"The Bigger the Knob, the Bigger the Sound!"
The Universal Audio 6176 is a beast. Period. Actually, I'll admit that this was the assumed opinion I had of the unit before I ever used it. After having used one in session, I have modified that opinion to be that the 6176 is a piece of gear that I never want to record without again. In fact, I want a rack full of them! While it is not a panacea for recording every bit of audio we might encounter, I feel that every engineer or project studio owner will find themselves gravitating to using either the 610 mic pre/eq or the 1176LN compressor if it's available to them. And many will do what I did and just use them together most all of the time. The results are fantastic, especially if you are after that classic vintage sound.
The 610 Microphone Preamplifier/Equaliser
After listening to it's sonic resume, it is easy to hear why the 610 preamp from the console at Western Recorders has been sought after for years by engineers and musicians who were crafty enough as detectives to find out where the console and various modules had scattered off to. My first listen to Pet Sounds by the Beach Boys made me want that sound! It is full. It is clear and fat. Most of all, it is DEEP. My experience with the 610 portion of the 6176 confirmed my assumptions while also giving me some new ideas about the preamp and how to use it. The instrument jack is a definite plus for bass players and for keyboard players looking to beef up their sound.
The front panel is striking. The first thing that catches your attention is the big knob that controls the "fine" gain of the pre amp. A smaller knob off to the upper left is a coarse gain potentiometer. One really fantastic feature of the 610 is that it allows the user to select between varying input impedences while switching between inputs. The microphone selector allows you select between 500 ohms or 2k ohms. For those among us who are very serious about proper uses of gear, you will be comforted by this. Those among us who look at this as another tonal option on the road to getting a sound that fits the song will be delighted by this feature. The Hi-Z (instrument) input also has this type of tonal/level variation/deviation, depending upon how you look at it. The 47k ohms setting is suited for -10dB level signals, while the 2.2M ohms setting is desgned for passive magnetic pickups. Feel free to experiement with this since your instrument's output may fall in the range between the two. No harm will be inflicted upon your 6176 as a result of your experimentation. If it doesn't sound just right, simply try the other setting.
The next thing that I discovered is that the preamp has an eq on it! It's not a very flexible eq since there are only two knobs and two switches; one of each for high and low frequency ranges respectively. The three way switches select frequency while the stepped potentiometers (or knobs) boost or attenuate the gain by up to as much as +/-9dB over 5 steps in either direction from flat, or 0. While it is not as flexible as say, the eq on a Neve eq or a Manley Massive Passive, it's very basic characteristics and it's extremely musical results reminded me that we as engineers are here to capture the sound that is presented to us. It becomes quite apparent that when Bill Putnam, Sr. designed the eq, that the common sonic problems he was facing at the source was most likely an "overall" overload or lack of high-end or low-end frequencies. The eq handles that problem brilliantly and the end result sounds as if there is no eq at all. It's really a fantastic solution.
The 1176LN Compressor
My experience as an independent engineer and a number of years as a technical audio engineer at Clinton Recording Studios in New York City, has benefitted from a long-standing love-affair with the Urei 1176LN compressor. I have dug deep into these wonderfully furry-sounding units to replace the capacitors in several vintage UREI 1176LN D and E models, which the Universal Audio model faithfully and accurately recreate. THe gents at Universal Audio had a brilliant idea to combine the two of these units into a single channel strip that allows both units to be used together with a shortened signal path, or you can use them as completely separate units; great for a recording studio looking to conserve rack space. The 610 preamp is available as the single mic-pre M610 or as the dual channel 2610. To create this model, UA has compacted the 1176LN into half of a two rack space unit. Again that cosmetic redesign gives all of us the chance to save some rack space for other units, but UA took advantage of the opportunity to redesign a couple of components that I always felt were weak spots of the original design.
The most significant of the changes in the compacted 1176LN is the replacement of the pushbutton array that controlled ratios on the originals and the recreation. The pushbutton can be delicate and can be damaged - especially when an engineer would utilize that famous ALL setting where you push ALL of the buttons in. You literally have to fight that array and trick it into allowing you to get all the buttons in. Havoc is reeked! Now there is a stepped rotary potentiometer that has an ALL setting as well as adding a unit bypass intuitively labeled BP on said knob. This is a great feature when you've got the spaghetti-patch-bay thing happening and don't want to have to dive in and repatch your signal chain, or you just need to stop compressing quickly.
How did I use it?
I took the 6176 for a spin in Sweetwater Studio B which is outfitted with a Digidesign ProTools HD3 Accel system fronted with a Digidesign Control24 feeding a Digidesign 192io. I bypassed the Control24 and patched directly into the inputs of the 192io. I decided on an Audio Technica AT4047 to capture the sound of a Gibson Hummingbird. Immediately the sound was very vintage, prompting me to tune to open G and lay down my best Jimmy Page playing "That's the Way" from Led Zeppelin III. Though it wasn't the same preamp used as on the original recording (it was a Helios, I believe...) the results were very pleasing. The attack was very clean and further dynamically balanced out with a 4:1 ratio on the 1176LN. As stated earlier, this guy is big and boomy - especially with a large diaphragm mic capturing an acoustic guitar. So, I did roll off at the mic and the results were still big, but were now very natural and pleasing to the ear.
After playing that back and feeling like I had given Jimmy a run for his money, I decided to write an acoustic based song on the spot and then record some vocals, electric guitar and then lay down some bass. Again, the 6176 came through brilliantly. For vocals I used a Neumann U-87 and reverted to the AT4047 to record a Gibson ES-335 feeding a Fender VibroKing.
The vocals never required a bit of eq after tracking. In fact. I recorded them flat with roughly the same settings on the 1176LN as were on the acoustic. By this time I am thinking that the 6176 can't make an unpleasant sound unless it's given one by the user, and even then it's going to make that more musical. I had a cold that day and it even helped me sound good under those stuffy headed conditions!
By the time I got to tracking the electric guitar, I was beginning to think that the eq was most likely designed for use in recording drums or for compensating a poor mic selection. Honestly, I never needed to use it. Either I am a genius engineer or the 6176 just makes everything sound good. I tend to humbly think it's the latter of the two. The one thing that really became apparent was that the pre-amp really captured that "set back" sound that I have always tried to capture but never really had been able to with a Neve preamp. Neves tend to be very up front and feature-prone; certainly not a bad thing. It's just a different flavor. However, the differences in flavor almost seem more like comparing Haagen Daas to Ben & Jerry's than like comparing strawberry to vanilla. But in this case, I feel that the two different flavors can be used together for a wider palette than just making a runny ice-cream pileup.
However, I digress...
The electric suddenly sounded like it was on a classic recording, carefully tucked back in the mix to sparingly compliment the flat picked acoustic line. I was amazed by how this suddenly didn't sound like digital recordings that I am familiar with. Could it be that the front-end is one of the most important investments a studio can make? I already knew the answer to this, but I love it when a concept so fundamental to good sound gets solid reinforcement such as that which the 6176 can produce.
The only time that I felt a bit of a challenge getting a sound was when it came to laying down the bass track. I used a Fender Custom Shop Time Machine series 64 Jazz Bass with a Closet Classic finish, since I know the sound of that particular bass. Again, the 610 is BIG and it's enthusiasm is sometimes hard to reel in. How does it sound on bass? Well, listen to Pet Sounds. The bass sound on that album is one of the most enormous tones found anywhere. As for my favorite tone, I traditionally have preferred taking the bass via direct into a Neve module (a 31105 was what I was used to using, but the Vintech X73 or X73i will so faithfully recreate a Neve's sound that you'll swear it's a Neve), then onto an 1176LN and then a Pultec EQP-1A. With the variable gain-staging you can achieve through that signal chain, you can make it sound very furry and defined. The preamp needs some added top end. I chose to add around +6dB at the 7kHz setting. The bandwidth of the curve is very wide, so it really began to sound just like it should. Perhaps, this was the reason for including the eq on the preamp module. The deficiency of high end could be attributable to the direct circuit. However, as I stated earlier, the eq more than adequately handles this and it should not be a disqualifier for against this unit at all. The 6176 does so many things so well and can fix it's own shortcomings that it is still a super hero among superheros of classic audio. I can see this unit being used by session players and live players who want to put the 6176 in front of a power amp and speaker stack. The price tag will discourage most bass players from that particular application, but for some it will be the perfect solution for their sound.
It's a beast! Again, I want a rack full of them! If you just need two preamps, Universal Audio has the 2-610 in the same type configuration. Also, they have recently started shipping the 2-1176 with 2 of the same reconfigured 1176 modules in the same space that we only used to be able to fit one 1176LN. Regardless, the 6176 is the perfect solution for the home studio owner who is tired of wimpy sound or who is tired fighting pre amps that are too "in your face" and needs a smoother preamp. Also, it is perfect for the pro studio that has a great console but needs to add to their palette arsenal. Also, it never hurts to have another 1176LN around. But perhaps the best application is for the new digital studio that is likely not to purchase a console but a variety of pre amps and channel strips for it's front end. With everyone going tube and transformer crazy these days, this box is a must have. It just doesn't get any cooler than this. Big, dumb knobs are all over this thing as well as a VU and a purple power light. And you know what they say "The Bigger the Knob, The Bigger The Sound."