Not too long ago, Samson Audio decided to enter the realm of low cost/good performance audio equipment with the introduction of their line of C Class processors. Amongst these stackable, half rack sized units are the C-Valve mic pre and C-Com-opti compressor.
The C-Valve is a tube mic pre that provides all the commonly found mic pre gadgets and gizmos; mic/inst level selection, phantom power, phase inverse. However, Samson decided to put a little more thought into their unit than most others of this price point, and put in some added goodies as well: variable frequency low cut filter (from 18-300Hz), individual input and output gain controls, six segment input LED as well as a cool blue backlit VU for post gain control levels, pre-set limiter and vocal EQ buttons, a 'saturation' pot to add harmonic overtones, 1/4" send and receive signal inserts, and to top it all off, an A-to-D S/PDIF output at 24-bit with selectable 48k/96k resolutions. Not bad for a hundred bucks! The C-Valve's cousin, the C-Com opti, is an optical compressor using a photo cell design to provide quality compression. It too brandishes Samson's cool blue backlit VU meter, which can be switched to display either signal output or gain reduction. Also onboard the C-Com opti is a push button "enhancer" circuit, which is used to restore high frequencies lost during heavy gain reduction.
So how do these doohickeys sound? Right off the bat tracking straight to ProTools via the C-Valve S/PDIF out, you get some really nice clean tones with a decent bottom end. The key to this unit is playing with all the settings. Having a variable-frequency low-cut is a welcome addition to a pre in this price range, and helped a lot in tracking and isolating acoustic guitar and male vocals. It seemed the best application for the C-Valve was vocal tracking. The combinations of the EQ, limiter and saturation settings really let you dial in your vocals, and are equally as useful on bass and guitar tracks as well. The EQ is a push button only, and seems to lift vocals up a bit, like a 2-4k booster seat, but without being too obvious about it. The limiter works well with vocals to, but I preferred tracking without it. If you use the limiter in conjunction with the saturation however, you can get some cool natural tube compression sounds, like when overdriving a high gain guitar amp. This can sound pretty cool for both vocal tracking and for using this unit as a DI for guitar. All in all, not a bad little mic pre. Versus other preamps on the market in this price range the C-Valve gives the competition a run for its money.
The C-Com opti sounded nice as well. It actually reminds me of those old C2 half-rack optical compressors that JoeMeek used to make a few years back. Using it with some pre recorded bass tracks as an outboard insert in ProTools, I found that dialing in a sound was pretty easy. Having recently picked up an old Korg EX-8000 rack synth module, I jumped at the chance to test it out with the C-Com opti. Running left out into the C-Com opti, and right out straight into Pro Tools, I decided to do some comparisons. Where as the uncompressed synth signal was very loud and overdriven sounding (admittedly I cranked the volume up to put the C-Com opti to the test), the compressed signal was much smoother and welcoming to the ears; it really helped a digital/analog synth sound more analog. The C-Com opti definitely gets the job done, and does so without compromising sound quality. Also, the addition of the enhancer circuit does help out in keeping highs from diminishing under heavy hitting compression. This was evident in tracking both keys and guitars.
Both of these units are designed to help out the digital home-recording enthusiast by adding "warmth" to their signals with a better than average front-end. The one-two punch combo of the C-Valve with the C-Com opti as an insert is definitely the budget-minded home recorder's delight. It seems Samson really did their homework on what works and what doesn't in a small, transformerless mic pre and an optical compressor, and they put everything that works in these two units. (C-Valve, C-Com-opti - $159.99/ea MSRP; www.samsontech.com)