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Focusrite VoiceMaster Pro Review

Plan to be amazed.

Today, musicians operating small studios in basements or garages make thousands of excellent recordings each year. The Focusrite VoiceMaster Pro directly addresses this growing market with affordable pricing, intuitive controls, and generous attention to the special needs of less-than-perfect soundproofing. The 2U rack also sports exciting, colorful LED and meter displays that will bring oohs and ahhs from anyone sitting with you in the control room. You will be pleased to discover that the controls make it easy to succeed. The straight-up, vertical knob positions usually generate good results; no one need be intimidated by highly specialized, technical jargon (a musical ear and a little bravado are all you need). All of the VoiceMaster Pro’s eight process stages are implemented competently and professionally, but its “Vintage Harmonics” section will stun you. Plan to be amazed.

Focusrite opens their show with a nice variety of modern inputs. XLR mic and 1/4″inch jacks are provided on both the back and front of the rack. A front-panel switch allows you to select the classic Hi-Z instrument input on the front or the auto-sensing balanced/unbalanced line rear jack. The 48-volt phantom power to both mic inputs is switchable on the front panel.

The input stage provides a straightforward 30-400hz sweepable high-pass filter (rumble-remover), a phase reversal switch and a line/instrument level switch. The inputs are clear-sounding, clean and yet warm — a hallmark of Rupert Neve circuit design still evident throughout the VoiceMaster Pro’s stages. Setting the gain control is plain ol’ fun with the help of a fast and friendly strip of LEDs.

Immediately following the input section is the Optical* Expander, with threshold and release controls. Think of this stage as a pre-recording, general noise clean up. If you have a problem with unwanted noise, this is an easy, unobtrusive solution. An “IN” switch lights to indicate when the expander is functioning, but your eye will jump to the bright green LEDs showing just how much the expander is ridding your signal of extraneous noise. Your ear will easily inform you of the correct settings for each of the controls, even if you do not have the technical knowledge of a lifelong engineering student. As with all the VoiceMaster Pro controls, you should start with everything pointing straight up and work from there. Chances are good you will wind up right back at the top.

* Opto behavior in compressors is considered the classic style. The action of the compressor is fast when signal strength is far from zero. As the meter moves toward zero, the compressor release times slow appropriately. “Opto” refers to light-sensitive (optical) control resistors used in the original opto circuits.

The Star
Now introduce the real star of the show, Focusrite’s own Vintage Harmonics! (Cheer wildly, please.) If that seems too much of a build up over just another processor stage in an inexpensive preamp, then clearly, you do not own one yet. When Focusrite or anyone else first explains the concept behind Vintage Harmonics, it seems like a simple, moderately cool idea. But in reality, this is the power to shape sound so radically and so easily, once you try it, you must have it. You probably shouldn’t test one of these unless you’ve got the cash to go for it. If you try one, you are going feel like there is a huge hole in your studio until you have one of your own. Consider yourself warned.

Vintage Harmonics as a concept is almost quaint. Twenty-five or more years ago, recording engineers would sometimes encode vocal tracks with Dolby NR, and then turn off the Dolby unit for playback. It was a common trick made popular by Queen. If you have never done this, it’s worth digging out an old cassette deck just to try it. Cassette Dolby is a little different than studio Dolby, but you’ll get the idea. Back in the day, Queen added compression, limiting and such, to get their signature hard-biting vocals, but they started with the Dolby trick. If you want to sound like Queen, VoiceMaster Pro can help you get that sound – assuming you can sing, of course. But that is just the first layer of cool on the tip of the iceberg.

The Vintage Harmonics stage has two threshold controls, one for lo-band harmonics and one for hi-band harmonics. There is a powerful depth switch and chain-placement switch that allows you to move the entire Vintage Harmonics section from its place before the EQ and place it post-EQ instead. This is useful if you don’t want your EQ settings acting on your custom-set harmonics. It is one of the many subtle variations that go far beyond the original, clever, old Dolby trick. Once again, start with everything straight-up and work from there. Here are a couple of ideas:

* For delicate enhancement of female lead vocals, try using mild to middle upper band threshold settings while turning the lower band nearly off. You get two eye-catching LED strips to help you visualize what your ears are telling you.

* For a truly amazing electric guitar, useful in pop, R&B and country, try sending a clean guitar into the instrument input on the front panel. Use lots of threshold in both bands of Vintage Harmonics. Use the heavy depth setting. Your guitars will develop a bite that will really punch up your tracks!

The next section in the VoiceMaster Pro is its Optical Compressor. Simplified controls mean fast, easy setups for you. You won’t be fishing through a manual to figure out all the routings and multiplier settings while the vocalist is getting nervous. Again, start with everything pointed straight-up and then twiddle away. The compressor section does not sound great as a limiter, so don’t count on it in that role. Standard vocal or instrumental compression is very nice however, and it won’t take you long to find really great settings for an individual performer.

Like many new generation pres, the VoiceMaster Pro provides a “Tube Sound” warmer. This one is better than most. It does have the ability to warm up a vocal signal without cluttering it with audible distortion …another useful link in the chain.

Supporting Cast
If the Vintage Harmonics section is the star of this show, the Voice Optimised EQ certainly deserves a close second billing. Young engineers struggle for years to develop the right instincts for EQ. The Focusrite development team has once again done their homework and eased the load for everyone else. They correctly name the controls, “Breath”, “Mid”, “Absence” and “Warmth”. Everything makes sense to the intuitive and thoughtful musician. You don’t need twenty years of engineering experience to understand a VoiceMaster Pro. Use “Breath”, along with its range switch to add sheen and breath to both male and female vocals. Use “Mid” to add a little bite. “Absence” will remove harshness, and “Warmth” adds volume and depth – remarkably, without sounding muddy. If EQ has been your own personal issue, the VoiceMaster Pro will help you become good, fast. It’s hard to mess up with this unit!

We come now to a fork in the road. On the rear panel, you may take the line-level (+4db) signal at this point without further processing. Be advised if you take this choice, you cannot control the output level from the front panel. Your signal attenuation will have to come from somewhere else. The good news is that this signal is very clean and bright. So if you want to move into some other processors, now’s the time.

Clean Up
If you choose to stay with the VoiceMaster Pro all the way to the final output, you come next to the De-Esser. If you used the Vintage Harmonics section of the VoiceMaster Pro, chances are good you will need to de-ess. While Focusrite hails the De-Essser as a marvel, that may be overstated. The VoiceMaster Pro’s De-Esser seems to do the job well enough if you are using a tube mic for your input signal. The de-esser does brilliantly with the Neumann U-87, but not so well with Blue’s Baby Bottle. The Groove Tube AM-62 sounds just fine with the VoiceMaster Pro de-esser, but not the Audix SCX-25. The VoiceMaster Pro de-esser does seem to stumble a bit with condenser mics. With tube mics, it appears to work just fine.

The Finale
The output stage is dressed beautifully in a striking blue meter that moves with precise, perfect dampening. You won’t need to glue your eye to this gem. An occasional glance reassures that all is well: “Big Blue” – a meter you can trust. Next to Big Blue is the “Process Bypass” switch to allow for A/B comparisons of your processed and original signals.

The final output also provides a neat little zero-latency, micro-monitoring system for the engineer in the big studio or the musician in the home studio. This mini-monitor features overall volume, a mix/signal ratio knob, and even an effects loop. Monitoring seems to be a big problem for small home studios. This should solve it for most.

Program Notes
Focusrite’s VoiceMaster Pro preamp is a competent, well-executed pre for serious high-end audio, that effectively welcomes novice recording enthusiasts. The VoiceMaster Pro’s thoughtful, success-oriented control network is nothing less than brilliant. In particular, the Voice Optimised EQ is perfectly suited to a more musical, less technical person. Vintage Harmonics processing is destined to become another indispensable tool for recording musicians, especially vocalists and guitarists. The VoiceMaster Pro can claim a rightful place in your rack among similarly capable, but usually much more expensive equipment. It especially shines when paired with tube mics. Life-long engineers will feel quite at home with the VoiceMaster Pro, but equally important, so will everyone else.

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