After spending over twenty years in the studio, it's become increasingly rare for a piece of gear to totally knock my socks off; I'm talking about something that totally revolutionizes the way I approach a certain situation. Well, the MW1 Studio Tool is one of those pieces of gear.
The concept behind the MW1 is simple: it gets an instrument level signal up to line level and a line level signal down to instrument level with no sonic compromise at all. There are tons of reasons to do this because, with an MW1, pro studio gear can easily be inserted between a guitar or bass and an amp. Imagine the creative options by using a Neve 8068 instead of a Boss GE-7 or an Empirical Labs Distressor instead of a MXR Dyna Comp. Alternatively, instrument-level pedals can be used on recorded tracks. A MXR Phase 90 can be easily inserted on a backing vocal track or an Electro-Harmonix Black Finger on a cello. Additionally, the MW1 is an amazing sounding transformerless DI that works well for recording any signal direct (if you record a lot of keyboards, it might be worth investing in two of these handy tools).
The six-pound, nine-inch deep MW1 Studio Tool is a standard 19-inch, 1-space rack unit that allows the user to accomplish many functions that previously required multiple devices. The MW1 has removable rack ears, making it perfectly at home in a rack or on a tabletop.
The MW1 was conceptualized by the legendary producer/engineer Michael Wagener, who's been responsible for the massive guitar tones of everyone from Ozzy Osbourne and Mötley Crüe to King's X and Metallica. Wagener followed the development of the MW1 through from beginning to end, and if there was ever a piece of gear that could claim to be perfectly designed, this is it. Every detail has been given top consideration from the finely etched faceplate to the lit back panel that eliminates the need for a flashlight when crawling behind a rack to change connections.
The inside of the box is just as impressive. The MW1 makes use of the latest Burr-Brown OPA/DRV x134 family of op amps throughout its design as well as Panasonic pots, gold-plated C&K switches, and all surface-mounted components. The overall signal path from instrument level input to instrument level output with line level out looped to line level in is unity with a frequency response of +/- 0.1 dB 20Hz – 20Khz. The maximum input or output at the quarter-inch jacks is +22dBu and at the XLR jacks is +28dBu.
The front panel is laid out logically with the manual describing the left side as the "Going To" side and the right the "Coming From" side. All of the Going To functions allow tone shaping and ofinstrument levels up to line level and impedance and all of the Coming From functions deal with bringing line levels down to instrument levels. All of the front panel's 1/4-inch jacks are either Neutrik gold or mil-spec Switchcrafts and are duplicated on the back panel with their function names backlit by LEDs. The rear panel gold-pin Neutrik XLRs have recessed push buttons that allow pin 1 to be disconnected from ground and another button lifts the chassis from system ground. The Instrument Level Input is the unit's sole instrument input and it is followed by an Input-Z Attenuation control that adjusts the input impedance. This control works like a tone knob by loading (for darker and warmer) or unloading (for fuller range) the instrument pickup output.
The Tuner Output is designed to drive a guitar tuner and is always active regardless of the mute status of the MW1. This output can also be used to feed an effect pedal or secondary guitar amp. Following the Tuner Output is a mute button with an LED indicator. This allows the signal going to the amp to be muted during tuning. After the mute button, the signal splits into two paths. The first path drives the Balanced XLR line output (adjustable from 0 to 30dB) that includes a polarity-flip button and an LED indicator that illuminates green when a signal is present (-30dBu), mixed when there is 12dB of headroom, or red when there is 6dB of headroom. The second path feeds the Clean Boost buffered output jack, providing up to +30 dB of boost. Boost is used to overdrive a guitar amp's preamp section or to add gain compensation for low-level piezo or old single-coil pickups. This output includes the tri-level LED indicator as well as an output-impedance control — adjustable from 50 to 100 kilohms — that subtly shapes the tone by deliberately matching or mismatching the impedance in relation to the guitar amp's input.
The Coming From side of the MW1 converts +4dBu levels coming into the female XLR connector on the rear panel into an instrument level for reamping essentially operating as a direct box in reverse. This section can be attenuated from -36 to 0dB and it includes a polarity-flip button, a signal-present LED, and an output impedance-adjustment circuit with a range of 50 to 100 kilohms for its 1/4-inch instrument level output jack.
Included with the MW1 is a well-written manual that divides the box into two sections appropriately titled "Going To" and "Coming From" that simplifies the box's circuit flow. The unit also includes the MW1 Studio Tool Quick Reference Card, which is extremely helpful to first time users. The front side of the card has a large block diagram that further simplifies the signal flow of the unit and the back side of the card provides basic routing for eight common uses of the MW1, including "Transformerless Instrument Level DI," "Record DI & Amp Tracks at the Same Time," "Use Stomp boxes as Effects During Mix," "Solve Ground Loop Problems," etc. The card is a lifesaver for first time users of the unit. The MW1 is RoHS-compliant and it uses a standard IEC cable to operate on 100VAC-240VAC 50/60Hz.
I've been using an MW1 for nearly a year now and I can't imagine engineering a tracking session again without it. As far as I'm concerned, it's a mandatory piece of studio gear. I've noticed that, understandably, many of the young bands I work with often have less than desirable gear. Their budgets are tight and they have limited cash flow; as a result, gear quality is often compromised. The MW1 lets me record their guitar and or bass tracks the same way I always do but it also lets me easily capture a direct signal so if I run into tone issues during my mix, I can easily re-amp the part capturing an entirely different sound with the exact same performance.
Anyone who has tried to Y their guitar signal to feed two amps while tracking knows that this can be the start of all kinds of ground noise issues. Another reason I love the MW1 is that is lets me feed multiple amps while providing isolation for each signal making it easy to attain a noise free tone.
I don't know how many times I've sat with a guitarist going through pedal after pedal trying to find an EQ or compressor that will work for a particular tone — all while sitting in front of my racks crammed full of GML, Daking, Neve, Tube-Tech, Empirical Labs and Pendulum equalizers and compressors. Now, I insert my high-end gear between the guitar and the amp to open an entirely new pallet of sonic options. Fast Facts Applications
Studio, project studio, live
allows re-amplification of pre-recorded tracks; instrument level effects (stomp boxes) can be used on pre-recorded tracks during mix; illuminated back panel offers for easy identification of inputs and outputs.
Creation Audio Labs | 615-884-7520 | www.creationaudiolabs.com
While mixing, I use this concept in reverse. The MW1 lets me easily use my instrument level guitar pedals on line level signals and, again, I've had a whole new realm of sonic options open up. I've found that my Electro-Harmonix Black Finger works well on acoustic guitars and some vocals and the MXR Phase 90 is an entirely different beast when used on electric guitars after the amplifier rather than before.
Another one of the MW1's great features is the ability to drive an instrument level signal long distances without any signal degradation. When overdubbing guitar parts, I typically find myself wanting to put the guitarist in the control room with me while placing the cabinet in the studio. This can often mean running a cable 40 or more feet. Running a thirty-foot speaker cable isn't a problem but if I'm recording through a combo, there is significant signal loss to run instrument level cable that great of a distance. Using the impedance control on the MW1's instrument level output allows me to use an instrument level cable that's dozens of feet long without any loss of sound quality.
The MW1 is a highly flexible studio tool that literally fosters creativity in the recording process. The MW1 addresses and solves the age-old problem of getting instrument level signals up to line level and getting line level signals down to instrument level without losing signal quality. The box's transfomerless DI section provides the means to track the direct signal of an instrument while adding powerful tone shaping functions including variable input/output impedance and up to 30db of clean boost. Pro studio gear can easily be inserted in front of an amp and instrument level pedals can be used on recorded tracks.
Initially, $1,245 seemed a bit pricey for the MW1, but once I came to the realization that it has become one of the most used pieces of equipment in my studio, the price tag seems to be a bargain. Between its versatile routing and functionality and its extraordinary audio specs, the MW1 Studio Tool perfectly lends itself to becoming an indispensable addition to the studio or the stage.
Russ Long, a Nashville-based producer/engineer, owns The Carport recording studio. He is a regular contributor to Pro Audio Review. Visit him online at www.russlong.ws.