The popularity of tube-based audio gear has grown with the popularity of digital recording. One look around your local music mega-center and it seems like half of the pro-audio, keyboard, and guitar gear is fitted with a window on the front displaying a glowing tube that's supposed to "warm up" the otherwise digital signal. And from a marketing standpoint, tubes evoke words such as "warm," "vintage," and "analog." But simply putting a cheap tube or two into otherwise poorly made gear doesn't necessarily improve the sound.
When I saw that the MindPrint EN-VOICE MK II had a tube window, I was skeptical. When I plugged it in, and it lit up in day-glo blue, I was even more skeptical. But once I actually got to hear it, I found that MindPrint has made a solid yet consumer-oriented channel-strip aimed at novice to intermediate recordists who want a high-quality input path for their digital recorder or computer-based setup.
With the EN-VOICE, MindPrint does a good job of sitting on the fence between consumer-level-audio and pro-audio gear. For instance, the dynamic section lacks many of the controls usually associated with a complete compressor section. There are no input or makeup gain controls, nor any controls for attack, release, or sidechain. MindPrint has instead opted for a filter button (more about this later), tube-saturation control, and an eight- position "compression mode" knob with presets for dynamic voice, voice over, classical voice, funky guitar, overdrive guitar, slap bass, fingered bass, and percussive sounds. Now anything with a setting for slap bass makes the hair on the back of my neck stand up. But in use, I quickly found my favorite presets. And the presets have the ability to completely transform the character of the compressor by defining the dynamic curve, attack and release, tube saturation level, and sidechain filter. The filter button switches in/out the sidechain filter and also transforms the compression section in a drastic but pleasing way. The tube saturation control offers lots of subtlety (a good thing) and works well as part of the dynamics section. The end result is a simple, quick and musical (if not completely customizable) compression section with a wide variety of sonic options-great for getting a decent sound without too much thought.
Backing up the signal chain, the EQ section also appears slightly more basic than it actually is. Controls are included for semi-parametric low-band, parametric mid- band, and semi-parametric high-band equalization. There's a low-cut switch as well. The low-band's bandwidth cuts with a narrow Q, but boosts with a wide Q-the idea being to give precision removal of "problem" low-end frequencies, while allowing a wider, "warmer" bottom-end boost. Again, MindPrint has thrown out the rule book and put in a lot of forethought, creating a simplified EQ section specialized for signal input. This isn't a surgical equalizer, but most people won't need that in an input channel.
Speaking of inputs, the EN-VOICE MK II offers lots: XLR mic-level with switchable 48V phantom and 20 dB pad; balanced, line-level XLR and 1/4'' TRS; and 1/4'' instrument on the face. An input switch on the front lets you leave everything plugged into the back. MindPrint also throws in a balanced insert send/return and output on both XLR and 1/4" TRS jacks.
The unit is completely analog, but gains digital capability by installing (at additional cost) one of MindPrint's DI-MOD AD/DA interfaces, which are available for the EN-VOICE with USB or S/PDIF I/O. The review unit came with USB, and it seems like this would be a great match for someone who wanted to make high-quality recordings on a laptop. Run just about any audio software, and you've got a portable, yet high-end, 24-bit, single- channel input for location recording of vocals, bass, guitar, or any mono source.
For vocals, the EN-VOICE offers lots of options: relatively clean and present to squashed compression, or mild tube saturation that's not too ess-ey. Acoustic guitar also sounded nice, again with lots of options for compression and EQ. I had a bit of a frustrating time with bass guitar plugged into the instrument jack though. Without compressor input/makeup levels, I had to crank up the input in order to push the compressor at all. But cranking up the input caused unpleasant distortion at the input stage. And on bass, 100% tube saturation was practically indiscernible from zero. So just because it's got a tube, don't expect to plug a guitar into the instrument jack and get a great tube-saturated sound. After all, it's called EN-VOICE, not "EN-GUITAR." ($799 MSRP, $249- $349 for DI-MOD interfaces; www.mindprint.com)