I remember the first time I saw a Harrison 3232 console when I was a young engineer visiting Southern California. At that point, I didn't have much experience on a large-format analog console. That was in the days before non- linear recording, so a lot was required of a console in terms of routing and control. I remember looking at the channel strips and seeing the dizzying options and features, and being amazed that such a beast existed. A four-band semi-parametric EQ with sweepable high and low-pass filters? Automation? FET switching? 64 channels on remix? And so forth. Well, the digital age meant that consoles fell somewhat out of favor, especially the large-format variety. For years, I didn't hear much about these consoles. Then, I began to see posts online regarding 3232 restorations. It became common knowledge that Bruce Swedien [Tape Op #91] still used a Harrison 3232 for his projects. So, since not all of us have the space, the budget, and the desire to restore and own one of these, we now have a rackmount option.
The Harrison 32cs is a channel strip that includes a version of the original mic preamp, EQ, and filter circuits in the 3232 console. The reason I say "a version" is that the circuitry changed a few times over the life of the console, so Harrison had to make a decision as to what approach they were going to use for this channel strip. This gets a bit complicated, so bear with me. Some of the earlier designs used the 4741 op-amp chip, a slightly better variant of the not always popular 741. Other versions used the HA-911 op-amp, which is similar to the MCI 2001 chip used in early MCI 400 consoles. The later and more popular Harrison 3232 consoles used the somewhat more modern 5534 op-amp, which specs a bit better but runs on a slightly lower rail voltage, which may affect headroom by a small amount.
The new 32cs channel strip is certainly in the spirit of the original console, but not necessarily a part-for-part copy. The mic preamp uses a Lundahl transformer and 5534 op-amp. The mic preamp provides up to 70 dB of gain, so it can handle even gain-hungry ribbon mics. The EQ section uses MC33078 chips for the active stages, while SSM2142 drivers are used for the transformerless outputs. The differentially balanced outputs are capable of driving 600 Ω loads.
As for the feature set, it also is based on the original layout, with some nice additions. Since this is a rackmount piece, Harrison has thoughtfully included front and rear mic inputs, selected via a front- panel pushbutton. The Neutrik Combo jack on the front serves as both the XLR mic input and the 1/4'' instrument-level input. Other pushbuttons include polarity flip, pad, phantom power, and output mute. A large input-gain knob sits over a multi-colored, multi-segment LED meter, which makes gain- setting very easy — a welcome step up from a "signal" and "overload" light found on some equipment.
Next comes the not-as-common feature of fully sweepable high and low-pass filters, as was found on the original console. Another interesting feature is the Bump button. This adds about a 5 dB boost just above the selected HPF frequency setting, to add a bit of thump even when thinning out the low end with EQ. The channel strip's four-band sweepable EQ is certainly reminiscent of the console's. The original console used a high shelf, two peaking mid bands, and switchable low peak/shelf. The 32cs matches the later versions of the console, with switchable peak/shelf on both the high and low bands, and peak on the mid bands. In peaking mode, the EQ exhibits proportional Q, so that the bandwidth is wide at small gain adjustments, while getting narrower at larger boosts or cuts.
Now, let's get to some of the other cool features. First of all, there is a differentially balanced send/return insert. This can be selected to be pre or post-EQ. Since the send is always active, and the return is activated by a switch, there are several ways to get in and out of the circuit path. Next, the unit has a stereo pair of XLR inputs on the back panel. This is routed to a blend knob that outputs to a headphone jack as well as to a stereo pair of XLR jacks on the rear of the unit. The purpose of this is to allow for a stereo cue mix from your DAW, which can be blended with the live signal from the channel strip. This creates a latency-free input and playback monitor for simple overdub situations without having to use a console — pretty slick.
Now, let's talk about the sound. I compared the 32cs to a couple of other preamps on various sources. It would have been great to have had the time and ability to compare this channel strip to many different preamps with every type of circuitry, but that wasn't possible. But since the 32cs harkens back to a product from 1975, I concentrated the comparisons on two other vintage-style preamps, the A-Designs Pacifica [Tape Op #49], and the Universal Audio 2-610 [#27]. Now, these have different circuit topologies from the 32cs; although all three use input transformers, the Pacifica is based on a high-voltage, discrete op-amp, and the 2-610 is a dual-tube circuit, while, as I said, the 32cs uses IC op-amps for the gain stages.
First, on electric guitar, all three preamps sounded great. All were very capable, but had different sonic characteristics. Out of the three, the 32cs seemed to have the fastest transient response. Its high-frequency detail was more pronounced compared to the other two's. There was plenty of punch, but also a great deal of clarity. In comparison, the Pacifica provided a good deal of midrange articulation without resorting to EQ; however, just a touch of midrange boost on the 32cs brought the two preamps into the same sonic arena. The Pacifica rounded out the top end a bit as compared to the 32cs. The 2-610, not surprisingly, yielded its expected tube character. The top end sounded noticeably slower in responding to transients, but it did impart a good deal more body to the sound. This could be a good or a bad thing, depending upon your needs. However, I could also mimic this character with the 32cs by employing its EQ and filters.
Let me now take a moment and comment on the filters. I had forgotten how useful good, sweepable filters could be. Most of the gear I routinely use has variable HPFs, but not variable LPFs. There's something about the sound of Harrison's well-designed LPF. It can contour the high end in a way that EQ alone can't. I was able to tame the harshness of a not-so-great guitar amp by just bringing down the frequency on the low-pass. It's a nice tool to have access to.
I also used the 32cs for other sources, such as voice, acoustic piano, acoustic guitar, and kick drum. In each case, the expected character of the Harrison came through. The sound was again detailed and punchy, with excellent transient response. It is not the uber-vintage warm sound that some people initially think they want while tracking. But I often find that once you get things in the mix, and the instruments are competing for sonic space, the more detailed and present sound, such as the Harrison delivers, is often what works best. The 32cs has the feeling of lifting the veil off of the sound, giving you a microscopic look at the audio.
There are a couple of minor comments regarding form and functionality. The EQ knobs are so close together that you have to use surgical precision as to not hit the adjacent knob while making an adjustment. This is not really a major problem, but if you're not careful, you could unintentionally sweep frequency while changing gain. Also, there's no master output control. All level adjustments must be made by using the mic preamp gain knob (or adjusting the gain on a downstream device). This is not the end of the world, but it might have been nice to include an output master.
Those comments aside, this is an excellent channel strip. While there are many different options out there, this one does offer you the vibe of the original Harrison 3232 console, including its excellent EQ and filters. In addition, you get modern features such as the ability to monitor a stereo mix and blend your input for a zero-latency cue mix while recording to a DAW. This is certainly a piece of gear to take for a road test.