Although perhaps not as trendy and well-known as Neve, API or SSL, Harrison consoles have quite a history. In the late '70s and early '80s many famous bands, from Led Zeppelin to Fleetwood Mac and others, flocked to ABBA's Polar Studios in Stockholm, Sweden, to make use of the studio's custom-built Harrison console. Back here in the USA, engineer Bruce Swedien used a Harrison 32 series desk to mix Michael Jackson's Thriller -- the top-selling album of all time.
Known for its smooth warm sonics, the Harrison desks were in many ways the Yin to the '80s punchy SSL Yang. A big part of that sound was due to the 32's unique 4-band eq and extreme high- and lowpass filters. Thanks to a union between Harrison Consoles and Dan Kennedy's Great River Electronics, those same eq and filters are now available for use in API's 500 Series of rack enclosures. According to Great River's web site, thanks to Harrison's direct involvement "it is guaranteed that the prized characteristics of the original are maintained in the new design".
Solid build, serious EQ
The US-made Great River Electronics/Harrison 32EQ is laid out with red, white and blue knobs on a thick black faceplate. It's exceptionally well built, and each knob is tight and solid. Internally the jam-packed circuit board is meticulously laid out with a hefty output transformer. The wrap-around metal enclosure helps to protect the internal components when moving the unit in and out of your 500-Series rack.
At first glance the 32EQ appears to be your garden-variety parametric eq with a choice of high, low and two mid-band frequencies, but it would not be fair to call it a true parametric design; except for a choice of peak- or shelving-style Q on the high and low frequencies, there are no Q controls available to any of the bands. However, it's not a semi-parametric fixed Q design either. Instead the 32EQ uses a self-adjusting Q that starts wide at low levels and narrows as the amount of equalization is increased.
Each band offers 12 dB of cut or boost. The Low band starts at 40 Hz and extends up to 800 Hz, and the Hi band goes from 800 Hz to 16 kHz. In between these, the Low-Mid band covers 200 Hz to 4 kHz and the Hi-Mid band is 400 Hz to 2 kHz. The 32EQ's frequency bands overlap, which -- coupled with the adaptive Q -- enables the user to make broad and gentle frequency tweaks gentle tweaks as well as to use multiple bands to zero in on a single problem spot and carve it out of a mix.
The EQ section has a global bypass allowing the EQ to be placed in and out of the chain. This is an all-or-nothing control and individual bands cannot be disengaged.
The last section on the 32EQ faithfully replicates the original low- and highpass filters from the original console. Both filters are fully variable and offer a 12 dB per octave cut. The highpass filter is 25 Hz to 2.75 kHz and the lowpass covers 160 Hz to 20 kHz.
These filters are extreme and run the gamut from subtly removing low mud and high-end harshness all the way to producing telephone-sounding ghostly whispers as well reducing a track to nothing but a thundering low rumble. As with the EQ section, there is a button to switch them in or out of the signal path.
An internal jumper changes the EQ's characteristics from its stock, vintage feedback connection with feedback around the output transformer, to a simpler no-feedback arrangement. Changing the jumper is a moderate hassle and not something to do on every session. You need to remove the unit from the rack, remove all eight of the enclosure screws, change the pair of jumpers inside and then reverse the process.
The most accurate way to describe the 32EQ is as a console eq. While that might seem obvious, since that is its origin, in practical terms this means that its job is to manipulate frequencies and essentially stay out of the way.
This is in marked contrast to many of the outboard eq units we are used to, whose goal is to add mojo and vibe and do it boldly -- think Pultec, API and Neve, to name a few.
Still, the 32EQ is not a boring vanilla beast either. I would call it smooth and silky. The word "warm" also gets thrown about often when describing the sound of a classic Harrison desk, and I would agree that this eq has warmth, but not in a heavy-handed vintage sense.
My current studio eq processor layout includes the sonically imposing Chandler Little Devil and Germanium on one side and the pristine Millennia NSEQ and surgical Empirical Labs Lil Freq on the other. The Harrison 32EQ fits nicely in between both groups.
What struck me most about the 32EQ was the way it boosts and attenuates frequencies in an almost imperceptibly sweet way, especially when compared to the bold and obvious nature of most of the above-mentioned units. In contrast to those units, you will need to push a frequency hard if you want it to really stick out, and you will also need to make sure you are not attenuating it at the same time with an adjacent band.
I tried the 32EQ on pretty much every source I could think of. My two standouts would be lead vocals where it could best be described as "butta", and bass guitar. While those were my personal favorites, this is one of those "works-on-anything" type eq's.
The filters deserve a mention of their own! As much as I liked the eq section, these filters would be worth the price of admission alone if they came by themselves in a separate module! If, as I have, you have been relying on plug-ins for your high- and lowpass duties, you are in for a treat with these filters, as they sound much more natural and not as pinched as some plug-ins do, especially in the highs. The only word of warning: unlike the throw of the eqs, these guys are extreme and can be a bit touchy to set.
I changed the internal jumper on one of the units for some side-by-side comparisons. It is a minimal effect, a subjective sound that cannot be described in terms of "better or worse", only in terms of taste. If the unit had been hard set to either, I would not have been disappointed, although my preference was finally for the original feedback design.
Anything I did not like? Are they really this nice? Well, it's hard to be critical of a piece of gear that lives up to its design this well, and delivers on its classic sound, as well as being this useful regardless of its heritage. The only thing I missed was the ability to hard-bypass individual bands to see how the overlap really affects adjacent bands. Also a power indicator LED would have been nice, but those complaints are small.
While I often work with channel eqs on large-format desks for live sound, in the studio I usually rely on plug-ins for channel eq duties and save my outboard units for those tracks that need something extra. The 32EQ reminded me what a joy it was to have a classy, utility eq out of the box, and the problem now is that I would like to have 4 to 8 of these little buggers! Yep, they really are that nice.
Price: $775 MAP
More from: Great River Electronics, www.greatriverelectronics.com
Great River MP-500NV
When Dan Kennedy at Great River sent me the pair of Harrison eqs for review, he also included one of his 500-Series mic pres as a special surprise, so without further ado here is a quick look at the MP-500V ($795 MAP). The MP-500NV is essentially Great River's well-known ME-1NV microphone preamp, but in a no-compromise 2-slot 500-Series form factor. It's also available as a 2-channel unit in a single 19" rack version.
This mic pre is based on the original schematics of the Neve 1073, but it is not merely a clone (although it is often portrayed as such on the message boards). Dan took those schematics and modernized the design to his own tastes. This includes better noise-floor specs, a custom-wound Sowter transformer, and some other handy features and improvements.
Like many vintage-style preamps this one uses an input stage that feeds into an output stage, each with its own control. As such you can choose how hard to drive the unit for added girth and harmonic saturation. The input goes from 0 to 60 dB in 5 dB stepped increments while a smaller fully variable knob offers -25 to +10 dB of output for a maximum of 70 dB of output.
A great feature of the unit, not often found on mic pres, is a pair of 6-stage signal/clipping LED meters to monitor both input and output at the same time; in fact, the only other unit I have seen that comes close to this feature is the switchable metering on UA's 710 mic pre, and that is still an "either-or" choice.
Additional controls include +48 Phantom power and Polarity as well as switches for loading and impedance. The loading places a 600 Ohm resister into the circuit, which adds a twinge of extra high end and simulates what happened in the 1970s when mic preamps started to be ripped from consoles and rack mounted as standalone devices. The impedance switch changes the mic pre's impedance between 1200 and 300 Ohms, which can alter the sound of dynamic and ribbon mics by changing the load it takes to drive them. My Chandler TG-2 offers this feature, and it is an effect I use often with my Shure SM7 and SM57 dynamic mics on guitar amps for an added tonal shift.
The last feature of this unit is a self-switching 1/4" Hi-Z input which, unlike those on many other mic pres, is FET buffered and takes full advantage of the mic pre's input transformer. This thing is awesome for DI-d bass.
The one debate I won't get into is how close it is or isn't to a real 1073; for one, I don't have a real 1073 on hand for comparison, and, two, I would rather take this pre on its own merits. What you get sonically with the MP-500NV is a weighty forward sound that can be thickened or thinned out slightly depending on how you drive the input stage. It's definitely a preamp that stacks well and does not play favorites in regard to source.
Vocals, electric guitars, drums, and more... they all sound solid and great with this mic pre, and it would be hard to argue with an established modern classic such as this.--PV