New German audio products have landed on our shores, brought over by Steinberg North America. The manufacturer, MindPrint, seems willing to take some chances and applies unique approaches to building professional audio gear.
Product PointsApplications: Studio recording
Key Features: Mic preamp; 3-band EQ; softknee compressor; tube output stage; instrument input
Contact: Steinberg North America at 818-993-4091
+ Clean sound, but with character
+ Great-sounding instrument input
+ Good interface and metering
– Ill-conceived tube/compressor interaction
– Some gain/internal headroom problems
The Score: A good-sounding, unique preamp/processor from a new and promising German company.
En-Voice ($749) is what many engineers deem a mixer channel or mixer strip. It offers preamplification with filtering, a three-band equalizer section, compressor and final output control. En-Voice is a solid state processor at heart, with a tube that looks to be of the 12AX7 variety in its output stage. An optional digital interface card (I/O Mod, $249) gives En-Voice 24-bit digital inputs and outputs on S/PDIF and 1/4″ AES/EBU jacks.
The best way to become familiar with this versatile processor is simply to walk through the signal path from input to output. En-Voice offers a good deal of flexibility in its input section with mic, balanced line and instrument inputs. The latter input is mounted on the front panel for convenience and is of high enough impedance not to load down and dull guitar and bass pickups.
The input stage also has a bass-cut filter with an on/off switch and selectable 100 Hz or 50 Hz frequency. A switchable, 12-segment LED ladder in this vicinity shows input or output level.
From there, signals pass to the En-Voice’s three-band EQ. Bass and treble bands offer frequency and gain controls, while the midrange band is fully parametric with the addition of a Q (bandwidth) control. Each band offers its own hardware bypass switch and on/off LED indicator.
The bass band has an interesting nonsymmetrical Q arrangement where the bandwidth is much wider when boosting than when cutting. Though this seems odd at first, it’s quite useful in application. The high EQ band has the same Q for boost and cut alike. With both bands, taking frequency controls to their upper (high band) and lower (bass band) limits makes them function much like shelving EQ. The EQ’s real power is found in the mid band, which offers a generous frequency range of 100 Hz to 11 kHz and Q range of 3 to a very broad .15.
En-Voice’s compressor section offers threshold and compression knobs, as well as a slow/fast switch that affects both attack and release times. In fast mode, the compressor’s attack and release times are preset at 15 ms and 60 ms respectively; in slow mode these jump to 150 ms and 600 ms. The compressor’s threshold ranges from +2 dB to -28 dB. This knob also rolls in makeup gain as threshold drops, whether or not any compression is going on.
A filter switch rolls off bass frequencies in the side chain to reduce the compressor’s sensitivity to bass frequencies. This filter’s rather high rolloff point of 300 Hz makes sense for En-Voice’s main application as a vocal processor. A 12-segment meter tracks gain reduction, giving you a luxurious 1 dB per LED all the way to -8 dB.
The compressor section also holds En-Voice’s tube saturation knob, which adjust the tube’s distortion between 0.1% and 10%. A tricolor LED tracks distortion level from green (little distortion) to red (potentially audible overdrive). The TUBE SAT knob also rolls in a little high-frequency EQ boost, topping out at 2 dB above 4 kHz.
The TUBE SAT control is tied to the unit’s compressor by way of the threshold control. The lower the threshold, the greater the signal sent to the tube.
Finally, an output level knob sets level to the processor’s balanced 1/4″ and XLR outputs. An effects switch, located next to the output level knob, engages En-Voice’s EQ, compressor and tube circuits. This switch allows hardware bypass of all but the processor’s input stage (for simple mic preamplification, for example).
After a short time using En-Voice, I began to appreciate the thoughtfulness of the unit’s designers. En-Voice gives you a good deal of control – more than enough for most applications – and serves up plenty of visual and tactile feedback along the way.
Knobs feel smooth and solid, with crisp center detents where appropriate. Metering on En-Voice is excellent (especially gain reduction), and it offers plenty of on/off LEDs to boot.
Sonically, En-Voice is in the upper echelon of processors in this price range. Its input preamp offers a clear, open sound that’s far better than those preamps found on low- to mid-level mixers.
It is not the biggest-sounding mic preamp I’ve heard, but it has a nicely focused midrange well-suited to many instruments and voices. The unit’s EQ section sounds very nice as well, gracefully handling tonal changes from subtle to severe. I didn’t find myself missing high- and low-band Q controls as much as I thought I would.
The unit’s soft-knee compressor section didn’t disappoint, either. Gain reduction stays pretty transparent up into the double digits and I wasn’t able to fool the detector with very percussive or bass-heavy sounds. Though not as nice as true attack and release controls, the processor’s attack/release presets proved to be well-chosen and flexible.
For direct recording of guitar or bass, En-Voice’s instrument input sounds excellent. I could dial in some crisp, fat bass tones with the unit’s EQ and compression. Clean guitar also sounded stellar through En-Voice’s direct input. You can drive the tube beyond the 10% maximum distortion figure stated in the manual by taking the TUBE SAT control to max and the compressor threshold all the way down.
Though I wasn’t able to overdrive the tube to the point of usable distortion for guitar, the tube circuit did add a little edge to the clean guitar signal. En-Voice’s tube circuit was useful with many other signals as well, though I never heard the “living, breathing analog warmth” the manual promises. (Is anyone else tired of such adjectives?)
Depending on the instrument or voice, the tube would either add a little bit of thickness to the signal or sound more like a high-frequency exciter. In moderation, the tube did seem to add a touch of character to some sounds.
The more I used En-Voice, the more I wish MindPrint had just separated the tube and compressor sections. The claimed homogenous interaction of compression and tube saturation was a no-show to my ears and I believe that simply putting the tube at the end of the signal chain would have been more flexible and every bit as effective. The way the TUBE SAT and threshold controls interact, for example, make it impossible to get high tube saturation when using a high threshold.
I was never able to fully resolve some headroom issues. The unit would sometime distort although neither the input nor output levels showed clipping. A shaker track, for example, splatted badly through the En-Voice unless I dropped input and output levels significantly. When I pressed the processor’s bypass button, the signal returned to squeaky clean. (According to En-Voice, it is necessary to reduce the tube saturation when using a high treble signal. The En-Voice was built to fatten up thin signals. If you feed in already fat signals, you need to reduce the tube saturation accordingly.-Ed.) The makeup gain applied with the threshold knob can also create problems if you’re not careful.
Nit-picking aside, En-Voice is one of those do-it-all processors that puts in a good showing regardless of what you use it on. I liked its sound on most every instrument or voice I passed through it. Vocals and guitars (both bass and electric) were the standouts, with En-Voice maintaining good transparency even as it added a little character.
If En-Voice is any indication of what we can expect from MindPrint, this is a company worth watching.