The P1 is an all-analog mic preamp, instrument DI, expander, compressor, limiter, and headphone-monitor mixer in a 1/2-rack chassis meant for desktop use with a DAW. It was designed and is hand-assembled by Robert Campbell, formerly of Neve and Calrec. The P1 streets for $600, which seems like a steal for what it can do, but it's clear that there's very little cost-cutting going on. The unit is built exceptionally well with high-quality components, and there's a real power supply inside. Warren Dent at Front End Audio was kind enough to let me borrow a P1 for many months. Here's what I discovered.
The compressor really shines on vocals. Even with ratios greater than 4:1, I was able to smooth out some fairly dynamic vocal tracks without any hint of overcompression or unnatural "pinching" in the upper mids. In comparison, I've never been a fan of the FMR Audio RNC, mostly because everything I send to it sounds smaller, even when it's supposedly compressing "transparently." On the other hand, the P1 seems to fulfill on its promise of transparent compression. Whether I sent it syllables sung staccato or layered oohs and ahhs, post-compression levels were solid, and the vocals sounded up front even when the compressor was clamping down to -15 dB. Also, any initial transients in the vocal that made it past slower attack settings didn't sound overly sibilant-another reason why the P1 sounds so transparent.
The limiter is great at taming snares. As long as the limiter isn't being hit with extreme overs, it seems to release quickly enough that the snare's sustain is accentuated, instead of the tail being subdued or dug out as it sometimes is with less reactive limiters. On a few snare tracks, I quickly got a bigger sound just by turning up the gain on the P1 so the limit indicator was blinking. I wasn't as fond of the compressor here, because at ratios any greater than 2:1 with more than 2 dB of compression, it pumped significantly. At lower ratios, I couldn't get the compressor to really do its thing without the P1's non-adjustable limiter kicking in first. On the other hand, I got some decent kick drum sounds using the P1's compressor at 2:1 ratio and 40 ms attack. In most cases, I like my kick to sound boomy with lots of sustain, and the P1's compressor was able to bring up the boom. But if the compressor had hold and release controls, I bet I could push the compressor harder without it going into pumping prematurely on the kick, as it does now with its non- adjustable auto-release. The digital compressors in my DMX-R100 desk are much better on kick for this reason.
Dang if the P1 isn't the easiest to use Bass DI and recording chain out there. Unless you hit the limiter, which adds a bit of distortion to the attack (which could be a good thing if you're looking for an aggressive, picked sound), it's pretty hard to screw up the sound of a bass with this thing. In fact, I was able to dial in some of the best DI'ed bass sounds with the P1 that I've ever gotten. On mellower bass tracks, I used a lower ratio (3:1 or less) with a fairly quick attack (less than 35 ms). On a more dynamic bass track with heavier picking, I used a higher ratio with a higher threshold and slower attack to level only the louder notes and phrases.
The P1 also seems to excel at capturing acoustic guitar, an instrument that I consider to be one of the hardest tests on a recording chain. Not only is the preamp clean-with lots of clarity throughout all frequencies-but the compressor and limiter seem to control the transients of an acoustic guitar just right. I was able to get the compressor to pump on some big strums, but for the most part, it evened out the acoustic guitars I sent it without taking the life out of the tracks. I don't want to overuse the word transparent, but that's how it sounded.
I should also mention the expander. Although its only control is a threshold knob, I was able to use it successfully on a variety of material. I was surprised at how well it "gated" toms. With a 20 dB gain reduction when "closed" (a real gate will completely cut off the signal when closed), the expander opened quickly enough and reduced level after the tail of each hit in a musical manner; the toms punched through the mix without sounding gated. The expander also worked well on a guitar track with a noisy amp. And on vocals, it was easy to set up the expander so it decayed naturally even on quiet syllables. No matter what instrument I threw at the expander, I never got it to chatter (except with a steady 30 Hz sine wave from a tone generator).
Other features worth noting. The P1 has a headphone mixer for zero-latency monitoring; you can feed the P1 a stereo feed from your DAW and mix in what you're recording. All the I/O is on the back, which makes the front panel neater. But unfortunately, choosing between instrument, mic, and line-level inputs requires you to fiddle with the cables in back. The manual is very well written, and it helps you get the most out of the simple-to-control but deceptively-deep P1; not only does it discuss how to use the various sections of the P1, but it includes starting points for recording and processing vocals, bass, guitar, and drums. It also covers wiring in detail. The compressor's unique Peakride circuit is summarized in the manual, as is the limiter's multi-stage control, but if you're a true geek like me, you'll want to read the white paper discussing the P1's design and innards; it's available in the download section of the manufacturer's website.
Front End Audio distributes the P1 in the US, and they're currently offering a money-back guarantee, shipping included, no questions asked-a no-brainer if you're looking to upgrade the capabilities of your DAW with a great-sounding, do-it-all recording strip that's super easy to use. Give the P1 a shot. You can't lose. ($599 street; www.safesoundaudio.com)