[STORY] My new favorite vocal chain :)

So I had vocal sessions yesterday afternoon into evening. The past few singers I have had have been kinda honky sounding and I was set out to combat it. This singer in particular has been in before. The closest I had gotten with him was the best sounding mic through a bunch of microphone auditions using a “safe” vocal chain that I would hone during mixdown.

When I audition, I usually go through a real clean preamp like a Mindprint DTC or a Sytek mpx4aii non burr brown, usually I use the former since the mpx4 is hyper-fast as far as response goes. I auditioned a U87, Rode K2 loaded with a nos telefunken, CAD VSM-1 loaded with a nos jan5751, and a 3 zigma lol251. The 3 zigma 251 was the best sounding of the bunch but still lacked some of that magic. So he was coming in again this wednesday and I didn’t feel like pulling out the preset sheets to set up the i.o. I wanted to approach things more aggressively.

Before he arrived I looked at my recent vocal chains. I have been getting into the knack of running a couple of compressors in series when tracking vocals (I have been doing a bit of VO work lately) and I decided to carry this into Wednesday’s sessions. I haven’t been 100% happy with the sound of the DTC compressors for vocals when I hit them hard. When I ride into my dtcs, there is a top end sparkle/sizzle (harmonic distortion) pretty localized to the high frequencies that works great for a lot of things but I was getting bored of the same sound. I have two of them and I had bought some tubes a year ago so I can have different flavors so I finally pulled one from the rack and replaced the compressor tubes with tung-sol gold ecc803s tubes, buttoned it up and turned it on to let the tubes warm up for an hour or so till he arrived. Next I needed to think of my chain of preamp and compression.

I turned on my MDP-1a to let its tubes warm up, went to the patch bay and patched it in front of the DTC then after the DTC, I patched in a channel of dynamics toolbox compressor. So, here is what the signal chain looks like on paper:

3 Zigma LOL251 → Pendulum Audio MDPa → Mindprint DTC tung-sol Line Input–EQ–Compressor → Dynamics Toolbox (ele output) → DACs

To explain a little of the chain, I loaded my dynamics toolbox with Sowter transformers which is an add-on option that gives you that sowter sound if you choose those outputs, a mid-forward/saturated tone depending on how you push them. I used the electric outputs which are clean.
The DTC has a insert as well which bypasses the preamp section which is transformer based. I wanted the transformer and preamp in the chain.

OK! So Jim arrived. I told him what I had done and he was up to getting closer to his “golden chain” for his vocals. I loaded the session we were going to work on and sent him to “The Money Booth” (vocal booth, that was named that by a band a number of years ago and everyone since then gets a kick out of the name so it stuck) Anyway… I set cue levels and began making passes on the song tuning the chain while he warmed up his voice.

When I work on a chain, it is haphazard and creative but there are primary things I look for and start out for as well. First I establish an overall level of the entire chain then go from there. I started with the MDP1 and set the gain and output knobs level (+48 input gain/5 output level), leveled the DTC and had the compressors and EQs bypassed, and had the toolbox bypassed entirely. I then fine-tune the mic placement.

EQing without an EQ: If I hear something spectrally based that I want to change, I will adjust the microphone first. It was funny, I went to the vocal booth to change the microphone’s placement, stating: “I need to move the mic a smidge”, moved it and Jim commented “That was two smidges, Tom.” I laughed and told him that it was actually a smidge and a half. Anyway, I dropped the mic an inch and a half and angled the mic a little differently to achieve the EQing I was after. I still needed a 1db boost at 4.6 kHz with a Q of .4

After a pass and a half, the vocal sounded good but I wasn’t excited (yet)… So what did I do, I pushed the gain of the MDP1a into distortion then backed off 2 clicks in the loud sections for baseline “max gain before audible distortion” then headed to the input gain and compressor section of the dtc. I did almost the same with the input gain of the DTC but i backed it off a bit more then proceeded to push the compressor on it to -10 to -16 gain reduction (don’t be appalled, the dtc compressor has a slowish attack) with a .02 second release. I then set the dynamics toolbox to level peaks a little more. The excitement began to come out of the speakers!

I then started to ride the input gain of the MDP1a and the compression threshold on the DTC finding the sweet spot of the chain and Jim’s performance. I had to be really careful because I could make the DTC’s compressor pump. I also had to make gain changes in between vocal lines because the MPD1a has stepped gain knobs that audibly “click” when it is changed. It was a delicate exciting act!

Five passes later we were both totally stoked. Jim’s performance was totally ON. I thought I may have been so excited because I was riding everything so deliberately, but when Jim got back to the control room, he was floored. It really sounded incredible.

I tell ya, those tung-sol tubes are really musical. Much much more than the ruby tubes I pulled out and the flavor was spread evenly across the signal. Looking back, the 3 zigma 251 is a very articulate microphone with its own frequency response. Having all that information/detail of Jim’s voice and setting it on a tube/transformer highway, it really did something special. I be liking this new signal chain!

All right! So you either read or skipped to the end… in either case, here is a sample:
“Shady Side” sample mp3 © 2011 Jim Donsky/Woodcrest Studio

Oh, and for the record, there is no eq other than the 1db boost I did on the DTC coming in and the harmony vocals have a mid frequency cut I did with a plugin EQ.

In the mix, the vocals are extremely dry with only the addition of some mid-side processing to give them a little width. The harmony vocals don’t have any of this though.

Wait. How long should one let their tubes warm up before using them? I never knew you had to warm them up in the first place. :open_mouth:

I was taught 10-20 minutes, with the 20 minutes being the “it is absolutely warmed up by then”. I don’t have any scientific knowledge as to how long, but I do know it does take time for tubes to stabilize temperature and voltage. My MDP1s will not even pass audio for a few minutes because of the soft start circuit.

I let the DTC tube compressor sit idle for an hour because I replaced the tubes and they were new. Tubes are mechanical and have a break-in/burn-in period.

Realizing that I know a lot less about my En-Voice MKII preamp / compressor, I decided to read the manual. :open_mouth:

What do you know about the 12AX7A tube? Is it any good? Is there a better (yet reasonably priced) tube I should be using for vocal applications? How 'bout undistorted guitar / bass?

I don’t know much about the en-voice. I assume it shares some of the circuit designs as the DTC but I don’t really know that as fact.

I dunno… I would swap and use the heck out of it and find where it works best. I did a quick search and I saw a person on gearslutz put a groove tubes tube in it. Heck, try and see! At the very least, it will be exciting, right? Like a new piece of gear. :slight_smile:

Here is where I bought most of my tubes and this is the tung-sol tube I bought:

The guys there are uber cool. I recall telling them what I was looking for and what the tubes were going in and they helped me make my decision. It was like going to the bar and asking the bartender for a pilsner that has a bit of hops bitterness, not to fruity then clank, a mug of beer was sitting in front of me and it tasted great.

Anyway, since the tube only sits in the compressor section, you will only really hear the impact of the tube change while compressing. What I am getting at it it will be minimal unless you are hitting it hard. In my case, the new tubes shined when doing that. To be honest, I was really surprised by the difference it made. Shocked actually.

Cool writeup Tom, that was a great read in the early morning.

It’s not just the valves that take time to warm up, it’s the whole circuit, component values drift with temperature, be it valve or not, only with valve gear the temp variation is usually more extreme. It pays to let valve gear reach it’s operating temperature. You can quite often hear a reasonable difference during this settling in period, be it a guitar amp or a mic pre or what ever.

Nice write up Tom, it’s good to here someone going the extra mile and still get exited by the results.

Yeah, excellent write-up. (That’s a serious statement.) I just don’t understand a lot of it due to a lack of experience.

In a similar fashion to Tom’s answer to me about tubes I don’t really know what I’m listening for so I have no good way of comparing one tube to another.

For your education, the EnVoice is a mic pre with a 3 band EQ section, a compression and tube. (The manual is a relatively short read.) The tube is part of the compression chain (see page 10).

The ECC 803 is a very rare dual triode tube. It was originally made for precision test equipment and is renowned for gain, low noise and longevity. They are highly sought after as “pre amp” tubes in hi-fi equipment. Naturally, they are excellent for microphone preamp circuits too.

Inasmuch as they are dual-triode tubes, and not “power” tubes, they tend to last a long time. They also run much cooler than a typically power tube. In that light (no pun intended), a ten-minute warm-up period should be more than sufficient.

Thanks Tom, except for the gear-lust you kindled in my heart! :laughing:


The Mindprint DTC is the dual channel version of the EnVoice. I just re-read the first post and saw this. So you should be familiar with the EnVoice. :wink:

Good stuff Tom. Nice read whilst drinking my Caffe Americano :sunglasses:

That’s interesting. The tung-sol tubes I put in I think were actually new. On the box they list them as ecc803s and the tube depot lists them as that and 12ax7. It is a dual triode. I was a bit hesitant to even use them and they were inexpensive compared to the other nos tubes I had bought. I give them a big thumbs up!

:astonished: How near are you? John keeps talkin about coming over. You should nag him to come over and we’ll have a grand time. I have 2 couches, one is a pull out. LOL and that is not meant to be dirty. I’ll get a band to come in and we can hand out and record to the weeeee hours of the morning. :mrgreen:

You are going to love this post then Robin. :wink: :wink: :wink: :wink: :wink: :wink:

I gots one of these coming this week!

It’s a KuSh Audio Main Gain :slight_smile:

My Central station has been acting up for a year and it is time to devote it to solely cue and alt speaker duties and the Main Gain will now control my main studio monitors.

Thanks for the appreciation of the story everyone. I don’t get a chance to post a whole lot these days and I really enjoyed the session and writing the story about it. Thanks for all the love!

I total obliterated this post with a complete new one. So if you read the old post, then “yup whatever” this post is a lot more fun.

I have had nothing to drink tonight

My wife would never let me stay that long, but I just realized that I was 11 miles from West Chester, PA on Wednesday for a client meeting. Fortunately, I’ll be going there a few more times so the next time I know I will be there I will send you an email so that we can get together for coffee.

odear i normally like coffee and the latest vizz
tubes are a glorious and wondrous thing that when you get a decent pair or set depending on what you run and yes 18 mins is the standard for any valve weather its amping for instruents or modulation for radio’s same warm up times .same valves …such a shame plungin people are going to miss out on the beuti of the charitorist changes while play an instrument while the valve warms … i surpose the amp rack does all that does it ??? :laughing: :laughing: :laughing:

sorry for the spelling im a musician aahh actually from another thread …joking … try to use real valves , more warmth an presence

i am the freq

She can come too!

If you know ahead of time when you are in the area, let me know. My schedule is normally jammed. Sometimes I can pull away from something but it is better for me to plan ahead.