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Studio Reviews by Rob Tavaglione: PreSonus & Harrison

Rob Tavaglione
PAR Contributor
[email protected] Welcome back! It’s been a busy spring for many of us, with numerous indications of “business is up,” though I have a few gear nuggets worthy of your precious time: a mic pre/filter combo that harkens golden-era 70’s audio power; and the return of coaxial nearfields, now with their inherent limitations aided by modern DSP.

The PreSonus Sceptre S8 CoActual Studio Monitor

There’s just no way around it: I’ve never seen—or heard, actually— a monitor quite like this before. Leave it to PreSonus to find a new way to combine materials, modern design and a touch of oft-forgotten classic design into a reasonably priced and effective yet unusual nearfield monitor.

The Sceptre S8 ($750 street, each) employs an eight-inch (glass-reinforced paper) woofer and a 1.73-inch horn-loaded high-frequency transducer with their most notable design feature: a time-aligned, coaxial, concentric woofer/tweeter arrangement that is highlighted by the use of a square horn. Time-aligned coaxial drivers were largely popularized by Tannoy (I was personally weaned on the DMT12), but the S8’s design will trigger fond memories from veterans of 1970’s Urei 813B mains with their blue styrofoam-coated horns.

The S8 pair up for review at Catalyst Recording. Beyond this nostalgic aspect, the S8 exhibits all modern, or postmodern, traits. They’re self-powered (90 watts of Class D amplification per driver, crossed over at 2.2 kHz and 2.4 kHz for the S6 and S8, respectively) with input level trim (non-stepped), three filtering/voicing options (low-end “boundary” attenuation, tweeter level with boost or cut, and HPF at 60, 80 or 100 Hz), and front-ported with self-protection (both thermal and current-output limiting). Cabinet construction is where Presonus broke the mold with an ABS-type plastic enclosure and a similar (yet harder) faceplate/baffle, weighing in at a mere 24 lbs.

The considerable DSP required to achieve consistency and eliminate acoustic issues inherent to a coaxial speaker design—diffraction and reflection of low frequencies off the horn create distortion, frequency response and imaging issues—is courtesy of Dave Gunness at Fulcrum Acoustics, whose TQ (Temporal Equalization) is claimed by PreSonus to be the key to S8’s performance.

In Use

I set up the S8 pair before a mix session and found them to have that coaxial cohesiveness, stability and depth of soundstage I recalled from my early work in the 90s on coaxial Tannoys. The time-alignment and equilateral radiation from the horn indeed provide imaging, placement and frequency balance that remains trustworthy even as you move from side to side (or up and down) within the S8’s rather large sweet-spot.

The second most notable characteristic of the S8 was its frequency response. Without my sub, I found reasonably deep bass extension, good punch despite a slight lack of note definition, and an overall bottom end that was rather smooth and absent of the peaks/valleys often found in affordable monitors. In addition, the top end was not shrill or brash, but instead subdued and “natural.” However, the S8‘s midrange qualities did not inspire such trust; I heard numerous non-linearities and color that was not at all familiar, or comfortable, to me.

Deep in a week of serious mixes, I loaned the S8 pair to colleague Jeff Long for a second opinion. Long commented that the S8s “made everything sound nice” with excellent imaging, but the frequency response threw him for a loop, too. I agreed, but felt like I could use some additional opinions—time for a group listening session.

Having invited four engineers into my control room, I sought to most accurately calibrate the S8 pair with my sub for a demonstration. Upon feeding the S8’s tone and adjusting the input trims, I realized just how troublesome these small adjustment pots are. Small, jumpy (un-stepped) and not exactly aligned to their legend, obtaining exactly equal output from both speakers was very difficult. Integration with my sub-woofer, however, was smooth and musical, with the S8 pair clearly benefiting from the release of 80 Hz and below. We unanimously agreed the S8 pair benefited greatly from a sub (a rarity for me, as subs will often divide opinion, in my experience). We noticed “puffier” bass response at low levels. We all also agreed that imaging within the wide and tall sweet spot was fantastic.

Beyond that, the group seemed confused in their assessments, not unlike me. The S8 has a fairly uneven frequency response through the mids; there’s a noticeable 200 Hz bump that is quite the opposite of the scoop found in many affordable monitors, and that bump is followed by a scoop and another bump. The result? It was hard for me to make midrange EQ decisions while using the S8 pair. [Presonus counters that the S8’s “200 Hz information is demonstrably linear.” — Ed.]

But get this: I mixed on the S8s for a couple of weeks and got great results. I experienced limited fatigue, well-informed clients sharing the large sweet spot with me, and mixes that were right on point! As unconfident as I was, and as colored as the mids are, I still received fine results: a fact worthy of consideration, if vexing.

Despite success in both tracking and mixing, I cannot confidently endorse the S8. The difficulties I experienced in calibration and the minimal voicing controls gave me reason for concern. My biggest concern is clearly the unevenness of the midrange response, though the 200 Hz abundance doesn’t bother me that much (I’d rather hear mud and tame it, than go on unaware).

Despite my concerns, these S8s crank out good mixes and do a fine job of even radiation and imaging in the nearfield. At a price of $1,500 per pair, street, they are not budget priced, but are truly mid-priced monitors.

Harrison Lineage Preamp and 832c Filter Unit

AC/DC’s Back In Black, Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours, numerous Queen releases and even Michael Jackson’s classic Thriller weren’t mixed on a Neve or SSL, but on a Harrison, an upstart 1970s desk manufacturer, based in Nashville. Harrison made a name for themselves with the 3232 console (or the 32c), a desk known for very low noise, exceptional musical clarity and a punchy yet round bottom end to die for. I was fortunate enough to cut and mix on a 32C in the ‘90s, and let me tell you, this is an overall fine sound indeed—to my ears, perfect for the sound of classic-era rock.

That sonorous era and others are found in the Lineage preamp ($2,995) and the 832c Filter Unit ($2,395). Each are 8-channel units, sharing a certain synergy that makes them ideal when utilized and viewed as a single front-end system.

According to Harrison details, the Lineage incorporates four decades of Harrison mic preamp designs, with two channels per decade range:

1/2: Harrison’s latest Trion preamps that utilize a Lundahl transformer on the input, DI, numerous additional features and 70 dB of gain.

3/4: The 70s/80s, with the 32c’s transformerless parallel discrete input stage with a static bias scheme (which sounds like transformers to me)

5/6: The 80s/90s, with the Series 10, a low-noise, single discrete input stage design

7/8: The 90s/00s, with the Series 12, a single input stage, a dual output stage and FET-compensated headroom

The 832c Filter Unit provides four important features: seven segment LED metering, continuously variable high and lowpass filters, and the Bump circuit, which provides a resonant boost slightly higher in frequency than the HPF filter point. The two units connect via a single DB25 cable and the 832C outputs audio via DB25, too.

In Use

These two units inspire confidence as their weight, construction and XLR and DB-25 I/O illustrate Harrison’s professionalism. Their performance completely lived up to my expectations and, frankly, I had high expectations due to my previous experiences.

The Lineage provides classic Harrison sounds with differentiation between the mic amps that novices may barely notice, but vets will labor over as “secret weapons.” I put together a band of local musicians and recording pros (including drummer Brian Burton, ‘70s aficionado songwriter Grey Revell and myself on bass) to lay down some old-school style tracks using all Harrison pres and filters.

The 32c preamps clearly provided the “classic rock/vintage” sound we know and love. They achieved saturation the most readily and showed a warmth, natural compression and plumpness to their voicing. The guys loved them on most everything (except drum overheads) and I liked them too, with a little more reservation (as they can get kind of dark). We used them on snare and drum room (via AEA ribbon) for our drum tracks and really admired them on kick, toms, guitar and bass.

The Series 10 pres were our least favorite, and they were never our top choice for tracks. Despite being not as linear, pristine or as colorful as the others, they remain very fine mic amps and eminently usable. We used them on kick for our drum tracks and again on lead vocals. Grey never could put a finger on it, nor could I, but they conveyed a certain detail in his voice that we liked.

The Series 12 preamps might’ve just been my favorites. The stereo image, sound-stage, dynamics, quickness and seemingly perfectly flat response on drum overheads blew me away! I’m forced to use a cliche I try to avoid, here; they deliver “lifelike clarity.” This accuracy and linearity is not bland, mind you, just true and impressive. Beyond overheads, we used these beauties on guitar, bass and backup vox with nothing but transparent and impressive audio.

The modern Trion preamps are quite cool in their own right. Sonically, they’re closest to the Series 12 pres with punch, power and clarity but they pack some extra user conveniences including front panel inputs, instrument quarter-inch inputs (bypassing the transformer for an FET input stage) and “Fix” (allows the storing of exact gain settings to memory on little tweaker trims for one-button recall). These amps are hot, too—watch those levels, as they will saturate pretty nicely (there’s no output level control, so a compressor in line will likely help). We loved them on toms, where a little saturated fullness is often welcome, and they did a fine job on lead guitar. Overall, the Trion preamps are the most versatile.

The 832c Filter Unit may seem like a luxury, but it’s a necessity, as far as I’m concerned. First off, you’ll need the metering as the Lineage only sports red peak LEDs. The LPFs I seldom use, but they get the job done. And the key of the 832c is the wonderful HPF set. Like a 3232 and its gorgeous bottom (remember Rumours and its sonic euphony?) these resonant filters put a little “junk in the trunk” and a little bounce in your walk when you’re using “Bump” (and you will). The well-tuned HPF with Bump actually fattens while it thins— it rules!

As much as I loved the units, they aren’t perfect. The switches don’t feel particularly impressive and it’s hard to see their position. The gain pots are better, but they’re not great.

Other than that, though, these units offer sonic excellence, range and flexibility. Most importantly, they offer a musicality that is hard to match. Such hardware doesn’t come cheap and there are 3232c EQ section plugin emulations from Universal Audio that are quite good, too. Then again, this is hardware—the real deal—that is the kind of stuff that retains value and brings prestige to your operation. Plus, if you value the legendary sonics and production methodologies of the 70s , this will take you places only time machines can.