Hazelrigg Industries might be a new name, but founders George and Geoff Hazelrigg are no strangers to professional recording equipment. For years, they built and repaired gear for their own studio. In 2010, they joined the team at D.W. Fearn [Tape Op #37]. Of course, all of their engineer and producer friends gave them grief about it. Adored for sound and construction, the D.W. Fearn offerings are priced beyond most people's budget. It wasn't long before the Hazelriggs were developing strategies to bring Fearn-quality to market at a lower price-point. The VLC-1 is their company's first offering.
The VLC-1 is a mic, line, and DI preamp integrated with an inductor-based EQ, and it features an all-tube signal path. The amplifier section and power supply are licensed from D.W. Fearn. Both input and output stages are transformer-coupled. The EQ is passive, using custom, in-house-wound inductors. Built in the USA, sold factory direct and through a few exclusive dealers, the VLC-1 features a five-year warranty (with a 90-day warranty for its tubes).
Part of the cost savings comes from cosmetic changes. There is no VU meter, and instead of a deluxe, Formula 1 gloss-red panel like on the D.W. Fearn units, a simple chocolate-brown face is used. The hefty knobs remain as the lone visual clue to the product's heritage. A great feature is the locking 48 V switch, which appears to be a standard toggle, but closer inspection reveals a clever pull-before-it-will-move design, which reduces the odds of accidental engagement.
During our tests, we compared the VLC-1 against a Millennia Media STT-1 in tube mode, and a Peavey VMP-2 [Tape Op #29] with Mullard valves. But we also added an API 212, a Chandler TG2 [#39], and the preamps from a well-known live/recording mixer, since most people will have some sort of solid-state alternative. I need to thank Daniel Carballal for doing many of the recording tests for this review.
The VLC-1 is clearly a quality preamp, as no source sounds inherently bad or unusable through it. Even when I didn't prefer the VLC-1 over the other preamps, the reason was a gut feeling or appropriateness call — never because the VLC-1 was better or worse. I can see why producer types would grab a pair of these preamps and forget about it. You won't have to worry that this box will burn you. It is obvious that this design has more headroom than standard solid-state preamps. When some transistor designs overload, the resulting distortion is strong in third-order harmonics. Some people describe this as a softer, veiled sound. In high-fidelity tube designs, such as the VLC-1, the distortion is mainly second-order harmonics, which is often perceived by the human ear as being a fuller and richer sound. Perhaps this is why the Hazelriggs chose to include an EQ rather than a compressor. Commitment considerations aside, there is no need to control dynamics during the recording stage if the circuit provides enough headroom.
With that said, here are some interesting observations from our evaluations. Direct instruments — I'm not going to use this as a DI box if I'm recording a band, but since many people stack tracks in writing or smaller studio setups, I sought an appropriate test source. I tried the VLC-1's DI on a Fender Rhodes, and get ready — I'm no keyboardist, but simple chords had a chime and dimension through this preamp. Here, the high headroom was evident as a Rhodes can distort lesser preamps. And even those that don't distort often flatten out the bell-like chimes of a Rhodes. The VLC-1 is a winner here.
On acoustic guitar, my immediate thoughts turned to "different" versus good/bad. If you are looking for shimmering and stabbing acoustic backing parts, you might be better served with other options, but finger-picked or strummed bluegrass is another story. The VLC-1 was spectacular on a Martin. You could almost taste the soundboard, and the midrange had that magic that some vocalists experience with a vintage Neumann. There was something that made this track sit so well in the mix. Classical, folk, or bluegrass guitarists will love the VLC-1. It presents the instrument in a very natural way — very similar to how the artist hears their instrument in the room.
Some engineers will not use a tube preamp on a drum room or overhead setup. There is a perception that tube preamps can be poor custodians of transients. I'm sure some designs behave that way, but the VLC-1 was detailed and nuanced in this application. As a mono room mic, the VLC-1 was a beast. If you do a minimalist Glyn Johns three-mic recording, you might want the VLC-1 handling your overhead mic. I was angry I didn't ask for a second preamp to test stereo overheads, but I heard all I needed to hear from the mono room mic. It just goes to show that some of our long-held preconceptions can be wrong.
For kicks and giggles, we tried recording a male voiceover. Wow. I expected the 212 to win the day. I know national VO artists who swear by API. I don't want to say larger-than-life, but there was clearly more dimension to male voices with the VLC-1. Remember, this was without any compression applied. If your studio has voice and speech–recording clients, you will want to try the VLC-1 before you buy another preamp.
I would characterize the VLC-1's EQ as emerging from the same philosophy as the Kush Clariphonic [Tape Op #88] or original Joe Meek designs from Ted Fletcher, like the British Channel [#28] — "Turn this until it sounds good." In other words, you can stop obsessing about specific frequencies and use your ears. I really like inductor designs. (Well, most of the inductor designs I've used are cool; it's really in the designer.) Anyway, these are custom-made, in-house inductors. So I'm in. To my ears, the bands interacted, so using your gut is the best course of action. Given the midrange detail that we heard from the preamp, having top and bottom shelving controls in the EQ makes a lot of sense. If you purchase two VLC-1 units, you will want to invest in appropriate patchbay wiring, because you will want to have these EQs for bus and mixdown duty.
Finally, I really liked the VLC-1 as a front end for ribbon mics. We have a Royer R-121 [Tape Op #19] and some vintage ribbons, and they don't perform without a suitable preamp. The raw gain available with this preamp is what ribbons need. If you have a darker ribbon, the high-frequency shelf can open things up a bit. I could see buying the VLC-1 for that application alone. My reservations about the unit are as follows. First, I wish that I had requested a stereo pair to demo, because it seems that a lot of people using the VLC-1 are doing so in pairs. Second, recall is not easy. You'll want to mark your settings with a grease pencil or tape. Alternately, print tones in your session so you can null them later. If you have clients that need gold-plated gear and shiny lights to impress them, the VLC-1 won't do you any favors. Also, the dark panel can be slightly hard to read in low light.
If you've been a fan of euphonic tube gear but were reticent to make a purchase due to the cost, the VLC-1 could be the answer. With headroom to spare and a musical EQ to boot, this is a formidable front end for many situations. Try one, but don't blame me if you end up wanting a stereo pair. Thank Hazelrigg Industries for all the work they did to bring this quality design to market at a price like this.