Getting a good, clean signal to tape (or disk) is perhaps the most critical part of the recording process. Unless you have a very high-quality mixing console, you're often better off bypassing the board and patching the source signal through a good mic preamp and then straight into your multitrack. But the problem with this approach is that a mic preamp alone doesn't provide EQ, dynamics processing, or the ability to insert effects. For that kind of tone-shaping flexibility, you might want to consider a dedicated voice processor.
Although best known for its retro-sounding optical compressors, Joemeek has also been a leader in producing quality, affordable voice processors. In designing the VC6Q, the engineers at Joemeek have made one major change from the design of the VC3 and VC6, their two previous models: they've replaced the enhancer (which was the least successful component of those units, anyway) with a 3-band EQ that's equivalent to one channel of the VC5 Meequalizer. By doing so, they've given the VC6Q more of the usefulness of an actual channel strip and thereby made it into a more versatile and functional unit.
SLEEK PHYSIQUEHoused in a Joemeek-green, 1U chassis, the single-channel VC6Q sports an enhanced and more substantial look compared with the now discontinued VC6. Gone are the small rubber knobs, replaced with larger plastic ones. Compressor, Input Gain, and Output Gain are the largest of the ten front-panel knobs, and the latter two feature detents to make repeatable settings a breeze.
A series of six small, red switches on the front panel allows you to configure the signal path in a variety of ways. You can switch on the compressor and the equalizer, engage a 20-decibel pad, enable the line input, turn on the phantom power, and reverse the phase of your signal. The switches all have accompanying status LEDs, and another LED indicates peaks at the input stage. Metering is provided by two LED arrays: a nine-segment meter for monitoring input gain, and a four-segment gain-reduction indicator.
One of the more impressive aspects of the VC6Q is its flexible I/O. The back panel offers a balanced XLR mic input and a balanced 1/4-inch line input. Also, if you want to use the unit as a direct box for guitar, bass, or other electric instrument, there's an unbalanced 1/4-inch input conveniently located on the front panel. When you plug a jack into it, the XLR input is automatically disabled.
Another nice touch is the inclusion of dual 1/4-inch balanced TRS outputs (you can use them with unbalanced gear, too), which put out identical signals. The dual outputs allow you to patch one output into your multitrack input and the other to your mixer for monitoring purposes. This is especially useful when recording into a computer-based DAW where signal latency is an issue.
The back panel also sports a 1/4-inch TRS insert jack that allows you to patch other effects into the signal chain. The insert point falls after the mic preamp and before the compressor.
Unlike the VC3, the VC6Q uses an internal transformer, which means that it has a standard AC cord instead of a wall wart (hooray!). By simply rotating the fuse holder on the back panel, you can configure the unit to accept 230 VAC European power. (It is British made, after all.)
YOUR INPUT IS VALUABLEThe first place a signal goes upon entering the VC6Q is the five-stage microphone preamp, or "input stage," which accepts levels ranging from -70 to more than 0 decibels. As mentioned, you can also plug in electric instruments and line-level sources, so the VC6Q can be used for a variety of applications during both tracking and mixing.
To evaluate the sound of the preamp, I did my initial testing with the compressor and equalizer switched off. I recorded my tracks at 16 bits, 48 kHz, into a Mac with a Korg 1212 I/O card, running MOTU Digital Performer 2.6. For a microphone, I used an Alesis AM52, which is a large-diaphragm, solid-state condenser.
With this setup I recorded vocals, acoustic guitar, shaker, and bongos, and the VC6Q handled each quite deftly. Its overall sound was clean and present, and it added subtle warmth to the tracks. For perspective, I compared it to a more expensive mic preamp, and while the VC6Q wasn't quite as transparent, it held its own very well. I was also impressed with the amount of headroom on the input stage; I had to push it pretty hard to induce distortion.
FEELING COMPRESSEDThe VC6Q's preamp alone has a fine sound, but things really start getting interesting when you kick in the compressor. As with other Joemeek units, the compressor in the VC6Q is the photo-optical variety, and its controls differ somewhat from conventional units. Instead of a threshold control that you lower to bring in more compression, there's a compression depth knob (labeled simply Compressor) that you turn up to add more effect. To the right of that control is a knob labeled Slope (the British term for "ratio"), which offers values from 1.2:1 up to 10:1. (Oddly, the manual says the top ratio is 7:1.) There are also Attack and Release controls, with the latter offering a generous maximum value of five seconds.
When you engage the Compression In/Out button, the LED on the far right of the gain-reduction meter lights up blue. The four steps of the meter are yellow, so theoretically it should be easy to see when gain reduction is occurring. In practice, however, I found the four-segment meter to be too coarse. On plenty of occasions, the compressor was audibly kicking in, but I didn't see it reflected in the meter because there were less than 3 decibels of reduction, which is the minimum level that the meter displays. While this might seem like a minor quibble, I find it helpful to have accurate visual references when dialing in settings.
What's really important, though, is the compressor's sound, and from that standpoint, the VC6Q rocks. The minute you switch it into the circuit, you notice a big difference in the signal. For one thing, it gets louder. More importantly, it gets fatter and has what I can describe only as a warm sheen added to it. This is not a sterile compressor designed to simply tame excess dynamics; rather, it has a distinctive sound.
ALL THINGS BEING EQUALIZEDLike a good mixer channel, the VC6Q allows you to switch the equalizer in and out, making it easy to A/B signals. When activated, the EQ section offers the standard three bands of control: the high and low bands, which provide approximately 15 decibels of boost or cut at fixed bands of 8 kHz and 100 Hz, respectively; and the midrange, which is sweepable from 600 Hz to 3.5 kHz. The Q (bandwidth) is variable and increases as the frequency is set higher.
I was thrown a bit by the British orientation of the EQ controls, which have the highs on the left and the lows on the right-the reverse of what we're used to here in the United States. Luckily, learning to equalize on the "wrong side of the road" is not nearly as dangerous as learning to drive that way, and I quickly adapted.
The EQ section has what I would call an old-style feel to it, reminiscent of what you might find on a large-format console in a commercial studio. The high band-or Treble, as it's referred to on the VC6Q-is voiced perfectly for dialing in some "zing" on top, and I used it to good effect on acoustic guitars, vocals, and even a sampled snare drum. The Bass control is effective at both cutting excess weight out of a signal and adding a little oomph to a bass guitar or kick drum. Although a bit trickier to set, the Mid controls are also quite musical.
THE VERDICTFrom a sonic and design standpoint, the VC6Q is a very impressive product. However, I would be remiss if I didn't report that the first two units I received for testing were both defective-in different ways. The first unit had a faulty instrument input jack, and on the replacement unit, the compressor didn't work. Finally, on the third try, I got a completely functioning unit.
Quality-control issues aside, there's little doubt that the VC6Q is an impressive voice processor for the money, offering flexible I/O and a toolbox full of sonic goodies equally useful during tracking and mixing. Taken on their own, the three major components-the input stage, the compressor, and the equalizer-are all worthy; combined, they make for one heck of a useful processor.
Mike Levine is an associate editor of EM and editor of Onstage, EM's new live-performance quarterly magazine. When he's not buried in his word processor, he also composes music for commercials.