Auditions: Snapshot Product Reviews

Jan 1, 2003 12:00 PM

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MILLENNIA LPE-2 ANALOG LEGACY

Archival Playback Equalizer

It's rare, but every now and then, someone makes something totally from the heart, out of a pure love for audio. That someone is Millennia's founder John La Grou, and that something is the LPE-2.

Referred to as a “playback environment,” the LPE-2 is intended for restoration pros, mastering engineers and audiophiles seeking a no-compromise front end for the playback of 33⅓ (RIAA), 45 and 78 rpm records. Behind the 29-pound chassis' thick slab front panel, Class-A J-FET and bipolar amps are combined with Grayhill mil-spec switches; Neglex OFC wiring; and passive components from Vishay, Roederstein/MELF, Wima and others. But the LPE-2 goes far beyond simply being a high-end stereo phono preamp.

The LPE-2 combines a preamp circuit (based on Millennia's acclaimed HV-3 mic preamp) with equalization-compensation circuitry designed for serious archivists. Two independently controllable channels of low-frequency compensation (boost) and 10 kHz HF roll-off allow users to quickly find a playback curve that matches any disk format. A preset for modern RIAA (essentially, post-1950) records is also provided. As a phono preamp for LPs, using either Shure V15 or Audio-Technica AT150MLX cartridges, the LPE-2 offered unparalleled performance, with an absolute purity, clarity and solid channel separation (channels are gain-matched within 0.08 dB!) that would satisfy any audiophile, especially with its 200 kHz bandwidth.

There are a number of fine RIAA preamps on the market. The real challenge stems from the playback of early recordings, when various pre-equalization curves (or none at all) were applied to releases from different labels. For example, if you play an acoustic 78 (mostly pre-1925) recording with a modern RIAA preamp, the result is bass heavy, with a noticeable loss of high frequencies. As a starting point, the LPE-2's well-written manual includes a chart of suggested pre-equalization settings from dozens of labels. From there, users can select from 49 preset compensation combinations. A custom user preset can also be created by swapping several fixed internal capacitors — a useful touch for anyone archiving a large catalog from one particular source.

Inputs and outputs are via gold-plated XLRs and RCA connectors, and the wide-ranging input stage handles line- or phono-level signals, including a balanced feed from a phono cartridge. Designer La Grou recommends the latter, and because the coils in a cartridge act like a transformer feed, modifying your turntable to add balanced XLR outs is fairly simple. I, however, stuck with the traditional RCA connections from my Esoteric Sound 78 disc player, equipped with an Audio-Technica AT-MONO3/SP moving-coil cart (unfortunately unavailable in the U.S.). The LPE-2 had no problem handling the cart's MC output.

After the preamp section, the LPE-2 offers versatile, peak/shelving-switchable, 2-band low (20 to 260 Hz) and high (1k to 12k Hz) filters with a ±10dB range to isolate or correct rumble, groove degradation and surface-noise problems. For pure “transfer-it-now/fix-it-later” applications, the filter use is optional — with hard-wire bypasses — but the filter action is so smooth, subtle and musical that I used them on almost everything I archived. Also, the LPE-2's line I/Os provide access to the filter section for tape mastering or any application that requires a sweet HF/LF program EQ, mixing drums, vocals, strings — just about anything — making the LPE-2 useful for everyday studio chores, even when you're not archiving.

Working on numerous projects over several months, I couldn't find anything to fault about the LPE-2, other than its $9,500 retail. However, the LPE-2 is an absolutely first-class unit that provides functions no other box can deliver, with impeccable performance and a feel and build (inside and out) that's stellar. For reference playbacks in mastering houses, audio preservationists or anyone else working with recording's legacy, the LPE-2 is bargain-priced indeed.

Millennia Music & Media Systems, 530/647-0750, www.mil-media.com.
George Petersen

KORG BX-3

Dual-Manual Combo Organ

It's ironic, but with all of our amazing synth sounds and elaborate outboard effects, songs often need organ, which has kept the unmistakable touch of the classic tone-wheel organs — such as the Hammond B3 family — as a regular staple on rock, jazz, blues, R&B and pop albums over the past 50 years. To be sure, the original Bs are amazing, but the upkeep and maintenance on a 400-plus-pound vintage instrument can put a serious dent in one's wallet.

Korg successfully captured the nuances of a tone-wheel organ in 1979, with its first series of CX-3 (single-manual) and BX-3 (dual-manual) keyboards. These provided very good tone recreations for their time, but lacked MIDI, programmable presets and amp emulations, and advanced control of nuances such as key click and (on the BX-3 only) assignable pitch/mod wheels. Now, Korg offers totally new versions of its long-discontinued CX-3 and BX-3. The new CX-3 is the single-manual version in a compact chassis; the new BX-3 (tested here) includes a matching wooden floor stand. Both new products are quite different from their predecessors, yet share the same name.

The BX-3 has dual manuals with 61 keys each, full polyphony and a very natural feel. Two sets of nine drawbars can be assigned to either manual; these do a super job of recreating the touch and effect of real drawbars, while a Key Scaling feature can quickly alter the drawbar setting's tonality, offering quick variations. The drawbars, vibrato/chorus and percussion switches are in the same familiar positions as the original.

Onboard REMS speaker/amp/reverb-modeling technology includes a credible rotary speaker sound (including full control of rotor speeds, ramp up/down times and simulated mic positioning), along with four reverbs and a Dynamic Overdrive mode, which distorts more as the volume goes up. Alternatively, users can select a tube amp/rotary speaker effect or preamp out to connect to a Motion Sound rotary cabinet or real Leslie (¼-inch only — no 6/9/11-pin jacks).

The best part of the BX-3 is its sound. Korg's Tone Wheel Organ-Modeling Generator builds on the B3 sound, adding vintage and clean tone wheel sounds, while mimicking the tone wheel's overtone levels, “leakage” and key-click (dirty key contact) effects, which vary from slight to sledgehammer. An EX Mode links all 18 drawbars for a full 13 tonal harmonics and up to five variable percussion harmonics on the upper manual, with two software drawbars available on the lower.

Standard are 128 (user-editable) programs — most are excellent, particularly the jazz, R&B and gospel settings. Some are uneven, such as “Whyter Shade,” a rendition of the sound used on “A Whiter Shade of Pale.” Yet this classic “knuckle preset” is easy: Put a fist in front of each drawbar set, pull them down around your hand to form curves and you've got that sound. Creating, editing and saving presets to memory is a snap, and the BX-3's deep MIDI implementation not only allows layering notes to other instruments, but also transmits the movements of all drawbars and controls as MIDI data for storage and offline editing via a sequencer.

The BX-3 retails at $4,000, including an expression pedal and wooden stand. The organ removes easily from the stand via a few thumbscrews, although the 40-pound stand isn't really built for road life. Gigging players should get a separate folding stand for one-nighters. But onstage or in the studio, the BX-3 offers that classic tone-wheel sound with less weight, less hassle and more fun than the original.

Korg, 516/333-9100, www.korg.com.
George Petersen

RØDE NT1-A

Cardioid Studio Mic

To celebrate its parent company's 35th year in pro audio, Australia's RØDE Microphones has issued an improved version of its best-selling microphone, the NT1. The new NT1-A (the “A” stands for “anniversary model”) comes from pairing the true condenser (externally polarized), 1-inch-diameter, gold-sputtered capsule from the original NT1 with J-FET surface-mount electronics modeled on RØDE's NT1000 for an entirely new creation, with a personality of its own, an impressive 5dBA self-noise spec and a new nickel-finish body.

The mic retails at a low $349 and includes an effective shockmount and vinyl pouch in a cardboard box. There's no fancy wood coffin or “flight case” here: The purchase price goes into components that affect performance. One unexpected — but appreciated — touch was an extra set of elastic cording for the shockmount. The NT1-A is versatile for many studio applications and will get a lot of use, and somewhere down the road — or on the road — you'll need spare elastics, so it's nice that RØDE provides these up front. A few frills eliminated from the NT1-A include pads and roll-off filters, but the mic handles 137 dB — enough for most sources where a large-diaphragm mic is normally used.

I began testing the NT1-A about three feet back from a Gibson J160 acoustic with an Aphex 1100 preamp and was impressed by the mic's natural, uncolored sound and seemingly total lack of noise. I'm sure the 1100's -135dB EIN spec contributed to this, but the combo of the two was quite nice. Unlike many condensers, the NT1-A has a mostly flat response, without exaggerated presence boosts; it peaks at 4 dB around 12 kHz and then very gradually rolls off to 2.5 dB at 20 kHz. With the NT1-A, what you hear in the room is very close to what the mic captures: There were no timbre shifts at all, even on grand piano.

On vocals, I switched to a Groove Tubes VIPRE preamp, which has plenty of personality and a larger-than-life sound that vocalists love. The combo was great — on male or female lead vocals — although on female background voices, I reached for a bit of high boost to add more of an “airy” feel. The plosives control from the mesh grille is very good — you may not even need a pop filter if your vocalist stays back six inches. The NT1-A has a very controlled proximity effect that adds fullness, but is not overbearing until the lips are two to three inches from the mic. Narrators and radio voices will also love the NT1-A, especially if they know how to “work” the mic.

The NT1-A is a versatile, all-around studio mic that's ideal for the novice or pro, and at $349, there are few reasons not to get one — or a pair — for your mic cabinet.

RØDE Microphones, 310/328-7456, www.rodemic.com.
George Petersen

DISC MAKERS ELITEPRO

Desktop CD-R Publisher

Duplicating and printing bulk batches of CD-Rs has never been easier. The new ElitePro from Disc Makers is a complete stand-alone system that can be configured to handle a multitude of CD-R copy, burn and print chores. The unit ships with an Intel-based CPU, Plextor 48x CD-R (Pioneer AO5 DVD-R and DVD+R versions are also available), color printer and the company's “Center-Pick” autoloading mechanism. The system arrives preloaded with Windows XP, Padus DiscJuggler software and Sure Thing CD Labeler. The CD-R version is $4,690, and the DVD-R version is $5,290. (Units without CPU, monitor and keyboard are $3,790 and $4,290, respectively.)

Setting up the unit is a breeze. All of the mouse, keyboard, monitor and other connections are totally standard and self-explanatory. The printer slides into a recessed area atop the CPU, and the articulating arm that moves the CD-Rs from the duplicator to the printer installs in seconds, requiring only one wired connection.

After powering up, the icons for DiscJuggler and Sure Thing appear onscreen. The DiscJuggler software is simple to use: First-timers are led through a series of prompts that remove any guesswork from the procedure. There are several copy-and-burn options available that range from simple duplication of an existing CD to burning files stored on another drive. The software includes controls for the overall number of discs to be burned, quality-control safeguards and label-printing controls. Pre-existing labels can be imported into the program, allowing the burning and printing processes to work in tandem. Anyone with even a cursory knowledge of Microsoft Word or Publisher will have no problem using the Sure Thing application to create custom labels or navigate through its myriad templates.

The ElitePro takes about 12 minutes to copy the contents of a CD into its cache memory and churn out the first CD. From there, the process picks up considerably. For a full run of 125 CD-Rs, most users will want to set the unit in motion and leave it to complete the task over the course of an evening or workday. The 20 CD-Rs/hour stated speed is right on the mark. The quality-control safeguards worked well, immediately recognizing damaged CD-Rs and setting them aside. As a Mac user, I only had difficulty configuring the printer, but a quick glance through the manual had me up and running in minutes.

The ElitePro would be a great investment for any professional studio, A&R department or independent musician who needs to turn around bulk CD-Rs or press kits. Best of all, the system's cost will pay for itself after just a few print runs.

Disc Makers, 800/468-9353, www.discmakers.com/duplication.
Robert Hanson






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