Studio-gear manufacturer Joemeek, named after the innovative record producer and audio pioneer from the '50s and '60s, makes a next-generation line of preamps and signal processors designed in the U.K. and assembled in China. The sixQ, a monophonic channel strip, is in the product line's middle tier and has all you need to get great sounds from your microphone to your recording medium.
The sixQ is a handsome forest green, single-rackspace unit with four distinct, clearly labeled sections: Preamp, Optical Compressor, Meequalizer, and Output (see Fig. 1). In the Preamp section, round white buttons engage 48V phantom power, a -20 dB pad, polarity reversal, and an 80 Hz highpass filter. In addition, the Iron button places a transformer in the preamplifier's circuit path, and the Line button switches between the mic and line inputs. A domed black knob controls preamp gain, with a range from 10 to 60 dB and with a special marking for the line amplifier's unity position. A red LED lights when the preamp reaches 6 dB below its clipping point.
FIG. 1: The Joemeek sixQ furnishes a monophonic mic and instrument preamp, an optical compressor, three bands of EQ, and an A/D converter in a single-rackspace channel strip.
The compressor has five knobs: Compress, Slope, Attack, Release, and Make Up Gain. As you turn the Compress knob clockwise, the threshold is lowered from +∞ to -20 dBu. Slope is roughly equivalent to a ratio setting, although the manual says that at a given slope setting, the ratio changes depending on the transient nature of the signal. Attack times are from 1 to 100 ms, and release times are from 0.1 second to 3 seconds. Make Up Gain sets the postcompression level, with the ability to boost the signal a maximum of 20 dB. Above the button for engaging the compressor circuit (with an accompanying bright blue LED) is a 4-segment LED meter indicating the amount of gain reduction taking place. This coarse meter shows when you are applying 2, 4, 8, or 16 dB of gain reduction to your signal.
The 3-band equalizer (labeled Meequalizer) has two semiparametric bands and one switchable band. You can sweep the low frequencies from 40 Hz to 650 Hz and the mids from 300 Hz to 5 kHz, and you can switch the high frequencies between 6 kHz and 12 kHz. All three bands are bell shaped and have a fixed Q (bandwidth) of 0.9, equivalent to 1.6 octaves; they also have ±15 dB cut or boost, with detents for the pot at the unity positions. Yet another white button engages the EQ circuit, which always follows the compressor in the signal path.
The Output knob is the final gain control; its range is from -∞ to +10 dB, with unity around the 1:30 position. An 8-segment LED meter displays levels, with VU ballistics and level indications from -24 dB to +12 dB. The top LED doubles as a peak indicator that lights when you are within 6 dB of 0 dBfs, which is helpful if you're using the onboard A/D converter. A button sets the meter to indicate either the output level or the signal at the preamp circuit. The unit has a rocker switch for power and a power-on LED that's positioned at the left of the horizontal bar-graph meter.
I to the O
On the rear panel is a female XLR jack for the mic input, a TRS jack for the balanced or unbalanced line input, a tip-send TRS jack for the unbalanced insert (which is always between the preamp and the compressor in the signal path), a male XLR jack for the +4 dBu balanced output, and a TRS jack for the secondary line output (see Fig. 2). This last jack operates at +4 dBu or -10 dBV and works with balanced or unbalanced connections.
FIG. 2: Other than the front-panel instrument input, all the sixQ''s connections are located on the rear panel.
The sixQ's internal A/D converter has optical (Toslink) and coaxial (RCA) S/PDIF outputs. Because the sixQ is a single-channel unit and the S/PDIF protocol is stereo, Joemeek has cleverly included a line-level TRS input jack for getting a second analog signal (presumably from another mono preamp) into the remaining S/PDIF channel. In addition, there are two buttons for choosing your sampling rate; one toggles between 44.1 kHz and 48 kHz, and the other multiplies the chosen sampling rate by a factor of two, resulting in 88.2 kHz and 96 kHz settings. When I compared the sixQ's converter with the high-quality converters I usually use, I heard no discernible differences. Also on the back panel is an integrated power supply with a fuse housing and standard IEC power cable socket.
Enriched with Iron
The sixQ manual and the Joemeek Web site boast of the Burr-Brown INA217 op-amp at the heart of the sixQ's preamp circuit, and I was impressed with the preamp's features and functionality. I tried it with numerous mics on various sources (kick drum, snare, bass, guitars, and vocals) and was always pleased by the sound. When directly compared with some of my favorite high-end mic preamps, the sixQ didn't always win out, but it held its own impressively.
Surprisingly, one of the standouts was an acoustic guitar miked with a Royer R-121. Ribbon mics need substantially more gain than other mics, especially on a quiet sound source. The 60 dB of preamp gain was barely enough to produce a visible waveform in my DAW, but it sounded clean and clear even when pushed to the limit, with no electronic noise introduced. For recording an electric guitar, I really liked the beef the sixQ imparted using the R-121 as well as a Sennheiser MD 421. In fact, my benchmark preamp sounded a little thin in comparison.
Pressing the Iron button puts a transformer in the signal path before the op-amp. Oddly, though, the manual says nothing about why you'd want to use it. On electric guitar and on male vocals through a Blue Baby Bottle, the Iron button changed the sound very slightly and in a positive way, by opening up the top end nicely and cleaning up the low mids a touch. Without the Iron button on, the sixQ sounded dull and boxy on male vocals, but only slightly.
Plugging my Rickenbacker 4001 bass into the instrument jack on the sixQ's front produced similarly satisfying results. The direct sound, both picked and plucked, stood up nicely against those from my favorite DIs. Although the Iron setting came close, I chose another of the direct boxes as my favorite, but that box costs three times as much as the sixQ.
Hitting the Slope
The first time I used the compressor, I tried it on a bass track I was having trouble with. I had gotten a good sound from the bass itself through a DI straight to 2-inch tape, but it just wasn't sitting right in the mix. After trying a few of my trusty compressors to no avail, I ran the track through the sixQ's line input and dialed in just a touch of gain reduction at about 2.5:1, with a slow attack and slow release. It was exactly the compression I had been looking for and hadn't gotten with my other boxes. Reading the documentation, I understood why.
The sixQ's compressor circuit, a photo-optical circuit based on producer Joe Meek's designs from the '50s, is designed not to be transparent the way a lot of modern compressors are. In fact, Joemeek claims to be the first modern manufacturer to make compressors as effects units and not just level-control devices. I hear what the company means; the compressor kicks in hard even at conservative settings and alters the sound of the material dramatically, whether it's used on bass, vocals, or drums. It may be too squashy for a lot of scenarios, but I really like the character that the compressor imparts on the right signal at the right time. Just be careful: a little goes a long way when you are adjusting the controls. If I had one complaint, it would be that the knobs are too sensitive — it's hard to dial in just a little more.
The odd thing about the EQ section is that the high and low bands are peak filters instead of the shelving curves more commonly used in those ranges. Joemeek states that it uses peak filtering to prevent boosting subsonic and supersonic frequencies. After using the sixQ's EQ, I buy that argument. It was easier to dial in the meat of a bass drum around 80 Hz, for instance, without making the entire low end too thick.
As for the high band, it was easy to dial air into a vocal or bass track at the 12 kHz setting, whereas the snare liked the same band set at 6 kHz for adding just the right crispness without emphasizing tape hiss. The mid band was handy for bringing electric guitars forward, and for adding extra clarity to the acoustic track.
As with the compressor controls, a little goes a long way, and I rarely wanted to push the boost more than 3 dB. The documentation claims zero phase distortion in the EQ circuit, and my ears concurred.
Inherit the Earth
The sixQ is an impressive value with a well-rounded feature set, and at this price, it's hard to ask for more. If you do want more, Joemeek's oneQ is a full-featured variation on the sixQ, and the twinQ is a 2-channel version. Both units have large needle-type VU meters, word-clock inputs, and AES/EBU outputs, and the oneQ has an extra EQ band, an enhancer, and a de-esser. If you need those features, they can be yours for a few more bucks. If not, however, the sixQ is very affordable and highly usable. It should be a welcome addition to studios of all sizes.
Eli Crews tries to emulate Joe Meek's amazing recordings at New, Improved Recording (www.newimprovedrecording.com) in Oakland, California.
mic preamp/signal processor
FEATURES 4 EASE OF USE 4 QUALITY OF SOUNDS 4 VALUE 5
RATING PRODUCTS FROM 1 TO 5
PROS: Very clean sound. Loaded with nice features. All buttons are accompanied by LED indicators. Digital interface has both optical and coaxial S/PDIF outputs.
CONS: No word-clock input. Coarse gain-reduction metering. Knobs too sensitive.
Joemeek/PMI Audio Group
SIXQ SPECIFICATIONS Channels 1 Analog Inputs (1) balanced XLR (mic) with switchable 48V phantom power; (1) balanced ¼" TRS (line); (1) ¼" high-impedance TS (instrument) Analog Outputs (1) balanced XLR (+4 dBu); (1) balanced ¼" TRS (+4 dBu or -10 dBV, switchable) Digital Outputs (1) coaxial S/PDIF; (1) optical S/PDIF Sampling Resolution 24-bit Sampling Rate 44.1, 48, 88.2, 96 kHz Highpass Filter 12 dB/octave cut below 80 Hz EQ Boost or Cut ±15 dB Low EQ 40 Hz-650 Hz, continuously variable Mid EQ 300 Hz-5 kHz, continuously variable High EQ 6 kHz/12 kHz, switchable EQ Bandwidth 0.9 (1.6 octaves) Compressor Threshold + to -20 dBu, continuously variable Compressor Ratio 1:1-10:1, continuously variable Compressor Attack Time 1 ms-100 ms, continuously variable Compressor Release Time 0.1 second-3 seconds, continuously variable Gain +10 dB-+60 dB Frequency Response 15 Hz-70 kHz Input Impedance mic 1.2 k; line 20 k Output Impedance 75 Headroom +21 dBu Equivalent Input Noise -128.5 dBu Total Harmonic Distortion 0.001% Power 115 or 230 VAC; internal supply, IEC socket Dimensions 1U × 8.7" (D) Weight 6.6 lbs.