Fletcher ElectroAcoustics' Voice Channel is a modern reincarnation of a vintage classic compressor, repackaged with a high‑spec mic amp and an enhancer.
Perhaps best remembered for his contribution to the Tornadoes' hit 'Telstar' back in the 1960s, the late Joe Meek was a powerful creative force in British record production, often turning his back on convention to create new sounds and styles. Less well‑known is the fact that Joe also built much of his own equipment, and the idea for a new range of processors bearing his name started out when Ted Fletcher, who worked with Joe in the '60s, recreated Joe's original compressor for his own use.
Ted decided that the original compressor design was far too unpredictable in operation to be acceptable in the '90s marketplace, but remained convinced that the photocell‑based gain element of the original compressor gave it a unique and attractive characteristic — so he set about updating the design with the benefit of modern, low‑noise components. He also devised a feedback circuit around the photocell and lamp to speed up the attack time, and modified the controls to make the unit behave more predictably.
At recent trade shows, the Joe Meek Compressor has attracted a lot of attention, not least because of its striking green casework, but at the UK's recent APRS show, I noticed that it had been joined by the smaller Voice Channel reviewed here. Whereas the dual‑channel Joe Meek Compressor is priced to appeal mainly to professionals, the Voice Channel is aimed more at the discerning project studio owner, and combines a very low‑noise, transformer‑coupled mic amp (sporting switchable phantom power and lots of headroom) with a single‑channel Joe Meek Compressor and a harmonic enhancer not dissimilar in principle to an Aphex Exciter. The Voice Channel also boasts a line input, enabling the compressor and enhancer to be used on signals that have already been recorded. Unlike the strictly pro Joe Meek Stereo Compressor, the Voice Channel has unbalanced jack outputs optimised for ‑10dBV operation.
After you've taken on board that the Voice Channel is greener than Kermit's bottom, the second thing you tend to notice is that it isn't rackmounting. The surprisingly heavy unit is powered via an IEC mains cable, and all the connectors are on the rear, along with a subsonic filter switch which obviously arrived too late to find a parking space on the front panel. A balanced XLR provides the mic input, while unbalanced jacks are used for the line input, the mix input (which enables two or more Voice Channels to be mixed together), and two identical but separate line outputs. A TRS jack is used to provide an insert point after the mic amp stage.
The control system is pretty simple, and can be divided into three sections: the mic amp, the compressor and the enhancer. Bright red switches are provided for Mic/Line input selection and to activate the phantom power, while a large black knob sets the mic amp gain. A red LED shows when the phantom power is active.
In the compressor section, a switch selects between compression types 1 and 2. Type 2 compression is less assertive than Type 1, which can be attractively fierce, though both settings work on the progressive soft knee principle, where the actual compression ratio increases as the signal approaches the threshold level. In this circuit, the threshold is varied by using the Compression control to increase or decrease the gain of the side‑chain signal path, and the amount of gain reduction achieved may be shown on a moving coil meter. Separate controls allow the attack and release times of the compressor to be independently adjusted, while an orange LED flickers to show the depth of compression. Because the compressor works on a photocell arrangement, it is possible to create quite dramatic pumping effects, especially using the Type 1 setting. It's the creative use of these pumping effects that gives the compressor much of its attractive character.
The enhancer section works fairly conventionally, by taking upper mid and high frequency signals, distorting and compressing them, then adding them back to the original signal in very small amounts. Perversely, adding this kind of distortion increases the subjective clarity of the material being processed, but like any enhancer, you have to use it subtly or it can sound harsh and scratchy. A Drive control optimises the signal level feeding the harmonics generator, and a dual‑colour LED changes colour to show that the drive level is correct. The degree of enhancement is regulated by the Enhance knob, and a further Resonance control causes the high‑pass filter to 'ring', in effect stretching out the enhanced transients. Finally, a button below the meter switches it from gain reduction to VU operation.
Initial tests with a selection of capacitor microphones confirmed the manufacturer's assertion that the noise performance limit of the preamp is determined almost entirely by the self‑noise of the microphone being used; obviously, the Voice Channel's transformer coupling, combined with its split gain topography, helps to keep the noise down, and is doubtless also a contributing factor to the circuit's generous headroom. At no time did I manage to overload the mic amp in normal use — though I'm sure you could do so quite easily by turning the gain up full and then putting the mic inside a bass drum or in front of a guitar stack — and the 48V phantom power seemed to agree with even my fussiest mics.
The compressor section is nothing if not assertive, especially when the Type 1 setting is used in combination with a lot of gain reduction — so if you're after a simple way to get that heavily‑compressed Phil Collins or Kate Bush vocal sound, this would be a good box to try out. At less vicious settings, the compressor adds evenness and confidence to a vocal track without taking away the detail or making the level pump objectionably. Type 2 compression produces a noticeably warmer, smoother sound in comparison with the almost aggressive character of Type 1.
In addition to live vocal sounds, I also checked out the compressor on various test CDs, including the excellent Lexicon in‑store demo CD (which includes some dry Thomas Dolby vocal tracks), as well as a selection of female vocals. The Alan Parsons Soundcheck CD was also invaluable in conducting these tests. In each case, I was easily able to set up a compression type to tighten up the vocals and achieve what is known in some enlightened circles as 'a nicely produced' sound. So, no complaints about the compressor.
The enhancer is equally easy to set up, and, used sparingly, it adds the familiar magic sizzle and clarity to just about any type of sound. The effect of increasing the resonance setting is interesting; it helps create the illusion of adding even more air to the top end, but you do have to keep the enhancement level fairly low, as the sound soon becomes sibilant, and then, at more extreme settings, extremely nasty. To be fair, the handbook warns of this, and it's true that any enhancer used in excess can completely ruin a sound. The manual also wisely suggests that you record without the enhancer, and add it at the mixing stage, on the basis that enhancement is easy to add, but quite impossible to remove.
The Joe Meek Voice Processor is definitely one of those products that you buy for its character rather than simply to do a basic task, and the compressor section works brilliantly on both vocal and instrumental sounds where you want to add power and weight. At more modest compressor settings, the device handles routine compression quite happily, without stripping all the life out of a sound. Here, the choice of two compression settings offers the option of warm and rich or tight and punchy. The mic amp behaves much as you'd expect a good one to behave, and would appear to have a noise level below that of the mics being plugged into it. That just leaves the enhancer section, which sounds great if used sparingly.
My only criticisms are of the lack of bypass switching on the compressor and enhancer sections, and the lack of an output level control. It's also likely that a box that sounds this nice will be popular with the professional market, who may then be frustrated by the lack of a balanced output. Those aspects aside, the Joe Meek Voice Processor is a very worthwhile audio tool, and even though it costs a little more than the average single‑channel compressor, I think that a lot of people will consider it to be a very worthwhile investment.
I have to say that I would have preferred bypass switches on the Voice Channel's compressor and enhancer sections, as this would have avoided the need to turn the respective 'amount' controls up and down in order to evaluate the effect being created. I would also have felt more comfortable with an output gain control for those occasions when I wanted to plug the Voice Channel directly into a tape machine. Apparently the adopted system is optimised for ADAT levels — but, of course, not everybody uses ADATs...
- Easy to set up.
- Great vintage sound.
- Good quality mic amp and enhancer circuitry.
- No bypass controls.
- No make‑up gain control.
If you like the sound of compression with character, you'll love this.