I wanted to see if using a brighter mic up front helped -- and it did. After listening to both the Neumann and Shure and adjusting distance for proximity effect, I put the VoiceMaster Pro up against the preamp in the Millennia STT-1. Admittedly, this is an unfair comparison but the Millennia makes a great bellweather when testing preamps. Although the Focusrite was not as smooth on the top and was just a bit darker sounding, it hung in pretty well. Especially when you consider that the Millennia is considerably more expensive.

Next, I recorded a Yamaha acoustic guitar using the Shure KSM141. At first, I encountered quite a bit of boominess inherent in this particular guitar. Nicely, I was able to remedy that by kicking in the high-pass filter and with a bit of experimenting, was able to remedy my problem.

Directly in line after the preamp is the Optical (downward) Expander. It is comprised of a threshold and release control and a six-segment gain reduction meter. This section is the weakest on the unit, not because it does not do its job, but because in my experience, the subtleties of a vocal performance are better left untouched by the heavy-handed nature of a gate or downward expander. In all fairness, I used a fairly breathy and dynamic vocal in my test and no amount of tweaking could keep the expander from making the tails sound ragged.

The Vintage Harmonics section consists of a mid and high-band threshold control, six-segment gain boost meters, depth button and a button to put the section post-compressor. This process carves up the bandwidth into three sections, leaving everything below 100 Hz untouched. The mid and high bands are centered at 3.5 kHz and 20 kHz respectively at a Q value of 2 and have separate threshold settings variable from -40 dB to -10 dB allowing you to bring up the apparent loudness of each section. Everything above the threshold goes untouched while everything below the threshold is compressed at as ratio of 2:1.

The negative side is that it brings up the noise floor between peaks a great deal. However, when used in conjunction with the optical expander, this negative effect is greatly reduced. The depth button sounded better left out when used with a vocal, however on an acoustic guitar it worked much better.

The optical compressor consists of threshold, release and makeup gain controls, a six-segment gain reduction meter and buttons offering a slower attack, a more drastic ratio and the ability to move the compressor post-EQ. I used the compressor on vocals and guitars and it ended up offering an admirable amount of gain reduction without pumping, even when tickling -10 dB to -12 dB of reduction. I got the best results by leaving the Slow Attack and Hard Ratio buttons out and the release set at about 2 o'clock.

The Tube Sound is an interesting section in that, like the EQ section, it is fairly subtle. It comes with two possible settings, one that is marked "Tone" and the other "Drive." Tone is variable between mellow and bright and Drive between "Cool" and "Warm." The manual states that turning the Drive control clockwise adds 2nd, then 3rd and then 5th order harmonics. The tone control is a low-pass filter that lets you choose which frequencies above the cutoff are affected (5 kHz). The nicest effect was when I maxed the bright setting. There was no apparent harshness, just shine at the top. When used with the "Breath" control on the EQ section, it added a bit more to the top, which may be a welcome option on some recordings. I wasn't as fond of the Warm setting as it tended to muddy up this particular vocal.

The equalizer section offers boost and cut at low-band (variable between 120 Hz and 600 Hz) mid-band (fixed at 1 kHz) and high bands (10 kHz or 16 kHz). There is also an Absence pot that cuts from zero at a fixed 3 kHz. Breath adds nice luster to the top without becoming overbearing, however, if you are looking to add loads of high-end, do not look here, this does just as it says, adds breath. The most impressive feature in the EQ section is the mid frequency boost/cut. It really enhanced the vocal I was working on and made it jump out of the track, even after I adjusted for the volume increase. The fixed Q on the "Absence" was a bit much for my tastes.

The de-esser (same as in the ISA 430) is highly functional and closely mimics the operation of the dbx 902 adding a nice listen feature to monitor what you're cutting. There is a "Cut Frequency" dial, variable from 2 kHz to 10 kHz, and a threshold control variable from -40 to -10. This section worked great, with the final results being a fairly surgical removal of sibilance. The response of the circuit was quick, making even drastic de-essing nearly transparent.

Although this is optimized for vocals, I could not help but try it on guitars. It excelled as a guitar processor. I took an electric guitar and played around with the various sections. I found that the Vintage Harmonics, Tube Sound and EQ sections worked very well and gave me a number of options for tonal wizardry. Once again, it's the subtle nature of this unit that makes it exceptional. -- it is hard to make it sound bad.

Summary

Focusrite really thought this one out and provides a nice array of switchable processors in a tight, easy-to-use package. What I liked most about the VoiceMaster Pro is that it is subtle in all the right places. You would expect EQ and dynamics at this price to be harsh and heavy-handed, but that is far from the case. You can finesse a track using this box and the home recorder would benefit by having it in their rack. At this price, it is a no-brainer. My one wish for the box would be to have a link control so you could use two of them for stereo outboard use.