Fast FactsApplications: Studio, post production, live
Key Features: Single-channel mic preamp, compressor and EQ; three-way mic selection; switchable transformer-balanced or transformerless preamp path; optical compressor; six-band EQ; lighted analog VU meter; heavy-duty stepped rotary controls; external power supply; sidechain jacks.
Contact: Oram at 44-1474-815-300, www.oram.co.uk. Perched at the highest end of Oram's range of analog rackmount products is the Al Schmitt Pro-Channel Grand Master Series. As its name (and the cute dual-flag emblem on the front panel) implies, the Pro-Channel is a transatlantic collaboration between British designer John Oram and renowned American engineer/producer Al Schmitt. Although the custom collaboration and limited demand for production result in a prohibitively high list price ($9,900), the Pro-Channel boasts several unique features and a top-notch signal path that may make it worth the purchase for well-financed engineers and studios.
The Pro-Channel is a single-channel recording path comprised of a microphone preamplifier, six-band quasi-parametric equalizer and optical compressor. Two or more of the mono units can be linked for multichannel operation via the two side chain/control-voltage 1/4-inch TRS jacks on the back of the unit. An integrated stereo model is said to be also available from Oram by special request.
The Pro-Channel is housed in a six-space rackmount enclosure and includes a substantial external power supply capable of powering two units. The front panel features oversized knurled metal knobs and rotary switches, a large analog VU meter, heavy-duty push buttons and a wealth of indicator LEDs.
The first unique feature one encounters while setting up the Pro-Channel is its three XLR inputs on the rear panel. The Pro-Channel is capable of having up to three microphones connected simultaneously. Users can choose one of the three inputs (labeled A, B and C) via a front panel selector switch; phantom power can be applied to any or all of the three inputs via corresponding buttons.
The input selection knob feeds into one of two mic preamp paths, one transformer-balanced and the other transformerless, via a switch labeled "Transformer Bypass." A corresponding LED indicates when the transformerless path is selected. The input section also includes a signal phase reverse switch and corresponding LED.
Conveniently located in the upper left of the front panel is the large 23-step input gain control. In transformerless mode, the preamp provides for gain adjustment from 0 dB to 70 dB; in transformer-balanced mode, gain adjustment ranges from 20 dB to 70 dB (in this mode, the first five steps – from 0 dB to 20 dB – have no effect on the signal).
In the top right of the Pro-Channel is compression section. The compressor circuit uses an optical-based design and features the usual suspects: threshold, attack, release and ratio. The threshold control is continuously variable, while the attack, release and ratio controls use 11-step rotary switches. Attack time ranges from 1 to 50ms, release time ranges from 50ms to 4 seconds and the ratio control ranges from 1.4:1 through 30:1. Another large 23-step rotary control provides up to 22 dB of makeup gain following the compressor. The compressor can be placed before or after the EQ section via the "Post EQ" button, or bypassed altogether.
Spanning the width of the Pro-Channel's lower half is the substantial six-band quasi-parametric equalizer section. The equalizer features four bell-curve bands and two shelving bands.
Both shelves feature 11 corner frequency choices, 12 dB of boost/cut (using a stepped 23-position control) and a band-enable switch with corresponding LED. The low shelf ranges from 40 to 300 Hz, and the high shelf ranges from 6 to 18 kHz. Each of the four peaking bands – labeled Sub, Lo-Mid, Hi-Mid and Air – features 12dB of boost/cut and 23 fixed frequency choices, a band-enable switch and LED, and a bandwidth (Q) choice of 1/3 octave or one octave.
The frequency ranges for these bands are as follows: Sub (5 Hz to 160 Hz), Lo-Mid (150 Hz to 2 kHz), Hi-Mid (1 kHz to 12 kHz) and Air (10 kHz to 32 kHz). In addition to being able to engage or bypass each band individually, a switch to the right of the section bypasses all EQ.
Sitting pretty in the upper middle of the Pro-Channel's faceplate is the lighted analog VU meter. A five-position control is used to choose between displaying mic source, gain reduction, main out, compressor input and compressor output levels. A two-position switch on the back of the unit switches the meter's 0 VU main out reading from +4 dBu to +14dBu to better allow for the Pro-Channel's +28dBu headroom (if the compressor is configured post-EQ, this setting also affects the compressor input and output level readings).
In general, operation of the Oram Al Schmitt Pro-Channel is straightforward and self-explanatory even without a manual – a very good thing considering I did not receive an operating manual with the unit. And praise be to Oram for the detailed and informative labeling on the front panel (a frequent pet peeve of mine). Unfortunately, I cannot say the same of the rear panel on the review unit, which had no labeling whatsoever (though I suspect this was a very early production unit).
I was able to employ the Pro-Channel on a number of recordings, primarily on vocal recordings, but also occasionally for solo instruments including sax, cello, violin and bass guitar (through a Countryman DI). The sessions were recorded at sample rates from 44.1 kHz to 192 kHz, primarily through Apogee, RME and Pro Tools HD converters.
Without a doubt, this is the best Oram or Oram/Trident preamp product I have used (I have reviewed and/or extensively used four others, and started my engineering career on two original Trident desks). The overall sonic path is superb, and the addition of the thoughtfully designed compressor and EQ sections plus the two preamp paths provides a wide palette with which to add color.
At first I didn't think I'd find myself using the switchable three-input feature very often, though once I started using the Pro-Channel I was quickly put straight. Especially when faced with some new mics and/or a vocalist with whom I hadn't worked, the ability to quickly A/B (or A/B/C, rather) the different mics became invaluable, and led me to some surprising choices. In addition to the engineering benefits, setting up and hearing different mics is one those little things that the client often appreciates – made all the easier by the Oram box.
On several occasions, I used the Pro-Channel as an insert effect from Nuendo during mix prep to reprocess already-recorded tracks. This worked well in general, though I would have preferred – and this is my biggest complaint about the Pro-Channel – that the EQ and compression sections had their own I/O points, so already recorded signals (or when using a different preamp) don't have to go through a second amp process in order to use the EQ or compressor. At the very least, a post-preamp input would suffice; a good deal of the cost of the unit is the EQ and compressor, and one should be able to use these without going through the preamp.
One of the more interesting yet esoteric features of the Pro-Channel is a set of six blue LEDs – one for each of the EQ bands – that glow brighter when more energy in the respective bands is detected, thus forming a simple spectrum analyzer. The LEDs are post-band, meaning that any boost or cut amount affects the amount of glow; the LEDs continue to work even if the band (or entire EQ) is bypassed.
Some of the ergonomics of the unit seemed a bit counterintuitive, and took a little while to get used to. For example, the meter select knob doesn't follow the logical signal flow order, but instead is ordered: Mic Source, Gain Reduction, Main Output, Compressor Input, Compressor Output. In another example, I would have preferred to have the two shelving EQ bands at the extreme outsides of the section, and the four peaking bands in the middle. I also would have found the EQ more useful if the frequency ranges of the four peaking bands were reigned in a bit, and with more band overlap. But hey, that's why it's named after Al Schmitt and not me…
After extensive tracking use, I found the Oram Al Schmitt Pro-Channel GMS to be one of the best high-end recording channels I have had the pleasure of using. Despite my few ergonomic quibbles, using its many thoughtful features and exploring possible variations eventually became second nature, and the Pro-Channel quickly became my go-to box of choice for tracking vocals.
Overall, the Pro-Channel sounds fantastic – especially on vocals and lyrical instruments – and the convenience of its three mic inputs, dual-preamp paths, and built-in compressor and EQ sections makes this "channel strip" a top consideration for high-end vocal recording applications.
Fast FactsApplications: Studio, post production, live