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Thread: Interview with Joel CameronRascal AudioTwo-V Preamplifier

  1. #1
    Moderator pan60's Avatar
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    Mar 2008

    Interview with Joel CameronRascal AudioTwo-V Preamplifier

    Pan60 So, Joel lets chat about your background and Rascal Audio. Do you run your own studio?

    Joel Yes, I have a studio in Wylie, TX that is well-equipped. I am quite a fan of analogue gear and have amassed a large collection. Some of the gear has been purchased, but much of it I built.

    Pan60 Are you a musician?

    Joel That depends on if you think a drummer is a musician or not! I've been a drummer all of my life. I've been playing since age 7, and I'm 44 now, so that's, what, 37 years?

    Pan60 Sweet, good drummers are hard to come by. How long have you been in the industry?

    Joel Recording or manufacturing? I've been recording professionally since 1994, and I've been running Rascal Audio since 2006.

    Pan60 What got you into gear design and manufacturing?

    Joel I've been a tinkerer all my life -- I always wanted to know how things work. I remember as a kid watching my dad rebuild a vacuum cleaner, and it was fascinating. When I was 13 I took my mother's oven apart to see how it worked… she wasn't too happy about that! And when I began recording and using stuff like a buddy's Neve 1066 modules (my introduction to Neve specifically and vintage gear in general), I was immediately in love.

    I didn't have the deep pockets to buy that stuff (though Eric's Neve's only set him back $2500 for the pair back then!), so I determined to locate parts and build a pair of mic preamps, which I did. The grounding was all wrong, so they buzzed a lot, but they still had THAT sound!! I was hooked.

    In the many years since I've built and designed all kinds of bits, and during 2003 or so, I decided I wanted an analogue summing unit. I, of course, wanted some vibey tone. Nothing, at the time, really fit the bill. So, I wound up making my own.

    Before long, folks who worked at my facility started asking me to make one for them, too. After about a half-dozen units, I decided it might be worth producing 50 to just see what would happen. I had no real marketing experience other than word of mouth, so it started rather slowly.

    Pan60 What does your product line consist of?

    Joel Currently it's the Analogue ToneBuss (the summing unit) and now the Two-V, which is my idea of a desert island, a toneful, vintage lover's mic preamp in a 500-series format. I've got compressor and EQ designs in the works, as well. But first things first -- a great preamp is critical.

    Pan60 Tell us about your Analogue ToneBuss, the summing unit.

    Joel Well, the Analogue ToneBuss uses passive voltage summing (like all the classic analogue desks of the 1970's), though balanced, and couple that with a killer output stage which adds all the richness and visceral dynamics that makes the mix come alive.

    It's a fairly simple design, and sounds great primarily because of two things, one of which is the transformer designs, which are proprietary, and the other being that it leans more toward an earlier convention rather than modern, with regard to impedance matching. Tubes, transformers and discrete transistors are not the only reason we have a positive visceral response to vintage gear!

    Pan60 Tell me about the construction and component choices.

    Joel Of the Two-V? Well, it uses a stainless steel chassis, fully enclosed, so it is well shielded. The guts are protected from handling mishaps as well as from adjacent modules when racking. The transformers are proprietary, made domestically, here. in the USA.

    The transformers are hugely critical to the performance of the circuit. I spent over a year prototyping to get them right, as well as finding the right company to wind them for me here. They are a further refinement of designs I built several years ago, and they do all the right things to audio!

    Pan60 We spoke about transformer choices and what goes into selecting one to go with. What were you looking for in the transformer and what made you choose one company over another?

    Joel In my experience, it seems that transformers, not the tubes or transistors, have consistently more to do with my preference of killer vintage devices than anything else. I've heard tube gear I love, and legit tube gear I can happily live without. Likewise, for discrete transistors or, even IC designs.

    The constant in most everything that brings a smile to my face is the inclusion of transformers that impart a pleasant, engaging tone. I like modern makes, too, like Jensen and Cinemag, etc. But, the older, more technically 'flawed' iron of decades past sounds more complex and interesting to me.

    Some older designs, however, do add a little too much character or tend to break up and smear the signal when pushed. When I was working on my transformer designs, I wanted to honor the vintage character. I chose to give giving them a great dynamic response that saturates attractively when pushed, yet maintain their signal integrity so the signal stays authoritative and focused.

    Ed Anderson helped me realize the design of the input transformer in the Two-V, and I worked with Altran to perfect the output. Altran winds both models for production.

    Pan60 I have always felt, more often than not, when people say they want the tube sound that what they really want is some color from a transformer.

    Joel Yeah, that's been my opinion too. Back in the late 1990's when ADATs and DA-88s had made everyone miss analogue tape, designers began sticking a tube stage in everything and calling it 'warm.' None of those boxes sounded 'vintage' or 'warm' to me, and most didn't even sound that good at all. Some sounded good, but nothing like gear made decades earlier.

    Still, today, many current all-tube devices sound remarkably clean -- tubes are fast and quite linear, at least up until they start running out of headroom. It's really the iron in the old devices that gave them so much personality, not so much the tubes. In fact, a lot of that great old, lovely vintage gear was solid-state, not tube. So, tubes can't take credit for that tone.

    Pan60 As I understand, not all transformers offered a lot of color. It seems there were several companies trying to get very neutral transformers. As I have been told, it seems that experience just made it impractical?

    Joel Well, I'm sure the objective back then wasn't to add tone missing from the recording medium. I imagine balancing and signal matching was the main concern for designers then. And over time, they figured out how to reduce the transformer's impact on sound. Somewhere along the way it just got a little too clean for my taste -- at least when recording went to digital. I don't want grit or dirt in the sound, but I do like a full, opulent tone, and iron is a great way to accomplish that.

    With regard to the actives, I chose them, like everything, for the tone they impart and their handling of transient material. I was able to secure a large quantity of older, obsolete components, which I prefer to more modern alternatives. Contemporary components seem a bit too stark or unforgiving to my ear -- very fast, leaning toward stiff or just less relaxed sounding. There's plenty of starkness in digital audio already…
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  2. #2
    Moderator pan60's Avatar
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    Mar 2008
    I also don't want it in my tracking signal path, but at the same time, I don't want things to be dull. I want 3D. I want organic. I want to close my eyes and feel like I can reach out and touch the instrument I'm listening to – as if it were in the same room with me. It has to have clarity and dynamic response to achieve this, but it has to have tone, as well.

    Electrolytics are low inductance Nichicons, which are very stable and durable -- it'll be 20 years before they'll need replacing. There are also polystyrene, polyester film, ceramic (C0G) and tantalum caps in there too, all the good stuff -- no cheaping out on the components.

    Pan60 Why a two-slot space?

    Because a single slot 500-series module is only 1.5" wide, and my output transformer is 1.6" wide. So, simply wouldn't fit.

    I could take the approach many others have and use a slimmer lamination stack with smaller bobbin and less wire, but the primary inductance suffers when you do that. This affects the integrity of the low-end response. And I just LOVE the low-end response these outputs have -- it's immense! So a single-wide module was out.

    I discovered, though, that by staggering the arrangement of the outputs so their lamination stacks and bobbins fit together like puzzle pieces, I could fit two outputs into a double-wide enclosure. This way people could have two channels in two slots and not waste their valuable rack space.
    After talking with friends, engineers and dealers, I learned that most people buy preamps in pairs anyway, so I decided to go that route. Otherwise I would either have to compromise the design or burn a slot.

    Pan60 I'm glad to see you put two preamp in the face plate. This allows the best bang-for-the-buck in regards to real-estate. What if someone only wants one channel?

    Joel I make a One-V as well, which is a single-channel version in the same double-wide chassis. The faceplate is simply without the right channel. So, if a voiceover artist or someone else who really only needs a single preamp, wants a little Two-V love, they can still get it without the expense of a second channel. But, it will cost them a slot in their lunchbox.

    Pan60 I think that is a great idea! Lots of companies make double wides, so that's a non-issue in my book.

    The Two V has a color I really love. It reminds me of some cool old gear and, not just audio related. What attracted you to this color?

    Joel I'm so glad you like it! I love it, myself, though it rarely renders properly on screen or in print. It looks blue in most media, but it's really more grey, with a touch of blue, and maybe just a hint of purple. I actually discovered the color walking in a store one day. I don't remember what I was even looking for, but I walked past some spray paint, and that color just grabbed me. It looked clean, subtle and classy. I bought a can that day, sprayed some things with it, and just decided that was the color my gear would have to be.

    Pan60 Okay, tell me, what were the color options, you had to have something else in mind: )?

    Joel Well, the options were endless, of course. I never realized how hard it would be to design the aesthetic of a product line. I had four essential criteria for the appearance of Rascal Audio gear:

    1) it had to be reminiscent of vintage gear, early 70's, ideally,
    2) it had to look modern as well,
    3) it had to look like a legit piece of pro-audio gear, not some Chinese thing you'd find on sale by the palette-load in a music store, and
    4) it had to look unique, so folks could immediately identify it in any picture of a large outboard rack.

    I'm honestly very pleased with the result -- I think I really achieved all four objectives.

    Choosing a color was about the hardest part. It's hard to go wrong with black, but it's also hard to differentiate your gear from the competition, visually, when it's black.

    JoeMeek and Altec sort of own the green thing, while red and blue were pretty much taken by Focusrite and dbx. Purple belongs to… well, Purple Audio, and yellow and orange just look silly to me for boutique audio gear. And I have just never really cared for the color brown. So, it had to be some variation or blend of colors.

    Looking through color charts was a pain, and I never really could decide on anything, but then I just ran across it in a store. Weird, really. I do love it though. The color is also light enough to allow for black screening on the panel, which, along with the black and grey knobs, gives Rascal Audio gear a two-tone appearance that I dig.

    I guess I just really want gear that looks cool, and most folks I know do too. Obviously the audio performance is paramount in a design of this calibre -- that's what will live on in any music made with it. But, it's awesome when gear looks great, too. I want people to use my gear and have to have it, of course, but I also want them to love the way it looks as well.

    I will be sending a unit for your review as soon as the proper transformers arrive (which will be another couple of weeks). The units I'm currently using don't have the final appearance of the production models. They have the same transformers, but different labels and tape color from normal production.

    I know you like to take pictures of the interior of products, and I'd love for you to do so with this (so people can see how the transformers are staggered inside). I just want to be sure the appearance of the components are proper in the final production, since it'll be on the net forever.

    Pan60 LOL – I'm looking forward to seeing it show up.
    Yea, i always like to take a peak inside: )

    Joel Just put it back together gently!

    Pan60 Will do!

    Okay, a short time has passed. I now have the TWO -V in. Wow! This is heavier then I expected.

    Joel Yeah, it's got a lot of iron in it!

    Pan60 i love the vibe! First, we slot some vocals. This is a very nice musical pre. Lots of moxy!

    Joel Not sure what moxy is, but guessing something like guts or authority? That is the idea behind it, so I hope so. And I'm glad you find it musical. I worked hard to make sure it flatters all kinds of source material rather than being good on, say, aggressive material, but not so much on softer stuff. I wanted everything to be enhanced by its treatment.

    Pan60 I love the layout and the looks. It's very straight forward and easy to follow.

    Joel Thanks! I like gear that looks good and sounds great.

    Pan60 I do want to ask, Joel, why add the hi-pass filter when EQ's are so available, (and i have to add i have already used it LOL )?

    Joel So you used it? How did it work for you?

    Pan60 I liked it, i am just always expecting to add an EQ if i need something, as such.

    Joel The LF response of the thing is solid, so an HPF can be really helpful in removing some LF content on sources that don't need it. I am a big fan of HPF when mixing, but I have found that the filters built into most mic pre's tend to be a little dramatic in their slope for fixed frequency designs, and most do have a fixed frequency.

    I use steep slopes when mixing all time, but I can choose the frequency that best suites the source with a dedicated processor. Steep slopes with a fixed frequency limits the filter's usefulness in my experience, by knee-capping some signals. But, not using a filter can often lead to LF problems when tracking, especially as overdub after overdub is applied.

    I wanted a musical, effective, but gentle HPF in the Two-V. It is a 6dB slope cornered at 120Hz, which is much higher than most filters, and much gentler, too. The result is the sources still feel solid and complete, even with the filter, but the subsonic information (which is especially problematic) is effectively controlled. Russ Long told me he thinks it's about the most perfect HPF he's used, which is pretty high praise! I pretty much leave it on except for obvious LF signals (bass, kick, large toms, etc.).
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  3. #3
    Moderator pan60's Avatar
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    Mar 2008
    Pan60 Also, why not place the input above the gain?

    Joel That was an aesthetic choice. The input control is in front of the active gains stages in the circuit, so it would have made sense to have the front panel reflect that. But, I think most people are used to seeing gain first, particularly in a vertical module. So, I just decided to keep it that way. This doesn't appear to be a problem as everyone pretty much gets the circuit function after playing with it for a short while. Hopefully that will continue!

    Pan60 Can you tell us about the input pad?

    Joel Well, the Two-V doesn't have an input 'pad' per se. The input control is a pad in itself.

    Lots of vintage mic preamp designs, going back to early tube designs in the 1930's, have fixed gain stages that are coupled with some type of attenuator to allow user control over total gain. This may seem an odd approach to some folks who are used to a more modern convention of actually altering gain at the gain stage rather than through passive attenuation. But, many revered vintage designs used passive attenuation as part of their gain structure.

    I modeled the Two-V approach off of Neve's use of passive attenuation in the gain structure of all of their class-A mic amps like the 1073, 1084, etc. The lowest actual gain in those modules is 40dB, with lower settings achieved through the use of a switched pad network in front of the first gain stage. So, a 20dB gain setting on a 1073 is really 40dB of gain with a -20dB pad between the input transformer and the first gain block. Their design, which is part of the gain switch assembly, operates in -5dB chunks, and once you hit the 40dB gain position the pad is removed from this position altogether.

    I wanted more tone shaping ability from this circuit, so I simply separated the pad function from the gain switch. The 'Input' control provides this attenuation, and unlike the other design, it is continuously-variable for infinitely greater control.

    This means that with the Two-V, engineers can use higher gain settings. This alters the tone of the gain blocks -- making them more harmonic and engaging. You can then drop the input level back to keep the overall output in control. It's a very cool and the result is a different tone on a variety of sources. It's something that can't be done with all the reissues and clones out there in the market. It really makes the Two-V a very different beast and extremely flexible, tonally.

    Plus the transformers are much nicer sounding, IMO.

    Pan60 Could you touch on the attenuation as well?

    Joel Do you mean the 'Output' control?

    Pan60 Yes.

    Joel It's simply a passive fader, as used on so many old vintage consoles. It controls the level between gain stages, so you can blow up the front end for over-the-top character and then contain that level for the next device in line.

    Pan60 Very cool. Joel, very nice work! A big thumbs up! I think you will do well with these.

    Guys & gals, these things look great, feel great and sound great!

    What more could you ask for?

    I say, a big thumbs up to Joel and Rascal Audio for giving us another awesome pre for our arsenals.

    Joel, thanks so much for letting us check this beauty out!

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