SoundRoom: Retro Channel

BASS PLAYERS WHO HAVEN’T SPENT much time in a recording studio—or just aren’t that in to recording gear—may not be aware of the “channel strip” gear category. It’s a pity, because rackmount channel strips open up a world of geeky hipness for the truly tone obsessed. Channel strips are so-called because they emulate a single channel’s “strip” of functions on a mixing console. In its most basic form, a channel strip pairs a mic preamp with EQ, although most now include an instrument-level input and compression. Prior to the emergence of channel strips, preamplification, EQ, and compression would be handled by a mixing console and/or rack of discrete outboard gear. Though channel strips are used for every instrument in an ensemble, they’re of particular utility for bass players, who can both benefit from their tone and dynamic sculpting in the studio and use them as preamps for a live rig.
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BASS PLAYERS WHO HAVEN’T SPENT much time in a recording studio—or just aren’t that in to recording gear—may not be aware of the “channel strip” gear category. It’s a pity, because rackmount channel strips open up a world of geeky hipness for the truly tone obsessed. Channel strips are so-called because they emulate a single channel’s “strip” of functions on a mixing console. In its most basic form, a channel strip pairs a mic preamp with EQ, although most now include an instrument-level input and compression. Prior to the emergence of channel strips, preamplification, EQ, and compression would be handled by a mixing console and/or rack of discrete outboard gear. Though channel strips are used for every instrument in an ensemble, they’re of particular utility for bass players, who can both benefit from their tone and dynamic sculpting in the studio and use them as preamps for a live rig.

bp0310_Retro_Channel

Lance Keltner, a guitarist and longtime recording engineer, designed the Retro Channel to capture the muchballyhooed sound of a trio of vintage outboard studio boxes: the Telefunken V72 mic preamp, Teletronix LA-2A compressor, and Pultec EQP-1A. Each of these units would cost beaucoup bucks on the vintage market, and though there are modern homages to each from other manufacturers, I don’t know of a channel strip that combines them in one box like the Retro Channel.

The Retro Channel’s front-panel q" jack is our ticket to the party. Like all channel strips, the Retro Channel also has an XLR input, although this would be of less use to the average bass player (unless they’re miking an upright or speaker cabinet). The solid-state preamp boosts the signal by +12dB, +18dB, +24dB, or +30dB, but doesn’t include any metering of any kind. Though it’s not a necessity, a clip-indicating LED would be a welcome inclusion.

After the input, the signal travels through the LA-2A-style compressor. Like the LA-2A, the Retro Channel employs two knobs, one controlling peak reduction (the amount of compression) and one controlling gain after the compression is set. There’s also a LIMIT/COMP switch, which substantially ups the compression ratio in LIMIT mode. Although the original LA-2A included a VU meter to monitor both gain reduction and output level, the Retro Channel makes do with a single PEAK overload LED.

Next down the strip is the Retro Channel’s Pultec EQP-1A-esque EQ. The Pultec is one of the most legendary pieces of recording gear, renowned for its sweet personality, smooth top end, and overall vibe-injecting capability. For bass players, it’s particularly seminal, given that many classic James Jamerson lines were recorded through a signal chain that included a Pultec. The Retro Channel’s EQ is substantially more flexible than a real-deal Pultec, offering the ability to boost and cut separate high- and low-frequency points simultaneously. It’s also, at least to my eyes, much easier to grok than the original, which is confusing and weird in a totally period-appropriate way. The Retro Channel also offers the ability to switch the EQ in and out.

SOUND

Before I tried pairing the Retro Channel with a power amp in a live rig, I did some pretty serious overdubbing with it in my home studio. I don’t have any of the original gear it emulated for an A/B comparison, but I do have a Universal Audio LA-610, which offers an excellent LA-2Astyle compressor of its own, so I have a bit of context sonically for the sound. I tested the Retro Channel with a variety of passive and active basses, including an F-Bass BN5, a Nordstrand Nordy VJ5, and vintage Fender Precision and Jazz basses. One note: the rear-panel power switch is annoying in a home studio and there’s no on/off indicator. This is definitely an area for improvement.

To test the preamp alone, I turned down the compression and removed the EQ from the circuit with the front-panel switch. The sound was well textured, warm, and open, with a quicker immediacy than the tube preamps in my home studio (a Tube Tech MEC-1A and the UA). Rolling in the compressor was equally pleasing, not only because of its delicate and natural-sounding soft-knee vibe, but because it added a bit of color to my basses’ signal (especially the passive Fenders) that helped it stand up in the mix.

The Retro Channel’s EQ section is its most killer feature. It was smooth and organic, with excellent separation between filters and a precision that belies its funky old-school vibe. I got excellent results for fingerstyle by bumping a bit of narrowbandwidth 2kHz, and slightly attenuating at 20Hz and 10kHz. Like the compressor, bringing the EQ into the circuit, even with minimal actual adjustment, added personality and intriguing texture to my sound.

I also tried the Retro Channel as a front-end for a live rig that included a Crest CA-9 power amp. The smooth and elegant results I found in my studio translated well into the live context, although the Retro Channel’s functionality is not ideally suited for a live rig (it’s missing a DI, the aforementioned front-mounted power switch, and a mute button). Nevertheless, each of these shortcomings has workarounds, so there’s nothing stopping a motivated live performer from integrating the Retro Channel into their rig.

The Retro Channel sounded fantastic and successfully delivered a healthy dose of vintage vibe in a slick-looking two-rackspace package. The all solid-state topology is not as plush and gooey as the tube originals, but it has loads of personality and killer tone.

RETRO CHANNEL

Street $1,799
Pros Excellent high-end sound with superb versatility in the studio or onstage
Cons Rear-mounted power switch; no on/off indicator; no preamp clip indicator
Contact www.retro-channel.com

TECH SPECS

Input impedance INSTRUMENT, 1MΩ; XLR, 3kΩ
Compressor attacktime <1.5ms
Compressor release time 40–80ms for 50-percent release
Outputs Balanced XLR and unbalanced 1/4"

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