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PAR Review Roundup, January 2018

PreSonus Quantum, Roswell Delphos Mini K47, Flare Isolate, Waves Torque, BAE 500C

PreSonus Quantum Audio/MIDI Interface

Thunderbolt is where it’s at—at least in my studio, where my desktop Mac Pro “trashcan” and my MacBook Pro (for location work) both utilize this very fast, high-throughput, low-latency interconnection technology. So I was very excited to see PreSonus’ new top-of-their-line recording interface—named Quantum—that employs Thunderbolt 2 alongside new-generation microphone preamps, comprehensive control software and reportedly easy integration with Studio One, PreSonus’ all-in-one, do-everything DAW.

PreSonus has squeezed a whole lot of utility into only one rack unit: 24-bit conversion at up to a sample rate of 192 kHz; eight channels of recallable Class-A XMAX mic preamps; two instrument DIs; 10 line-level outputs on quarter-inch TRS; two channels of SPDIF I/O; wordclock I/O; 16 channels of ADAT optical I/O; MIDI I/O; and Thunderbolt 2 (with two connections for daisy chaining more devices onto your Thunderbolt bus). There is also a built-in talkback mic, mute/dim/mono monitoring functions and two independent headphone circuits.

Quantum comes equipped with Studio One Artist, the “lite version” of PreSonus’ powerful Studio One, which allows remote control of the XMAX preamps via your computer. You are not married to use it with Studio One (or Artist) however, as UC Surface is also provided free; it allows remote mic amp control as well as an abundance of useful features (like metering and a RTA display), even if you employ a third-party DAW.

The Quantum has 60 dB of gain available at the preamps, achieves 120 dB of dynamic range and utilizes DC-coupled outputs. For the full list of features and specs, visit the Quantum page on the PreSonus website.

It’s been a long, long time since I’ve used PreSonus mic amps, so I must say that they’ve come a long, long way. On that note, the Quantum itself seemed to pack more heft and weight than I expected, with a nice solid feel overall. In particular, the external PSU connects with a typical-looking co-axial plug that actually twist-locks into place. Note to other manufacturers: PreSonus has raised the bar; up your game!

The combo input jacks and line outputs had a good firm feel in use, even though they are directly surface mounted to the PCBs. Onboard metering was reasonably visible for such small meters, although more metering is available via UC Surface. The rotary encoder is fine; it didn’t have the firmest feeling and the switches were about the same. I go into this critical detail because, frankly, I’ve had durability problems with some PreSonus gear in the past and wanted to accurately assess just how much value can be expected for the bucks. So far, I’d say that the hardware quality has definitely improved; even if it doesn’t quite match the level of hand-soldered boutique gear, it doesn’t feature the elevated price tag of such gear either.

Encouraged by success around the studio, I went ahead and took the Quantum out on a location job. It wasn’t a tough one: 44.1 kHz sample rate, only four inputs of choir overdubs for a live concert Gospel recording, and foldback of only one mono mix to a powered wedge for choir monitoring. Quantum’s mic preamps sounded great with my Neumann and Roswell LDC mics, handling the headroom demands nicely without any noticeable phantom power sag. The sound wasn’t exactly big and euphonic-like with transformer-coupled mic amps (or tube-driven models or any that strive for a bigger-than-life presentation); instead, it was more reference and uncolored, just as they should be for this product.

In order to dig in deep, I put together an entire song at 96 kHz with the Quantum, desktop project studio-style. My TR-8 drum machine sounded great through the line level inputs 1 and 2, set for -10 sensitivity. A Cajon tracked well (with a ribbon and a spaced pair of Mini K47 condensers) with natural dynamics, sufficient thump and slap, while a tambourine sounded great with no audible distortion, nor converter nastiness (tambourine will reveal bad preamps and converters, in my experience). Bass DI’d through input 1 set for instrument level/impedance was plenty fat, yet plenty articulated, too. A pair of condensers on acoustic guitar showed realistic reproduction and a wide soundstage. A variety of synths tracked perfectly though the line inputs. I did find myself wishing for high pass filters and a polarity flip, which aren’t at hardware level or included with UC Control—a big oversight, in my opinion. The mic pre’s range is 0 dB to +60 dB, and that zero starting point was handy, let me tell you—those were hot mics! The headphone outputs sounded great, too: plenty loud, nice, flat and easily routable.

For $1,000 street, it looks to me like PreSonus has a real winner here. Yes, considering its competition, it’s a “budget unit,” but the construction is pretty darn good; the features are more than respectable (if not entirely complete) and the sonics are excellent. The fact is, I could barely tell the Quantum apart from my usual top-shelf, premium-priced system. There are still a few inconveniences associated with desktop production, but this Quantum dramatically minimizes those issues. It’s a truly competitive audio production product in every way, delivering bang-for-the-buck in proportions I have never experienced before.

Flare Isolate Aluminum Earplugs

All professions seem to have some inherent risk and for us audio engineers, it is hearing loss and tinnitus. Not unlike our musician brethren, we have to find ways to frequently monitor high SPL sound with accuracy and yet still preserve our hearing. For live sound work, whether FOH or monitors, I would typically use Etymotic Research’s Musician’s Earplugs ER-15 prescription-molded ear plugs. They offered about 15 dB of level reduction (I’d only wear the -25 dB buttons in the loudest of situations) with reasonably flat frequency response, flatter than foam earplugs or similar at least, and a comfortable custom fit. After decades, those plugs finally wore out, or got lost, and (out of curiosity) I found myself in search of modern alternatives.

Flare also makes IEMs and sleep-aid earplugs, but these Isolate Aluminums got my attention for not only attenuation, but promised clarity. The concept is that even though the solid aluminum plug (fitted with replaceable and cleanable Earfoam seals) blocks significant sound transmission, more hearing via bone conduction is encouraged. Veteran wearers of plugs know that attenuating sound increases the perception of bone conduction and it’s in no way minor—activities like chewing and walking get “amplified” to Godzilla-like epic low-frequency focused levels.

The Isolates don’t attenuate quite as much as the 15-25 dB I’m used to, but it appears to be enough attenuation for amplified club-level shows, mowing the lawn, using a leaf blower, long highway driving trips and I would expect airline flights, too (based on previous experience).

The frequency balance was definitely different than that of foam plugs, standard filters or custom filters. I’ve never heard ear plugs of any kind even approach flat response and the Isolates do indeed sculpt the frequency spectrum, too, but in a way that is entirely unfamiliar to me; there is an excessive abundance of bottom end (of course) but a lot of detail remains there, unlike all other plugs I’ve tried that congeal the bottom end all together (or “one note bass” as some call it). There’s definitely a loss of certain mid and high frequencies, but some high-highs remain, allowing a little more detail and intelligibility than other plugs. Speech recognition is slightly hampered, but the “more present than with typical plugs” sibilance that manages to get through helps a lot. Music monitoring wasn’t trustworthy in a reference “mixing” kind of way, but surprisingly pleasant and way more rewarding than using foam plugs, with distortion (which I created by slightly overdriving my car’s stereo) seemingly more discernible than when using no plugs.

I found myself getting a good fit with the medium-sized Earfoam fittings, although smalls and larges are also provided. I do not have symmetrical ear canals (don’t mock; you probably don’t either) and I have found getting a snug fit absolutely essential to earplug and IEM performance; I did get a sufficient fit with the Isolates, even if the left one sits a little askew in my ear.

If you’re in the high-risk category of sound exposure, you’ll need far more than just a pair of Isolate Aluminums to put together a comprehensive hearing protection strategy (one that should likely involve IEMs, headphones, low-attenuation earplugs, high-attenuation earplugs, ear muffs and so on). I can recommend the Isolate Aluminums for their reasonable price ($33.65 direct), moderate attenuation and a unique balance to their intelligibility that might just make them ideal for unique professional applications (as well as a slew of real world apps, too).

Earplug and IEM efficacy is dependent on the details of each user, but you can give these Isolates a try without worry, as they carry a 30-day money back guarantee.

Roswell Delphos Mini K47 Large-Diaphragm Condenser Microphone

Microphone expert Matt McGlynn knows mics like very few do and builds one of my all-time favorites: the Delphos, a transformerless, large-diaphragmed condenser known for nearly flat frequency response, truthful dynamics and a profound lack of character or personality (bad traits with people; very good traits with microphones). Now, McGlynn has updated his young company’s bestseller, the Mini K47, with updated circuitry, an improved look and better accessories—perhaps rivaling the Delphos at its game.

The Mini K47 is built around its K47 capsule, a 34 mm, three-micron thick diaphragm that reportedly captures the warmth and response of a particularly legendary microphone surnamed 47. The surrounding circuitry aims for neutrality, with no transformer in the way of accurate fidelity. The MK47 utilizes a polystyrene input coupling capacitor and polypropylene main signal caps, offering lower noise floor and more transparency compared to often poorly chosen budget caps found in many affordable mic models. This simple, clean circuit is un-encumbered by pads or filters, making for a pure signal path.

The newly updated K47s offer a Cutaway shock mount, allowing very close placement to sound sources; a nice microfleece storage sock; and an aluminum storage case, just like big bro Delphos. In fact, the MK47 barely differs from the Delphos in description and specs. This begs the question—what’s the sonic difference?

Upon opening the K47 boxes, one point is abundantly clear: This is a lot of mic kit for a mere $299 direct—a kit that exactly matches the Delphos. The fit and finish look great, but that is to be expected from the ultra-detailed Mr. McGlynn whose team does a thorough check of each mic before shipment, ensuring quality that some affordable mics miss.

The new shock mount garnered excessive attention from me, as they always do; I am one cynical critic when it comes to mounts, because really, is there anything worse than buying a great mic with a crappy mount that haunts you with each placement? The Cutaway design is ideal, the threading is sufficiently smooth and the pivot just passes muster (yes, it holds, but a slight bump is enough to unseat it). The top-notch aluminum case and storage sock are on-point and quite welcome at this price point.

First application: the wild-card microphone in a standard drum-mixing set-up. This time, the K47 was needed to fill in missing detail from a drummer with lots of snare grace notes and non-“the 2 and the 4” hits. Here the MK47 handled the level without overload, showed a nice normal cardioid pattern and presented a detailed and slightly lean frequency balance (via a Focusrite ISA mic amp).

Ultra-predictable me chose acoustic guitar next, as I needed to know more about the mic’s response before tackling other apps, and acoustic guitar always provides. Mounted as a spaced pair (both miking the body, one near bridge and the other near neck), I found the K47s to be well matched, low noise (with 13 dB of self-noise, I got as much noise from hot preamps as the mics) and nicely midrange-focused. With a pair of Delphos mics set up coincidentally for comparison, the K47s didn’t capture the same low depth or low-mid fullness, but instead offered a kind of a mid-scooped pre-EQ’d version of the guitar. I usually prefer to do a little EQ’ing manually, but many people would prefer the “ready to go” balance of the K47s.

The controlled bottom end and slightly flattering low-mids made for some nice electric guitar sounds. You can overload the K47 with level here and wish for a pad, but I was ok with moderate amp levels, no problem. The K47s’ tone was a natural match for chimey sounds, guitar layering overdubs and bringing out subtle detail in thick chord-inversions, due to that “pre-EQ’d” curve that allows overdubs to sit politely in the mix.

As I did some more assorted overdubs with the K47s (backing vocals, percussion, cajon, tambourine, Leslie cabinet, etc.), I felt like I really got to trust the mic for a present and slightly forward sound, with a nicely controlled bottom, a musical dip in the boxy (300 to 400-ish) regions, hot output and a slight taming of dynamics.

A Mini K47 is a useful addition to any mic locker, but I can especially recommend one (or a pair really) for those just building their mic collections. They’ll find the kit to be durable, the mics sonically flexible and the tonality “mix ready” with a ready-to-go sound that requires little help. It’s as if the Mini K47s took all the positive cues from their big brother Delphos and delivered them with a slightly smaller, more easily manageable and focused sound. Roswell scores again!

Waves Torque Drum Pitch-Shifter Plug-In

Waves has a new plug-in that offers pitch shifting for drums. That probably doesn’t seem all that revolutionary, except that it sounds so good, it’s almost amazing.

Torque ($69 regularly, $29 on sale) uses Waves’ new Organic ReSynthesis technology, which separates the pitch, formant, amplitude and carrier information of a signal, pitch shifts to your desire and then rebuilds the signal with the other original characteristics intact. It’s powerfully cool stuff that also fuels Waves’ Smack Attack transient-shaping plug-in. For that matter, separating and manipulating individual envelope characteristics from a sound is enabled by other plug-in manufacturers, too, with wildly revolutionary results. From Waves, expect to see a whole line of future processors that will further explore the possibilities created when a carrier signal is made to follow the pitch and/or dynamics of another signal. Sound designers rejoice!

Back to the specific task at hand, Torque works on acoustic and electronic drums, on individual drums as well as kits, offering up to 12 semitones (an octave) up or down. There’s a Focus section, threshold and trim controls, as well as Speed and I/O controls. But you’ll likely not even need to dig in past your wrist, much less your elbows, as Torque just simply works with almost no effort. I slapped Torque on kicks, snare and toms with reckless abandon, adjusting the Pitch and Focus controls and moving along with nary an afterthought. The tracking is extremely accurate (at least with properly recorded drums with typical isolation), the results very consistent and artifacts are simply not audible during typical usage.

Individual drums work ideally, overheads and room mics behave and sound quite well, drum busses work OK, too (though with a few artifacts) and whole mixes don’t work well at all (This is a drum pitch shifter after all, but out of curiosity, I had to push too far). The key is to get that Focus section (which helpfully indicates its pitch center in both numerical frequency and note name) lined up over the fundamental note of the drum (or sometimes the second harmonic), with a slight tweak of Speed. You can solo the Focus section and sweep it to find ideal placement, but you cannot change the bandwidth of the focus (and I kinda wish that I could).

The GUI is easy on the eye and uncluttered, there’s sufficient I/O metering and a processing indicator LED that definitely helps in avoiding mis-tracking through setting appropriate Threshold. An output trim is nice, too, as sometimes levels get loud and swell a bit when down-tuning drums.

I especially like the ease of tuning the kick to the song’s tonic note, tuning snares to avoid clashes with instruments/vox and tuning my triggered drums to match the acoustic drums. It’s all so quick and effective, this could be very useful for live sound as well. In fact, there’s a zero-latency component included, too. Way to go, Waves; I’ll be tuned-in for the other Organic ReSynthesis pitch shifters (and who knows what else?) that I hear are on the way.

BAE 500C 500 Series Compressor

Most of us know BAE for its excellent Neve-clone mic amps, whether rack mount or 500-series, which are all well built and mighty tone-ful. But you may not know that it also has a much buzzed-about guitar pedal (the Hot Fuzz) and a utilitarian 500-series compressor, the 500C. It’s a FET-based, single-channel, classically styled dynamics controller with a lot of versatility squeezed into a single space.

The 500C is built around three 2520-type op-amps, with a transformer-coupled output, a feedback type limiter, all in a fully enclosed case. There’s a sidechain high-pass filter option (SC HPF at 125 Hz), ratios of 2, 4, 8, 12 and 20:1, with an ABI (All Buttons In) ratio setting reminiscent of 1176s which the 500C is loosely modeled after. There’s even a gain reduction on/off switch, useful for not only comparisons but also to use the 500C without dynamics, solely for its circuit/transformer color.

The 500C has a fixed threshold, so you select a ratio, then drive the input until you get the desired gain reduction, adjusting output level for make-up gain. Attack and release controls are offered as well.

I only had one 500C for review, so I didn’t get to do a slew of informative stereo (or dual mono) tests like drum overheads, piano, bass guitar DI and miked amp, spaced pair acoustic guitar and so on, but I did get to try the accompanying mono version of most of these applications and found the 500C appropriate at just about anything. One might say the best thing about FET compressors in general is their ability to get work done quickly and cleanly, without much apparentness, unless you try to make them purposefully audible. And that’s what the 500C did at pretty much all ratios: tame dynamics without much audibility, except with a little extra hi-fi sweetness and punch courtesy of the superior electronics and transformer output.

Drum room, bass guitar DI, mono synths, vocals and horns are all fair game for the 500C, no problem. Pretty serious squeezing is available without any pumping, assuming you tweak your attack and release a little. That’s all good, but I had a lot of fun using the ABI “magic ratio” for a lot of over-the-top containment. It reacts somewhere between a jacked-up 1176 or a Distressor, with ridiculous amounts of reduction that actually sounds nice. I was squeezing 10-15 dB off of my country-western bass DI track that I need to sit really still, without any nastiness (once I very carefully set attack, release and input).

Metering is a little Spartan, so this is really a “use your ears, not your eyes” kind of device. At least there’s a true bypass and gain reduction bypass, so you can hone in carefully on minute differences and inform yourself to what you’re really hearing.

My only complaint is really about the 500 Series form factor. There are a lot of controls squeezed onto the 500C’s face and it’s not always easy to twist knobs and push buttons without disturbing other controls. The switches aren’t lit, the knobs don’t have any legends and the whole set-up requires some good lighting to see what you’re doing. After a spell, you’ll get comfortable enough by hand I’m sure (by ear, really), but the 500C requires a little fat-finger effort at first.

At $950 each, a pair of 500Cs would rival a top-shelf $2,000 rack-mounted compressor, in both costs and performance to tame your L/R buss, or stereo subgroups or stereo inputs. I didn’t get to try such apps, but the 500C’s flattering sonics would surely be welcome on those buses based on what I heard on the many applications in which it did excel. As far as I know, BAE has made nothing but great sounding products and this 500C continues that tradition.