All sorts of MIDI gear can be controlled directly from yourdigital audio sequencer. From an armchair in front of the computerdisplay, you can manipulate parameters and change patches on soundmodules in other rooms, operate multitrack machines that are lockedin a closet and even adjust the gain of your audio interface's lineinputs — assuming that you have the proper gear, of course.However, microphone preamps have remained largely outside of thisworld of remote-control magic. There just aren't a lot ofMIDI-controllable, high-end, studio-quality micro-phone preampsavailable.
Summit Audio recognized the need for such a product. Designed incooperation with Rupert Neve, the Element 78 Series includes twoMIDI-controllable preamps with built-in EQ, the MPE-200 ($4,495)and the MPE-200S ($3,895). The MPE-200 has a full complement ofknobs and buttons for easy front panel control, while the MPE-200Sis optimized for remote-control use with just one knob and a buttonon its face. Both preamps can be remote controlled via a TDMplug-in called Extension 78. Also part of the Element 78 line aretwo dedicated MIDI-tweakable, two-channel, parametric equalizers,the EQ-200 ($3,995) and EQ-200S ($3,495). They too can becontrolled via the Extension 78 plug-in and are configuredsimilarly to the preamps — the EQ-200 sports front panelcontrols, and the EQ-200S has a single knob and a button. (The“S” at the end of the model name stands for“slave” unit.)
The Extension 78 plug-in can be used with any digital audiosequencer that will run Digidesign's DAE engine, such as Emagic'sLogic Audio or MOTU's Digital Performer. The Element 78 productscan also be remote controlled by any digital audio sequencer thatallows the creation of custom MIDI control templates, so you canmap an Element 78 unit's SysEx and CC commands to your own virtualfaders and knobs — a tedious task — but worth theeffort. (The SysEx and CC commands are not published in the manualbut are available from Summit Audio on request.) For this fieldtest, I used Extension 78 in a Pro Tools environment to control anMPE-200S.
The MPE-200S is essentially the same unit as the MPE-200 minusthe front panel controls. Because the MPE-200 was covered in aprevious issue of Mix (October 1999), I'll focus on how theMPE-200S and MPE-200 differ and the use of the Extension 78plug-in.
The MPE-200S is no lightweight. It's only two rackspaces highbut weighs in at a hefty 27 lbs., is solidly constructed andcreates a striking image with its blue-gray anodized aluminumfaceplate and minimal controls. The power switch is on the rearpanel, near the removable IEC AC cable socket and 100-240VAC,50-60Hz AC power select. And, like the MPE-200, the MPE-200S has aStandby mode that is entered by a combination of pressing andholding the front panel controls.
All the audio connections are balanced XLRs on the rear panel.The two preamp/EQ channels are designated A and B, and each isgiven its own discrete set of I/Os. This configuration makes usingeach processor independently a snap. Simply plug into the I/O ofthe processor that you need and voilà, all of the otherelectronics are bypassed. To use the processors in tandem, simplyconnect the output of one processor to the input of another. Thisflexibility also simplifies inserting a compressor or other effectbetween the unit's individual processors.
As sparse as the front panel controls are, they are amazinglyintuitive — the design is actually very ingenious. Tappingthe unit's single, large, square key steps you through pages. Thekey itself is backlit and does double-duty as the display window. Alarge, infinitely rotating dial lies just beneath the key and isused to enter values. Pressing the dial lets you scroll through thedifferent parameters in the display window. The only catch is thatthe controls only address the preamps, filters and MIDI channelassign parameters and not the parametric EQ settings. To controlthe EQ, you need to use either the MPE-200 (which can be used as amaster controller for up to 15 MPE-200S machines) or the Extension78 plug-in.
Like the MPE-200, the MPE-200S is a great-sounding unit. Thepreamp is clean with plenty of gain (64dB worth). The filters areextremely useful, providing 17 steps of highpass and lowpass cut.The 4-band parametric EQ is accurate and flexible with low- andhighbands switchable between shelving or peak, and low mid and highmid with variable EQ. I recorded a wide range of instrumentsthrough the MPE-200S, including drums, voice and classical guitar— everything sounded wonderful. The unit's tone can be summedup as having a nice solid-state quality that lends a touch ofanalog warmth to recordings without sounding muddy or“wanna-be” vintage.
The Extension 78 control module is a free plug-in that isavailable for download at Summit Audio's Web site. Cool Stuff Labswrote it for the exclusive purpose of controlling the Element 78products from within your TDM recording environment. Though theplug-in's graphical interface vaguely resembles the MPE-200machine's front panel, it is not nearly as exciting to view. Itwould have been nice if Cool Stuff Labs had put some time intomaking the plug-in look a little hipper — perhaps replacingthe dark gray background with a representation of Element 78's neatanodized aluminum faceplates, like the Focusrite series ofplug-ins.
But despite appearances, Extension 78 gets its job done.Controls for all four bands of the parametric EQ are present, asare preamp input gain, master output level, filter and outputattenuation (which Summit Audio calls an “OutputFader”). MIDI settings can also be accessed from the plug-in,and there is a handy “MIDI OK,” or “CheckMIDI,” status message. Because the MPE-200S doesn't have aMIDI activity light (a feature that would be a nice addition), thisindicator is appreciated. The only control that I really missed wasa key for switching preamp phase. The phase for each preamp channelcan be reversed from the unit's front panel but not from theplug-in. Having phase control right on the plug-in would besuper.
Previously posted on the Summit Audio Web site was a phrase thatsaid, because Extension 78 is simply a MIDI-control module,“it uses no DSP power.” Not exactly the case. I seetheir point, however — one mono instance of the plug-in eatsup 25% of a DSP chip. Additional instances and stereo instances useup more DSP, accordingly. However, the plug-in will instantiate oneither SRAM or DRAM chips. (After pointing out the onlineoversight, Summit Audio has since omitted this misinformation.) Theplug-in can be inserted in stereo to give you control over bothchannels of the MPE-200S simultaneously, or mono to allowindependent operation of each channel — very cool.
Hooking up the MPE-200S and Extension 78 was no problem. Idownloaded the plug-in from the Web site, stuck it in my DAEplug-ins folder, connected the MPE-200S to my MIDI patchbay andrebooted the computer. With a Pro Tools session up and running, Iinserted the Extension 78 plug-in on an audio channel, selected theproper MIDI ports for communication and that was it — I wasin control.
The plug-in's knobs are easily tweaked by either up and down orcircular mouse movements, depending on where you click. I was alsoable to control Extension 78 from a Mackie HUI digital audio mixerworksurface. All of the onscreen elements tracked the HUI'scontrols fine. However, when the plug-in's dials are selected forediting by HUI, the LED around the onscreen dial became so darkthat it was barely visible. This is a minor graphical problem, buta hair confusing when you first see it, because you're not sure ifHUI is actually moving the onscreen dial or the dial has beendeactivated — something to keep in mind.
One of the best things about the Extension 78/MPE-200S combo isthe ability to save presets. Saving your EQ and preamp values isexactly the same as saving your settings on a traditional plug-in— all you have to do is hit the “Save Settings”command and you're done. This feature makes recalling a previoussession's preamp and EQ adjustments no sweat. For example, there'sno longer a need to write down all of your preamp levels when avocal session must be continued at a later date; just save thepreamp setup as a patch, and all you have to remember is whichmicrophone you were using. This is a real time saver.
To my knowledge, there is nothing else on the market quite likethe Element 78 line and its associated Extension 78 plug-in. Whilethe plug-in price can't be beat (again, it's free), the Element 78hardware might be a bit pricey for some. But if you have the cash,these units are a solid investment. However, for the lessfinancially endowed, it would be nice to see an inexpensive,single-channel MIDI preamp from Summit Audio based on the sameoperating principles as the Element 78 products. With the advent ofthe Element 78 system, all that's required now is a plug-incontrolled mic stand and we'd hardly need to move at all, thoughI'd recommend going to the gym regularly to burn off all of thoseall-night session junk food calories.
Summit Audio, 390 Westridge Drive, Watsonville, CA 95706;831/728-1302; fax 831/728-1073; www.summitaudio.com.
Erik Hawkins is a musician/producer working in Los AngelesCounty and the San Francisco Bay Area. Visit him at www.erikhawkins.com for more equipmentchitchat and tips on what's hot for the personal studio.