MindPrint had a winner with its original En-Voice channel strip. So what did the company do? Redesign the product, of course. Fans wishing to add another En-Voice to their racks needn't fret, however. The En-Voice MK II is a step up in sound quality, functionality, and even looks. With true tube saturation and a choice of digital interfaces, the new En-Voice is a top contender in a field of audio “front ends” that offer expanding features and shrinking footprints.
On the Strip
The new En-Voice packs all the essentials into a sleek, slim package with all controls except for a ground lift button on the front panel. The 1U En-Voice is an ergonomic triumph; although its front is jam packed with controls, the ends of the 14 long knobs are easy to grasp, allowing just enough room for large fingers like mine to handle them without affecting adjacent controls. An added bonus is the design of the clear plastic function switches, which glow a bright blue when depressed. These buttons, like the knobs, are nicely spaced and are unlikely to interfere with the status of other controls when pressed. Three mini toggle switches are easily reached on the front panel, and there's room left over for a large power switch and tube window.
The front panel is marked off in sections (from left to right): Input, LF, MF, HF, Dynamics, and Output (see Fig. 1). The input section handles mic or line level signals entering the XLR and ¼-inch TRS rear-panel connections or a high-impedance instrument input on the front panel. A mini toggle switch selects between Mic, Line/Inst., or Digital (if one of two MindPrint digital modules is installed in the rear-panel slot). A 12-stage LED can display input or output, depending on the position of the adjacent Meter Assign button. A Low Cut button, separate Line Gain and Mic Gain pots, mini toggles for 48V phantom power, and a -20 dB pad complete the input section.
The three EQ sections each have parametric controls and an On button. The MF section adds a Q knob that sets the bell curve's bandwidth within a range of 3 (one-third octave) to 0.15 (six octaves). All Frequency controls are variable and provide generous overlap from section to section, with a 15 dB boost or cut available on each of the three bands. Each level knob has a detent at the 0 position.
The dynamics section is an interesting combination of preset and variable controls. An 8-position Compression mode knob dials up one of eight preset Attack/Release combinations, which you then fine-tune with the variable Threshold, Ratio, and Tube Saturation pots. The compression modes feature helpful names such as V1 (vocals), G1 (guitar), B1 (bass), and P (percussion); the well-written En-Voice manual makes it clear, however, that these are just starting points for your own tweaking. The manual also has a table of suggested settings for various sonic goals, such as “gritty bass” and “fat vocals.”
The dynamics section's Tube Saturation knob applies overtones generated by the unit's 12AX7A triode and is marked in percentages from 0 to 100. The section also has its own Low Cut filter (6 dB per octave at 300 Hz) in a sidechain path, allowing the circuit to compress mids and highs without compromising bass energy in a signal. The Tube Sat LED next to the circular tube window changes color depending on the level of distortion being produced — green for negligible effect, yellow for audible overtones, and red for audible distortion.
The En-Voice's rear panel (see Fig. 2) has balanced XLR and TRS connectors for line in and out, an XLR mic connector, and ¼-inch insert send and return jacks. A plate covers a slot designed to accept either of MindPrint's 1U digital interface cards, the DI-Mod 24/96, which has S/PDIF only, or the DI-Mod USB (which came installed in the review unit that I received).
The DI-Mod (see Fig. 3) enables 16- or 24-bit conversion of the En-Voice input signal for transfer to your recording software while accepting a stereo return from the computer over USB. The computer's output is available from the DI-Mod's ¼-inch TRS jack, which can be switched to an analog insert jack by the adjacent Mode toggle switch. That allows digital conversion of an external mono analog signal independent of the En-Voice's processing. A useful example would be using two En-Voices to convert a stereo analog signal with only one DI-Mod installed. The module sends the native signal out of the USB port as channel 1 and the inserted signal as channel 2.
The current word length and sampling rate can be changed only by software (usually through your audio application). If you want to take the En-Voice somewhere to work as a converter on a project with a different sampling rate than the one previously selected, you'll need the driver and a computer at the session. The module also has a S/PDIF output.
MindPrinting to Disk
I tested the En-Voice MK II with Digital Performer (DP) on a dual 2 GHz Mac G5 running OS X (10.3.7). I connected several microphones, comparing the channel strip's mic pre to my similarly priced tube unit and the mic pres in my console. I also tested the En-Voice with bass, guitar, and full-mix mono signals. I was surprised and impressed with the En-Voice's flexibility and sonic character.
Used as a standalone channel strip, the En-Voice sounded clean and quiet. One of the first applications I tried was an electric guitar plugged in to the front-panel Instrument In jack. The compression circuit and tube-saturation feature were welcome additions, giving a smoothness and (in tandem with some EQ adjustments) a nice bite that allowed my Strat to be recorded without further processing. Although the unit offers helpful presets such as G1 and G2 for users with guitars, the En-Voice is no guitar processor; it's a studio-quality piece of gear that adds subtle refinements to analog signals.
A utilitarian Danelectro bass benefited greatly from the En-Voice's B1 and B2 presets, and the clean EQ introduced no additional noise to the sound. Using the sidechain lowpass filter, I could pop strings all day on a funk groove without losing the bottom end or “pinging the red” in DP.
Most people will be using the En-Voice primarily as a mic pre, and the unit is an excellent choice here as well. A female vocal matched to a large diaphragm condenser — a combination that I have recorded many times — sounded as good as it ever had with the V2 preset and just a hint of tube saturation. Similarly, a deep male spoken-word part that was recorded with a mic designed for broadcast applications was fine — the clean, crisp En-Voice gave a new twist on the speaker's rich baritone, which I have usually chosen to match with the somewhat warmer tube pre.
The only application that didn't suit me compared with what I had on hand was using the En-Voice with a dynamic mic on a guitar amp. It was a little too clean for my taste. In that situation, even with the amp providing the tube sound, I preferred the added warmth of the tube pre and the solid-state mixer mic preamp. In all other applications, however, the En-Voice was a solid, reliable, and rich-sounding performer.
The DI-Mod worked well as a basic interface, and behaved exactly as described in the manual. After loading the driver into my Mac, the module became visible in DP's Studio Configuration window and provided a clean mix from DPs stereo bus to the module's monitor outputs. Vocal mic and guitar signals that I set up transferred to DP without a glitch. The USB implementation in the DI-Mod seems expertly achieved and makes the unit a handy all-in-one playback product as well as a pro-quality analog signal source, especially for laptops.
It's still best, however, to use the digitally equipped En-Voice with a mixer when monitoring computer output because there's no way to control the analog output from the DI-Mod when it's connected directly to powered monitors. Although a master volume slider in an audio app works fine, other types of computer audio (as well as audio clips from DP's Soundbites window) can suddenly hit your monitors at full blast. (Other basic USB audio interfaces we've reviewed work the same way. If you use them for all of your computer's audio output, you'll need to choose your powered monitors' gain pot settings carefully.)
That very minor heads-up aside, the En-Voice MK II is a great-sounding, ultraconvenient front end for digital recording when equipped with a DI-Mod. At just under $1,050 list price for the tandem, it's not the least expensive channel strip/digital interface on the market, but the En-Voice's quality, convenience, and great sound make it a wise investment for many studios.
Rusty Cutchin is an associate editor of EM. He can be contacted email@example.com.
EN-VOICE MK II SPECIFICATIONS Preamp
Analog Inputs(1) balanced XLR mic; (1) balanced TRS line; (1) balanced XLR line,
(1) TRS insert returnAnalog Outputs(1) balanced XLR; (1) balanced TRS; (1) TRS insert sendInput ImpedancesMic: 10 kΩ; Line: 44 kΩ; Inst.: 470 kΩPreamp GainMic: 25 dB to 70 dB; Line/Inst.: ∞ to 22.5 dBMaximum Input LevelMic: +25 dBu; Line: +20.5 dBu; Inst.: +23.5 dBuLow-Cut Filter12 dB/octave (80 Hz)
Tube Saturation0-100%Threshold-28 to +2 dBu (variable)Ratio1:1 to ∞:1Attack/Release Times(8) switchable presetsLow-Cut Filter6 dB/octave (300 Hz)
LF Frequency20-300 Hz, adjustableMID Frequency100 Hz-11 kHz, adjustableHF Frequency1.6-22 kHz, adjustableEQ Boost and Cut±15 dB
Output Impedance220ΩMax. Output Level+19 dBuGain∞ to +6 dBDimensions1U × 9.4" (D)Weight7.6 lbs.
En-Voice MK II
analog channel strip$ 799.00
DI-Mod USB interface$ 249.99
OVERALL EM RATING (1 THROUGH 5): 4
PROS: Great control layout and design. Ample overlap on EQ bands. Tube saturation and low-cut filter in compressor circuit. Very clean and quiet. May be used as outboard converter with DI-Mod installed.
CONS: Presets instead of variable attack and release controls in compressor section.