Outboard equipment - "Toys" to use the technical term - I love them. Big ones, small ones, red ones, blue ones, (thank you, Dr.Seuss!), and especially ones with lots of colourful knobs on them, and big flashy displays. Walk into any studio, and, within seconds of working out how many channels the desk has, your eyes will be drawn to the outboard rack. Wow, look at that chunky red Focusrite. And yes that JoeMeek green paint really is outrageous. And just look at the size of that DSP4000 display! (adopts Beavis & Butthead voice:) YYYesss!! But hang on a minute, I feel a certain chocolate-bar advert coming on: "Hello! Norm's the name!" Yes folks, the sensible brigade have arrived, in the shape of LA Audio. What could look more boring and businesslike than LA Audio's new and very grey-looking Millennium Series?
Despite the name, it would seem that there is nothing American, glamorous or West-Coast about LA Audio. The parent company is SCV London, and the units are made in the UK. They are named the MLX2 dual mic/line preamplifier, the GCX2 dual compressor/gate, the EQX2 dual 3 band EQ, and the MPX1 multi processor.
Unfortunately the latter shares its name with the latest Lexicon multi-fx unit: I don't know why manufacturers can't think up proper names for their products. Why not a "Tweaker" or a "Knobulator"?! Well, in this instance, perhaps, those names would be inappropriate. These are seriously boring professional pieces of equipment, with nothing humorous about them at all. That is why they are finished matt aluminium and grey paint. All the knobs are black and rubbery (no snickering!), like sensible shoes, with good markers indicating their position. The buttons are small and black.
Despite the Series' low price, the image generated is that of no-nonsense gear, designed and built to high specifications. And despite my intro, I really like this serious look. It is neat and tidy, and in no way distracting. The manuals are also grey and black: small format booklets which straightforwardly and comprehensively explain every feature. Applications are suggested, concepts explained, block diagrams presented. There are even graphics of the front panel for noting settings - marvellous news for Total Recall fans.
Each unit is a standard 1U rackmount, a surprisingly shallow 15cm, compact and light. Power supplies are onboard, which is good news. No power switches are provided, but that's okay: I hate walking into a studio where half of the outboard gear is powered down. A green LED glows on the front panel indicating the presence of power. Connection is via a standard IEC mains lead. Units are pre-set for the voltage of the country where the unit is marketed. Costs have been saved by omitting any external voltage switch, although internal adjustment is possible.
All units feature outputs at -10dBV on balanced TRS (tip-ring-sleeve) sockets - stereo jacks to you and me - and XLR sockets at +4dBu. No fiddly rear panel switches for level changing. Most feature similar inputs, although the MLX2 and MPX1 have Mic inputs on XLR and Line and DI on jacks. All units except the GCX2 include Clip LEDs which light a sensible 3dBs before maximum level.
This is a very simple and straight forward unit with all the connectors on the back except DI inputs, which are on the front. There are buttons for input selection, phantom power, and phase which is useful and not featured on most budget consoles. An input gain knob has a good range and the output pot has 20dB cut or boost with centre détente. The filter is 2nd order (12dB/8ve) variable high pass adjustable from 25Hz to 250Hz. This is useful in many circumstances, but particularly for reducing unwanted noise when recording vocals. The DI input is buffered by a high impedance amplifier. The signal then bypasses the input gain pot and goes straight into the line amp. This is useful for electric guitar for example, where if you connected directly to a microphone input much of the HF content would disappear due to loading down of the signal. The unit sounded clean and neutral, and is ideal for connection directly to any type of recorder.
Each channel features a compressor and a gate, and the two channels can be linked. The back panel includes a sidechain insert jack socket for each channel. This is again a TRS jack, but not balanced: usefully, the input signal is sent on the ring so you can externally process it before returning it on the tip. The compressors feature threshold, ratio and gain knobs, there is a button for slow or fast auto attack and release, and one for bypass. A meter displays gain reduction. The gates' controls simply comprise threshold and release knobs and bypass switches. An LED lights to show gate open. A stereo link button defeats all of Channel 2's controls and LEDs, and control voltages from both channels' inputs (or sidechains) are combined. I would have preferred to have retained independent control of all bypass switches and especially the gain controls in this mode. The two auto modes for the compressors worked well in most situations, but I felt that the slow release was a little bit too slow. Also I would have preferred separate switches for Attack and Release, as implemented on the latest unit, the MPX1. I often like a slow attack with a fast release. However, at this price, this is a minor niggle. The gates work very well, with attack time quoted as less than 1mS, and range as -80dB. The attack is excellent, with no horrible click on most program material, and the release time range of 30mS to 3S is more than adequate. In bypass mode, all sections' LEDs glow as normal, except more dimly, which is helpful.
This dual three-band EQ can be linked to make one six-band mono unit at the push of a button. Unfortunately, they put the button on the back, which is no use at all when you have mounted the unit in a rack. A green LED glows on the front to indicate Mono mode, but that is of little consolation. Each band has a generous 15dB boost and cut, and a wide range sweeping frequency control. The latter is only marked to indicate the frequency at each end of its range - a number in the middle would have been helpful. Between these knobs are tiny Q (bandwidth) knobs. These small back plastic-topped pots are barely bigger than the little pushbuttons, and it is quite difficult to see where they are set. They are very powerful, going from a very narrow notch of 1/12th Octave to 3 Octaves. Each channel includes a clip LED, bypass button and 75Hz high pass filter which remains operative even when the bypass is in, so there is a slight potential for cock-up. No shelving capability is included, but the wide ranging Q control almost obviates the need for this. Sound quality and clarity is excellent for a budget unit, and at this price who could resist having two units for stereo six-band operation?
This is the latest and most complex model in the range. It is a mono unit, specifically designed to cope with any processing you might need between vocal or instrument mic and recording unit, be it analogue or digital. First there is a Mic/Line/DI input section with all the features of the MLX2. This is followed by a compressor section which incorporates a simple one-knob expander to reduce extraneous noise. The compressor boasts separate fast/slow switches for attack and release auto settings, plus also a DS switch which inserts a boost at 8kHz into the sidechain. The four-band EQ section has fixed frequency shelving above 12kHz and below 80Hz, with two fully parametric sweepable bands in-between. There is a bypass switch, and also a 12kHz lowpass filter. The output section has a level trim knob, and meters for output level and gain reduction, the latter activated by either the compressor or the expander. The meter LEDs are dimmed when the compressor is bypassed. The back panel is quite a surprise, with no less than eleven jack connectors, as well as XLR input and output. The sockets allow you to patch separately into each of the four sections of the unit, allowing you to connect the elements in any order. There is also a sidechain connection for the compressor, and a link socket to connect two MPX1s for true stereo-linked compression. There is now a resurgence of do-all units such as this, many reminiscent of the old A& D Vocal Stressor, but this is certainly the best-value one I have come across.
A 5 Year warranty is included, which is unheard of in the studio gear market. Build quality is very high - despite their diminutive size they feel solid, and all the controls feel satisfying. Astonishingly, for what you get these boxes are very, very cheap. They are not top-of-the range by studio standards, but are aimed mainly at the undoubtedly lucrative and recently-expanding project studio market, where I am sure they will succeed. In most situations, these units will quietly, and boringly, do whatever you ask of them. I just hope they get noticed!
Reproduced with kind permission from www.georgeshilling.com. Copyright ©