JoeMeek gear has always been about adding a nice vintage vibe to your recordings without having to pay through the nose. Does the new Q2 deliver the goods?
Joe Meek is a familiar name in the production world — the story of the legendary producer of 'Telstar' is well known — and his name lives on in the form of a company making outboard gear based, albeit very loosely now, on Meek's designs. The company itself has undergone significant changes since we reviewed the Ted Fletcher-designed TwinQ dual channel strip back in SOS December 2001. Following Fletcher's departure, that model was replaced with a significantly different design bearing the same name. If you now visit the JoeMeek web site, you'll find the details of that model still listed, and will also notice that the model has been discontinued — but only because it has been replaced by the TwinQ2!
Although visually very similar to its immediate predecessor, this preamp and processor combo features many improvements, all of which were implemented by design engineer Allan Bradford (who I remember from his time with 3G mixers, many years ago). The 2U dual-channel 'console strip' format, control layout and retro round meters are exactly as before, but inside the box the Cinemag microphone input transformer is now placed permanently in the Mic input circuit, and an 'Iron' switch now provides the option to feed the line input through the transformer, to add a little coloration, if desired.
Essentially, there are two channels behind the exotically sculpted green front panel, each comprising a mic/line/instrument preamp (with up to 60dB of mic gain available), an optical compressor, which has evolved from the original JoeMeek design but has been refined to be more controllable, and a 'Meequaliser' console-style EQ section. Both the instrument and line-level gains have been tweaked, and the peak LED now comes on at +16dBu, which is 2dB below Full Scale Digital for the built-in (24-bit, 96k A-D) converter.
The mic preamp is built around the respected Burr-Brown chip. It offers an EIN figure of -128.5dBu (unweighted) and sufficient headroom to handle up to +24dBu before clipping. Distortion is a reassuringly miserly 0.001 percent, until the compressor kicks in. The usual polarity-invert and low-cut (80Hz) filter switches, as well as phantom power, are present. An insert point intercepts the signal path after the mic preamp but before the EQ and compressor. As with many esoteric processors, the audio bandwidth far exceeds the limits of human hearing, in this case being specified as 10Hz to 70kHz (-3dB), and while it's unlikely that Joe Meek would recognise his initial DIY compressor designs in this latest incarnation, the all-important optical gain cell still remains at the heart of the circuit.
Another slightly unusual JoeMeek feature is the use of bell or band-pass EQ curves in place of shelving filters for dealing with the lows and highs. The three-band design offers an LF range of 40Hz to 650Hz and a Mid range of 300Hz to 5kHz; the HF is switchable between 6kHz and12kHz. All the usual attack, release, compress (turn this clockwise to push the signal harder up against the threshold), ratio and gain controls are available to the compressor, with separate bypass buttons for both the compressor and the EQ sections. The compressor channels may be linked, for true stereo operation, and the meters may be switched to show preamp level, output level or gain reduction.
All the analogue connectors, other than the high-impedance instrument input, are to be found on the rear panel. The mic input is the usual XLR, while the line inputs and and inserts are on quarter-inch jacks. The outputs are available via both jacks and XLRs. Digital interfacing is handled by a 24-bit delta-sigma converter, using a Wolfson WM8738 ADC, and is offered in both S/PDIF-format outputs (RCA phonos and optical), as well as on a transformer-coupled AES3-format XLR. Sample rates of 44.1kHz, 48kHz, 88.2kHz and 96kHz are selectable via rear-panel switches. Word-clock sync from an external source is also accommodated, with a valid word-clock signal automatically switching the unit to external sync. Front-panel LEDs show successful sync, and also warn if the converter is fed too much signal.
In use, the mic amp is quiet and clean, with any coloration added by the transformer being subtle and musical. As for the EQ, this arrangement has been used on previous JoeMeek products, and I rather like the use of bell curves on all three bands: it gives the sound a little more focus, and reduces the need for a low-cut filter to get rid of the extreme lows (which is often required when using shelving filters). There isn't the degree of forensic control that you'd get from a fully parametric EQ, of course, but that's not the aim here, and as a console EQ substitute for gentle tonal shaping, it's very effective and natural-sounding.
Optical compressors have a certain character, which is due largely to non-linearities in the way a lamp/photocell combination controls gain, and Allan's contribution in this area has been to make the result more controllable without losing the musically beneficial quirks of this particular circuit topography. Used in moderation, this compressor delivers a warm and solid — but not unnatural — sound, ironing out excessive level fluctuations in a fairly transparent way, but pile on the gain reduction and you'll find yourself moving into 'compression as an effect' territory. Electrical guitars take on a country twang, with bags of sustain, and the note attack can easily be adjusted using the compressor Attack setting, whereas dynamically played basses sound very lively, but at the same time well controlled on the dynamic front. If you need dramatic pumping to pile onto a dance mix, you can achieve that easily too, and although it's quite possible to overdo things in the taste department, it's difficult to make this compressor sound actually bad.
Given that the many of the earliest JoeMeek products were aimed more at the budget end of the market, I wonder if the brand may face something of an uphill marketing struggle with more esoteric products such as this — simply because it's always easier to start out with a flagship product and then to work down than it is to go the other way. But such a struggle would be wholly undeserved: the TwinQ2 performs well in all areas, and the street price is fuly justified — in fact, it's very reasonable considering what's on offer. If you need a channel strip in which the compressor has a bit of character to it as well as a good technical specification, you really should give this one a try.
There are plenty of recording channel strips around, but rather fewer at this price per channel, and none that offer quite the same combination of optical compression and 'Meequalizer' style EQ. Various optical compressors are available as stand-alone devices or within channel strips, though, notably the Teletronix LA2A (now manufactured by Universal Audio), but with plenty more offerings from the likes of Audient, Buzz Audio, Pendulum and others (though we're getting into high budget territory there). There are also plenty of 500-series modules that enable you to create a channel strip, but you'd need to budget for a rack plus power supply to run them, and would need six modules to match the two-channel functionality of the TwinQ2. If you want optical compression for guitar sources only, you could do worse than look at JoeMeek's own Floor-Q stomp box.