Paul White tries his luck on the green and finds that where voice channels are concerned, this box is a whole in one.
Where recording equipment is concerned, Ted Fletcher's Joemeek designs are one of the UK's more recent success stories. Though the company produces a wide range of products at different prices, the majority of them use an updated optical gain control system (photocell and light source), based on the one that producer Joe Meek originally designed for himself. The result is a compressor that sounds distinctly different to a conventional VCA‑based unit. The new 1U mains‑powered VC6 Meekbox comes towards the low‑cost end of the range, and uses all solid‑state circuitry, but nevertheless combines a fully‑featured mic/line instrument preamp based around the SSM 2017 mic amp IC, plus a compressor and an enhancer section. There's no EQ or gate, but there is a rear‑panel TRS insert jack for patching extra processing into the signal path after the mic preamp should you need it.
The manual describes the preamp as being a revolutionary design with five gain stages controlled from a single knob. The signal from the preamp passes via the insert point to the compressor, then to the enhancer, and there are two high‑level outputs, both on unbalanced jacks, isolated from each other by resistive pads. A Mix In jack allows external line signals to be mixed into the VC6's signal path before the compressor stage, but the stereo link connector present on some of the other Joemeek units is absent on this model.
Constructionally, the unit is simple but soundly engineered, with an integral mains power supply and all the components mounted on one single‑sided circuit board. All the controls and sockets other than the XLR are fitted directly to the board to minimise wiring, and a number of surface‑mount components are fitted below the board. The gain cell is clearly visible in the centre of the board, where two amber LEDs are mounted in close proximity to a photocell.
The front‑panel controls are set out in the order of signal flow, with the mic preamp at the left‑hand end of the all‑metal rack case. The mic input is a balanced XLR, and separate unbalanced jack inputs are provided for line and instrument level signals. Pads, filters and phase invert buttons have been left off this model to save cost, but there is switchable phantom power. Rather than incorporate expensive switching, plugging into the line or instrument jack disables the mic input. Given the simplified metering on this model, I would have welcomed a mic amp clip LED.
The compressor is a variation on the standard Joemeek optical design and features controls for Compression (threshold), Ratio, Attack and Release. Both the attack and release have wide ranges and ratio is adjustable to a maximum of 6:1. The Bypass button has what looks like a green status LED, but this actually lights to show that gain reduction is taking place — there is no gain reduction meter on this model, presumably again to save on cost.
...the unit will be used to get mic, line or instrument signals directly into a recorder when track laying...
The enhancer is based on a type of dynamic equaliser and has controls for Drive, Q and Enhance. There is no Bypass button for this stage, and the dual‑colour Drive LED on other models has given way to a single amber LED that flickers when the enhancer is getting enough drive to kick in. This is no great loss as even with the dual‑colour LED on other models, you still had to do most of the setting by ear. Like most enhancers, the end result can be anything from a subtle sheen to a harsh edge depending how you use it; the harsher sounds tend to be associated with wider Q settings, while the narrower settings produce a more restrained sparkle that really helps improve vocal clarity. As far as I can make out, this particular enhancer works by emphasising a part of the high‑frequency end of the spectrum, then compressing it before adding it back into the main signal path via the Enhance control.
A single volume control sets the output level, and the five‑stage LED output level meter monitors the signal strength directly before the output stage.
The mic preamp produces a clear, solid sound that takes on an appealing aura of detail and 'airyness' when just a little enhancer is added with a fairly narrow Q setting. The compressor behaves as you'd expect a Joemeek design to, combining warmth with clarity and articulation. The effect is exactly right on most vocals, both in smoothing out level changes and adding a little character, and if you're using a dynamic mic, the enhancer is capable of adding a capacitor‑like sizzle to the sound reasonably convincingly. Though this unit is evidently designed with vocals as the main application, the instrument input means you can also treat clean guitar and bass via the VC6 and create a sound that's both even in character and nicely detailed.
Every time I try a Joemeek unit, I think they've finally built all the permutations that are possible, but in the VC6, they've come up with all the classic Joemeek ingredients for a voice channel — including a fully‑controllable compressor — and then made it affordable by simplifying the mic preamp and the metering and providing unbalanced outputs. Because compressors are often plugged into unbalanced insert points or recorders with unbalanced inputs, the lack of balancing won't be a problem in most normal studio applications, and the lack of stereo link socket is also actually no great loss. It's more likely that the unit will be used to get mic, line or instrument signals directly into a recorder when track laying, and then, during mixing, the line inputs and outputs can be used to connect the VC6 to a console's channel or group insert point.
At £349, the VC6 is hardly a bargain‑basement product, but it does deliver the distinctive Joemeek sound at a low cost without sacrificing controllability or overall sound quality, and at a lower cost than most of the other products in the range. I miss not having a gain reduction meter on the compressor, but the rest I could live with quite happily.
- Fully variable controls.
- Helps vocals sit nicely in a mix.
- Very musical compressor and effective enhancer.
- No compressor gain reduction meter, just a single LED.
Though corners have been cut to keep the price down, they don't detract from the sound or flexibility of this unit.