Many of you will already be familiar with Joe Meek processors since our reviews of the Stereo Compressor (August issue) and the Voice Channel (September '95 issue). The Joe Meek range is actually the brainchild of Ted Fletcher, who studied the home-built circuits Joe Meek used back in the '60s, then brought them up to date to improve their noise performance, reliability, and stability. These units are difficult to ignore, especially since they're painted the kind of green you normally only see after tap dancing on fresh caterpillars!
Built into an unassuming (aside from the colour), non-rackmounting metal box, the Pro Channel is a single-channel processor with three stages: a mic/line preamp, a compressor, and an enhancer. The unit may be used instead of a mixer channel for sending a signal directly to tape, or it can be fed into a regular mixer channel.
According to the designer, the Pro Channel's circuitry features a wider than normal frequency response to maintain phase linearity, and it also provides a lot of headroom. With the benefit of switchable phantom power, the transformerless input stage can accept either balanced mic ins, via the rear-panel XLR, or unbalanced line inputs, via a conventional instrument jack. An insert point is also fitted, enabling further processing to be placed in-line, directly after the input preamp. An additional jack provides a means of mixing an external line input with the unit's main input, prior to compression and enhancement.
As you'd expect, the compressor section is based on the Joe Meek design used in the previous boxes bearing his name: this circuit uses an LED and photocell as a gain control element, with certain feedback techniques used to speed up the normally slow response of the photocell. This rather outdated way of controlling gain is one of the secrets of the vintage compressor sound -- some compressors you buy because you can't hear them working; this one you buy because you can hear it working. Obviously, you don't get quite as many features as you'd expect to find in a stand-alone compressor, but switchable Fast/Slow attack, variable Release, and variable Compression controls, plus a Bypass button, are all provided. In most situations, this will be quite sufficient.
Because this is a soft-knee style of compressor with a progressive ratio, there's no need for a separate ratio control. Furthermore, the compressor metering system has been stripped to the bare bones, so instead of the familiar gain reduction meter, you get a single LED. As you turn up the Compression control, the LED will start to flicker, and this is usually around the right setting. After that, you have to adjust by ear.
The final, and perhaps most unusual, section of the Pro Channel is the enhancer, which seems to combine the controls of a conventional enhancer with a parametric EQ. The Drive control sets the level of a filtered signal fed to a separate compressor inside the enhancer circuit, while the 'Enhance' control sets the amount of processed signal mixed back in with the original. To change the character of the processed signal on which the circuit operates, the user has access to a Q or bandwidth control, linked to the filter circuit. A basic, 5-LED level meter monitors the signal prior to the output level control (two separately buffered, but otherwise identical, outputs are provided on unbalanced jacks). Setting up the enhancer involves turning the Drive control until the Enhance LED lights briefly on signal peaks, and using the Enhance control to set the intensity of the effect.
For those unfamiliar with enhancers, the process adds a sense of brightness and transient detail that EQ often fails to achieve. Different enhancers work in different ways, but this one seems to work by selecting existing high frequency information, then compressing it to increase its average level. The Q control has to be set by ear; the higher the Q, the more the high frequency harmonics appear to 'hang on'.
Judging a device such as this has to be almost entirely subjective -- after first determining that the circuitry is adequately quiet and introduces no obvious distortion, of course. As with the other Joe Meek products, the compressor section is where the serious magic happens: if you compress heavily using a shortish release time, you can get right to the verge of level pumping, which produces a warm, very tight vocal sound with loads of punch. Though this unit is marketed primarily as a vocal processor, its compressor section also works brilliantly on acoustic guitars, basses and rock drums.
The exciter section is also most effective. By turning the Enhance control fully up, you can hear exactly what the Q control is doing, and once the Q is set to produce a subjectively pleasing result, you can back off the Enhance knob to reach a more realistic setting. I found the mid-way Q setting to be about right for most material. At this setting, the effect is to sharpen up high frequency detail without making the sound too harsh, but if you want to get nasty, as you may do when trying to clarify sloppy drums, you can try a higher Q setting. Gentle enhancement combined with tough compression really makes a rock vocal kick out of a mix, whereas to sharpen up drums, you might want to use the slow compressor attack in combination with a higher level of enhancement. The enhancement also adds definition to plucked instruments, working especially well on acoustic guitar and bright bass guitar sounds.
In the final analysis, the Pro Channel has the same warm, family sound as the other Joe Meek compressors, and the mic amp section seems well designed, with no apparent vices. The combination of front-end, compressor and enhancer is particularly useful for piping signals directly to tape (or disk), bypassing the mixer altogether, but the line-in facility also makes the Pro Channel a powerful post-recording tool. Indeed, I tend to compress only slightly when recording, then add more during the mix.
With today's emphasis being more on sound quality than gimmicks, the Pro Channel offers a good balance of cost and performance, and the processing it provides is usable at any level, from home enthusiast to serious professional. In other words, no matter how your studio progresses, it's unlikely that the Pro Channel will ever become obsolete. The only obvious corner cutting is the very basic metering and the fact that the outputs are unbalanced only -- but given that this is the baby of the range, that's not too serious a compromise. If you want to be able to hear the compressor you've paid for, Joe Meek boxes won't disappoint, and the Pro Channel is no exception.
Easy to set up.
Powerful, up-front compressor sound.
Very basic metering.
Unbalanced outputs only.
If you like the compressed vocal sound of classic rock
recordings, you'll probably love the Pro Channel.
£ £299 inc VAT.
A Sound Valley Distribution, The Briars, Amersham, Bucks HP6 5NA.
T 01494 434738.
F 01494 727896.