Zone Recording: A Good Front End

Welcome readers. How the heck are ya doing? Hope all your mixes and recordings are going great! I am going to talk about having a great front end this month. No, I am not talking about going the gym to work on our pecs, but in a roundabout way I might be. What I am referring to is the piece that should be in every project studio. It is called the "front end" This is the unit that takes your signal either from a mic, line or guitar signal right into your sound card.

There are many forms that this can come in and there are a plethora of companies out there that have great products. I plan on talking about a few of them, and some of the features that you might want. So many people think that they can plug anything into the sound card and wonder why it sounds OK, but does not have that PRO sound. This is because you are missing the front end unit! It is basically a mic/preamp that I am talking about. This is the most important way of getting a good signal to tape or hard disk. What the unit does is to take your input signal and shape it into a pro usable signal.

There are two basic types of units. The first is solid state, or transistor, and the second is tube. I think that both have their purpose in a project studio for different purposes. Usually, a solid-state unit might be more clinical, whereas a tube unit could be more forgiving - but again this is not always the case.

The second thing you would want on your front end would be a compressor. What a compressor does is to make your signal more controllable in an effort to get the most headroom possible, while decreasing the noise floor by bumping up quiet passages. Picture having a very dynamic acoustic guitar track where you are just hammering out heavy rhythms in some parts, and then playing very soft delicate picking passages. The compressor will control the very loud passages by squeezing them down and will bring up the very soft passages so you have a more controlled take. You have to watch that you do not over compress, or you will be left with a very un-dynamic track.

The third thing your front end should have is some type of shelving EQ. A high and a low pass filter would be great. A high pass filter usually will cut away unwanted low end rumble in the take to make it fit into the mix without cluttering the low end. The exact opposite is true for the low pass filter. These are invaluable to have.

The fourth thing is an EQ on the unit. I find this one to be the most subjective. Personally speaking, I do not use much, if any, EQ on the incoming signal except for the above mentioned filters. If you do want to have an EQ, the purpose is to shape the tone before it is recorded. The only problem is that if you take too much of the sound away when recording, it is very hard to get the sound back later when mixing. I usually leave EQ until the mixing process.

What I Use

A 2-channel compressor would be great for any studio. The one that I use is a Drawmer 1960 mic/pre tube compressor.


There is little doubt in the minds of many engineers and producers that vacuum tubes possess a unique sound quality providing a "warmer, more alive" sound. Combining eight active tube stages and the low noise and reliability of solid state electronics, the Drawmer 1960 provides the ultimate direct interface between the sound source and the recording medium. The Drawmer 1960 is a two channel unit with each channel comprised of a completely natural sounding "soft knee" vacuum tube compressor and an extremely low noise microphone pre-amplifier with switchable 48 volt phantom power. A further auxiliary instrument pre-amp with EQ is also provided.

This powerful combination of the classic valve circuit, offering unsurpassed tonality, and the low noise balanced microphone input with up to 60dB of gain has allowed engineers throughout the world to exploit the full potential of high performance condenser microphones. An example of this would be the direct to digital stereo recording of live classical music without the necessity of a mixing console.

The Compressor: Because the compressor is a soft knee type, it requires few controls. Strictly speaking, a soft knee design does not have a rigidly defined threshold but the title 'Threshold' has been retained for the "amount of compression" control for the sake of familiarity. The Threshold range is continuously variable between infinity and -24dB, the theory being that signals below the threshold are essentially unprocessed and the signals exceeding this threshold are subjected to increasing amounts of gain reduction dependent on by how much they exceed the threshold.

The attack and release times are switchable rather than being continuously variable and this method of operation falls into line with that of its all valve predecessors. Attack simply offers a-choice of slow, medium and fast whilst release has six settings. Positions one to four have fixed release times whilst positions five and six are two different programme dependent release time modes making the unit ideally suited to programme material with complex dynamics such as complete stereo mixes and vocals. Interestingly, the attack times are further modified by the choice of release setting so the range of choices are wider than it might first appear.

Because compression is a form of controlled gain reduction, a stage of make-up amplification follows the compressor section giving a range of +20dB. The VU meters may be switched to monitor either the amount of gain reduction taking place or the output signal level and the two channels may be used either independently or as a stereo pair, depending on the setting of the stereo link switch.

The side chain access points may be used to patch in equalisers to enable the compressor to act as a de-esser. As with other Drawmer products, the by-pass switch offers a choice of Normal. By-pass and Side Chain Listen modes so that if you have patched in any additional side chain processing, you can easily monitor what effect it is having.
In addition to the balanced microphone and line inputs on the rear of the unit an auxiliary input on the front panel gives direct access for guitars or electronic instruments. Equalization is provided along with sufficient gain to overload the tube pre-amp for sustain effects. The Aux input is a valuable addition as it combines the virtues of a D.I. box and equalizer with the compressor allowing the instrument to be simultaneously processed and routed to the mixing console or directly to the recorder.

From the Drawmer web site.

Another unit worth mentioning is the JOEMEEK TwinQCS.


For Dual tracking and live sound applications, the TwinQ offers superb sonic performance with a distinctly British flavor.

For use in a professional studio or in live sound, the TwinQ offers JOEMEEK's finest audio interface in a compact, dual channel format. In each TwinQ channel is the amazing and unique 'CurrentSense' mic pre, a JOEMEEK optical compressor in a new dual mono/stereo format, and the Meequaliser; a classic three band discrete EQ.

The TwinQ uses JOEMEEK's latest generation of 'CurrentSense' mic pre. The cs pre ampworks differently. It is completely self-optimising to any microphone or instrument source. This means that its performance is equal to the very best mic & pre combinations, but superior to anything that is slightly unmatched in frequency and phase response. The result is a beautifully rich and full sound from all sonic sources, from condenser mics, to ribbon mics, to passive guitars. These days microphone impedance varies greatly, so the advantage of the CurrentSense pre amplifier can be heard instantly. As well as balanced mic and line inputs on the rear panel, there is also a specially optimized instrument input on the front of each channel.

After the mic pre, the famous JOEMEEK optical compressor controls dynamics while adding amazing warmth. The TwinQ allows dual mono or stereo optical compression modes. The linking of the photocells, with no possibility of stereo image shift is another first. This means that the TwinQ is just as effective at compressing mixes and subgroups as well as individual tracks. When the new 'optical link' button is pressed, all control of the stereo compressor is handed to the left channel, allowing easy manipulation of the compressed signal. Metering is also excellent, with large VU meters showing either input gain, or gain reduction on each channel.

To finish the sound, the 3 band discrete Meequaliser adds tonal control. Being a classic design, super smooth EQ results are achieved, where it is possible to add large levels of boost or cut without the distracting harshness associated with digital or modern desk EQs.

From the Joemeek web site.

As you can see there are a few options to check out. I find that either of these units are of great importance to having your front end big and buff sounding.

Pricing should not hurt you too much, but you have to remember this is a crucial point in the recording chain and you should not skimp by choosing inferior quality to save a few bucks.

Till next time.

May the tone be with you.

David Martone is a guitarist from Vancouver, Canada who has released seven solo CDs which showcase his musical diversity and brilliant guitarmanship.

His 2007 CD is entitled "When The Aliens Come", which features a progressive sound incorporating jazz, rock, fusion and metal influences.

David Martone