I've been recording vocals using a Neumann TLM103 mic going through a Dbx 386 tube preamp, and using the Dbx's converters to send a digital signal into a Roland VS1680 multitracker. I understood the Dbx was virtually impossible to clip, but experience proves otherwise!
Firstly, it's impossible to use the Dbx's 'Drive' tube emulation above its lowest setting without getting obvious red light peaking and distortion for any louder transients during a vocal take (I like to sing fairly close to the mic). Does this mean I'm not getting any tube warmth from the unit? Generally, due to this problem, I always use the 20dB pad which enables me to crank up the Drive dial a little, but not much.
What is the purpose of its higher incremental notches if you can't really use them? Even with Drive set all the way down, and the digital metering on the output stage peaking between 12 and 16dBu but avoiding the red light district, there are still obvious frequencies in my voice which cut through the supposed soft limiting facilities of the Dbx type IV converters to produce distortion. Sometimes I have to do drop-ins of single vowels, vainly trying to grab a clean one at a comparable level to its neighbouring words. What am I doing wrong?
Reviews Editor Mike Senior replies: I own a Dbx 376 and use it for all my vocal recording, and I'd suggest that you definitely don't want to be lighting that input Peak LED — that lights when the input is clipping, and clipping is quite a different thing to valve warmth. Given that your TLM103 has a fairly high output level of 21mV/Pa, if you're giving your performance a bit of welly close up to the mic then you may well find that you have to have the input gain all the way down.
I also work very close to the mic — like you, I have the Drive control all the way down for most of my louder numbers. This isn't a problem, though — you're still driving the valve, simply by dint of the raw level coming from the mic, it's just that you don't have to add any gain on the Drive control to do it. The valve 'sound' for recording purposes is very understated in quality equipment, and you don't need to try too hard to get the benefits of the valve — you'll get all the warmth on offer just by running the valve comfortably within its normal working range. You don't need to overdrive the valve, as you would in a guitar amp.
You also asked what use the upper notches of the control were if you always sang too loud for them. The reason for having them is so that low-output mics, such as dynamics and ribbons, can also be boosted into the optimum operating range for the valve. Think of the Drive control more like an input gain control, and that should clarify things a bit. I'd also be tempted to leave the Pad out unless it's absolutely necessary — it'll just be adding extra components into the signal path, and that's not necessarily desirable.
So, if you're setting up your Drive control right, there remains the question of the gain management in the rest of the chain. The first thing to realise is that it is possible to get nasty distortion out of the Dbx Type IV compression if you push it too hard, even if you don't theoretically get digital clipping. The best tactic, in my opinion, is to treat the converter just as you would any other and leave plenty of headroom. In this case, without compression, the majority of the signal will probably be hitting the -16dBFS mark, although this depends on your own performance dynamics.
The most important thing is that you try to avoid making the -4dBFS light come on at all. Set the channel up while rehearsing so that only the -8dBFS light ever comes on. Because of the way in which the Type IV conversion process works, the moment the -4dBFS light comes on, the converter is effectively limiting the signal, so if (once you've set things up) you cook things a little hot in the middle of a take and the -4dBFS light comes on, you'll only be limiting the spikiest peaks.
Type IV is great at peak limiting, but that's all it should be used for — use a compressor to reduce the dynamic range if necessary. Your description of your metering levels ("the digital metering on the output stage peaking between 12 and 16dBu but avoiding the red light district") shows me that you're running the output too hot: the 12dBu and 16dBu lights correspond to the -8dBFS and -4dBFS lights when the meter is switched to read the digital level, so if these are coming on most of the time then you've strayed too far into the danger zone.
Also, bear in mind that even the digital output metering in the Dbx 386 is analogue, so the real peaks in your audio signal will probably extend beyond the meter reading. And because of the Type IV process, the output meter will only hit the 0dBFS light if it's seriously abused, so just avoiding the red light does not necessarily guarantee clean audio.
If you're getting distortion through the Roland VS1680 even on unclipped material, double-check that Dbx's sample rate is set correctly and that you're clocking the VS1680 from it — if the Roland is set to run from its own internal master clock then you may encounter a variety of strange spits and pops.
When digital and analogue gear is used in the same system, setting up the gain sensibly throughout the recording chain can be a bit of a minefield. However, it's worth taking the time to get it right, because otherwise all your recordings will suffer. You certainly shouldn't have to be dropping in words to avoid clipping — that's something you should be doing for artistic reasons to get the best possible performance.