A versatile, dirt-simple voice processor for all occasions.
The most critical aspect of the recording process is arguably the audio-signal path from the source to the final destination. The better the components composing that path, the better the final results.
One such pathway is Joemeek's Pro Channel VC3Q. This diminutive voice processor consists of a microphone preamp, an optical compressor, and three bands of fixed EQ, all tidily ensconced in a half-rack box. In size and appearance it is strikingly similar to the Joemeek C2 stereo compressor (reviewed in the September 1999 issue of EM).
The Pro Channel VC3Q arrived at my door for review just as I was finishing the MIDI sequences for three new songs. It was good timing, as the next item on my agenda was track-by-track overdubbing of vocals and a variety of instruments, and a voice processor was a logical candidate for the job. It would prove to be a project for which the Pro Channel was a natural.
UP FRONTOne glance at the Pro Channel VC3Q immediately tells you its lineage: the faceplate (see Fig. 1) is the telltale green color of all things Joemeek. A red LED on the left indicates phantom power on/off status. Next is the Input Gain control for the mic preamp or line input. Then comes the photo-optical compressor, with Compression, Attack, and Release knobs and a small red Compressor On button. Beside the compressor is the EQ section (or "Meequalizer," in Joemeek-speak), with Low, Mid, and High frequency knobs. As with the compressor section, a red button toggles the EQ on and off. On the far right of the faceplate, the Output Volume control regulates the VC3Q's output.
In the compressor section, Joemeek doesn't use the standard ratings; instead the Compression knob's settings are labeled 1 to 11. Attack ranges from 1 to 11 milliseconds and Release from 125 milliseconds to 1.5 seconds. Each EQ pot is variable from -16 to +16 dB, with the 0 dB setting at 12 o'clock. Both the High and Low controls are shelving EQ, while the Mid control has a Q value of one. A yellow LED lets you know when the EQ is enabled, and a red LED at the output of the EQ section flashes when the signal comes within 6 dB of the overload point.
A small 5-segment LED VU meter on the lower right indicates input level, with the lowest-level green LED doing double duty as a power-on indicator. (Note that the Output Volume control comes in after the input level has been established, so it does not affect the VC3Q's overload margin.)
`ROUND BACKOn the rear panel (see Fig. 2) you'll find an XLR input for the mic preamp, a 11/44-inch instrument/line input, a 11/44-inch insert point, a Mix In (a 11/44-inch line level input routed directly to the output stage), and two balanced 11/44-inch outputs. Plugging into the instrument/line input disables the XLR input. The unit has no on/off switch; it powers up via the input jack for the 12V wall-wart transformer provided with the unit.
A small red button turns the phantom power on and off, but unfortunately its placement next to the I/O connectors is potentially hazardous. For example, while setting up the VC3Q for the first time, I accidentally depressed this button while checking the mic-cable connection and was greeted with a thunderous thunk from the studio monitors.
The manual warns of this speaker-threatening situation and outlines a procedure for avoiding problems: first set the Input Gain to minimum, then make sure the mic is plugged in before switching on phantom power. But I wish the warning had been written in bold type. Also, although the VC3Q was clearly designed for use as a stand-alone component, this rear location of the phantom-power switch is discouraging to anyone needing to rack-mount the unit.
An outboard effect can be patched into the insert point using a 11/44-inch TRS jack. The tip is send and the ring is return.
The Mix In provides a line-level "back door" to the VC3Q's signal chain, but it falls after the compressor and equalizer, and the signal is therefore not processed. Also, Mix In has no separate input-gain control; you must establish the optimum signal level prior to sending it through this input.
The two outputs on the back panel are wired in parallel, and you can make either output unbalanced by substituting a 11/44-inch TS plug for a 11/44-inch TRS plug. Having two outputs came in handy on more than one occasion. For example, while recording directly to an ADAT, I used the extra output to bypass my mixer and monitor directly from the VC3Q. Similarly, while recording track-by-track, I saved time repatching between takes by simply plugging both outputs into adjacent tracks on the ADAT.
BEATING A PATHWith its wide dynamic range and variety of complex timbres, the drum kit is always a challenge to record, and it was in this arena that the VC3Q received its first workout. I had already dumped reference versions of my three new tunes to eight tracks of ADAT at 20-bit resolution, but I desperately wanted to replace the lifeless drum samples, track-by-track, with the real thing. Enter the VC3Q.
Unlike a brickwall VCA limiter, the VC3Q's photo-optical compressor can tame transients on all drums while still retaining lots of exciting dynamic detail. However, I had to experiment a bit before I found the best settings, as the compressor occasionally let transient spikes slip by, even when compression was set to 11.
After considerable time and effort, I ultimately contained some nasty snare-drum and hi-hat spiking. The hi-hat and crash cymbals also taxed my patience before I arrived at the right attack and release settings.
Yet patience has its rewards. I eventually culled some spectacular results. The VC3Q excelled at bringing out the cymbal wash that follows the initial stick attack of the ride. It fattened up an anemic hi-hat track, and it had the final word with troublesome cymbal crashes, producing a fuller sound with a longer, more natural decay.
VC3Q's EQ offers more immediate gratification. For a fixed EQ, it's particularly well voiced for drums. The low-end shelving EQ lent a hearty 80 Hz to the bass drum, rides and hi-hat overdubs benefited from a little 8.5 kHz high-EQ shimmer, and I spiced up a floor-tom overdub with some 1.5 kHz midrange thwack. I was also able to quickly point up one particularly dull-sounding snare with a modest addition of mids and highs.
BASSING OFFFor me, getting a bass track to sit in the mix from the get-go is right up there in importance with mother, flag, and apple pie. After I finished tracking the drums, I auditioned a variety of electric basses (passive and active, fretted and fretless) using the VC3Q as the "front end."
With basses, the VC3Q performed splendidly. Whether I plugged the instruments into the line input or (using a direct box) the mic preamp, I had lots of undistorted level while overdubbing to ADAT. The compressor gave me access to a wide palette of colors, ranging from mildly compressed (transparent) to heavily compressed (obvious), and I didn't spend an inordinate amount of time wandering the streets of Tweaksville. If you're in the market for a bass-recording solution, look no further.
Throughout all the bass overdub sessions, I found little need to add EQ because in most cases the compressor had already delivered the goods. On one song, however, I did have a little trouble adding midrange to hide a problem with one of the basses. The VC3Q's 1.8 kHz midrange point was a tad north of where the bass needed an 800 Hz boost, but I remedied the situation quickly by patching an outboard parametric EQ into the insert - a nice routing option.
STRINGING ALONGNext I auditioned the acoustic guitars, and the VC3Q treated all comers with kindly respect. All three of my songs demanded both bright steel-stringed and darker nylon-stringed instruments, so I used a variety of microphones (dynamic mics and both small- and large-diaphragm condensers) to capture their respective sounds. When I ran an Audio-Technica AT4033 condenser through the VC3Q's compressor for one exceptionally bright-sounding steel-stringed Ovation, the guitar simply bloomed. For all the acoustic guitars, the compressor proved adept at wedding quiet finger picking to loud strumming.
When I auditioned the electric guitars, I first went for the squeaky-clean DI tone by plugging a series of low- and high-output axes into the VC3Q's instrument/line input. With one exceptionally low-output 12-string Stratocaster I was able to crank the input gain to get a respectable level. By applying massive compression with a quick attack and moderate release, I easily sauntered into Roger McGuinn territory with a nicely flattened (but not flat) sound - exactly what the tune needed.
Finally, I whipped out a trusty Shure SM57 and aimed it at the grill of a cranked amp for some true electric guitar sturm und drang. Any initial anxiety I may have harbored dissolved as the VC3Q compressed rhythm and lead guitars with aplomb. I found the unit equally adept at going over the top to coax some gnarly pumping and breathing from chunky staccato rhythm parts, and dropping back to gently smooth out the rough edges on a solo.
On the other hand, using the EQ was a hit-or-miss proposition. Whereas some of the guitars I recorded benefited from a little low- or high-end goosing, the fixed-shelf low and high EQ controls were usually too broadband to be used subtly. And when it came to dealing with what is arguably the guitar's Achilles heel - abundant midrange - I longed for the flexibility and precision offered by parametric EQ. However, in the VC3Q's defense, I wasn't stranded without an alternative. As with the bass guitar example, I was able to patch in an outboard parametric EQ when I needed to perform sound surgery.
VOCAL DRILLCutting vocals is probably the application that tests a voice processor the most. With this in mind, I moved on to overdubbing both lead and background vocals for the demo, using the VC3Q in conjunction with an MBNM 608 C-L large-diaphragm condenser and a Shure SM58. I was anxious to hear what the VC3Q could do to tame and/or enhance my voice.
Because I was tracking to ADAT, I wanted to rein in any spikes that would cause digital clipping. Only after many repeated passes did I get the compressor to quit squirming and behave. Even after I thought I had sussed out the winning combination of compression, attack, and release, the VC3Q would annoyingly let a transient spike through. I found myself singing with one eye on the meter - an exasperating process. However, once the smoke cleared, the end result was impressive. Thanks to the VC3Q's compressor, the vocal tracks boasted a vintage photo-optical sheen that didn't squelch a dynamic performance. The VC3Q compressed, not repressed.
On the EQ side, the High control could be nudged to add upper-end sparkle at 8.5 kHz and above, but it was easy to go overboard. When I tried for too much "sparkle," the VC3Q imparted the vocal equivalent of blinding glare. The situation was the same with the midrange. A little bit lent a nice 1.5 kHz presence boost (especially with the SM58), but too much produced harshness. I was pleased when I rolled off the low-end shelving EQ for some background tracks on one of the songs. The result was a slimmed down (but not anorexic) quality that helped the background vocals cut through a particularly dense mix. It was an exaggerated special effect, to be sure, but a very cool one.
TINKERING WITH TINKLINGThe last free track on the last tune presented me with a dilemma. I could either wimp out and punt with a sampled grand part from the original sequenced MIDI track, or crack my knuckles and pound out the part on the real deal. Going with the latter impulse, I propped wide the lid of my baby grand, mounted a Shure SM81 small-diaphragm condenser on a boom stand just outside and pointing toward the middle of the harp, then ran the signal through the VC3Q's gauntlet. After playing through the song a few times to get an input level (and to relearn the part), I was set to do a little knob twiddling.
Finding the right dose of compression took some time, but the compressor ultimately obliged by providing me with a transparent performance. The VC3Q tamed the busy rock-and-roll section without squashing the sustained chords in the bridge.
Although the piano sounded, well, grand without any equalization, I did resort to doing a little "thickening" with the low EQ. (The manual states that the Low control's frequency is fixed at 80 Hz, but I liked the unmuddy detail the VC3Q imparted at around 150 Hz.)
WRAPPING UPJoemeek's VC3Q is an exceptionally versatile and compact voice processor. The controls are intuitively laid out and dirt-simple to use. The unit was deceptively quiet throughout my demo project, such that I had to check more than once to see if the VC3Q was powered up while recording. The mic preamp is first rate, offering lots of headroom and little tonal coloration. Additionally, the VC3Q's portability makes it a prime candidate for remote location recording, whether at a road gig or just down the hall.
The VC3Q also provides some unique routing options unavailable on other voice processors, including some that sport higher price tags. The insert proved a godsend on more than one occasion, allowing me to quickly patch in another compressor, parametric EQ, or oddball effect as need (or whim) dictated. The VC3Q's dual outputs made for some welcome patching shortcuts in the studio.
Although I used the VC3Q mainly to cut tracks, I had no qualms about patching in the unit during mixdown, especially when I thought a particular track would benefit from a little VC3Q flavoring.
In addition to the awkward location of the phantom-power switch, I have a few more minor complaints. Getting comfortable with the VC3Q's photo-optical compressor does take patience, and it can be more fidgety than an eight-year-old in front of a Pokemon-card display - especially when tracking vocals. Accordingly, you might think twice before using the VC3Q to record that talented-yet-impatient vocalist.
In some applications (such as processing guitar and vocals), I found the fixed EQ to be somewhat limiting. Also, although the dark-green front panel is attractive, reading the settings in low-light situations can be difficult.
But minor reservations aside, I was totally impressed by the aural results. The VC3Q's compressor, for all its quirks, really does a good job of conjuring up that vintage photo-optical vibe. The EQ was especially well voiced for pointing up the drums. Best of all I didn't have to rerecord any of the demo tracks I cut with VC3Q with some "better" voice processor.
Lastly, consider the bottom line. At its suggested retail price of $399, the Pro Channel VC3Q is among the least expensive dedicated voice processors - an important factor if your home-studio budget is a little compressed itself.