Just the thought of this seventh Session Trial — PAR’s ongoing series of comparative, real-world gear evaluations — filled me with excitement and curiosity. I must admit that I was originally a little overwhelmed when considering the prospect of picking favorites amongst this field of signal-path heavyweights. Truth be told, a “world-class” designation doesn’t adequately describe this collection. I didn’t discover anything that top industry veterans don’t already know about these five trusted signal processors.
For those who haven’t tried an API 7600, GML 2020, Great River Electronics MEQ-1NV, Manley Labs VoxBox, or Millennia Media Origin STT-1, let me tell you that each defines “professional” and is eminently usable at most any tracking task. Each is differentiated from the other four by features and flavors alone but not by standards of quality. And what tasty flavors they offer!
I enlisted the help of a band with which I’m very comfortable and can trust for discriminating judgment — The Lights, Fluorescent. We tracked one of their loud indie-rock songs rearranged for just acoustic instruments. Recording djembe, electric bass, two acoustic guitars, and two vocals (female lead and male BGVs), we used only one input per performer and did test recordings with each channel strip. Then we would listen to playback, discuss, and evaluate. Finally, we would lay down a keeper take for our song with our favorite channel.
(mic preamp, compressor, three-band EQ)
The 7600 ($2,995 list) is unique among this collection, not only for its stereo linking capability with a second 7600, but for connectivity to a four-bus, four-send “console” of 7600s (when mated with a 7800 Master Control module). As we tweaked our sounds, the band noticed how user-friendly the 7600 was, with highly visible metering (many very small LEDs, fantastic for their diminutive size), firmly clicking ”API knobs” on the 550A EQ, and the full-featured forgiving 225L compressor that we had to forcibly abuse to do anything bad. With variable knee, two modes (“old” and “new,” and we loved the new), and attack/release, the 7600’s little compressor covers lots of ground.
All in all, we found the 7600 package — the 212L preamp (as found in API’s Legacy console), the 225L compressor and the 550A EQ — to provide a “forward” sound with emphasized midrange, punchy bottom, and even a little bark. True to convention, the band thought the 7600 would be more useful to them when doing their usual “rock” thing, commenting that the 7600 would especially suit their desired snare drum, electric guitar, and bass guitar sound.
With the 7600, we got a good, punchy sound on djembe that was our second pick, with the compressor doing a good job of congealing without any squishiness. On bass guitar DI, via a rear-panel instrument input, the sound was very focused with lots of string definition, yet not thick enough for our tastes, even after a shelving boost at 100 Hz. Unfortunately, the 7600 wasn’t a good match for our acoustic guitars or female vocals, offering too much mid-definition and too little bottom. It was our second pick on Robbie Hartis’ backup vocals with a top-end definition that was able to cut through a dense mix.
(mic preamp, “dynamic range controller,” four-band parametric EQ)
The 2020 is aptly named: Its sound is so clear, lucid, and “in the room” that it’s like finally hearing with 20/20 vision (pardon my mixed metaphor). Its solid-state GML 8300 microphone preamp is truly pristine, and the 8900 compressor is rather tricky to use at first, offering “advanced” parameters like release hysteresis and crest factor controls. Complete with a sidechain input, stereo linking (up to eight units), and outboard power supply, the 2020 was our most expensive contender (at $6,000 list).
Time for a little pro audio word association. I say “Massenburg,” you say “EQ,” right? Well, of course, and for good reason: George Massenburg’s 8200 EQ sounds simply incredible, with seemingly no phase shift, inaudible distortion, surgical accuracy, and an honesty when sweeping for frequencies that had the band (and me) wide-eyed in disbelief. One word: Wow!
The 2020 got our first pick on djembe for great “boom” sustain without flutter: a “natural, big, and tight” sound that was perfect when using the Audio-Technica 4080 active ribbon microphone with a touch of 2:1 compression and some low EQ boost. The 2020 was our second pick for bass guitar with defined mids and a solid bottom, along with a mention that it might be first pick for rock recording.
The GML was our second pick for both acoustic guitar and female vocals as well, and for identical reasons: an amount of realism and clarity that was a little too much, almost clinical, even if flawless to a startling degree. Even if such audible honesty must be carefully utilized, I need this tool in my kit!
Great River Electronics MEQ-1NV
(mic preamp and four-band parametric EQ)
Great River Electronics — along with help from Mercenary Audio — put its preamp (ME-1NV) and EQ (EQ-1NV) together in a single-space unit to create this channel strip ($3,575 list). A compressor isn’t included here (and yes, we did indeed miss it). The preamp is simple and rather “vintage British” in its fingerprint, with transformer I/O and a sound leaning towards warmth, much like the Neve 1073 design that clearly inspired it. Wisely, the ME-1NV comes with an output level control for creative overdriving, an impedance switch, and a loading switch, which proved to be helpful.
The EQ’s usefulness, choice of frequencies and filters is ample; I only wish there was a low-band selection between 56 and 100 Hz. The input level control offers an “MPI mode” that feeds the EQ-1NV directly from the patch point output of the ME- 1NV, bypassing its output stage for a noticeably cleaner sound with a beautiful, bell-like top end — yet another useful sonic option from this preamp/EQ pairing.
Our sound on the hand-drum was a tad thin and shallow; some EQ was helpful but the drum’s decay seemed a little short. The sound on bass guitar was natural and accurately flat, needing a little low EQ boost. The DI is routed via FET to the input transformer for nice and subtle texture, but we still desired the density and compacting of a compressor.
Guitarist Andre Francois and I picked an Avantone BV-1 tube condenser microphone and the Great River for his track: he cited the chain’s “natural” sound, while I appreciated its pleasantness and lack of harshness. The musicality of the Mercenary-tweaked EQ came into play, with a tasty HPF, some bass boost that never clouded, and top-end attenuation that tamed pick noise without dullness. For Andre’s brief upperoctave solo, I needed to tame transient spikes, reduce pick clicks and bring up average level, so I changed the impedance to 300 ohms, added one click of gain (+5 dB), reduced output level about the same amount and hit the loading button (puts a 600-ohm resistor across the secondary of the output transformer) and punched in at the solo. Voilà! Instant solo sound right on the same track. Who needs mix automation?
Manley Labs VOXBOX
(mic preamp, opto-compressor, three-band EQ, and de-esser/limiter)
The Manley Labs VOXBOX ($4,000 list) has become widely known as a great input channel for vocals, although it is useful for much, much more if one digs into its hidden sonic options. Loaded with four tubes and six transformers, the VOXBOX offers a compressor that is uniquely placed before the mic amp with approximately a 3:1 ratio (but a full array of attack and release times) and a de-esser circuit that can become a 10:1 limiter, if so desired. The three-band Pultec-style passive EQ has a low- and high-band boost, a mid-band cut, and maximum variation of 10 dB. The group admired the easy-to-read graphics of the VOXBOX and, at first, wasn’t bowled over by the “warm, smooth, buttery, creamy” sound, but in the end, it got plenty of use (as they “got it”).
Although too round and gentle on djembe, the VOXBOX was our first pick on bass guitar, with a “velvety” sound that was “like an amp.” Bassist/vocalist Robbie Hartis commented that this wasn’t his choice for slapping or aggressive bass, but we had the warmth and depth for a steady underlying pulse in this acoustic arrangement without fighting guitars. The compressor does its work nearly invisibly and can be switched in and out with nary a sonic disturbance.
The VOXBOX didn’t work for one acoustic guitar, but was just right and our top pick for Craig Friday’s new (and still rather bright) Taylor acoustic on which we used a Sterling Audio ST-69 tube condenser to help tame top-end harshness. Craig commented that the sound was pleasantly “subdued,” and I added it was somewhat like recording to analog tape — not dark or fuzzy, just smooth and musically forgiving.
You guessed it, the VOXBOX was our first pick for lead vocals with a texture that was smooth and rich and downright expensive-sounding to my ears. Coupled with the Avantone BV-1 on vocalist Erika Blatnik, the track captured plenty of intimacy and detail, even though it took me a while to dial in the perfect timbre. We used the compressor’s medium-fast release, which sounds a whole lot like an LA-2A. I wished to have the de-esser and the limiter, then settled on the limiter (I can de-ess in the DAW), then also wished for a master output level control to ease the process. But dare I complain? The VOXBOX sounds golden!
Millennia Media Origin STT-1
(“Twin Topology” – solid-state or tube — discrete mic preamp, parametric EQ, and opto-compressor/limiter paths)
I can’t lie to you: I was already quite enamored with Millennia Media products before this Session Trial. I am so impressed with the company’s design philosophy. And it’s all here, plus more, in the Origin STT-1 ($3,395 list): sonic options at every stage; fully loaded with features in each component; an industrial-strength chassis and faceplate; and loud, clicky relays; big knobs; and bright lettering and switches.
While I may be biased, the band shared in my excitement too. Percussionist Nick Sullivan and Andre both loudly voiced their love of the STT-1’s vacuum-tube preamp over the solid-state one, citing the increased “size” (I also liked the “liveliness” of those increased even harmonics). The preamp’s transformer option could be eminently useful, although we never chose it for our particularly clean tracks. The opto-compressor and EQ sections both also offer tube or solid-state paths (!), but I couldn’t get the EQ section working for our tracking session. Turns out a ribbon connector came loose in shipping. Too bad, because some EQ’ing would have greatly affected our choices (see our last application, on BGVs, below).
The STT-1 was our second pick for djembe, with great girth and presence from the tube preamp and good consistency from the ample compressor. With a little low EQ boost, I imagine we would’ve had a difficult time choosing between the STT-1 and the GML 2020.
On bass guitar, the front-panel DI input sounded best with the transformer option, but had a slight emphasis on pick noise and clickiness that wasn’t right for us. This crispness and detail was much better on acoustic guitar, providing a nice musicality for our second pick. Again, with some EQ, the top would have been within reach.
The STT-1 (either tube or solid-state) proved be a bit too lean on Erika’s thinner vocal, but excelled as first choice on Robbie’s backups. Both Robbie and I preferred the additional clarity and very high end of the solidstate mic amp on his slightly scratchy tenor and, after much deliberation, chose the solid-state EQ and compressor for him as well (the EQ issue was easily remedied once the problem was diagnosed before the BGV session). With it, we got a great sound with perfect presence and chest, my only quibble being that I couldn’t meter the de-esser’s effectiveness.
Before this Session Trial, I had never seen the true value in channel strips, opting for the flexibility of mixing and matching preamps to compressors to EQs. Now I have discovered the convenience of patch-free, all-in-one signal paths that greatly simplify the process of getting a good signal to tape (DAW). It seems to me that matched components, shorter signal paths with fewer connections, and the “sonic synergy” of channel strips would be highly desirable to those who need portable excellence (producers on the go), those who need one pristine signal path (VO artists and self-recordists) as well as those who require multiple sonic flavors without fuss or delay (keeping three or four of these babies at the ready for quick shootouts that interest the artist).
In retrospect, the Manley VOXBOX was our overall favorite. Such smoothness and musicality was hard to deny for our acoustic-based recording project, although such qualities obviously have a wide range of applications.
The GML 2020 was a very close second, with its approach seemingly geared to stark accuracy, detail, and precision. I am personally most intrigued by the GML; I didn’t know such realism was possible before using it myself, and the 8200 EQ’s flexibility has permanently affected my ear’s expectations.
The Millennia Media STT-1 still strikes me as the most complete of the models tested here, yet such an array of options and inherent flexibility can be a bit overwhelming. This channel strip could easily allow you to tweak way beyond the artist’s patience level, and you just won’t care! You may not stop until you’ve tried every combination. So proceed with caution and watch the clock.
The Great River MEQ-1NV proved to be a very useful preamp/EQ combo with the most “classic” sound of the bunch. Its Neve-like preamp and very musical EQ would be welcome for not only acoustic music, but would be great for rock, pop, and country tracking as well. I found the ability to use the preamps output tranny — or not with the MPI mode — to be yet another plus that really brought out the best in the MEQ-1NV’s fantastically “hi-fi” EQ.
The API 7600 is a stellar unit that offers an amazing amount of audio power in only one rack space. The ability to couple it with other 7600s provides a number of interesting options beyond stereo usage, like DAW summing or portable console configurations. The API sound is beloved for rock, and I could put a 7600 to good use for my typical high SPL, dynamic mic using, chest-hitting productions — unfortunately, quite the opposite of this particular Session Trial.
Recording veterans out there can imagine how much fun this Session Trial was for me. Those who haven’t heard signal paths at this lofty level need to try them for themselves; it may just add one more goal to your audio “bucket list.”
Rob Tavaglione owns and operates Catalyst Recording in Charlotte NC. Please contact him firstname.lastname@example.org questions or comments.