Hands-On Review:Saturate your sound without draining your wallet!



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By Michael K. Dennison

 

There was a time when analog ruled the world. Sure, the debates raged over whether tubes or transistors sounded better, but in the studio, the only microchips in evidence were the left-over bits at the bottom of the guitarist’s bag of Fritos. Then came the digital audio revolution and the birth of the CD. While most listeners enjoyed the freedom from the pops, scratches, and crackles of vinyl, discerning ears missed the warmth and openness of analog recordings.


Click hereYou’re getting warmer
Clever engineers developed processors that could re-create the subtle, musical distortions inherent in an analog signal chain, and “vintage” analog tube gear took on a new life. Of course, along with this new life came a higher price and only the well-heeled home studio owner could afford to get that coveted “tube tone.”


Then in 1996, ART shook things up with their breakthrough pr oduct, the Tube MP Microphone Pre-amp. Musicians and engineers instantly recognized the value of this pre and made it an instant hit. Mix magazine—you know, those guys that always feature the mega-studio of the month on their cover—even nominated it for their prestigious TEC Award that year. Since then, it has become the most popular external tube mic pre-amp in the world!


Start at the beginning
The Tube MP is a straight-ahead, no-frills tube pre-amp that features—above all—pro-quality sound. A single 12AX7A tube drives the gain stage of this petite powerhouse (over 60dB of gain!) from crystal-clean to buttery-smooth. It also offers 48V phantom power and a polarity-reversal switch, making it a valuable addition to virtually any studio. Most budget mixers scrimp on the pre-amp stage, so adding a Tube MP is like upgrading your board, one channel at a time. That the Tube MP does this for well under a hundred bucks is practically miraculous!


ART, realizing the need for tube processing that delivers vastly improved sound at a more-than-reasonable cost, developed a full line of mic pre-amps based on the original Tube MP. They all feature the characteristic Tube MP sound, with cool new twists added to each new product.


The tabletop line
With the Tube MP firmly entrenched, the next step was the Tube MP Studio with a switchable Output Protection Limiter (OPL) and the added benefit of a large, lighted VU meter, allowing more effective fine tuning of the audio signal. By adding OPL to control and maintain the output signalmusicians could drive the tube stage to big fat fullness while hard-disk recording systems, sound cards, and our ears were spared the dreaded sound of digital distortion! Rackmountable versions also made their appearance, highlighted by the single-space Dual MP delivering the equivelent of two Tube MPs in a single-space rack unit. Clearly, ART was on to a good thing. Fortunately for the rest of us, their engineers weren’t quite ready to retire!


Click hereThe V3 difference
ART’s latest group of products includes the Tube Pre-amp System, DI/O Pre-amp System, and Tube MP Studio V3 and all feature their latest innovation, Variable Valve Voicing (V3). This stepped control selects from 16 presets that provide a combination of tube voicings and compression levels. These presets are divided into four categories. Neutral settings deliver a natural, dynamic sound that’s designed to work well with vocals, acoustic guitar, bass, and any other source that calls for a clean tone. The next four presets are a little warmer and are voiced for keyboard, guitar, microphone, and “valve,” an all-purpose warm setting. The third group adds increasing degrees of OPL circuitry to tame the transients and dynamics of vocals, acoustic guitar, and piano. “Multi,” this group’s generic tube/compressor setting, gives you medium warmth and light compression, suitable for all occasions. The final four presets are neutral, only adding increasing degrees of limiting. This is the group you’ll turn to for maintaining crystal clarity while taming wild dynamics, spiky transients, and loud sounds. Once you’ve dialed in a sound that works best for your situation, you can then tweak the sound to perfection with the gain and output levels to get exactly the tones you seek.


Do you do the DI/O?
Before writing this review, I was familiar with ART’s Tube MP Studio—I have both the Tube MP and MP Studio—but had yet to hear their V3 products. Fortunately, I was able to acquire a DI/O Pre-amp System test unit from Musician’s Friend. This is identical to ART’s Tube Pre-amp System with the addition of built-in A/D conversion. In the process of tracking a bass part, I was able to experiment with the V3 voicing technology. I was impressed with both the quality of the sound and the range of tonal variation I could dial in with this thing. I tried Flat, Neutral Bass, Warm Valve, and Neutral OPL Bass, and each setting had a very smooth and distinct character. And for my setup, the digital output was an added benefit —I was able to take the S/PDIF output into my digital mixer and stay digital all the way through the mastering stage!


Summing up
ART set a high standard with the original Tube MP, and with each successive release, they’ve raised that bar. It’s hard to find another pre-amp that has the features, flexibility, sound, and value that the Tube MP family enjoys. And after having had a chance to play through the DPS, I’ve added it to my list of “must-have” processors.


Features & Specs:

Tube MP

  • 12AX7A tube
  • 70dB gain
  • Balanced I/O
  • 1/4" and XLR jacks
  • I/O level controls
  • + 48V phantom power
  • Phase reverse switch


Tube MP OPL

  • Same as the Tube MP
  • Plus OPL limiting


Tube MP Studio

  • Plus lighted VU meter
  • Same as the MP OPL


Tube MP Studio V3

  • Same as MP Studio
  • Plus V3 technology (Variable Valve Voicing)


Tube Pre-amp System (TPS)

  • Same as 2 Tube MP Studio V3s
  • Single rackmount package


DI/O Pre-amp System (DPS)

  • Same as TPS
  • Adds digital output