Paul White checks out the first tube product in the Joe Meek range.
Regular SOS readers will be familiar with the bright green Joe Meek signal processing range, a group of products created specifically to produce a vintage sound. Designed by Ted Fletcher and based on an original circuit concept by the legendary '60s producer Joe Meek, the compressor circuit, which is at the heart of most of the product line, uses an optical gain‑control system based on a photocell and light source, but Ted has added some clever feedback circuitry to speed up its response, as well as redesigning the control system for greater stability and predictability of operation. However, in this model, the vintage circuit has been joined by a 2‑stage high‑voltage tube line amplifier, with the aim of delivering an even warmer sound.
The 2U VC2 is a single‑channel device combining a mic/line preamp, a compressor, and an enhancer section very similar to that used in the VC4 (reviewed last month). Just a few years ago, it seemed that the 'everything in one box' channel approach was being rather slow to take off, but now the market is awash with voice channels, studio channels and other similarly named devices, all of which aim to provide a one‑stop solution for getting a quality mic or line signal into a recording system without the need for a mixer. In adding a hybrid solid‑state/valve device to the line, Joe Meek are obviously hoping to expand their market share by taking a slice of the valve processor business, and using valves fits into the overall Joe Meek design philosophy, which seems to be to deliver character rather than outright accuracy.
Like other models in the range, the compressor has a smooth, well‑rounded sound, but it doesn't squash the detail out of the signal...
The VC2 has no on‑board EQ or expander gate, but it does have a rear‑panel insert on a TRS jack (which comes directly after the preamp section) so that you can patch in your own. There's a choice of mic or line inputs, both on XLRs, and the mic amp has a transformer input stage.
From the preamp, the signal passes through the insert point, then the compressor, and finally the enhancer, before emerging on three connectors providing a choice of line‑level‑balanced XLR, ‑40dB‑level‑balanced XLR (for connection to a mic input), and a balanced quarter‑inch jack. A further Mix In jack allows external line signals to be mixed with the VC2's mic/line signal prior to compression, and there's a phono Link socket for stereo linking two units.
At the centre of the front panel is a large moving‑coil VU meter that can be switched to monitor either compressor gain reduction or output level. A large knob sets the mic/line gain up to a maximum of 60dB, and the usual mic amp pad, phantom power, phase and LF roll‑off switches are fitted. A red LED shows that the phantom power is active; bi‑colour green and red LEDs indicate the phase and low‑cut switch status.
The compressor has conventional controls for threshold (labelled Compress), attack, and release, though there's no ratio control on this model. Instead, there's a push switch that provides two preset ratios, one a higher ratio for creating more obvious pumping effects. A compressor bypass button is fitted, as is a bypass switch for the insert point, and both these buttons have status LED indication. Compressor gain reduction may be shown on the large, illuminated moving coil VU meter. That leaves the enhancer, which has Drive, Q and Enhance knobs as well as its own bypass button, followed by the Main Output level control.
The enhancer works by bandpass‑filtering the side‑chain signal, then compressing it before adding it back to the original, and though this is rather different to the usual harmonic generation approach, the subjective result is broadly similar. There's a dual‑colour Drive LED to help set up the drive level, but this provides only a general indication of what's going on, and you have to make the final settings by ear. At the wider Q settings, the sound starts to become harsh and scratchy, so this setting is best reserved for treating individual instruments or for adding edge to drums — at narrower settings it acts more like a conventional enhancer.
Overall, the VC2 behaves very smoothly and is easy to set up, though, as I've mentioned, low Q (wide bandwidth) enhancer settings are probably too harsh to use on anything more subtle than a snare drum. More modest Q settings, combined with a restrained enhance level, add a flattering sheen to most sounds, especially voices and plucked instruments: the up‑front, intimate vocal quality that can be achieved is exactly what most people are after when they say they want a more 'produced' sound.
The mic preamp has a warm but transparent quality that makes it sound good with both dynamic and capacitor mics, but the main character of the unit still comes from the compressor. Like other models in the range, the compressor has a smooth, well‑rounded sound, but it doesn't squash the detail out of the signal, and it still sounds appealing when a lot of gain reduction is being piled on with the high‑ratio switch setting. If you set it right, you can take the most outrageously uneven vocal line and make it sit perfectly in a track.
The tube's contribution is most noticeable when the compressor and enhancer are bypassed. Sounds become slightly more dense‑sounding, and brittle detail within the sound is smoothed out without any top end being lost. When all the sections are switched in and set sympathetically, the resulting vocal sound from a halfway decent capacitor mic is excellent.
The VC2 is a valuable addition to an already deservedly popular range of processors, combining the classic Joe Meek compressor and enhancer circuits with the warmth of a tube‑amp stage and a good‑quality transformer mic amp. Everything works exceedingly well with a minimum of controls, and I didn't feel the lack of a variable compression ratio at all. The only thing that's missing if you need a one‑stop channel solution is EQ — you'll have to patch one in via the insert point if you need it — but, on the whole, this box gives you all you need to record a great vocal sound. The VC2 is a valid and cost‑effective alternative to some of the currently available up‑market vintage‑style tube‑based processors, and it really does produce that elusive vocal sound with the minimum of effort.
- Easy to set, with clear metering.
- Helps sounds sit properly in a mix.
- Clean mic preamp section and very musical compressor.
- Some users may worry about the lack of a separate compressor ratio control.
A distinctive‑sounding signal processor that makes light work of vocals, and is flexible enough to be used on instruments.