There's a huge variety of outboard gear out there to choose from. We live in a time where sophisticated audio tools are available at almost every price point. So why does some gear command a higher price than others? The details. Often it comes from a passionate commitment from the equipment designers to squeeze out every inch of audio performance while providing a comprehensive feature set. I'm going to be looking at two pieces of equipment from a well-known manufacturer of high-end audio gear, Prism Sound. Specifically, the Maselec Master Series MEA-2 stereo equalizer and the Maselec Master Series MLA-2 stereo compressor. Why are they named Maselec? Because the Maselec line of Prism gear is designed by veteran engineer and producer Leif Mases, who has an iconic list of credits that include Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath, Jeff Beck, and even Spinal Tap. He has a reputation for making ultra-high-end audio equipment that often focuses on mastering applications, including the MLA-3 multiband compressor [Tape Op #92]. The EQ and compressor reviewed here can certainly fall into that category of purpose, although they could absolutely be extremely valuable while mixing or tracking as well. First, let's look at the MEA-2 EQ.
First of all, it's a big beast. It's three rack spaces of solid construction. All the controls have detents at all settings for both precision and ease of recall, which is a certainly a desired feature for mastering work. It is a dual 4-band parametric EQ with the usual controls: cut/boost, frequency, and bandwidth. The unusual feature, however, is the inclusion of a shelving setting that's available on all four bands. This is not the typical setup, as multiple shelving bands will obviously interact with each other if used simultaneously. The gain settings are incremented in 0.5 dB steps, while the maximum boost (or cut) is 8 dB, and when you select a 0.5 dB boost, that's exactly what you get. Although the frequency selector is also stepped, there's no issue at all in dialing in the desired setting. Each band has 84 selectable frequencies with a huge degree of overlap between the four bands. There is no separate bypass control for each band, as a setting of "zero" effectively removes the filter from the audio path. The controls click to their settings with absolute precision and not a hint of knob wiggle. The inputs and outputs are electronically balanced, as again, the design goal is extreme transparency.
I began by auditioning the EQ with mixes in various genres, as I would in a mastering setting. I've become a fan of applying a very-high frequency boost while mixing or mastering, to "open up" the mix, without it feeling obviously EQ'ed. The highest shelf setting of 27 kHz certainly provided a great character for that type of boost. Although it may sound silly to do this, a very-high shelf boost can really add a subtle feel of lift without making the track edgy. The MEA-2 accomplished this type of boost with great results. To make the effect more obvious, I just stepped the shelf frequency down to lower settings. The next frequency down is still quite high at 19 kHz, with 14 kHz just below that. Fortunately, the character of the audio didn't get harsh as the shelving frequency was lowered. It never got ugly at all, it just became a more obvious effect as it lowered further into the audible range.
As great as the high-frequency EQ is, another frequency range won me over. Bear with me for a moment. I've been recording since the "analog only" days and still often opt to mix through an analog console with analog outboard gear. Although this entire issue will always be hotly debated, I need to set the context for some upcoming comments. I tend to want to hear the thickness and body that good analog can provide. I often miss that type of character in many "digital only" productions. With all that said, the MEA-2 was able to do something that I have not experienced in another EQ. You can boost almost an absurd amount of lower midrange. When you do, the mix gets fuller, with a very desirable character of body - without getting at all muddy. I kept experimenting with this on mix after mix, and had a similar result each time. Any other EQ that I have tried would sound cloudy or out of balance, but somehow the MEA-2 never lost clarity even with ridiculous boosts under 300 Hz. Similarly, adding a true fundamental low-end boost shared a similar characteristic. I was able to dial in a solid low end that never loosened up. It remained absolutely tight and controlled. It just extended the lower octave of information. It was really brilliant.
The MEA-2 handled the other frequency ranges with equal dexterity. The common characteristic with this unit is complete transparency and stability. It seems to affect whatever frequency change has been requested, without any additional sonic artifacts. This is by no means a character piece, but it is certainly a great choice if the goal is to preserve the integrity of the original audio while getting precise control over tonal shaping.
Let's move now to the MLA-2 compressor. It is apparently from a similar design concept, stressing precision and repeatability. It is a dual-channel optical compressor that, like the EQ, is electronically balanced. Again, the controls are stepped and in this case have 1 dB resolution on the input and output gain controls. This is a fixed-threshold type compressor, with an input-gain control instead of a threshold control. The compression ratio has six stepped settings between 1.4:1 to 8:1. The attack settings range from 0.005-1.5 ms per dB (which is unusually fast for an opto), and release ranges from 0.02-1.0 second per dB. This wide range of times gives the user a good deal of control over the character of the compression. As with many compressors, the channels have the option of being used in stereo link mode. The only odd control is a Threshold switch on the back of the unit. Keep in mind, this is a fixed-threshold type of compressor that uses a variable input gain, such as an 1176 for instance. But this switch takes it a step further by allowing two options; low threshold is appropriate for compressing individual tracks, while high works better for entire mixes. Why this switch is on the rear panel is puzzling.
I first used the MLA-2 on a jazz mix. It was a fairly sparse instrumentation, with a prominent female vocalist. The compressor did a great job of getting the vocal (which was mixed fairly far out front) to "sit" nicely in the track without being heavy handed about it. Now, as with any compressor, it was certainly possible to go too far and make things sound too squished, but if the gain reduction was kept to under a few dBs, it did a very nice job of transparent control. I was keeping the attack and release on slower settings so that the compression was less obvious. I then auditioned the unit on a more aggressive track with a full drum kit and electric guitars. In this application, I needed the compression to play a bit more of a role. So I upped the ratio to 3:1 (and also experimented with 5:1) and sped up the release to the faster settings. The MLA-2 started to exhibit some of the classic, cool sounding "fast release fizz" that can sound great on an aggressive mix, but even then it was subtle. Even when pushed to that type of extreme, it is obvious that this unit is designed to stay out of the way sonically as much as possible. This transparency is helped in part by the adaptive attack and release controls. Although you select specific numeric settings, in reality, the compression envelope adapts to accommodate the characteristics of the program material. It tightens up, and the audio becomes more complex, again to maintain transparency. As a matter of fact, I found myself pushing it too hard at times, because I wasn't hearing obvious compression. The MLA-2 really shines at level control, and not character control. If you're looking for a compressor to impart an obvious sonic footprint, look elsewhere. But if transparency is your thing, then this may well be your compressor.
So looking at these two units, it's not difficult to see that they are from the same family. They both have stepped controls that affect gain exactly the amount listed on the dial. They both have transformerless designs that have huge amounts of headroom and bandwidth extending far above the audible range. They are both built like tanks and have controls that are precise and stepped for repeatability. They both prefer to perform their tasks invisibly, without obviously announcing their involvement. This gear is certainly not for the hobbyist, but for those who are looking for top-notch tools for mixing or mastering that focus on control with transparency, these are great pieces of gear to have in the rack.
(MEA-2 $6913 street; MLA-2 $4195; www.prismsound.com) -Kirt Shearer <firstname.lastname@example.org>