The first in Drawmer's new budget range of processors aims to give you high‑quality gain reduction at a compressed price. Paul White comes to the conclusion that they've got the balance right.
Anyone familiar with Drawmer products will know that no matter what the piece of gear, it will be reassuringly black, with white legending, yellow knob pointer rings, and that wonderfully vintage logo that almost certainly owes its existence to Messrs Letraset. So, although it still has the vintage Drawmer logo, why does the MX30 have a champagne‑coloured anodised front panel, most un‑Drawmer‑like graphics, and ivory knob pointer rings?
The answer is all to do with marketing, because the MX30 is the first of a new series of lower‑cost Drawmer signal processors targeting the more cost‑conscious end of the project studio market. This section of the market might best be defined as comprising those people who are determined not to compromise on quality, but who are quite happy to compromise on price! While the circuitry is still drawn from the top‑of‑the‑line Drawmer models (saving a little on R&D costs, presumably), the controls have been simplified, so the inexperienced user gains the benefits of Drawmer quality, combined with lower cost and simplicity of operation. With the exception of the front‑panel styling, the construction is pure Drawmer, with a tough 1U steel case, mains operation, and clearly labelled controls, though the mechanical design has been streamlined to make production more economical. For example, Marketing Director Ken Giles tells me that the way the metalwork is put together has been redesigned, all the components are on a single circuit board, and there's a new power supply. The mains voltage is preset, though internal links can be moved to modify the unit for either 240V or 110V use. Attractive, cheery graphics are designed to give the user some idea of what the various sections will do to a signal.
Most compressor/limiters are simply compressors with sufficient ratio range also to function as limiters, but the MX30 provides a separate gate, compressor and peak limiter for each channel, plus the usual linking switch for stereo operation. In linked mode, the left‑hand channel controls become the masters. From what I can deduce from the schematic, all the gain control is performed by a single high‑quality VCA chip to maximise signal integrity. Side‑chain access isn't provided but, surprisingly, there are both balanced +4dBu connections on XLRs and unbalanced jacks operating at ‑10dBv.
The gate section comprises a Threshold control and a Fast/Slow release button with red and green LEDs to show when the gate is open or closed. Because the circuit is a variable ratio expander and not a hard gate, you occasionally end up in a situation where the LEDs continue to show some gating action when little or no audible gain change is evident, but most of the time they behave as you'd expect. As far as I can see, the gate section isn't based on the original Drawmer DS201 gate but rather on Drawmer's Programme Adaptive expander circuit, used in previous gated compressors such as the DL441. In effect, the ratio of the expander changes depending on the signal characteristics, resulting in a very smooth gating action that's quite forgiving of casual setting up.
Even absolute beginners will find it difficult to get to a bad sound out of the MX30.
To handle the compression, Drawmer have opted for a soft‑knee, variable‑ratio control system with fully automatic attack and release times, and I understand that the circuitry is derived from elements of both the DL441 and the DL241. Controls are provided for Threshold and Ratio (1.2:1 right up to infinite) with a dedicated nine‑section LED gain‑reduction meter directly below the controls. Make‑up gain is located in the Output section, as is a bypass button with a status LED. Also sharing the Output section is an eight‑section LED level meter, which can monitor either the input or output signal level. In bypass mode, the input signal is automatically monitored; when the unit is active, the output level is monitored.
Finally there's the peak limiter, which also shares the Output section. This is a rather sophisticated design and is effectively the same as that used in Drawmer's premium processors, with the distinction of being ruthlessly fast. If you're recording to a digital destination, this limiter can guarantee zero overshoot, the threshold being variable between 0 and +16dB. Operation is indicated by a red peak LED. When set so that it operates only briefly during transient extremes, the limiter is very transparent‑sounding and, in any event, its results are infinitely preferable to the effects of hard clipping, but you can also use it to produce creative gain‑pumping effects if you drive it harder. Because the peak limiter comes after the output make‑up gain control, forcing the limiter to operate is simply a matter of turning up the output level.
Separate bypass buttons are one casualty of cost‑cutting, but the gate's Threshold control turns the gate off in its fully clockwise position, and the limiter can be disabled simply by setting its threshold to maximum.
The gate is surprisingly smooth and efficient. For vocals or subtle acoustic instruments, you can set the threshold so that gentle expansion cleans things up without any violent chopping; for drums and other percussive sounds, you can set the threshold a little higher for a more positive traditional gating result. The programme‑adaptive system seems to avoid clicking when slow attack sounds are gated; similarly, the choice of just fast or slow release seems to work fine on just about anything.
Like the gate, the compressor is both intuitive to set up and very smooth‑sounding. It works nicely on all types of materials, from drums and percussively played bass guitar right through to vocals and guitar, but it also sounds reassuringly transparent on complete mixes. At low‑ to medium‑ratio gain settings, the gain control is unobtrusive, adding a little weight and thickness to the sound, but not changing it in any radical way. There's also no obvious loss of transient detail, as often occurs with budget compressors. At higher‑ratio settings, with the threshold set to give more gain reduction, the compression becomes more obvious, but still in a largely musical way.
When you consider that you get an expander/gate, a compressor and a limiter, the deal is pretty unbeatable.
For those working with digital systems, the peak limiter is a real bonus; providing it's set up so that it only has to catch the occasional errant peak, it's virtually inaudible in operation. By combining the compressor and limiter action, then making the limiter work just a little harder, you can create a stronger, more obvious pumping effect that works well on some pop material, including vocals. However, if the limiter is made to work continuously, the sound starts to become very squashed and choppy. This is quite predictable, but only occurs under conditions of extreme abuse. Even then, I'm sure somebody will find a use for it.
Although the MX30 is the budget baby of the Drawmer range, it doesn't have either a budget sound or a budget technical specification. Some criticism was levelled at the earlier low‑cost LX20 compressor for not being up to the subjective standard of Drawmer's higher‑priced models, but that certainly doesn't apply here. In fact, the MX30 works so well that I wouldn't be at all surprised to see a lot of them turning up in professional studios — as well as in PA rigs, where the simplicity of operation will be a great attraction.
Other than the sound quality and the subjective nature of the compression, both of which I really like, what makes me really warm to this unit is that it retains Drawmer's traditional predictability of operation. Turn a knob and it does what you expect, with no nasty surprises, no odd control laws, and a useful degree of forgiveness. Even absolute beginners will find it difficult to get a bad sound out of the MX30, because nearly all the hard work is done by the auto circuitry. It's a compressor that will be useful in recording or mixing just about anything, it handles complete mixes with a lot more refinement than you'd expect for the price, and the automatic functions are so good that you never really miss not having all those extra controls.
Though the MX30's not quite the cheapest budget compressor around, its price is still remarkable for the quality on offer. Even without the limiter, the MX30 would represent good value, but when you consider that you get an expander/gate, a compressor and a limiter, the deal is pretty unbeatable. You also get the benefits of the Drawmer sound, Drawmer's almost over‑generous after‑sales service (they'll often fix a 10‑year‑old product free of charge and apologise for the fact that it ever went wrong!), and a high technical specification. The MX30 is not the only good budget compressor around by any means, but everything about it seems so right — even the new styling. I can't wait to see what's next in the range.
- Separate gate, compressor and limiter.
- Predictable, simple controls.
- Excellent performance.
- Attractive styling.
- No individual bypass controls.
Apart from its simplified controls, the MX30 is no less sophisticated than Drawmer's more costly units; in some circles, the simple controls will be seen as a benefit rather than a compromise. The price is very attractive, especially for something that performs this well.