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Monday, December 22, 2008

Studio Projects VTB1

Rumor is this mic pre was designed on a napkin by Ted Fletcher and developed by Alan Hyatt

The Studio Projects VTB1 mic preamp may be the most feature-laden mic preamp made in 2002 with a street price under $300. Usually, a lot of features such as a tube circuit with low $$ equals squalid sound.

Studio Projects USA of Torrance, California, marketed the VTB1, which is made in China. The design does not allow a rackmount option other than the Velcro-type rack solutions.

In the VTB1, a solid-state gain stage comes before a tube blend stage, which is a starved plate type. The tube blend can be turned all the way off. The VTB1 features phantom power for condenser microphones, a high pass filter, a switchable LED meter for input and output, polarity reverse and switchable microphone impedance. As well, the VTB1 features an XLR mic input, a DI jack and TRS insert. Output takes place through a balanced XLR or a 1/4 jack. It lacks a power switch. I measured the phantom power at 48.9v, which is within the industry standard for 48v phantom power.

The VTB1 seems quiet throughout the gain range. Noise only becomes apparent as the gain reaches maximum level.

The first use of the VTB1 came as a DI for bass and guitar. For the tracks, I plugged a G&L George Fullerton guitar and a Music Man Sabre bass through the VTB1. The guitar sounded clean and contained some useable detail. The bass sounded smooth. The sound did not come across as well as similarly priced units. Even so, I'd call the VTB1 acceptable as a budget DI.

As a mic preamp the VTB1 fares much better. I put the VTB1 to work making vocal sample tracks with a Rode NT1, a Studio Projects C1 and a Shure SM58. On the Rode NT1, the VTB1 fared as well as other preamps in its price class -- not better and not worse for the most part. But, there seemed to be a little more space with the VTB1.

On the C1, the Studio Projects VTB1 made the C1 seem more smooth than usual. It seemed to possess an exaggerated low end that leads to a feeling of proximity. Depending on your feelings regarding proximity effect being desirable or not, you might want to switch on the high-pass filter to cut it out.

I tried an SM58 with the VTB1. Through the VTB1, the SM58 sounded like a mic I might want to track a vocal on. The VTB1 imparted a sense of dimension to the microphone. It didn't bring an SM58 to life the way an expensive mic pre would but it didn't make it suck the way most cheap mic pres do.

I posted samples to the recording forum on Harmony Central. Most forum members seemed to concur that the VTB1 performed better as a mic preamp than it did as a DI. Most seemed to find it performed acceptably as a mic pre. I believe the VTB1 sounds significantly better as a mic preamp than it does as a DI.

The tube blender is part gimmick and part useful feature. If you don't turn it on, then it does not enter the signal chain. The VTB1 does not impart any overt color to the sound until the user engages the tube blender. I tried the tube blender on vocals tracked with the SM58. For lack of a better description, the sweet spot seemed to be around 12:30 on the dial. The sound seemed more harmonic, flattering in some ways and diminished in others. Think of the tube blender as adding another flavor. I thought the sound better with it off.

Do you want a particular 12AX7 tube in your VTB1? If you send the tube to Studio Projects, then Studio Projects will place it in the VTB1 before it leaves for your dealer. If you already have a VTB1, then send your VTB1 and your tube to Studio Projects and pay for shipping each way and Studio Projects will replace the tube for you. Don't expect huge qualitative differences from different tubes. The tube effect leans toward the subtle side. If you like to change subtle flavorings, then switching the tube might be for you.

The thing I liked about the VTB1 is that I could easily differentiate between the sound of different mics tracked through it. Most inexpensive mic pres seem to leave all mics sounding somewhat the same.

The Bottom Line: The VTB1 is a budget mic preamp with lots of features. I liked the noticeable smoothness the VTB1 imparted to some sounds. I also liked that different mics sounded like different mics through it. I can't say that about every mic pre in this price point. The VTB1 might be a good entry point into mic preamps for new recordists. It costs $99 street. It's an excellent value at that price.

--Steven Langer

Studio Projects

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