A few months ago I was lucky enough to receive an Aphex 230 Master Voice Channel Processor to play with, and I found it extremely effective for warming up vocals and making them pop out of a mix. I noticed two sections on the preamp that were familiar from my acoustic guitar stage rig - the Aphex Big Bottom which deepens tone and sustain while adding bite and snap, and the Acoustic Xciter, which increases articulation, clarity and projection and makes the guitar sound huge - and I wondered whether the 230 might serve the same purpose for my acoustic guitars in the studio. I put a call into Wayne LaFarr, artist relations and product specialist at Aphex, to see whether anyone had tested that. No one had, but Wayne agreed that it was probably a wonderful idea. After hashing through some logistics, I went into the studio to find out.
Really great guitars have many of the same qualities as voices - they're in the same frequency range; they can sound smooth, brittle, reedy, nasally, warm or bright; and they take on new characteristics as the strings get older. Mic placement is also critical; if you place a microphone correctly you can make a mediocre guitar sound great, and a great guitar sound phenomenal, but bad mic placement can ruin a recording faster than an agitated Brian Wilson. The Aphex 230 can compensate for a lot of the bad mic techniques that have been picked up over the years, and can make a not-so-great mic sound amazing. Likewise, you can use the 230 to help capture your guitar exactly as you hear it when you're playing, or add brilliance, depth, warmth and character where it may not naturally be, providing a truly endless sonic palette.
The 230 has several components: a tube preamp, an Easy Rider compressor, a Phase Rotator, a gate, a de-esser and a parametric EQ, in addition to the Xciter and Big Bottom.
I've never been a fan of de-essers; they seem to suck out all the highs, including the ones that you actually want, so I was dubious about this at the beginning. However, Aphex has perfected the technology so that you really can lose the sibilance without losing the brilliance. We also serendipitously discovered that it removes a lot of string squeak - bonus! Meanwhile, the Big Bottom and Acoustic Xciter are the same technology found in Aphex's popular guitar pedals. The parametric EQ provides 12 dB of boost or cut, allowing you to shape your sound with surgical precision. The Phase Rotator is essential for vocal recording, but has limited use with guitars. Add a full suite of balanced and unbalanced outs, including AES/EBU, TOSLINK, S/PDIF, Insert and Mute jacks, and you've got yourself one of the most powerful, can't-live-without-it pieces of studio gear on the planet.
With the help of my engineer, we recorded tracks with different guitars to get an idea of what is possible with the 230 (listen online at premierguitar.com). For the acoustic guitars - a John H. Dick Double Forte nylon string and a Gallagher GA-70 Custom - Wayne suggested we try a small diaphragm mic, so we plugged in an Audix M1280. To record the electric guitars - an Ibanez Artcore AF-105 and a 1975 Gibson Paul - we used a Henriksen Jazz Amp and mic'd it with an Audix OM-3. That signal was then sent through the Aphex 230 to an RME Fireface 800 and finally into Samplitude 8.2 Pro.
We've included screen shots of the WAV files because the difference between the wave shapes with just the preamp and those with the 230 engaged is visually quite striking. The recordings without the 230 look spiky and thin; the recordings with the unit engaged look like lovely, fat caterpillars - you can literally see how much richer the sounds are. These tracks are raw and exactly what we recorded, with no additional processing, mixing or mastering. The screen shots are from the virtual project in Samplitude; the digital stereo signal is on top, the analog mono signal below.
As with all technology, it takes a little preparation to start dialing in the tones you want. Begin by setting the Gain/ Drive knob at twelve o’clock, with the Meter switch in the out position, and turn the knob so there’s an average of -6 to -9 on the peak meter while music is playing. If you want to use the compressor, engage and press the Meter switch in; with the release knob at noon, turn it until there’s an average of 6 to 8dB of compression and fine tune from there. The gate is set next; Threshold should be fully counterclockwise and Depth at twelve o’clock; turn up the threshold until the red light comes on. To set the de-esser for minimizing string noise, slide fingers up and down the strings until the green de-esser indicator light begins flashing.
The Big Bottom’s BB/EQ/AX switch should be pressed in; start with Tune completely counter clockwise and Mix set at three o’ clock so you can really hear it as it comes in. Play the low E string and turn the Tune knob clockwise until you hear a big boom. Adjust the Mix knob until it’s right for your ear. Press the BB/EQ/AX switch on and off while you play, and adjust Mix until you have the sonic body you’re looking for.
The Xciter is set somewhat the same as the Big Bottom, although here Tune performs in an opposite fashion – turn it fully clockwise with Mix at three o’ clock. Turn Tune counter-clockwise until you get the edge, definition and character you want, then adjust the Mix control just like you did earlier, turning the BB/EQ/AX switch on and off until you hear the right amount of brightness and definition.
The Final Mojo
The Aphex 230 gets a five. It exceeded my expectations as a vocal channel, and adding that extra 10 percent of sonic brilliance to my guitar was icing on a delicious sounding cake. Plug it in and listen for yourself.
you don't have a $3000 mic-pre and a $4000 guitar mic. You won't need either.
you're an absolute purist and you want nothing in your signal chain to color the sound.
Click here for APHEX 230 Audio Clips to Hear and See the Difference
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