FIG. 1: Joemeek''s half-rackspace threeQ features a mic pre, photo-optical compressor, and 3-band equalizer.
Joemeek has developed a reputation for building signal processors with a unique sonic signature, and the company's threeQ continues this tradition. The unit is a single-channel, half-rack channel strip featuring a mic pre, photo-optical compressor, and Meequalizer 3-band EQ (see Fig. 1). With its low price ($299), the threeQ aims to deliver three hardware processors in one affordable package.
The threeQ's features — such as its controls, fixed compression ratio, and fixed EQ frequencies — were chosen to make the unit as useful as possible. The threeQ offers a balanced XLR mic input and a ¼-inch line input (balanced or unbalanced), as well as a post-mic-pre TRS insert jack. The unit also has a ¼-inch line-level Mix Input that lets you combine a separate source with the signal being processed.
The threeQ also offers two parallel line outputs, which can be switched between +4 (balanced) and -10 (unbalanced) output levels. The two outputs can't be individually switched. If one of your cables is unbalanced, both outputs will be unbalanced, even if the other output cable is balanced.
All input and output jacks, the power cable input, the output level control, and the 48V phantom power button are on the rear panel (see Fig. 2). The line input selector, however, is on the front. Placing the inputs on the front would have been more convenient. I also wish that the threeQ had a power button; you can only turn off the unit from a power strip or by unplugging it. Although I didn't mind having the phantom power button on the rear, I would have preferred that its LED were on the front. As it is, you have to get to the back of the unit to see if phantom power is on.
Getting (Pre) Amped
The threeQ's mic pre features a gain range of 10 to 60 dB for the mic input, and -35 to +15 dB for the line input. The threeQ's detented Preamp Gain knob allows for 21 steps between 10 and 25 dB (the 12 o'clock position) and 19 steps between 25 and 60 dB settings. In addition to the threeQ's well-designed 8-stage LED level meter, the mic pre offers a peak LED that lights up when the signal reaches 6 dB below clipping.
The EQ and the compressor can be switched out of the signal chain, and the mic pre can be bypassed by using the insert jack if you use the threeQ's Compressor and EQ with a different mic pre.
FIG. 2: The threeQ''s rear panel contains the unit''s input and output jacks, output level control, and 48V phantom-power button.
The documentation, which is short and excellent, notes that at its maximum gain, the preamp is quite noisy (the noise floor rises to an audible -68 dBu) and recommends keeping the mic-pre gain under 40 dB. I found that 32 dB of preamp gain was more than enough to boost the signal of my guitar, a Gretsch G6128T, to the point of clipping. A range of 30 to 40 dB provided a usable level for a Shure SM57 dynamic microphone and a Neumann TLM 103 condenser microphone, without causing clipping. Once you have a strong signal, you can raise the Output Gain without generating an unacceptable noise level.
Within the usable range of the mic pre, it is quiet, musical, and true to the source material while adding a bit of low-end color around 75 Hz and 200 Hz, which could enhance sources with a deficient low end. For a unit in this price range, I was impressed that it didn't dull or accentuate the highs.
One-Hour Photo Optical
Joemeek compressors are known for their unique re-creation of the original 1960 Joemeek photoelectric compressors. The threeQ's exact compression ratio is not adjustable, and it depends on the incoming signal level. At just over the threshold setting, the compression ratio is nearly 1:1. The ratio rises to 5:1 as the compressor is driven harder, but the ratio decreases slightly for loud transients to retain more of the signal's brightness. The compressor can be either in or out of the signal chain; an LED above the Comp button is activated when the circuit is engaged.
The compressor offers three controls. The Compress knob controls the threshold. Unfortunately, the knob is labeled with a 0 to 10 scale that doesn't equate to real threshold settings. For example, while a value of 10 (the highest clockwise position) results in the most compression, the number represents the lowest threshold value. Those numbers may be useful as an indicator of how much compression is being applied, but they won't help anyone attempting to reach a specific threshold value.
The Attack knob controls how quickly the compressor reacts to peaks exceeding the threshold, and is adjustable from 1 to 100 milliseconds. The Release knob controls how long the compressor continues compressing signals once they drop below the threshold, and is adjustable from .1 to 3 seconds. The threeQ offers an adjustable Output Gain control from -∞ to +16 dB to make up for any level changes due to the Compressor and EQ.
By turning the Compress knob past 7 on the dial, the compressor will add the low-mid punch and thump for which Joemeek compressors are renowned. Of course, that thump, when not controlled, can cause guitar-picking attacks and vocal sibilance to sound like explosions. But used judiciously, the compressor does a solid job of controlling dynamic range and adding punch without unduly removing high frequencies.
Like the compressor, the Meequalizer can be removed from the signal chain. When the EQ is engaged, the LED above the EQ button lights. The EQ section includes three peak filters, with the center frequency of the low and high frequency bands fixed at 80 Hz and 12 kHz respectively, and the mid frequency band sweepable from 300 Hz to 5 kHz. Each band offers from -15 to +15 dB of cut or boost, with a detent in the knob at unity gain. The Q for each band is fixed at 0.9 (12/3 octaves). (A misprint in the manual puts the Q value at 1.9.)
The EQ offers some sound sculpting over most of the frequency range, but I would have liked to see more; the fixed 80 Hz low-frequency and 12 kHz high-frequency bands are too limited. When using the threeQ with vocals or electric and acoustic guitars, I reached only for the sweepable midrange control.
The Meeq Shall Inherit the Earth
Overall, the Joemeek threeQ offers a lot of value for its low price. The unit is flexible, and the mic pre and compressor are usable. Nobody would ever call this unit transparent, but if you are looking for the unique Joemeek color in an affordable package, the threeQ will deliver.
Orren Merton is the author of Logic 6 Power (Muska & Lipman, 2003), and can usually be found playing guitar through one of his many of vintage and modern amps.
Analog Inputs (1) balanced XLR, (1) balanced/unbalanced TRS, (1) Mix, (1) TRS insert Analog Outputs (2) balanced/unbalanced TRS Input Impedances mic, 1.2k; line, 20k Preamp Overall Gain 0 dB-60 dB Maximum Input Before Clipping mic, +19.5 dBu; line, +44.5 dBu Headroom Before Clipping +19.5 dBu Equivalent Input Noise -128.5 dBu (unweighted)
Threshold -6 dBu-+20 dBu (variable) Ratio 5:1 (typical)] Attack Time 1 ms-100 ms (adaptive) Release Time 0.1 sec-3 sec (adaptive)
LF Frequency 80 Hz Mid Frequency 300 Hz-5 kHz, variable HF Frequency 12 kHz EQ Boost and Cut ±15 dB
Distortion .001% (below compressor threshold) Frequency Response 10 Hz-70 kHz (-3 dB) Output Impedance 75 Output Level Switch 12 dB attenuation Noise Floor -85 dBu (typical, with ~40 dB mic gain) Dimensions ½U × 7" (D) Weight 2.2 lbs.
OVERALL RATING [1 THROUGH 5]: 3.5
PROS: Inexpensive. Flexible for its price range. Microphone preamp sounds very musical in its usable range. Compressor is very effective. “Joemeek sound.”
CONS: No power button. Phantom power LED on rear. Cannot remove preamp from signal chain. Preamp noisy at max gain. Fixed compression ratio. Unclear Compress knob scale. Fixed LF and HF EQ frequencies.
PMI Audio Group (distributor)