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Studio Sound Review of the VT-1 Mic Preamp

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reprinted by permission of Studio Sound magazine (December 1996 issue). Copyright 1996.

D.W. Fearn VT-1

As the revival of The Valve continues to heat up, Douglas Fearn has set out to make a valve design mic preamp that has the edge over modern circuits in terms of musicality. DAVE FOISTER beholds a startlingly simple, yet very big, red box

I SUSPECT that by now there are more valve outboard mic preamps on the market than there are solid-state ones. It's boom time as never before for the tube, and the difficulty for the user lies in determining which boxes have been designed by people who believe in them, and which by people who believe that's where the money is.

Douglas W. Fearn is an engineer whose career goes back to a time when valves were all there was. Reminded by a trip down memory lane how, even in the most primative of setups, his old RCA valve mic preamps had something about them which was missing from modern kit (apart from hum, crackle and buzz), he decided to explore how a modern design approach could reproduce the sound without the aggravation. The result is the D.W. Fearn VT-1 preamplifier, which uses the best modern passive components -- some, including all the Jensen transformers, are custom-made for Fearn -- along with computer-circuit analysis to provide the optimum circuitry around the valves.

Fearn doesn't pretend to know exactly what it is about a valve preamp that sets it apart. He discusses various ideas in the manual, pointing out the familiar differences between valve and solid-state distortion, and the onset thereof, but resists any attempt to define the advantages which so many people now acknowledge to be inherent in the technology. All he knows for sure, along with most of the business, is that a good valve design can have the edge over modern circuits in terms of musicality and pleasing sound, and he has set out to put that edge into his preamp.

The results is a startlingly simple preamp that occupies an inordinate amount of rack space, with great big controls and a huge retro vu meter dotted around a massive, thick red, front panel that could almost put a Focusrite box in the shade. Its facilities are pretty basic, underlining the fact that the sound of the unit is of primary importance rather than bells and whistles.

THE CONTROLS comprise three big black rotary knobs and three big silver toggle switches -- there's nothing fiddly about this box -- giving the bare bones of what is needed in a preamp and not much more. An input selector switch offers a 20dB pad and a special network for low impedance microphones such as the newer transformerless designs, besides the basic straight-through mic input. The signal then passes to the attenuator control, a smooth high-quality conductive plastic pot completely devoid of calibration markings, and its resulting output level is shown on the meter. Phase reversal is carried out on the line level signal with the final rotary switch. Both this and the input switch produce quite violent clicks on the output, presumably on the basis that suppressing this would compromise the quality of the signal. Phantom power is switchable with one of the toggles, and another disconnects the meter. This is not, as might be thought, in order to reduce the risk of distortion bleeding back from the meter, but to allow the preamp to be overdriven without bending the meter needle. It might have been more helpful to put a switchable attenuator on the meter circuit so that some level monitoring was still possible, but valve overdrive is an 'ear thing' rather than a 'measuring thing' so perhaps complete disconnection is better. The remaining switch is the mains on-off, with a good old-fashioned orange neon indicator being the only light on the unit.

There is no attempt to show the valves off like some such boxes do; indeed, even the top panel has few ventilation slots in it, and the preamp runs remarkably cool, generating less heat than many modern digital processors. The rear panel is very simple, with unlabelled XLR in and out connectors and an IEC mains input.

It is clear that the VT-1 expects to be judged on its sound above all else, and it is perhaps fair to suggest that this should be the case more often than it is. It is also fair to suggest that this is a world-class preamp, bringing all the depth and detail to a microphone signal that one could hope for. A straight comparison with my console preamps was almost embarrassing, revealing aspects of the sound the desk circuits missed completely. This is not necessarily unusual; there would be little point making outboard preamps if they couldn't beat the performance of simple desk inputs. The Fearn has something extra, however, with an immediacy and a transparency surpassing most of the preamps I have heard. On its own it is, perhaps, an ideal preamp for single overdubs direct to a multitrack, and for purist straight stereo recordings its big brother, the twin-channel VT-2, would surely take some beating. This occupies the same size case as the single-channel version, and includes exactly the same facilities on both channels, prompting a thought as to whether the VT-1 really needs to be quite so bulky. Perhaps it is fitting that its size should be as imposing as its performance.

CONTACT
D.W. FEARN, PO Box 57,
Pocopson, PA 19366, US.
Tel: +1 610 793 2526
Fax: +1 610 793 1479
UK: ASAP (Europe), 1st Floor,
Units C&D, Tower Bridge
Business Complex, 100 Clements
Road, London SE16 4EF.
Tel: +44 171 231 9661
Fax: +44 171 231 9111

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