Paul White studio tests the new Joe Meek VC1 and finds that nostalgia is everything it used to be.
While other retro designers scour the earth for supplies of long‑discontinued valves, Ted Fletcher's Joe Meek boxes rely on photo‑resistive gain control devices to recreate the '60s compressor sound and, so far, the range has had tremendous success. Though the basic compressor circuitry used in these designs is based on a concept developed by Joe Meek, the legendary '60s producer probably best known for his involvement in 'Telstar' (by the Tornadoes), Ted Fletcher has brought the design up to date, giving it a faster response, better audio performance and more predictable control operation. The latest green eyecatcher in the Joe Meek range, the VC1 Studio Channel, brings together various elements used in previous Joe Meek units and bundles them into a 2U, single‑channel rackmount processor.
It seems that hardly an issue of SOS goes by without including some form of 'direct to tape' channel processor, but it's easy to see why the concept has caught on as well as it has. By the time a mic signal has fought its way through the channels, routing busses and groups of a typical budget console, it's usually starting to look a bit dog‑eared. If you use a dedicated 'channel' device comprising a mic amp followed by additional processing, a mic signal can be amplified, EQ'd, compressed, enhanced, and even put through an expander gate, without ever seeing a mixer.
Of course, the available processing depends on the type of channel device you buy. The VC1 combines a mic preamp, a compressor and an enhancer in a single 2U package. In true Joe Meek tradition, it's also about as green as green gets. I once asked Ted about the choice of colour, and he told me that when the original prototypes were being built for launch at a trade show, they had to use car spray paint to get the job done quickly. The colour just happened to be green, but people liked it so much that the company decided to stick with it.
Unlike the majority of mid‑priced console mic preamps, the VC1 uses a traditional transformer input stage followed by a two‑stage amplifier, an approach that makes it possible to build very quiet amplifiers. On paper, the noise performance looks about the same as any other mic preamp, but that can be misleading. Most mic amps are specified at maximum gain where their noise performance is best, though what matters more is how they perform at everyday gain settings. The frequency response is nominally flat from below 10Hz to over 20kHz, to produce a flat phase response, especially at the LF end. I'm surprised that the HF end doesn't extend further, though.
A wide range of mic gain is available — from 15 to 70dB, in fact — but there's also a balanced line input jack and a further unbalanced instrument jack input (150kΩ impedance), with up to 35dB of gain available. The mic input XLR is duplicated on both the front and rear panels, while the Instrument In jack is on the front panel and the Line In jack is on the rear panel. An unbalanced TRS insert jack comes directly after the mic preamp, and there's also a Mix input jack that allows a line signal to be mixed with the output of the preamp stage. The insert would be useful for patching more comprehensive EQ into the signal path, though there's an argument for adding EQ post‑compression, so it might be better to patch any further EQ between the output of the unit and the input of the recorder.
The Input Gain control is fully variable and covers a 60dB range when used as a mic preamp, or 35dB when used as a line amplifier. Mic operation is selected by means of a button of the same name, and an amber status LED confirms that mic mode is active. Further switches activate phantom power, high‑pass filter (12dB/octave at 25Hz) and the compressor stage, each having an associated status LED. As far as the controls are concerned this is a perfectly conventional preamp stage, except for the omission of a pad switch. I suspect that, with the distributed gain preamp circuit used here, the pad has been omitted because there is sufficient headroom to render it unnecessary.
It's quality is significantly better than you'd expect from most mid‑priced consoles.
Based on the same photocell and LED gain element as the other Joe Meek units, the compressor has a soft characteristic, so that the ratio increases progressively as the signal approaches the threshold. A separate ratio control is also provided to set the target ratio at maximum compression, so once a suitable ratio has been chosen, setting up is simply a case of altering the Threshold, Attack and Release controls. However, there's no auto attack/release mode, which can be useful in circumstances where the input dynamics vary a lot. A large meter shows either gain reduction or output level, but there's also a gain reduction LED between the Ratio and Attack controls to provide a permanent, extremely visible indication of compressor action. (See our Sound Workshop feature on compression in this issue for more details on how compression works and what all the controls do.)
This compressor is based on older designs which tended to compress properly only over a limited region, so that louder transients could still get through without being, in effect, clamped. The subjective result is generally more transparent and dynamic than conventional VCA designs, some of which tend to make the material sound dull or 'squashed'.
The final processing stage comprises an enhancer based on the dynamic equalisation principle; the meter mode switch is also located in the enhancer section. Rather than adding harmonics or controlled distortion, this enhancer comprises a variable‑Q filter, the output of which is compressed and then added back to the original signal. According to the manual, the Drive control affects both the degree and 'tone' of the enhancement — a bi‑coloured LED indicates when the amount of drive is about right. The Enhance control is described as setting the amount of enhanced signal mixed back into the main signal path. However, I think the Enhance and Drive control labelling may have been reversed on the screening of my review model, as Enhance comes first in the row of controls and seems to function in the way Drive is described. Similarly, Drive comes at the end, where you'd expect the Mix control to be on a traditional enhancer, and it seems to fulfil a similar function in affecting the amount of processed signal added. Hopefully this will be sorted out in production models — if, indeed, I have interpreted the situation correctly. The Q control sets the sharpness of the filter; in the manual, this is said to affect the duration of high‑frequency harmonics.
Finally, there's an Output Gain control, designed to compensate for any gain loss caused through compression. Unusually, three different output formats are available, to allow the VC1 to interface with most types of audio equipment. A quarter‑inch TRS jack provides a balanced line output, while an XLR delivers a transformer‑balanced, low‑impedance, DI‑style output. There's also a 200Ω, unbalanced jack output at ‑20dB for connection to domestic and semi‑pro recording equipment. The balanced output may be used unbalanced, providing that the 'cold' leg is grounded.
On its own, the mic amp has a warm, clear sound but without quite equalling the same 'airy' clarity of some esoteric designs. Even so, considering that this whole unit costs less than a single high‑end mic preamp stage, it actually performs very well, and its quality is significantly better than you'd expect from most mid‑priced consoles. It's certainly a very quiet preamp and it has plenty of headroom. Applying a little gentle enhancement restores that sense of air around the top end, and in a much more natural way than most harmonics‑based enhancers I've come across. Used sparingly, the enhancer behaves just as you'd expect a good HF equaliser to behave, adding a sheen to the signal that wasn't evident in the original. A midway setting of the Q control seems to produce a very natural result on vocals.
As for the compressor, this is classic Joe Meek stuff, and while milder settings are perfectly competent for benign dynamic range reduction, the compressor really comes into its own when it's provoked to the edge of pumping, where it introduces a sense of energy and excitement, but without trampling all the transient detail to death. There's no doubt that this compressor is built for character rather than accuracy, but for rock and pop vocals it works really well. If you want invisible gain reduction, look somewhere else!
If you've used a Joe Meek unit before, you'll know pretty much what to expect from this one. What I really like about it is that all the effects it produces are effortlessly musical. Setting up is quick and easy, the enhancer section does all that a good HF equaliser does — and more — and the compressor keeps vocals lively and up‑front. Having a choice of three input and output types adds greatly to the flexibility of this model, and a lot of thought has gone into the design to make the VC1 feel a lot less complicated to the user than it really is.
Though the VC1 is predominantly a vocal processor, it is also effective on most instruments, and the provision of a line input means that off‑tape signals can be processed back through the unit when necessary. The instrument input is also useful for treating keyboards, samplers, or active guitars and basses, but the impedance is too low for serious use with passive guitars and basses unless a suitable DI box is used first.
If you want something that will add to your sound in a flattering and distinctive way, maybe it's time you tried out one of these for yourself. In any event, put it on your shortlist and compare it with the competition.
- Warm, musical sound.
- Very effective compressor and enhancer.
- No auto compression mode.
A great‑sounding 'character' unit with a flexible range of input and output options.