For close to fifteen years PreSonus has been outfitting studios and musicians with gear that ranges from the budget to the boutique-computer interfaces, signal processors, monitor controllers, mic pres, mixers and more.
This month we look at the company's newest signal processor: The Studio Channel. It's a channel strip that starts with a Class-A vacuum tube microphone preamp and follows that with a VCA-based compressor and a 3-band equalizer.
PreSonus already makes a well-respected channel strip called the Eureka (reviewed in our September 2004 issue), and while the Eureka and the Studio Channel do share similar layout and functions, the big difference is that the Eureka is solid state while the Studio Channel is tube-based device, using a 12AX7 tube (as do the PreSonus TubePre and BlueTube DP).
The Studio Channel's stylish midnight-blue metal chassis is solid and should easily handle the stress of day-to-day use. Its rotary knobs are firm, and while I would not call them "stepped" like you find on some higher-end gear, they are click-detented for easy recall. Every button is smooth and brightly backlit.
Rear connections and front-panel controls
Found on the back of the unit, input is a straightforward choice of either an XLR microphone or 1/4" line in. Output is a choice of balanced TRS or XLR jacks.
Power is handled by an external DC wall wart, and there is an expansion slot for the future addition of digital output card (currently in planning). The Studio Channel, unlike the Eureka, has no individual inputs and outputs for each of its three sections, nor is there an external send/return loop.
The tastefully color-coded fascia (green pushbuttons, white rotary pot knobs, orange VU meter and associated two knobs) is clearly delineated into—from left to right—the Tube Preamplifier, Compressor, VU meter, Parametric Equalizer, and an overall Master Level knob (–80 to +10 dB).
Tube Preamplifier: This section on the far left sports a 1/4" TS Instrument input jack (not for line-level signals, only for direct connection of a high-impedance signal like guitar or bass-plugging into this jack bypasses the mic preamp). A Gain knob regulates input gain of the XLR Mic input and the 1/4" Instrument input (44 dB of variable gain, from +10 dB to +54 dB), and a Tube Drive knob controls how much of the input signal is routed into the tube stage. Above, four pushbuttons switch in or out phantom power, polarity reversal, 20 dB pad, and highpass filter to roll off low end below 80 Hz by 12 dB.
Compressor: The full-featured compressor section has rotary pot knobs for Threshold (–40/+20), Ratio (1:1 to 10:1), Attack (0.1 to 200 ms), Release (0.05 ms to 3 S), and Make-Up Gain (±10 dB). Pushbuttons switch in or out the following: Soft Knee (In)/Hard Knee (Out) compression curves, Auto Attack/Release (disables the A/R knobs and invokes a factory-preset response), EQ-pre-comp (In) or EQ-post-comp (Out), GR>Meter (causes the VU meter to show either the compressor's gain reduction or the Studio Channel's output level), and Bypass (of the compressor section).
Metering: The VU meter is big and bright and can be switched between gain reduction and overall output monitoring.
Equalizer: The three-band parametric equalizer offers the following controls: Two rotary controls each for Low and High, three for Mids, and two pushbuttons. The Gain is the same for all three, at –10 to +10 dB. The Freq knobs are Low 20–300 Hz, Mid 200 Hz to 3 kHz, High 2 kHz–20 kHz. The Mid band also has a Q knob, fully sweepable from 0.7 to 2.5. Both the low and high bands offer a push-button choice of fixed 0.7 peak or shelving Q. The equalizer, just like the compressor, can also be bypassed.
The sound of the strip
The big question, how does it all sound? The mic pre sounds quite good and is a step up from most preamps found in current budget mixers and in most entry level USB and FireWire recording interfaces.
I compared it to the Mackie Onyx preamps, which are found in mixers and FireWire interfaces bearing the Onyx name. I have always held the Onyx in high regard as one of the best pres you can buy before making the jump into the $1k and above range.
Overall, the mic pre on the Studio Channel it as not as thick or full as the Onyx, yet it was a touch more open. Also, as you add Tube Drive the Studio Channel takes on a much more aggressive and pleasantly forward character (which the Onyx cannot do, of course), thereby adding another useful sound to your palettte.
The Studio Channel's compressor section is of the controlled-presence variety and is great for getting strong even signals into your DAW. Its broad ratio range was gentle enough for lightly strummed acoustic guitar, smooth enough for crooned vocals and stern enough for DI'd Fender Jazz bass. However, it is not really a pump-and-vibe piece like many more expensive compressors.
For those of that are spoiled by 10-band plug-in equalizers the eq section may seem a tad rudimentary with only three bands to play with, but this makes it similar in style and layout to many vintage channel strips and eqs.
While there are a few budget mixers out there with a fourth band and a tad more control, the Studio Channel's eq is still quite useful for sculpting and massaging your tone on the way in to your DAW, especially when you consider that most DAW interfaces don't offer any eq at all.
The Studio Channel works fine with a variety of microphones both dynamic and condenser, but with low-level ribbon mics (like a Royer R-121), I did have to push the ins and outs pretty hard and the end result was a touch too noisy for my taste. The Eureka, with its variable input impedance, might be a better choice for ribbons.
I especially found the Studio Channel to be an excellent front end for DI'd acoustic and bass guitars. The combination of Tube Drive, compression, and eq added a presence and life that you just cannot get when running these instruments direct into a mixer, or worse yet, your average DAW interface.
The Studio Channel works so well as an instrument DI, it could have made a great personal practice device. Because of this I was surprised at the omission of a simple headphone output.
Gain staging in a channel strip can be a bit tricky for a beginner. Depending on where, when and how you boost your signal or frequency levels, things can get noisy pretty quickly.
If this is your first time with such a piece, or even for a bit of a remedial brush up, I recommend reading the Studio Channel's manual from beginning to end, as the folks at PreSonus have done an excellent job of teaching some compression and eq basics as well as offering some great "soup starters" for using the Studio Channel, which will help you get the most out or this piece and avoid some common beginner mistakes.
Even if you don't have a Studio Channel, you should consider downloading this manual from the PreSonus web site. It's a great resource!
The one piece of information that I purposely left for last is the price. In 2004 the Eureka was already a bargain at $500 street (and still is, given its added features); well, the Studio Channel is an even better deal in today's economic crunch, at around $300 street.
If you are looking for the next logical step up from your budget mixer or computer interface, this unit will give you a nice bang for the buck.
Price: $299.95 MAP/street
More from: PreSonus Audio Electronics, 7257 Florida Blvd., Baton Rouge, LA 70806. 225/215-7887, www.presonus.com.
Paul Vnuk Jr. (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a recording engineer, producer, musician, and sound designer in Milwaukee. His latest projects can be found online at www.majale.com. Thanks as always to Christopher Short for his assistance.