15ips Archive: "Upgrades"
About this time last year, I promised myself: No new equipment. I did fine, even with my compulsive window shopping habits, but I started to hit some frustrating limits with the equipment I’d chosen. Most of what I own is “good and cheap”, as cheap as used 1980s professional audio equipment can be, and while I have the basics covered pretty well I felt really limited in options during mixdown and especially while recording vocals. The only compressors I had were the dbx 166xl, which is a high quality, inexpensive compressor for percussive material but it’s absolutely terrible for vocals.
I have a very intimate understanding of my equipment (heh) and once I found out about the different types of compressors I realized what I needed. I set my sights high and I considered investing in “the lower high end” equipment but I just don’t have the money for it. So, I began a search for the missing link in my home studio, at a price that wouldn’t hurt my caboose.
I heard about the ART Pro VLA II maybe a couple of years ago and I initially dismissed it – I have an ART MPA Gold mic preamp that I’ve never been too happy with. I was a little shocked to read raving reviews in Tape Op last November, saying that it was a really good deal for the price. I decided I’d take a second look, and I’m really glad I did.
When researching modifications and upgrades (i.e. changing stuff) I started at this GearSlutz thread, which has a series of audio clips recorded through various configurations of stock and modified parts. It was pretty informative… I really liked the sound of the Mullard tubes. I decided to go all in, and I bought the ART from Musician’s Friend and bought a pair of Mullard ecc81/12AT7 tubes from eBay. The good thing about audio equipment is that if you don’t like something and can’t return it, you can always sell it to someone else…
I got the ART and the tubes on the same day. I tried the unit with its stock tubes (Ruby Tubes 12AT7) and I actually really liked the sound – it was smooth and accurate. It didn’t sound “cheap”, which is an instant win… in my opinion it beats a lot of products in this price range in regard to overall quality and the ‘musciality’ of its output. I quickly (carefully) opened the unit and installed the Mullard tubes, and tried it again. Wow!! This is not a silver bullet… but this is a fantastic combo, and the VLA is the right product for what I want. I feel an instant response when I twist the knobs, and it sounds really, really good when I really crank up the compression and add lots of post-compression gain through the Mullard tubes. So for… $360 total? This thing is an ace.
I realized that the Pro VLA II could also be used effectively as a low pass filter – with Mullard tubes it gently burns off high frequency detail over 16k. This can be compounded or affected in other ways by adding input and output transformers, just as the original poster in the GearSlutz thread did. The Cinemag transformers have a pretty severe HF roll-off beginning at 10k (!) (here’s the spec sheet) but it might be useful sometimes? I like the sound but I don’t want it all the time. I’m considering adding transformers and adding a toggle switch, to either use the transformers or bypass them, but I’ll leave good enough be for now. I just wanna make music, anyway…