Jumbo Sunshade - Ezine

Music Gear Review - Early 00's Focusrite Voicemaster Platinum
[update - I've gotten a fair amount of feedback on this review and it turns out that i need to clarify something: Given a *choice*, i personally would use a different compressor out live. At least once a year though, i do use this Focusrite VMP out live for (lead) vocals and acoustic guitar.  I also obviously borrow it to use with recording acoustic guitar in the studio, and for this i love it!]

Ok so here's the deal with this piece of gear in my opinion:

This version of the Focusrite Voicemaster (Platinum) came out sometime around the year 2000 (i think).  It sits in the racks of alot of smaller studios; but even in the smallest studios it's not really a first or even a second-choice preamp.

All these years later you can get these things for as little as $125 including shipping.

Is it worth it?  Should you buy a Voicemaster Platinum if you see one come up on eBay for around a hundred bucks?

Yes; absolutely!


What is it?
Well if you're reading this; you probably already know that the Focusrite Voicemaster Platinum is a solid-state preamp channel designed for use with vocals.  Some of this unit's features are hard to understand both operationally, and from a "what were they thinking?" design standpoint.  And what you might not know is that there really is a great preamp in there (somewhere).

First things first - here's your signal path:
Input > High-Pass filter > [insert] > Expander >
Vocal Saturator > Compressor > EQ > De-esser > Output

XLR and 1/4" phone jacks are in the back but (input) switched from the front.  Phantom power, phase reverse, low-cut, insert.


Preamp & Variable Low-cut Filter
The variable low-cut filter is great, and like i've said; once you have it you won't want to be without it.

But the real story here is the preamp itself.  Well, that and the fact that you really can

find them on eBay for practically nothing these days!

60 dB of good clean solid-state gain with very little coloration?  For around a hundred bucks?  That's definitely a no-brainer.

I actually borrowed this VMP to try it out on some acoustic guitar, using a mid-90's AKG 414 and a Shure SM81.  I started to run some low-end microphones through it but then quickly got bored with the obvious pattern developing: All of the microphones sounded "like themselves", but just with a ton of headroom.

For vocals i used (mostly) the 414 and a Shure Beta58 to track my own live howlings.  I also bussed existing performances (3 male & 1 female) out and monitored/compared using a mixer with halfway decent preamps.

It's no surprise that there is a big difference in headroom between this preamp and the preamps in the Mackie.  And for most applications the headroom itself is usually a non-issue; i mean as long as your source sounds good you just want to keep from *hurting* it.
Where you will REALLY appreciate a preamp like this is for that room mic on an acoustic, or something along those lines.  You'd have your SDC up close to the soundhole and hitting some (preferably) tube pre.  Then you'd have your LDC back toward the wall and hitting this super clean preamp.  And you could totally crank it without worrying about distorting or changing the color of that room mic.

For around a hundred bucks!
Yea, ok; i think i've made my point.  :)


Noise Reducing Expander
Like every other noise gate, this has controls for Threshold and Depth.

I'm actually working on an Ezine article that explains the functionality of an expander, so i'm not going to get into those specifics here.  Anyone who would dismiss an expander as "useless" is clearly

unfamiliar with where, when, and how you would use it.

The Focusrite expander functions as it should.  I do have to say though; the expander on a Behringer MDX2600 is actually better than this one.  Maybe it's a consequence of the technology and not the circuit design (the Behringer goes for $130 new).

I can't imagine ever using an expander in the studio.  There just isn't a piece of gear (or a plugin) out there than can automate any aspect of the editing process.
I have used this expander to help with stage noise indoors and wind noise outdoors.


Vocal Saturator
Focusrite's Vocal Saturator (at least this one) is yet another digital circuit trying, and failing, to emulate some of that vacuum tube magic.  Variable frequecy?

Of course i could be wrong about this.  I didn't have the manual in front of me and really i'm just guessing about their intent.

But as far as preamps go, i mean it's pretty simple: If it's a tube preamp, great.  If it's a solid-state preamp, great.  If it's a hybrid then all the more useful.  But for Pete's sake don't clutter the overall design with effects!  I mean if i want to add FX i will do so myself... post.

Having said that...
If you keep the Full Bandwidth OUT; the variable Tuning knob is sortof like an amplifier's presence control, but instead of standard presence it's more like using a parametric EQ to dial it in.  I could see how this might be useful live for vocals and absolutely with acoustic guitar [i haven't tried either myself].  But with that horrible digital distortion?... bleh

And yes - i did also play around with running a modeled electric guitar through the Vocal Saturator.  It sucked.  I do love the fact that the Drive is labeled Clean and "UN CLEAN"!  :)


Opto Compressor
This compressor is decent at normal speaking levels; doesn't add noise or (apparent) color.  And with the simplified controls this might be perfect for that VO/ADR professional who has just started tinkering with compression.
But for anybody who knows what he/she wants and how to get there, these simplified controls are always quite limiting.  We all know how much things change from gig to room to performer.

No variable Ratio?  No variable rate of Attack?  No thanks.

The Treble control is obviously something you don't normally see in the compressor section.  I haven't trusted to use it live but i tested it for this review and it does work.
Blasting pink noise into the microphone with the Hard Ratio *off* didn't produce any noticeable loss of treble.  The treble loss produced with Hard Ratio *on* was easily made up with the Treble control and without adding apparent sibilance/hiss.
For me though it's all academic because the Hard Ratio is just way too hard and i would never use this compressor live (let alone for recording!).

At -26 to +10 dB, Threshold is completely useable.  Also useable is Release, which although unmarked (milliseconds) is easily capable of going from too fast to too slow.

I wanted to know how the Output functions because this is obviously integrated and there's that Master Fader sitting at the end of the line.  I didn't have the manual unfortunately so it's still a bit of a mystery.


Voice Optimised EQ
Out live when i have used this unit i did not use its EQ.  I did spend extensive time at one sound check playing around with everything, but in the end we went with an inserted graphic EQ.
In the studio i didn't get the greatest results on my own vocals or when inserting this into a real vocal performance.  Whatever the reason, i think it's safe to say that anybody used to tracking with EQ in-line would need to re-learn some things before committing to the Voicemaster Platinum's equalizer. [fyi: i personally prefer not to track with eq, instead adding it later via either plugin or bus]

Warmth & Tuning
This really is a live thing (in my opinion).  Not that you couldn't patch it into an existing recorded performance; but i just don't see how you could track with this unless you were simultaneously mixing down.  [snark]
When you play around with this live you can totally hear how these two (warmth & tuning) can place a vocal in the mix, but results will surely vary for every band and performer.

Presence is another EQ option i would never use while tracking.  And i hate to pass judgment being that i don't use this EQ live, but...
While testing for this review i found that the Tuning from the Saturator section was more musical (ironically) than this Presence control.
In concert with the Breath control, the Presence control did make alot more sense (while previously playing around with it live) and i'm sure it would be useful to someone.

A narrow Q frequency cut?  Somewhere in the 3-5k range?  4.5 dB?  I wish i'd had that manual.  I do remember testing this live and nobody could really hear any difference at that time, so it must be subtle - whatever it is.


Opto De-Esser
When it comes to recording, de-essing is another thing i prefer to do in the box.  I'll throw it on the performer's monitor mix if he/she needs it, but i will probably never track with it again.

The mic i used to get those mad compressed high frequencies is the AKG 414.  I was

also able to get some fairly annoying 'sibilance' out of the Beta58, but the AKG with me screaming into it... pure gold.
[I did not use another compressor with this preamp for this review.  But i'm sure that an inserted compressor would benefit from this de-esser.

I haven't used this unit's de-esser live because the inserted compressor is at the board; not at this preamp.  But we tested it and it worked just fine even when we crushed the vocals with Focusrite's non-variable Hard Ratio compression enabled.

I tested with and without the onboard EQ; and i also tried out the Treble control from the compressor, which actually sounded good.  I mean if you were gonna use the Voicemaster compression, you'd be happy to have this de-esser!

To my ears the Focusrite de-esser is as good or better than any of the low-priced gear i've used in recent memory.  But it doesn't even come close to some of the mid to high-priced plugins i use regularly.


Who knows what was behind Focusrite's ambition with this preamp channel.  I don't like the simplified/limited compression or the "voice-optimised" EQ; the Vocal Saturation is a waste of space in my opinion.  But none of that matters now because this solid state preamp is a bargain at anything close to $125.  My advice to anybody looking at getting a used Focusrite Voicemaster Platinum for the preamp alone: ...BUY IT!

This is for reals, Nacho!


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