What has 22 switches and 18 knobs, is accented with the colors of the rainbow, and is more flexible than a circus acrobat? Give up? The Buzz Audio ARC 1.1 Analog Recording Channel! It's a mic preamp, instrument DI, multiband EQ, and dynamics processor with opto compression and FET limiting-all in one 2U mono box. And the cool thing is, the four subcomponents can be used individually, or they can be chained together in any combination to form a complete recording channel. I don't have room to discuss all its features here, so I urge you to check out the manufacturer's website for extensive descriptions and images. My review unit came courtesy of Atlas Pro Audio.
The mic preamp is a natural sounding, Class-A, solid-state circuit that goes from +9 dB to +65 dB of gain. Input impedance can be varied from 220 ohms to 5500 ohms. And of course, there's phantom power. Next is the line input section, which has its own gain control and a switch to select the unbalanced 1/4'' front-panel instrument input or the balanced XLR line input on the back. The main output section that follows allows you to choose either the mic or line section and provides controls for output gain (with an additional 10 dB of gain), polarity reversal, clean vs. transformer output, and sidechain monitoring (for the dynamics section). A 13-element LED level meter on the far right of the unit can be assigned to show input or output level. The top most overload LED monitors the entire chain and will light if the signal exceeds +20 dBu in any of the ARC's subcomponents.
During our first test of the unit, we concentrated on the mic preamp and bypassed all the other subcomponents. The preamp sounded great and provided an uncolored and accurate picture. Nice and safe. But what about adding some color? Read on.
With so many features on the ARC, we decided to put it through its paces on vocal recording. We set up an AT4050 in cardioid and hooked that up to the ARC. I like the 4050 for the neutrality and smoothness of the mic. Great for vocals-especially for female voice and group harmony overdubs. The vocal track was a mid-tempo basic rock track that needed some close and up-front singing as the melody of the chorus was the hook of the song. The first thing we did was engage the "tranny" setting on the preamp. The manual states that the ARC's transformer is "designed to sound like transformers from the early years of audio and is made with a fairly low-grade steel core." Simply put, the more preamp drive you give it, the more harmonic distortion you get. By pushing the input to just below clipping, we got a nicely saturated sound, and the 4050 took on the characteristics of a tube mic. But the added harmonic distortion brought out more of the singer's sibilance than we wanted, so we started using the EQ and compressor to smooth that out.
The EQ has two parametric bands, both low and high shelves, and an adjustable high-pass filter. Each of these five EQ bands can be individually switched into the main signal path or into the sidechain of the compressor/limiter. By sending the high shelf to the sidechain, we were able to get the opto compressor to react more to high-freq energy, thus helping reduce the sibilance. We were barely into all the controls and already we were completely changing the sound of the mic and bending it to our will.
The ARC's opto compressor is adjustable with knobs for drive (threshold), ratio, and release time. Attack time can be switched slow, auto or fast (1 ms). You can place it pre or post-EQ, or as mentioned previously, it can be used standalone. The FET limiter, which follows the opto compressor, has a threshold knob and fast/med/slow release settings. Although there's only one set of rear I/O connectors for standalone (external) use of the dynamics section, if the compressor is switched to use standalone I/O, the limiter can still remain in the ARC's main signal path. Same goes for the compressor if the limiter is being used standalone. We found that the limiter was very useful in controlling the vocal dynamics, and we were able to adjust it to grab just the portions of the vocal we wanted without sounding overly compressed.
It's important to note here that the manual is well laid out and explains all the features of the ARC in detail. We definitely kept it around as the options on each section are extensive. With every section engaged, the ARC is more than a channel strip. It's a recording channel on steroids. The sonic possibilities are endless, and you can radically change any signal sent into it. The other great thing about the ARC is that you can use its various subcomponents for mixing. I used the mid-band parametric EQ and compressor on a trumpet track that was originally very pinched sounding, and I was able to really warm it up; the ARC really saved the track. (You can hear the results on the muted trumpet in the song "Burn That Broken Bed" on the Iron and Wine/Calexico EP entitled In the Reigns.) In my mind, this doubles the value of the ARC, as it's a serious problem solver for both tracking and mixing.
The ARC is clearly designed to be a useful and creative recording tool. Once you get a handle on the many ways of tweaking, routing, and switching, the ARC 1.1 quickly becomes an important part of your studio's setup. It's great for DAW users as well since it offers so many analog tools in one box. I wonder what version 1.2 will do?