Vintech X81 Preamp/EQ
By Barry Rudolph
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The Vintech Audio X81 is the third product from Dallas Upton's Vintech Audio, Florida. Vintech also makes two other units based on vintage Neve designs: the Dual 72, a 2-channel all-discrete microphone preamp using Neve's 1272 amplifier design and the X73, a reversed-engineered Neve 1073 channel module copy. (Look for my review of the X73 in Mix, September 2001 issue) For me the X81 feels like an old friend built on the X73 chassis with exactly the same Class-A amplifiers, panel layout, transformers, equalizer coils and polystyrene capacitors as the three-band X73. However, the X81 comes with an expanded four-band equalizer reminiscent of the Neve 1081 channel amplifier module. First produced in 1972, the 1081 used Class AB amplifiers and are found in 8036, 8038 and 8048 consoles. Starting around 1997, AMS-Neve came out with a standalone, reissued 1081 channel module in a rack mount version.
The X81 is painted the same RAF Blue Gray color like the old Neves (some later Neve boards were finished in extra dark sea gray) and popping the top cover from the single-rackspace, 16-gauge, all-steel cabinet reveals a single, large motherboard with all components neatly laid out and three audio transformers attached to the chassis' internal walls. As in the original 1073, the X81 uses both line and mic input transformers and a large output transformer, all made by St. Ives. The X81 is well constructed and hand-assembled in the U.S. at considerable expense judging from the individually soldered front panel switches. The 22-position gold-plated, Elma rotary input gain switch must be hand-wired for each X81 unit. Like the X73, all EQ switches are by Electroswitch and have gold contacts. The new custom-machined, knurled aluminum knobs match the original Marconi winged plastic knobs in shape and color. I like the bigger metal knobs and companion skirt/collar knobs because they are much easier to turn and use. The X81 is powered by a beefy external power supply capable of powering up to four of Vintech Audio's modules.
Like the 1081, the X81 has four frequency bands. Whereas the 1081 featured peak or shelving EQ on the high/low bands, the X81's LF/HF is shelving only, although the LH and HF bands on both units offer five switchable frequencies for each band. Another difference is that the X81 lacks a lowpass filter; the 1081 has lowpass and highpass filters.
The X81's lower- and upper-mid EQ frequencies were copied exactly from the 1081, with 10 switchable frequency points per band. Both EQs are non constant Q designs, and the X81's Q (bandwidth) switches for the LMF and HMF sections range from a broad Q of 1.7 to 7. Engineers who love the 1081's shaping abilities will be right at home here, with ±16 dB of boost/cut in each EQ section. The mid-bands' narrow high-Q settings are ideal for notching out nasty, troublesome peaks. The X81 has some minor inconsistencies. For example, each band's Off position is a clockwise turn for the HMF/LMF bands and counterclockwise on the LF/HF sections.
A great feature taken from Vintech's X73 is a 1/4-inch front panel instrument input jack. You can plug a bass guitar (or anything else) directly into this 100k ohm input jack, but be aware that it's active, along with any mic plugged in the rear XLR jack. Other features include a smooth-feeling Clarostat output control, LED output meter, and switches for 48VDC phantom power, phase reverse and global EQ in/out. There are no LEDs to indicate when the preamp section and/or output amp clips. The rear panel has an XLR mic in, line input and line out jacks; a 4-pin XLR jack connects to a beefy external supply that powers up to four Vintech modules.
At Track Record in North Hollywood, owner Tom Murphy used a beautiful AKG C-12 to mike the studio's Kawai K5 piano. The mic's output was fed to a resistive mult so that I could parallel-feed the X81 and a Neve 1073. Track Record has many Neve 1073 modules (refurbished by Brent Averill Enterprises), as well as a pair of never-touched, truly vintage units. With 50 dB of gain and both EQs switched out, both signal paths produced identical recording levels. Sonically, the X81 had an overall clearer, cleaner, but not brighter sound with a tighter bottom end than the re-capped 1073s.
Feeding the EQ via line-level sources, the X81's sound is similar to the 3-band X73, but with more clarity at any frequency. I preferred the X81's greater top-boost ability when shelving out at 10 or 15 kHz. The 1073 is locked to a 12kHz only shelf, and I wish that the X81 also had that frequency position. Boosting low frequencies with the X81 sounds like a good modern equalizer: clear and not woolly.
At LAFX Studios, owner Dan Vacari tracked a female vocalist with a Neumann M149. Using 35 dB of gain with the EQ switched out and followed by a GML 8900 Dynamic Range Controller, the vocal sounded clear and fat. We liked the X81's sound when pushing low frequencies: There's no other way to characterize it but to call it "ballsy." Lifting 15 kHz offered that airy sound without any stridency or harshness. We also appreciated not hearing clicks or pops when changing frequencies--no matter how high the gain is cranked. The midrange bands are very flexible: dial in the shape you want and a little EQ is all you usually need, but, of course, more surgical carving is available via the higher Q settings.
A nod to the classic Neve sound, Vintech Audio's X81 is a rugged, modern-sounding unit with an enhanced, comprehensive EQ section. Retail is $2,350; the power supply is $225.
Thanks to Tom Murphy, Spencer and AI at Track Record, and Dan Vacari from LAFX Studios.
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