Joemeek VC1 Studio Channel
More than a mic preamp.
By Michael Molenda
Electronic Musician

It's always something, isn't it? In the pre-MDM days, home recordists looked at their four-tracks, sighed, and complained that they'd never break the "demo" barrier unless pro recording gear magically became affordable. When that miracle finally happened, the homies whined that high-class peripherals such as condenser mics and tube compressors remained out of reach. Today, just about every type of pro-audio tool is available in high-quality, affordable versions and that's still not good enough. Now, these never-satisfied recordists cry, "If only I had a classic Neve console I could really do some damage." Humph!

To be charitable, some frustration is warranted: classic, high-end mixers will remain out of the home set's reach for quite some time. But that doesn't mean that you can't upgrade the quality of your signal path until you can afford an SSL-just that you have to do it one mixer channel at a time. Individual input-channel strips, such as the Focusrite Green Series Channel Strip have brought the peerless audio quality of big studio consoles into the home studio without forcing users to seek small business loans. The portability factor is also a boon, as these channel strips require just one or two spaces on your equipment rack.

One of the hippest of these dedicated mic preamp/channel strips is the Joemeek VC1 Studio Channel. In addition to a mic preamp with 48V phantom power and a high-pass filter, the solid-state VC1 offers the wondrous Joemeek compressor (see "Squeeze Boxes" in the July 1996 EM for our evaluation of the Joemeek SC-2 compressor) and a signal enhancer. At $1,099, the VC1 is not a budget box, but if you crave magnificent, high-end sonics, the single-channel processor will drive you absolutely crazy with sensual timbres.

Although the VC1 is horizontally oriented, it follows the design scheme of vertical console channels by offering a sectionalized arrangement of preamp, compressor, and enhancer controls. All of the controls are well-constructed and quite sturdy: the knobs turn smoothly and the buttons operate with a tight "click." The large VU meter not only adds a nice retro touch to the design, it's also easy to see from most viewing angles.

If you mount the 2U device into a rack, front panel balanced XLR and balanced 1/4-inch inputs make it a snap to operate the VC1-you don't have to reach behind the unit when you switch from tracking vocals to tracking guitars. The balanced XLR and 1/4-inputs are duplicated on the back panel. Plugging into the front 1/4-inch input disables the rear input, which means that you can leave the rear panel, 1/4-inch input and balanced output connected to an insert cable for immediate use during mixdown. That's a pretty groovy ergonomic feature, as it's a major drag to constantly repatch equipment. The front and rear XLR inputs, however, are wired in parallel and only one connection may be used at a time.

The remaining rear panel I/O includes: a balanced 1/4-inch and a balanced XLR DI output that produces a -20 dB mic-level signal for live and studio use; an RCA link for joining two VC1s together for stereo processing; a 1/4-inch Mix In that allows you to combine effects or other outside processing with the VC1's mic or line input; and a 1/4-inch insert point that can be used to patch, say, a de-esser into the signal path.

Testing the VC1 mic preamp with a Neumann U 87, Shure SM57, Sennheiser MD 421, and a Rode Classic revealed that the preamp is consistently robust and pristine with dynamic and condenser mics of different flavors. Especially with condensers, the Joemeek preamp delivered a higher level of timbral clarity than usually evident from the average console mic preamp. Extremely subtle details such as the percussive snap of a fingernail on nylon guitar strings and the "airiness" of a performer's breathy vocal style were crystal clear when recorded through the VC1.

When tracking with most affordable, home-studio level consoles, slight EQ tweaks are typically required to flesh out those types of sonic details, but, with the VC1, we nabbed 'em without touching a single tone control. Practical noise levels were very quiet with all the mics tested. Even at "full out" settings, audible hiss was minimal enough to be masked by the overall soundscape. (Although on solo instruments such as flute and classical guitar, the hiss was noticeable enough to compromise soft passages.)

If there is anything that the Joemeek line knows, it's compression. The company makes some of the most blissfully aggressive "squeeze boxes" on the market, and the VC1's photo-optical compressor is worthy of its pedigree. The sound is warm and chunky, whether you lightly compress a signal to seat it into a track, or mangle it towards the 60s "spit and polish" tone that graces classic British rock and blues rock productions. For some, the domineering quality of the VC1's compression may be an acquired taste, but if you adore in-your-face vocals, guitars, drums, and basses, you'll find that the Joemeek method is absolutely brilliant.
The VC1's enhancer is like a "bonus" process-you may not dig it on everything, but it's there when you need to clarity a muddy or otherwise indistinct signal. Although the enhancer offers comprehensive control over the level of processing, the "Q" of the high-frequency harmonics, and the depth of the processed signal, it wasn't easy dialing in "enhancements" that complemented various signals. For example, most vocalists did not benefit from the high-end sheen, no matter how little of the effect was active. In fact, a slight, belligerent sibilance was added to the vocal timbre. On bass and drum tracks, however, the enhancer added a shimmer that helped the grooves punch through dense mixes. The process also improved submixed (i.e.-layered) guitar and keyboard tracks by adding dimension and crispness.
The evolution of the personal studio as a serious audio-production tool cannot be attributed solely to the availability of affordable, high-quality gear. The continuing sophistication of the home recordist's ears must also be given some credit.

Today's savvy tone sculptors, who-thanks to MDMs and hard-disk recorders-evaluate sound from a digital audio perspective, are extremely adept at recognizing subtle timbral colors. They are well-aware of the aspects of their home studios that don't cut the sonic mustard and they constantly strive to improve their signal chains. And that's where outboard gear becomes critical.
The recordist may be happy with his or her recorder and console, but finds that the shimmer and sparkle of pro-audio productions often can't be matched by inexpensive compressors, multi-effects, and mic preamps. Signal processors such as the Joemeek VC1 Studio Channel give the ambitious home recordist a fighting chance to produce magnificent sounds.

Used for recording direct-to-tape (or disk) or during the mix via an insert point, the VC1 delivers undeniably pro-studio audio quality. When tracking instrumental performances through identical mics, the VC1 tracks sounded clearer, punchier, and more dimensional than those recorded through the onboard preamps of various mixers. While the sonic improvements are admittedly subtle, subtle improvements are often the only discernible advantage whenever I've recorded rhythm tracks at big studios and then A-B'd them with rhythm tracks recorded at a well-equipped personal studio. And believe me, I'd feel a lot better about upgrading my signal path by spending $1,099(now$799.99) on the marvelous VC1, than I would about spending tens of thousands of dollars on a used Neve or Trident console.
Michael Molenda is an independent producer and studio owner whose work has been (somewhat) audible in the Michael Douglas-Sean Penn film, The Game, and the documentary We Hold the Rock.
Joemeek/PMI Audio Group (distributor)
tel. (310) 373-9129
fax (310) 373-4714
The Joemeek VC1 Studio Channel gives home recordists the aural benefits of a high-end mixing console by integrating a mic preamp, compressor, and enhancer in a 2U case.

Frequency Response 6 Hz-20 kHz
Line Gain -6 dB-24 dB
Mic Gain 15 dB-70 dB
Noise -125.5 dB (below input)
High-Pass Filter 25 Hz at 12 dB per octave
Compression Ratio 1.2:1 to 6:1
Attack 0.5 ms to 6 ms
Release 250 ms to 2.5 sec