Editor’s Note: The Everything Audio Network would like to welcome Dr. Fred Bashour to our stable of audio writers. Dr. Fred found me shortly after I created Pro Audio Review magazine in 1995, and our relationship now continues with the EAN. He will be authoring a continuing series we call the Audio Professional, which will focus on gear, techniques and subjects that bridge the audiophile and professional worlds.
Dr. Fred is an avid audiophile and has been a classical recording engineer for the past 35 years, working on hundreds of recordings released on more than a dozen labels, including Musical Heritage Society and Dorian. His studio, Dufay Digital Music, is located in Massachusetts. He holds a Yale Ph.D. in Music Theory and is also an avid keyboardist, currently performing as a weekend jazz pianist, as well as a church organist and choir director.
by Dr. Fred Bashour
As an audiophile who has enjoyed a long career as a classical music recording engineer and producer, I would like to share my experiences in making really good sound recordings of live acoustic music performances—on location and at home — using high-end professional audio equipment.
I’ve been recording music for forty years, and the basic principles haven’t changed: one simply places good microphones in an optimum location within an acoustically favorable environment, routes them through high-quality mic preamps, and captures the audio into a high-resolution recording device.
Audiophiles (and more and more professionals) love to record at home with professional equipment, much of which is now easy obtainable via mail order outlets. To get the ultimate detail audiophile recordists expect from their audio, professional gear is necessary. Capturing the best sound of your Steinway grand piano, your child prodigy’s violin solo, or an expertly-played parlor performance of your high-end Ramirez classical guitar needs something more than a laptop and a simple USB-connected microphone. Sure, a USB mic and a computer or a little handheld digital recorder can give you decent audio, but not anything near audiophile quality.
Pro products, such as the D.W. Fearn VT-2 microphone preamp that I profile in this article, really bring out the best in musical instrument recording. And in the world of audiophile pricing, $3,900 for made-in-the-USA tube audio excellence is a good deal.
From hi-fi to mic preamps
As an audiophile in the early 1970s, I took an analogous journey through the landscape of hi-fi preamps for my home stereo system. While attending graduate school, I was fortunate to spend time, over several years, hanging out with my first audiophile buddy, Mark Levinson. At the time, Mark was still living in his parents’ basement in Woodbridge, CT. Around that time, he began building what would soon become the first Mark Levinson Audio Systems preamps, the LNP-2 and JC-2.
Mark Levinson introduced me to many new sounds and experiences, and I quickly learned to hear the differences between various passive parts—potentiometers, resistors and capacitors, and between different pieces of equipment (preamps, amps, and loudspeakers) from other manufacturers. Mark’s original preamps utilized large square “potted” op-amp modules built by Dick Burwen, an audiophile and engineer from Massachusetts. The second series, the “ML” modules, were designed by John Curl of California, and sounded even better. At the time, there really was no other solid-state equipment that could touch it.
Although I was still in my audiophile phase, I began making more and more recordings, mainly of my grad student colleagues and Yale music faculty; some days I recorded two or three concerts! I really enjoyed the process of putting music to tape. Ultimately, my fascination with recording led me to a career as a professional recording engineer. Due to my audiophile background, however, I usually approach recording projects from a high-end listening perspective.
The tube sound...
By the end of the 1970s, my audiophile “sonic ideal” tastes had eventually diverged from the Levinson solid-state sound, and I became enamored of the sound of vacuum tube equipment. I found the tube sound to be a good complement to the “sterile” sound of the early digital converters of the eighties. The late Harvey Rosenberg, whose company, New York Audio Labs, produced the output transformerless Futterman amplifiers, helped me to hear the sonic advantages of tube equipment, and I eventually switched to vacuum tube versions of my Schoeps mics, and then began to add Neumann and AKG tube mics to my collection as well.
By the end of the 1970s, my audiophile “sonic ideal” tastes had eventually diverged from the Levinson solid-state sound, and I became enamored of the sound of vacuum tube equipment. I found the tube sound to be a good complement to the “sterile” sound of the early digital converters of the eighties.
Over those intervening years I owned or used some of the best tube mic preamps I could get, but in 1996, I got a chance to review the new D.W. Fearn VT-2 stereo tube microphone preamp. I quickly found that it gave me the sound I had long been looking for when fed from any of my microphones. To this day, it is still my favorite preamp; it makes all my mics sound wonderful — with exquisite detail, and a smooth warm character that is so analog. If you have the money to invest, the $3,900 made-in-the-USA, D.W. Fearn VT-2 is just about the ultimate in tube microphone preamps.
Inside the D.W. Fearn VT-2
The VT-2 is a re-creation of several four-stage RCA tube mic preamps from the 1950s and 60s, updated with improved modern passive components and computer-aided circuit optimization. Each channel features a regulated +48 supply for phantom powering condenser mics, a switchable 20-dB input pad, a polarity reversal switch on the input, a switchable input resistor network to accommodate very low impedance mics, and a true VU meter. All four power supplies are solid state and fully regulated, while the audio circuitry features custom Jensen input and output transformers, with two military-spec 6072A tubes per channel in between. The hefty unit is three-rack spaces high and 14-inches deep. It weighs in at a hefty 18 pounds.
Each unit is hand-made with extreme care given to every detail. Even the reddish paint job on the 1/4" thick aluminum front panel, done with DuPont Imron® paint, is worthy of a classic motorcycle. The Lo-Z input position inserts an impedance-matching network ahead of the input transformer, optimizing the VT-2's performance for certain new microphones, such as the Neumann TLM-series (and the M149 and M150 "Tube") and the latest Schoeps models, all of which exhibit an extremely low output impedance.
As many of you know, the phono section of a stereo preamp and the character of its line output are extremely important in influencing the voicing of your audiophile system. Well, this fact is equally true for microphones and their preamps. The input and output characteristics of the VT-2 complement nearly any microphone. As a classical recording engineer, I find that its big, smooth, creamy sound personifies everything favorable and euphonic about vacuum tube circuitry.
If you want your recordings to sound more like the cherished Decca/London and RCA classical LPs from the sixties, the D.W. Fearn VT-2 is your microphone preamp. It is compatible with nearly every top microphone, and gives a sonic voice that is as smooth as silk. Whether you are a professional engineer or a serious audiophile home recording buff who wants the best tube sound possible, the VT-2 is highly recommended. Click D.W. Fearn VT-2 for more info.
Dr. Fred Bashour can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Second Opinion:Mics Golden with VT-2I second Dr. Fred’s opinion 100 percent with regard to making every microphone sound like a million bucks, as its signal traverses the tube circuitry of the VT-2.I recently auditioned the VT-2 with all sorts of microphones: such as my Lawson L-251 tube mic, a pair of Audio-Technica AT-4051s, Shure KSM-141 instrument mics and even a Shure SM-57. It is astonishing how good mics sound through this preamp on acoustic instruments and vocals. Case in point is my pair of Shure KSM-141 small condensers. I recently plugged them into the VT-2 and recorded my custom Martin OO-28, small body guitar, in stereo. I auditioned the mic pre straight into a TASCAM DVRA-1000HD via a Benchmark ADC1 A/D at 24/96 kHz.The Shures are pretty accurate, but they do not have that big mic sound, and the guitar is not what I call a big acoustic sound; it is an intricate warm-sounding, finger-style guitar with a bit of midrange emphasis via the red spruce top. With the VT-2, the audio landscape becomes much bigger in a good way. The bottom end warms up a bit, without being too bloomy, and the mid/treble tones get magnified to a much bigger presence. Holy cow! This guitar sounds incredible when recorded via this pre.The same silky large character also follows with vocal mics and voice. Using a Lawson L251 tube mic on spoken-word reading sessions made my voice sound like a seasoned broadcaster. And why not: TV audio engineers have been beefing up their voice talent with VT-2s for years.I also tracked to analog via a 1970s vintage Techniques RS-1520 open-reel deck at 15 IPS, recording my Gibson L5 jazz guitar and Fender Twin Reverb reissue via the VT-2 and Lawson L251. The result was magnificent analog, just like the pre-digital days.Routing the VT-2 into a MacBook Pro at 24-bit, I never heard the computer sound so smooth. I linked the VT-2 output to the Benchmark A/D, which in turn connected to the MacBook Pro via an optical cable. The guitar tracks were big and warm — without going through any other box than the VT-2.All in all, the VT-2 mic preamp embodies that pure classic tube sound, and it is made by hand — right here in the good ol’ USA. If there were a recording gear hall of fame, the D.W. Fearn VT-2 would be in it.—John Gatski