Focusrite VoiceMaster Platinum

PLEASE NOTE: This article has been archived. It first appeared on ProRec.com in January 2000, contributed by then Editor-in-Chief Rip Rowan. We will not be making any updates to the article. Please visit the home page for our latest content. Thank you!

The Voicemaster Platinum from Focusrite is a multifunctional mic preamp featuring a discrete mic preamp, noise-reducing downward expander, vocal saturator, optocompressor, EQ, and de-esser in a single-space rack unit.

The unit’s brushed-chrome front panel and black knobs are easy to read and have a sexy, modern look. The knobs are clearly labeled, and appropriate metering is provided for all of the unit’s processing stages.

Features

The VoiceMaster Platinum is not a bunch of generic processors. Every aspect of this unit has been tailored towards recording vocals. I quickly noticed that many controls had unusual labels, like “Warmth”, “Presence” and “Breath” for the EQ section, or the switch marked “Absence.” We’ll cover these controls in more detail later.

The preamp section is a discrete transistor amplifier with about 60 dB of gain – plenty of gain for most applications. The preamp includes a phantom power switch, line / mic input switch, polarity reverse switch, and sweepable low-cut filter. “Signal present” and “Overload” lights assist in setting levels.

The preamp feeds a downward expander that is used to reduce background noise while tracking. The expander has variable threshold and depth (ratio) controls. A gate switch causes the unit to function in a noise gate mode, useful for heavy noise reduction. An in/out switch takes the expander out of the signal chain, and a four-step gain-reduction meter indicates the amount of noise reduction being applied.

The output of the downward expander feeds a section labeled “Vocal Saturator”. This is basically a distortion section that applies a distorting gain stage to the signal. The saturator has a unique “tuning” knob that causes the saturator to function like a distorting EQ. An optional “Full Bandwidth” mode that removes the EQ from the saturator can be accessed by depressing a switch below the tuning knob. “Signal Present” and “Overload” lights are available for this stage of the processor.

After the Vocal Saturator comes the compressor. This unusual optical compressor has knobs to set the threshold and release times, and switches for “fast” attack and “hard” ratio. A Treble knob is available to add high frequencies lost during compression, and an output makeup gain knob is provided. There is a 6-step LED meter to indicate the gain reduction during compression.

The unusual EQ section offers a swept lo-mid EQ labeled “Warmth” as well as two fixed treble controls for “Presence” and “Breath”. The Warmth control is sweepable from 120 Hz to 600 Hz. A switch marked “Absence” invokes a cut in the frequencies around 4.5K (my guess only, the manual doesn’t say). A switch is provided to take the EQ out of the signal path.

The opto de-esser is at the end of the signal chain. Predictably, the de-esser has controls for threshold and cut frequency. The cut frequency is sweepable from 2200 Hz to 9200 Hz. An “Active” light is provided to let you know when de-essing is occurring, and an In/ Out switch lets you take the de-esser out of the signal path.

Output from the unit is controlled by a Master Fader knob. Under the output knob is a 6-step LED meter to indicate the unit’s peak output level.

The Voicemaster Platinum is outfitted with mic and line inputs, an insert jack, and pre- and post-de-esser outputs. The master output is available as both a +4 dBu balanced XLR output as well as an unbalanced -10 dBu ¼” jack.

I used a number of mics with the VoiceMaster Platinum, including the Shure KSM32, Neumann U87, and Audio-Technica AT4050. Since the VoiceMaster Platinum wants to be your “gold channel” for use with important vocal tracks, I used it exclusively for vocal tracks.

Performance

This is a quirky unit, and I found many things to like and dislike about it.

Generally speaking, I like the preamp section. It seems fast, and there’s plenty of gain available for use with any microphone. I also like the ability to have both a microphone and line input plugged in to the back, and use the front panel switch to select between them. This helps when using the unit for both tracking and mixing. The sweepable low-cut is a good idea. I like the ability to tailor the cut frequency.

I would have preferred a dedicated meter on the preamp section, as there is a broad range of volumes between “Signal Present” and “Overload.” As recommended in the manual, I used the typical “turn it up until the red light starts to come on, then back off a little” technique to set preamp gain.

The VoiceMaster’s preamp sound (by itself, without the other effects) is good. It is capable of achieving the airy sounds associated with Focusrite products. It does not excel at “warm” at all. I found the VoiceMaster Platinum to be a good choice for vocals that need to “sit in the mix” but not “get in your face.” The units apparent headroom was good, keeping the sound “open” and transparent. As I set up the preamp for the first time I was excited about the sound I was hearing. I started to switch in the other effects in the signal path.

My enthusiasm faded as I switched in the expander. It is too slow to be safely used with vocals. Even with very modest noise reduction of -3 to -6 dB and gentle settings of the “depth” control I was able to hear unwanted artifacts in the signal. I wound up leaving the expander off for all of my tracking sessions.

The vocal saturator is an interesting feature. At first, I wanted to use it to hear more warmth in the signal – I suspected this was a “thickening” tool. It is not. The Tuning knob provides boosts from 1.4KHz to 7.2 KHz – this is a kind of treble exciter.

I liked the Saturator on a voice-over where the voice needed a far-larger-than-life-sound. On musical applications I felt the Saturator was harsh and added an unwelcome graininess to the sound. The only musical application that benefited from the Saturator circuit was an “AM radio” effect where we heavily EQed the vocal and used the Saturator to create a scratchy AM radio sound.

The optocompressor is quite unusual. I did not like the lack of variable ratio at all. However, the compressor is quite simple to set up and use. I normally only track with a little bit of compression (if any) and the VoiceMaster’s compressor is ideal for these applications where you just want to have the compressor ride gently over the loudest peaks.

I found the inclusion of a “Treble” knob to be a strange feature in a compressor, and was unsure how it worked at first. It turns out that the compressor’s Treble knob is dependent on the gain reduction. Compress lightly and this knob has almost no effect. As you get into deeper and deeper levels of compression, the treble boost is increased. I thought this was a cool feature that helped dynamic vocals retain an edge even when the vocalist got loud and caused the compressor to kick in hard.

The “Voice Optimised EQ” was as unusual as the compressor. Unlike a typical EQ, the low-frequency control is a sweepable bell-shaped EQ. This control, labeled “Warmth”, can be swept from 120 Hz to 600 Hz. Here I would have preferred a control that could be swept even lower for big Peter Murphy type vocals. The other two EQ controls, labeled “Presence” and “Breath”, control the EQ in the upper mids and extreme treble. I would have liked a sweepable “Presence” control instead of the fixed knob that sounds to be centered near 1.5KHz. An “Absence” button applies a cut at approximately 4.5KHz. From the sound of it, the “Absence” control is much narrower than the Presence control, slightly notching the sound to pull it back in the mix.

At first I was intrigued by the EQ section. I was excited by the concept of a “Voice Optimised EQ” that would offer the exact control I wanted for vocals. Sadly, I found the EQ to be only a limitation, not a strength. The swept “Warmth” control is great… but too limited in frequency. The lack of a sweep frequency on the Presence control greatly limits its usefulness.

The de-esser is simple to set up and use. However, I soon discovered that the de-essing bandwidth is too narrow for my tastes. Instead of taming sibilance problems, the de-esser colored the sibilance, causing it to become more “metallic” or more “hissy” but never really eliminating the problem. In use I did not use the de-esser, preferring my software de-essing tools.

When setting up the VoiceMaster Platinum, I was befuddled and confused by the Overload lights in the signal chain. There are two Overload lights, one in the Preamp section and one in the Saturator section. What I found is that any overload light can be tripped by its subsequent stages. Meaning, you can turn up the compressor make-up and cause the preamp to show Overload. Will someone explain this to me? Any stage will do it – even a boost in the EQ section can cause either of the overload lights to light up. The experience was unnerving. When I set up the preamp, then mess with a gain stage that follows the preamp, I don’t want the unit to tell me that the preamp is overloading.

When using the VoiceMaster Platinum I also discovered a potential problem with “treble troubleshooting.” There are, after all, 6 treble controls on the VoiceMaster: (1) the Saturator, (2) the compressor, (3) Presence, (4) Absence, (5) Breath, and (6) de-essing. Say the treble is a little harsh. Which knob do I turn? With options come complexity, and the complexity of the treble bothered me. In actual practice I did not use the Saturator, EQ, or de-esser, so I only had one treble control – the compressor.

Conclusions

Overall, this unit left me with mixed feelings. I love the concept of a unit specifically tailored for the problems of tracking vocals. After all, vocals are almost always the most important and most challenging sounds to “get right.” So the concept is dead-on, and Focusrite deserves credit for the innovation expressed in this unit. The VoiceMaster Platinum definitely breaks new ground.

However, while the concept is great, the implementation is simply not there. The only part of the circuit that I felt was “done right” is the preamp itself. Other aspects of the VoiceMaster Platinum, like the compression-dependent “Treble” control and the sweepable Vocal Saturator, are exciting – even brilliant – but they don’t overcome the unit’s drawbacks. In the end, I wound up liking the VoiceMaster Platinum for the preamp circuit alone, leaving all the other circuits switched out, or adding just a little compression.

Maybe Focusrite will solve some of the limitations of the VoiceMaster Platinum. My suggestions would be: (1) drop the Saturator, (2) provide variable ratio on the compressor, (3) make the Warmth control sweepable from 80 to 800 Hz, (4) make the Presence control sweepable from 800 Hz to 8 KHz, and (5) increase the bandwidth of the de-esser.

Alternatively, I think Focusrite has a great preamp section in this unit, and if it were available as a standalone unit – for a lower price – I’d buy one. However, in its current configuration, I did not feel that the VoiceMaster Platinum lived up to its high aspirations

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