Studio Projects VTB-1 Microphone Preamp

Though it is only one half rack width, the VTB-1 from manufacturer Studio Projects is not what you would call a minimalist’s design, for it includes a variety of features that is almost unmatched in the marketplace, much less at its price point. Like other Studio Projects equipment, it is built in China, though designed in the US of A. Let’s see what happens when you load a half rack box with a load of innovative features and price it at $229 MSRP/ Sure it looks like a CB radio – PMI (the parent company of Studio Projects) Head Honcho Alan Hyatt will be the first to admit that they didn’t spend a lot of time or money on the exterior design of the VTB-1, not that it is terrible looking, or that it feels cheap. As a matter of fact, for the money it happens to be very nicely built (on the inside, that is) especially for a Chinese manufactured product. Amazingly enough it was even missing that typical greasy smell that seems so hallmark of low-buck Chinese goods. Internally, the construction quality was high with such niceties as a ceramic tube socket, perfectly flowed solder joints, consistent length of component leads, and nice thick circuit cards. Honestly the build quality leaves nothing to be desired, especially at its price. The VTB-1 though it has a tube in it should not be considered a tube based preamp, like many of its low budget competitors, it is really a solid state device that includes a tube for some interesting coloration choices. To further emphasize this point, the tube can be dialed completely out of the signal path using the front panel blend control. Looking at the VTB-1 from the front, arranged left to right are the following; 48 volt phantom power pushbutton and LED indicator, HiZ input on a ¼” jack, line-in pushbutton and LED indicator, rotary input gain pot, high pass filter and LED indicator, rotary tube blend pot, meter mode (input/output) pushbutton and LED indicator, five-segment LED meter, rotary output level pot, and polarity reverse pushbutton and LED indicator. Viewed from the rear, the VTB-1 sports a 12VAC push on power supply input, a balanced out on a XLR connector, a line out on ¼” TRS, an insert jack on ¼” TRS, a microphone impedance pushbutton, and a XLR microphone input. The VTB-1’s enclosure is very nicely constructed of steel, and the knobs and switches feel sturdily mounted. I especially liked the fact that the rotary potentiometers feature detented operation. This makes resetting the unit much more convenient. Although there isn't a dedicated power switch, a blue glow (from an LED near the tube) emanates from the perforations in the front panel when the unit is plugged in through the included wall-wart power supply. Since the VTB-1’s rear panel provides XLR balanced and 1/4-inch TRS outputs, simultaneous output is possible, useful for sending a signal to two places at once, such as to an amplifier and a mixing board. Bark at the Moon - When I began my time with the VTB-1 I was in the midst of tracking a hard edged nu-metal project with lots of synths. During the inevitable lulls in tracking I substituted the Studio Projects preamp for the various preamps that were in use (onboard preamps from my Neotek IIIc console, the D.A.V. Electronics Broadhurst Gardens No1., and the Peavey VMP-2) At that point in tracking we had already laid down a sequenced guide track which was just a rhythmic loop with a couple of breakbeat fills thrown in along the way. First up to be recorded were bass tracks. Especially for music that tends to be dense, I favor a lightly compressed direct injected bass track to really anchor the rest of the instruments. Using a Warmoth Gecko 5-string bass loaded with Bartolini pickups and electronics, we initially used a Radial JDI direct box feeding the Peavey Preamp. While this was a great sounding combination, it seemed to be a bit too “hi-fi” sounding, so we reverted to the Hi-z input on the preamp itself. This sounded quite a bit tougher, so we printed the track using this set up. Switching to the VTB-1 yielded a similar, but slightly rougher sound that the bass player preferred. I found that the best method to determine the correct amount of “tube blend” to utilize was to turn the control up until the artifacts that it was producing became obvious, and then ratchet it down a click or two. Bass track(s) in the can we moved on to synth tracks for which we used a combination of a Moog MG-1, Minimoog, Chroma Polaris II, and a Yamaha RM1-X. For these we switched to the onboard Neotek preamps to achieve a cleaner, more representative of the instrument being recorded, type of sound. Here the VTB-1 didn’t do so well. As I later confirmed with the manufacturer, using the front panel HiZ input as a line stage is not recommended. Basically the VTB-1 is not capable of handling a high (or medium-high) level signal without going into some pretty massive clipping. Still, if you were looking for the sound of something that sounds like it is about to blow up, in a great “Nine Inch Nails” sort of way, I would encourage you to route those line sources right through the VTB-1. One of the more innovative features of the VTB-1 is the selectable input impedance switch on the back panel. To the best of my knowledge, there is no other microphone preamp available on the market today at anywhere near the VTB’s price that includes this feature. That said, I didn’t find it to be all that useful! In all fairness I believe that it is more useful for loads such as ribbon mics that can have a problem trying to drive a load that is of too high impedance. As it was, I found that the control seemed to act to accentuate or attenuate the apparent brightness of microphones such as the Audio Technica 4040 and the beyer dynamic M88 TG which is certainly a valid way to effect a tonal change without reaching for the EQ (or moving that microphone, you lazy son-of-a). When it came time to record the vocals I brought out the Sennheiser 421 which is a great choice when you are dealing with a real screamer. I am unaware of a 421 ever having been damaged by a rabid singer! The 421 sounded way too clean through either the DAV preamp or the stock Neotek preamps, so the choice was between the VTB-1 and the Peavey VMP-2. Just to recap, the Peavey VMP-2 is an all-tube. input and output transformer based design, and I have retubed my particular unit with NOS RCA tubes (made a huge difference, by the way), so it really should come as no surprise that it presented a larger, more clearly defined, and smoother image. Although we chose that signal path for the lead vocal, we did utilize the VTB-1 for some of the background vocals, driving it into rampant distortion-land. at times setting the “tube blend” control almost all the way up. With the tube blend turned all the way down, the VTB-1 just sounded kind of flat and uninteresting by comparison. Drums provided a bit more of a challenge than the VTB-1 seemed to be up for, unless of course you are looking for tightly compacted sounds that are not representative of the source instrument. Just for fun, I recorded an extra track of a Shure 514b (which is a CB radio style push to talk dynamic microphone) feeing the VTB-1 with the tube blend turned way past mildly distorted. Though we didn’t end up using the track, there was definitely more than a little bit of the Tchad Blake thing going on. Forget about using the VTB-1 on kick or snare though, it just doesn’t have the headroom to do those instruments justice. The general consensus among the band was that the VTB-1 was great for tracks that need more “edge” or “dirt” applied to them. I would agree! The VTB-1 is probably one of the last preamps I would reach for if I were looking to record a string quartet, but for aggressive music (especially for nasty sounding vocals) it’s a great box. Twelve Angry Men - Especially in light of its low price, the VTB-1 is an intriguing product. It could almost be viewed as an exercise in seeing how many features could be added to a ½ rack size box and still have it sell for less than $200 (on the street). On one hand, it is not capable of passing a clean signal unscathed, but most of us have preamps (either external or as part of a console) that are capable of that kind of output. The other side of the picture is that the VTB-1 can produce some grungy (but controlled and repeatable) sounds that would be difficult or impossible to produce using a standard microphone preamp. If you are in the market for a colored preamp with attitude, and need a unit that can double as an excellent direct box (especially for bass guitar), the VTB-1 is certainly worth an extended listen. Product Summary Studio Projects VTB1 Microphone Preamp MSRP $229 EM Meter – Features - 4 Sound Quality – 3 Fit and Finish – 4 Value - 4 Pros – feature rich, interesting colorations, versatile metering, very good DI Cons – no clean sounds, tube hard to replace Manufacturer – Studio Projects Web VTB-1 Specifications Frequency Response 20-20000 Hz Phase Response 20-20000 Hz +/-15 degrees Distortion .0015 (blend set fully ccd –no tube) Maximum Gain 72dB mic/ 42dB line Input Impedance Mic Input 300/2000 ohms depending on position DI input 1500 ohms Output Impedance 100 ohms xlr/trs line out 300 ohms Mic EIN -128 dB Tube Type 12AX7 starved plate implementation Weight Dimensions 8.5w 1.5h 5d Input Connectors XLR mic input w/48v power ¼” TRS line input Output Connector 3-pin XLR male TRS ¼” Insert Connector TRS unbalanced Supplied Accessories AC adaptor wall wart type