Field Test: Universal Audio DCS Remote PreampVERSATILE DAW FRONT END, DESKTOP STUDIO CONTROLLER
Continuing its tradition of producing innovative studio products, Universal Audio partnered with the original founders of Euphonix to create the Desktop Console System (DCS), designed for the DAW user. The first two products in the DCS Series are the Remote Preamp, reviewed here, and the Monitor Master. The Remote Pre's combination of two mic pre/Dis and the ability to provide talkback, control monitors and cue mixes may provide a solution for DAW users who are frustrated by the lack of studio control inside the box.
The DCS Remote Preamp comprises two major components: the DCS Base and the DCS Remote. The Base is the heart of the system, providing the power supply and all the I/O. It weighs approximately 5 pounds and measures 9×6×3 inches (H×W×D). The A and B inputs include two XLR mic inputs and two TRS connectors that accommodate TS instrument inputs or a TRS line connection. Outputs vary with TRS feeds for balanced preamp outputs and a second pair for speaker feeds.
An auxiliary A/B stereo out offers an unbalanced preamp output on one TRS connection. An additional pair of TRS inputs, labeled C In, allow an extra feed from the DAW into the Remote Pre's monitor system. A headphone feed and a talkback mic output are also standard. Another feature is a mid-side stereo encoder function. By feeding the “mid” mic into Mic A and the “side” mic into Mic B, and setting the Remote to MS-Stereo, the resulting MS-Stereo signal will feed outputs A and B. The DCS Base is packed with functional I/O and other studio control features; my only complaint is that it has no power switch.
The digital Remote is the main user interface. The Base and Remote interconnect via a hot-pluggable, 20-foot DCS Link (supplied) or any standard Ethernet (Cat-5 or Cat-6) cable that runs up to 300 feet. This way, the Base can sit at the mic source and drive a more robust line-level — rather than mic level — signal over long distances. The Remote is an attractive and well-laid-out controller with two VU meters that can be tilted from flat to 45 degrees. The meters conveniently reflect either preamp or cue levels with excellent ballistics. Adjustable peak LEDs and a Gain Trim feature let users match the Remote Preamp's outputs to the inputs of a wide range of DAWs. This also allows peak monitoring from a remote location when the DAW screen is out of view.
Mic gain is digitally controlled from the remote with 60 steps of 1dB increments or 43 steps from the DI input. Other controls include DI switch, phantom power, polarity invert and a 30/70/100Hz highpass filter. A digital display shows gain adjustments and changes dynamically to reflect any other value that is adjusted on the Remote. Additionally, channels A and B can be locked for stereo, with the ability to control both using channel A's gain control.
Monitoring facilities include individual cue level controls for channels A, B and the extra input, C. The Base's speaker out can also feed a pair of active monitors. A talkback switch routes the onboard mic to cues. One unexpected feature is the effects section, which provides nine reverb presets and bandpass filters for the A and B channels. This easily accommodates vocal tracking sessions with effects in the headphones.
Rather than use tubes or transformers, Universal Audio employs a transimpedance design with transparent amplification yielding a 4 to 150k Hz frequency response. During my first experience with the Remote Preamp, I used a Royer SF-24 stereo ribbon mic as a drum overhead feeding a Studer A827. The Remote Preamp's stereo-linking capability and its big VU meters made adjusting the mic's gain a breeze. While adjusting the gain, I noticed a low-level zipper noise occurring. According to the manual, this is due to the 1dB stepped-gain adjustments, and it advises you to avoid making these adjustments during recording. As a workaround, I used the Gain Trim to change the Remote Pre's output. This workaround would be an issue if I were recording to a DAW where the peak meters are matched to the interface's input, but in this case the workaround was acceptable and the zipper sounds were abated.
Coupled with the SF-24, the DCS yielded an excellent stereo image and good snare transients. During the same session, I swapped out the Royer for a pair of Neumann U87 Ai mics in a spaced pair. Again, the snare had good transients but sounded a little boxy around 200 Hz, which I easily fixed with a gentle EQ cut.
In a later jazz session, a spaced pair of AKG C 451 B mics also resulted in great transient response and smooth cymbals. Both the drummer and I preferred the Universal Audio preamps over the Neotek Elite console's preamps. On upright bass, a Peluso 47 tube mic positioned about waist high and 10 inches off the strings presented a full sound at 80 Hz and a nice growl off the bow.
I next tried the pre's powering the above-mentioned Royer while recording a tenor sax. Being a stereo mic, I used one ribbon by turning the mic 45 degrees and placing it two feet from the sax, between the bell and the keys. Once again, the DCS pre's screamed detail and provided a good balance between the reed and bell sound.
As a solo recordist in my studio, I really appreciated the DCS system's intent as I worked on a song within GarageBand and Pro Tools. A Digidesign 002R served as my interface, so I calibrated the Remote Pre's peak meters to match the 002R's +18dBu input. I plugged my bass into the DI, ran the stereo outputs of my interface into input C for DAW monitoring and patched the speaker outs into my active monitors. Within a few minutes, I had bass levels and control over my monitors and headphones, all from the compact remote unit. The DI was more than above par, rendering a clean, uncolored recording.
The Remote Pre really came through when I recorded acoustic guitar tracks in another room, where I couldn't see my DAW monitor. Turning up the mic pre's gain while watching the VU meters, I reacted as the LEDs indicated overs at the DAW's input. A yellow LED warns that the Remote Pre is approaching the gain trim max dBu level, while a red LED reflects levels that reach or exceed the output level set by the gain trim control. This technique worked flawlessly without the usual worries, guesses and retakes due to improper levels. I also took advantage of the onboard effects; here, a touch of reverb smoothed out the headphone feeds while tracking.
The DCS Remote Pre performed well, both as a mic preamp in a traditional tracking setting and as a desktop monitoring system in my home studio. In all cases, the Remote Pre sounded great: Its transimpedance design was unbiased and clean, excelling when recording transient and high-frequency material. The metering system, including both VU and peak (especially if you take the time to match your interface's input level), is a big plus. The only needs for improvement would be including a power switch on the Base and removing the zipper noise when adjusting the preamp gain.
Personal studio users will appreciate the $1,499 price, along with Universal Audio's attention to detail, as well as comprehensive studio control and enhanced workflow features.
Universal Audio, 866/823-1176, www.uaudio.com.
Tony Nunes is an engineer, educator and dad.
UA demos and tips videos