Paul White encounters a budget recording preamp with a colourful pedigree.
Hooter Sound is a new company set up by audio designer Ted Fletcher (the man behind the successful Joemeek range of processors) with the aim of manufacturing good quality budget audio products specifically for musicians working with computers. The majority of budget soundcards have acceptable line‑level input stages in terms of noise and distortion but their mic inputs, if they exist at all, tend to be pretty perfunctory, and of course they don't have regular 48 volt phantom power. The Hooter Sound B1 is a desktop mic/line preamp with onboard compression, limiting, gating and phantom power that can be used via the line input of a typical soundcard to give considerably improved performance, especially when working with microphones.
Joemeek's bright green livery brought that product line immediate recognition, so clearly Ted has followed the same philosophy with the canary yellow Hooters.
Housed in a simple but tough steel case, the B1 is powered from an included AC mains adaptor and fitted with rubber feet for desktop use. Other than the PSU connector, the rear panel provides a balanced XLR mic input, a phantom power switch and a 470kΩ impedance unbalanced line/instrument input jack. There are two identical unbalanced outputs, again on jacks, the idea being that one can be used to feed the soundcard and the other to feed a monitor system if necessary. Of course you don't have to use the B1 with a soundcard — it is also well suited to use with other recording formats.
The mic amp is based around the SSM 2017 dedicated microphone preamplifier chip. This device is often found in good quality mid‑price mixers and stand‑alone mic preamps, and certainly performs better than the mic amps found in most project studio consoles. A rotary gain control provides up to 60dB of mic gain (the same as most mixers) and a red LED shows when the phantom power is active. The line input impedance of 470kΩ is a good compromise given that both instrument (including guitar and bass) and line signals must be accommodated.
Next comes a (very) soft‑knee compressor, which has been deliberately simplified to make it intuitive to use for those with less recording experience. It also has its own Bypass button with green status LED. There are only two controls, Ratio (1:1 up to 8:1) and Release; there's no threshold control or make‑up gain. The Ratio control is linked to the compressor gain in such as way that as the ratio increases, the impression of loudness also increases. The compressor threshold is preset, though adjustments can be made using the preamp gain control as this changes the input signal level in relation to the fixed threshold. Unlike the Joemeek compressors that use an optical gain control element, the Hooter's compressor is based on a new Analogue Devices chip, which incorporates a VCA. One casualty of cost saving, however, is that there's no visual indication of how much compression is taking place, so all setting up must be done by ear, ideally using the gate to mop up noise during pauses.
The limiter is an integral part of the compressor circuit and has no user‑accessible controls. When the signal approaches a preset limit threshold of around +10dB, the compression ratio automatically rises to around 14:1. According to the manual, the circuit has been designed to effect a smooth transition between compression and limiting. As the B1 is primarily designed to be used with soundcards, the limit function is a valuable asset in helping to avoid overloading the card's analogue‑to‑digital converters. A large Peak LED in the middle of the front panel shows when limiting is taking place. A Mute button directly after the compressor can be used to mute the signal when changing microphones and this has a flashing red status LED.
Immediately following the compressor is a gate built around 'soft' switching circuitry and, once again, the controls are very simple. Other than the gate's Bypass button, there's only a red On LED and a Threshold control. The gate operates via the same VCA as the compressor, making it useful for cleaning up noise during pauses where heavy compression is being used.
Finally comes an output level control and LED level meter comprising two green LEDs, a yellow LED, an orange LED and a red Max LED. Compression occurs up to the level where the orange +8dB LED lights, and 2dB later, the limiter cuts in. The levels shown on the meter are accurate when the output control is set to maximum, but as many soundcards work at a reduced line input level, it may be necessary to back off the output gain. The output gain control comes after the meter.
The mic amp is gratifyingly transparent and clean, and despite its simplicity, the compressor is smooth and musical.
The B1 has been designed to be very simple to use, so rather than fiddle around with the usual array of compressor controls, you simply use the Ratio control as a 'more/less' knob, then adjust the release time to suit the material being processed. The mic amp is gratifyingly transparent and clean, and despite its simplicity, the compressor is smooth and musical. It doesn't have the same mellifluous quality as the Joemeek optical design, but it's still very comfortable‑sounding. I miss having a gain reduction meter, but setting up by ear isn't really problematic as there are so few controls. The changeover from compression to limiting is also reasonably painless, though the level should generally be set so that the limiter only fires on loud peaks if at all.
When a lot of compression is being used, any background noise present in the input signal must inevitably also be increased in gain during quiet passages, so a gate is pretty much essential. Though fairly basic, this one does the job OK, and providing the threshold is set no higher than necessary, it doesn't make its presence felt. Even so, I felt that it could have used a slightly longer release time. As with the compressor, the gate must be set by ear, as there's no open/closed LED.
In the Hooter Sound range of products, Ted Fletcher is carrying on in the tradition of Accessit, that Turnkey‑owned company of yesteryear best known for building low‑cost processing gear aimed at the four‑track market (in fact Ted tells me that some of his 'back of an envelope' designs actually ended up as Accessit products). Today, the computer soundcard studio is increasingly popular at this lower end of the market and the need for an affordable voice channel type of product to partner the computer is obvious.
Hooter Sound's approach is to keep the packaging simple and to miss out unnecessary frills in order to keep the price as low as possible while ensuring their products perform well and are easy to use. The B1 voice channel might look like something you'd find in a portion of school custard, but the concept is sound and the audio quality is surprisingly good. I look forward to seeing the next addition to the range.
- Low cost.
- Easy to use.
- Clean audio path.
- Cheerful packaging.
- Another mains adaptor!
- No gain reduction metering.
- Controls may be over‑simple for some users.
An affordable voice/line/instrument channel that can significantly improve the quality of recordings made via a typical soundcard while also providing the user with compression, limiting and gating.