In the red corner, weighing in at 0.8kg, is the latest addition to the TFPro range of outboard — a dual mic preamp with integrated dynamics processing.
Regular readers of SOS will be familiar with the distinctive muted red of Ted Fletcher's designs, and equally familiar with his greener designs from the early Joemeek processors. The neat little P4 is the latest addition to his own range, aimed squarely at the small-broadcast and DAW markets.
The P4 comprises a pair of preamps with limiting or compression on each channel, and occupies half a 1U rack space. Arranged sensibly across the rear panel are two XLR microphone inputs, with their accompanying balanced line inputs and outputs at +4dBu, and paralleled phono outputs at -10dBV. The inclusion of phono outputs allows for easy connection to most consumer-level soundcards, giving straightforward integration of the unit within an existing DAW setup. The manual suggests that the paralleled outputs could be used for zero-latency monitoring, though this would require the preamp to be used in conjunction with a separate mixer. Unsurprisingly, given its petite stature, the unit is powered by a rather chunky external 12V AC power supply.
On the front of the unit are discrete controls to adjust the input level and the threshold of the dynamics stage, respectively. Each channel has switchable 48V phantom power (strangely enough this is linked with a -20dB pad) and a 75Hz high-pass filter, with an LED indicator for each. It is worth noting that, although the combination of phantom power and a pad on one switch is rather unusual, it does follow that condenser microphones will generally deliver higher input levels than dynamics, so should phantom power be required for a condenser, the corresponding drop in input gain will probably be necessary anyway. The high-pass filter is a nice touch for removing unwanted rumbles in the jungle, particularly when used in conjunction with shockmount-free dynamic mics. Finally, a simple four-stage LED display provides basic, but welcome, signal metering, and the dynamics stage of each channel is switchable between compression and limiting presets.
An interesting feature of the design is the P4's revised approach to limiting, which TFPro have christened 'asymmetrical' limiting, which they claim improves headroom when used in conjunction with digital recorders. Details of how this is achieved are not specified, but an audio demo can be found on the company's web site if you want to have a listen.
I tested the P4 on a voice-over session for a radio advert, with both Neumann U87 condenser and Shure SM57 dynamic microphones, recording into Emagic Logic v6 on an Apple Powerbook, via a small mixer for monitoring purposes. The first thing that struck me when powering up the P4 was that, owing to the omission of a power indicator light, if none of the front panel's switches are depressed it is impossible to tell whether the unit is actually switched on!
Nevertheless, having overcome this small hurdle, using the P4 was simplicity in itself. The built-in limiter relieves some of the inherent cautiousness one would usually apply when setting the input level on the preamp, and the deceptively simple appearance of the dynamics section belies the quality achieved at lower threshold settings, which was wonderfully transparent.
With the limiter driven hard the P4 is brutally effective, creating a substantial difference in the relative level of the vocal, although it was prone to distortion at high input and limiting levels with the U87, particularly on plosives. Due to the simplicity of the controls, however, tweaking the input and limiter settings is extremely quick, and the P4 quickly yielded a consistent, healthy level into the recorder with few compromises. In fact, what the dynamics section lacks in terms of control, (with no attack, release, or make-up gain), it more than compensates for in user friendliness, and can certainly deliver the goods. With the clock ticking on a session, the elimination of unnecessary tweaking is a credit to Ted's 'designed for operation' ethic, especially with live broadcasting in mind, where fine-tuning the make-up gain of a vocal on the fly could be dangerous!
The quality of the mic preamps is excellent value for the money, delivering a sound which, it has to be said, has a lot in common with Ted's earlier Joemeek designs such as the VC3 (reviewed in SOS June 1999), meaning the P4 would certainly be a wise choice for anyone with a small mixer (such as a Spirit Folio, Behringer Eurodesk, or Mackie VLZ), looking to improve upon their existing preamps. Indeed, given its backpack-friendly size and weight, it's a shame that there is no headphone output included, as this would allow for zero-latency monitoring without the need for a separate mixer — location recording with the P4 could be a breeze. Even so, with processing power ever on the up, this will be less of an issue for those with very low-latency Core Audio, ASIO, or WDM drivers running.
The P4 is a quirky box with a unique character and an unusual feature set for a portable unit in this price bracket. However, in a market already saturated with preamps and voice channels, today's UK buyer is certainly spoilt for choice, with products like the M-Audio DMP3 at £199, through to the more expensive Focusrite Twin Trak Pro costing £399. The P4's lack of fashionable tubes, combined with the limited controls of the compressor/limiter, may also put off DAW users looking to add 'warmth' to their tracking — they might want to consider boxes like the Presonus Blue Tube DP at £165, or the Aphex 207 at £409. That said, this unit isn't strictly aimed at home or studio recording, and it is to its credit that it can adapt to almost any situation where a good, clean, microphone level is required. So if you're looking for a convenient dual preamp with intuitive dynamics processing, then the P4 is an excellent choice.