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Tuesday, October 16, 2012

High-End Recording Studio Review!
D.W. Fearn VT-12 Stereo Preamplifier
For Neo, Classic Ribbon Microphones

Classic Vacuum Tube Mic Pre
For Premium Pro/Home Studios”

Price: $4,350
Likes: classic tube signature
Dislikes: Need high credit card limit
More info: VT-12

by Jackson Macinnis

  Many of today’s professional audio products have a planned obsolesce. Like smart phones and other gadgets, they are outdated in a few years — as new models with more bells and whistles are introduced. After a couple of years of model XX, it is time to get the new version.
  Products like the handcrafted D.W. Fearn VT-12 ribbon microphone preamp, however, are a reminder of a bygone era — when high-quality products were meant to be used for 20-30 years. No expense was spared in making this preamp: premium tubes, power supply, analog VU meters and a chassis build that is worthy of a high-end audiophile product. 
  And not only is it built to last, but it fits in, perfectly, with the ribbon microphone craze in professional and home studio recording. Originally introduced in the 1930s, good ribbon mics have a smooth, flattering midrange and treble that artists and engineers love. The neo-ribbon craze has resulted in more ribbon mics being made today than in their original heyday.

  The made-in-Pennsylvania, D.W. Fearn VT-12 is a hand-wired, two-channel, all-vacuum tube preamp that is designed much like the original D.W. Fearn VT-2, which was inspired by the 1960’s RCA preamps. Thanks to a customized-signal path, designed specifically for low-gain ribbon microphones, the VT-12 has extra gain (70 dB), with modern upgrades that allow for quiet operation and enhanced durability.
  Priced at $4,350, the VT-12 is a full-tube preamp (four Russian, hand-selected 12AT7s) with custom-designed Jensen input and output transformers for exceptional sound. And with homage to the great gear of the late 1950s and early 1960s, it has two true VU meters. The electronic components are top of the line, including gold-plated input and output XLR connectors, gold-contact and sealed precision relays — all assembled in a heavy duty, 18 pound package that is finished in that D.W. Fearn classic red.
  Recording engineers love traditional design ribbon mics, but without a preamp designed to handle their low-output, insufficient gain and noise is the result. The extra-gain feature of the VT-12 makes it a perfect pairing with old school and modern ribbon microphones, such as AEA, Royer and Cascade to name a few. I used the well-regarded Royer 121 ribbon microphones for this review. Designed by David Royer and manufactured in California, The R-121s are a standard among modern ribbon microphones, and a perfect test mic for the VT-12. 
If you are searching for that perfect microphone preamp to get that classic analog tone out of a ribbon microphone recording, the D.W. Fearn VT-12 has got to be at the top of your list.

  Another well-though out feature, which protects against accidental damage to traditional ribbon mics, is the VT-12‘s dual-phantom power switches. Applying phantom power voltage and current (necessary for condenser microphones and active ribbons) to a traditional ribbon microphones can render it permanently inoperable.
  The VT-12, which does have phantom power +48V DC for active ribbons and condenser use, is equipped with two phantom power on/off switches — one on the front and one on the back; both have to be on to enable the phantom power circuit, making it hard to turn them on accidentally. Also, the tri-color front panel LEDs also warn, visually, of safe and unsafe conditions for the phantom power.
  The VT-12 preamp boasts good specs, including less than .3 percent distortion less than -72 dB noise, unweighted, 10kohm input impedance and 70 dB maximum gain. The unit is three-rack spaces tall and weighs 18 pounds.

The setup
  Here at Sirius/XM studios in Washington, DC, we have lots of modern gear, but we are always eager to try out new products — even those of the vintage flavor. We had the Fearn in our studio for a few weeks and selectively decided when to put it against our reference Sony Oxford console’s very quiet preamps. In its day, the Sony Oxford was king of the digital console world, and, even today, it still is a competitive console with good digital converters (24/48) and strong-performing microphone preamps, which are really quiet.
  Though not as big as the Oxford console’s square footage foot print, the VT-12‘s 18 pound heft was apparent as I lifted it out of the box and made the necessary connections for the review. The VT-12‘s finish and the look are first class and fit perfectly with the other great analog hardware units we had on hand, including Manley and Pultec tube processors. The components were linked to a ProTools recording rig.

The audition
  The first session featured a classical solo violinist who played a 300-year old Stradivarius. We installed four Royer 121 ribbon microphones, strategically positioned to get similar pickup of the violin. Two were plugged into the VT-12 and two into the Sony Oxford preamps. As expected, the non-ribbon optimized circuit of the Oxford preamps had to be turned way up to get sufficient level to hear the violin. Along with gain crank came a rush of extra noise, whereas the D.W. Fearn — with its ribbon-optimized circuit — was audibly more quiet. The VT-12 handled the Royers with no problem; plenty of gain and no noise.
  On further listening and after messing with the input attenuation to push the gain a bit, we really started to hear the audio colors of the Fearn. Initially, we played around with the settings of preamp as the violinist warmed up, just to see what kinds of shades the VT-12 imparted on the tone. Turning up the tube gain could make the sound darker and add a compression effect, if so desired. (There is no actual compression in the mic pre, but adding gain increases the effect of the tube’s second harmonic signature, according to Doug Fearn). 
  For the final recording we adjusted the gain to a point which the VT-12 barely imparted its warming effect on the high-end transients of the violin. We recorded the violin solo in 24-bit PCM, and, ultimately, were very impressed with the rich, layered, smoothness of the Stradivarius playback — yet it had loads of detail. The slight, natural roll-off of the ribbon and the VT-12‘s second harmonic softening character, as recorded, was so pleasing that we ended up using that take as the final mix. No post-recording EQ or compression was added. In comparison, the Sony Oxford preamp violin recordings sounded far more edgy. The D.W. Fearn is one smooth microphone preamp.

Authentic Analog Meters

  In our next trial session, we plugged into the VT-12 for a Blues band lineup — with the saxophone as the lead instrument. In this case I used two Royer 121’s, one through the VT-12 and one through the Sony Oxford, straight into the ProTools Mac workstation.
  The noise floor was not the consideration for this listening test, as there was a full band behind the sax. But we wanted to soften up the hard edges of the saxophone, and the VT-12 was up to the challenge. The playback on this test revealed the low-end warmth and overall warming effect the VT-12 had on the sax. This was a case where I pushed the input up quite a bit and was fine with it for the entire session.
  The VT-12’s sound — a warm, smooth, yet still dynamic analog signature — is why tubes are still popular in the recording industry. In my opinion, from a sonic standpoint, not a lot has improved on the input side of the recording chain over the last 50 years. Mostly analog microphones and preamps still dominate the tracking landscape, and tube versions remain popular. For example, at Sirius/XM we still use a 1951 Telefunken/Neumann U47 condenser microphone on various instruments and vocals. With these old school mics, I’ve never needed any EQ or compression when tracking vocals. The smoothness has already been added in the recording chain.
 We recorded the violin solo in 24-bit PCM, and, ultimately, were very impressed with the rich, layered, smoothness of the Stradivarius playback — yet it had loads of detail.

  The D.W. Fearn VT-12 gives you that same smooth, detail and depth-filled character with modern or classic ribbon microphones, yet it does not add audible noise at reasonable gain levels. With solid state and digital gear, I often have to sweeten up the recording in the post production process, with EQ and/or compression, to make it sound as nice as the tube gear recordings. But in my opinion, the less you have to EQ and compress signals in the post-recording process, the better the music sounds. Products, like the VT-12, allow guys like me to avoid that extra post-recording processing.
  The final recording session for the VT-12 was a classical guitar performance. This is where I could really hear the difference between the Sony preamps and the Fearn. Recorded through the Sony with the R-121s, there was a harshness in the mid-treble transients as the player increased his finger pick attack. The Fearn showed its advantage; volume spikes were nicely handled without the brittle edge that was apparent with the Sony preamp. The combination of the ribbon microphones and the VT-12 was just incredible with a vibrant, rich nylon string/wood tone. I also noticed the low noise of the VT-12 during the quiet passages. Perfect for digital recordings.
  I had no complaints with the VT-12. At over $4,000, it is not cheap, but the made-in-USA, hand-built quality and premium sonics has its price. For those who can afford it, you won’t find a better-sounding ribbon pre.

The verdict
  Of the preamps I have used for ribbon microphones, the VT-12 is definitely the Rolls Royce of ribbon mic pres. If you are searching for that perfect microphone preamp to get that classic analog tone out of a ribbon microphone recording, the D.W. Fearn VT-12 has got to be at the top of your list. Classic, smooth, rich, and detailed tone, plenty of gain and a made-in-USA, build quality that puts many mass-produced audio products to shame. This preamp gets a Stellar Sound Award, with no reservations.

  Jackson Macinnis is chief engineer and director of the Sirius|XM recording studios in Washington, DC. He also is a multi-instrumentalist musician and home audio recordist who composes music for TV and film at his home studio. He can be reached via the Everything Audio Network.

EAN Extra!
Royer Labs Sling-Shock
RSM-SS1 Microphone Mount

  Royer’s new Sling-Shock, priced at $295 retail, is a boon for users of the company’s high-end microphones — in that it gives them a quality mic mount for their precious ribbons, and is optimized to better isolate the mic from external vibrations, which can audibly affect the sound.
  This hand-built mount was made in house by Royer and fits the R-121, R-122, R-122V, SF-1 and SF-12 ribbon microphones. It is made of solid metal and has a very nice felt-lined clamp where the microphone slips into. Another great feature is the easily adjustable locking tilt. The latest update has a microphone cable clip that isolates any movement and eliminates any cable rumble even further. Immediately, you can detect the lack of the normal rumble and floor noise when attaching a R121 mic on the floor stand. In the past we have used mounts supplied, but not manufactured, by Royer Labs that were not up to the quality of the microphones.
  The new Royer mounts work so well that we bought four of them for Sirius/XM studios. If you use Royer mics, you need this shock mounts. I hope they make mounts for other mic sizes as well. (The current SS will work with most mics that are about an inch in diameter.) It gets a Stellar Sound Award, too! More info: Royer Sling-Shot.

Jackson Macinnis

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