FIG. 1: Universal Audio''s DCS Remote Preamp delivers flexible monitoring and versatile routing. Its digital front panel gives you plenty of hands-on control over the analog electronics, even if the two halves are in separate rooms.
Since the relaunch of the Universal Audio (UA) brand in 1999, the company has put out some very cool reissues as well as new hardware products and software plug-ins, many of them simulating classic audio devices. The first in UA's all-new Desktop Console System product line is the DCS Remote Preamp.
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The DCS Remote goes far beyond the functionality of a simple dual-channel preamp, providing extensive connectivity, versatile routing, and many clever extras that add up to a really impressive product. Connectors, buttons, switches, and metering are organized and labeled well enough that you could get started without even touching the manual. I was able to perform simple recording tasks within minutes of opening the package.
If you do require help, plenty is available. Besides the manual, you get a heavy-cardstock quick-start guide and a comprehensive tutorial DVD, in which a well-mannered, plain-spoken UA employee takes you step-by-step through the many minutiae of the DCS Remote's features. You'll also find more background information on the company's Web site about the design of the preamps and the decisions leading to the unit's final configuration.
The DCS Remote is a neat feat of industrial design (see Fig. 1). The analog unit provides connectivity and contains the power supply, and the digital unit provides a control panel with metering. The included 20-foot Cat-5 cable connects the two units. A longer Cat-5 or Cat-6 cable will allow them to operate up to 300 feet apart, with the digital half controlling the analog half. The cable carries digital data and power for the LEDs and the backlit VU meters.
In addition to two balanced XLR inputs and two balanced TRS line outputs, the I/O comprises a second pair of line outs to connect to monitors, a pair of line inputs (switchable between +4 dBu and -10 dBV) to connect to your recording system, and a ¼-inch stereo headphone jack (see Fig. 2). Two ¼-inch DI inputs become line-level inputs when you insert a TRS plug, and another TRS connector provides unbalanced 2-channel line outs at -10 dBV on the tip and ring. There's also a talkback output and yet another TRS line input for an unbalanced stereo signal.
Like the DI inputs, the preamp inputs and main line outputs serve different functions depending on how you use them. The control surface lets you specify whether you'll use the preamps separately (A-B), summed to a single output (A+B), or combined to derive a mid-side stereo signal using the onboard encoder (M-S). Consequently, the XLR inputs act as either channel A and B or as the mid and side inputs of an M-S stereo signal. You use both outputs for A-B and M-S modes, but only the channel A output for the summed A+B.
The control surface's very efficient design allows for another abundance of setup and routing possibilities. The wedge-shaped box is small and light enough to place on all kinds of surfaces without fear of damage. The VU meters, which sport the real-deal ballistics you'd expect to find on pro gear, are attached to a separate metal housing. This housing — I'm probably going to sound like a dork, but this really is the coolest — swivels to a locked position at either 15 degrees (flat in relation to the angled control surface) or 45 degrees, allowing users to optimize its viewability.
FIG. 2: The DCS Remote''s rear panel is jam-packed with enough connectivity to suit almost any studio application.
Within each of the A and B channel control sections are functions such as the DI switch, phase reverse, and 48V phantom power (which ramps the voltage up and down over a couple of seconds when turning on and off — another neat feature). You can configure the highpass filter to roll off frequencies below 30, 70, or 100 Hz.
Perhaps the most interesting control in the preamp section is each channel's Gain knob, which takes advantage of digital control over analog circuitry. I call it a knob because it's not a potentiometer; it is a remote control that lets you raise and lower the preamp gain as the digital display shows you precisely the amount of gain being applied in decibels. This design is quite different from a variable-resistance pot, which would be limited in its ability to exactly reproduce results (typically resulting in a user's reliance on visual matching using silk-screened lines, pieces of tape, and so on). In terms of repeatability, the DCS Remote's Gain knob is closer to stepped attenuators, which allow for the best possible audio path but can add significantly to a product's cost and size.
You can adjust the gain staging of the preamps using the Gain Trim and arrow buttons in the section between the preamp controls. The peak LED glows red when the signal reaches the gain you've set as your maximum level, and it glows yellow when the signal approaches the maximum. You can vary the level at which the yellow LED kicks on, up to 12 dB below the maximum. This middle section also has a Cue > VU button, which switches the metering between preamp level and cue mix level for playback and overdubs. In addition, this section provides buttons to switch between dual-mono, stereo, and M-S modes.
Being able to accurately display gain and control gain staging represents only a few of the many ways UA has exploited digital control to maximize the DCS Remote's functionality. You can further adjust a remarkable number of other control-surface features by simultaneously pushing and holding particular buttons; I will mention a few more, but the level of control is so extensive that it goes beyond the scope of this review. The ability to configure everything so thoroughly, and in such a fluid manner (once you can remember everything), leads me to believe that the designers thought of everything.
More of Me in the Mix?
The control surface's lower section comprises a fairly elaborate mixer with several functions specifically allotted for vocal overdubbing. Three knobs let you mix the levels of the A and B preamp channels and the C stereo line in to optimize the overdub's mix. An effects section features a digital reverb with nine presets, high and low bandpass filters at 14 kHz and 85 Hz, respectively, and a knob to adjust the effects level for the A and B channels. The reverb and filters allow vocalists to adjust their own mix to taste, and although sounds processed with effects aren't passed to the preamp outputs, you can record them from the speaker outputs if you want. Cue In Mute and Speaker Mute buttons let you silence those pathways, and by holding the buttons down, you can adjust line-out and cue-in levels. A handy talkback mic with an accompanying button completes this section. You can send the mic's output to the Talk Mic Out connector, the Cue Out, or both.
I really loved the ability to quickly get good effects settings for my own vocals. Having devoted long periods of time to getting usable headphone mixes for other vocalists, I find the mix section's reverb and filters to be great assets. They may not cover every vocalist's needs, but the DCS Remote's effects sound surprisingly good. And of course, you can also add external effects if you'd like.
Trial by Fire
Many times over the years, while recording myself in small two-room studio setups, I've had to run from room to room to fine-tune preamp levels. I've also done my share of peering through a control-room window to squint at a meter or a computer monitor ten or more feet away. As soon as I ran Cat-5 cables through the wall to connect the DCS Remote's two halves between rooms, I was literally hooked. The reliable metering made setup nearly instantaneous, resulting in nice, fat amplitude just shy of clipping. With a couple of Cat-5 cables and a method for quickly switching out XLRs, you can alternate from one room to another, from one mic to another, or from one dynamic level to another, within a minute or two.
On the less-than-stellar side, one thing I noticed is that the speaker line outs are somewhat noisy. Although they're completely usable and worthwhile for tracking, overdubbing, and so on, I would avoid using them for critical monitoring if possible. One feature I'd wish for is a phase-alignment mode for recording a single source with two mics spaced apart; it would be terrific if I could adjust the phase from 0 to 180 degrees while viewing a digital readout. Nonetheless, I was very impressed by the overall sound of the preamps (for details, see the online bonus material at www.emusician.com).
Sum of Its Parts
The DCS Remote Preamp is an amazingly comprehensive, great-sounding, and well-thought-out device. I need to own one, and if you're someone who records yourself and others, so do you.
Rich Wells runs the Supreme Reality, a recording studio in Portland, Oregon (http://thesupremereality.org).
DCS Remote Preamp
FEATURES5EASE OF USE4AUDIO QUALITY4VALUE5
RATING PRODUCTS FROM 1 TO 5
PROS: Great-sounding preamps. Comprehensive functionality and user controls. Competitive value.
CONS: Speaker outs somewhat noisy.
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