Aggressive consistency and clarity is a high priority for today's on-air and production talent. In a day when radio is competing for listenership, the guy chatting away on the air is expected to gain the listener's attention. However, effectively processing the human voice is tough and expensive. While a microphone may sweeten a seasoned announcer's voice, or compensate for a less-than-perfect one, an unprocessed mic is, for the most part, unacceptable when a station wishes to stay dynamically competitive. Fortunately, maintaining vocal punch and clarity is easy with the DBX 286A, which packs a huge dynamic bang for a not-so-huge dynamic buck.
In the on-air and production studio, just about anyone can get behind the mic. This is especially true in a station where in-studio interviews are frequently created. In these situations, voice processing must accommodate people who know nothing about projection and mic placement. Even with top quality studio mics in ideal acoustic environments, voice fluctuations and off-mic instances still occur. With that in mind, I've used the system for nearly seven years in two separate radio facilities and have heard solid processing on every voice that wanders into the studio.
The 286A is a user-friendly processor. Each stage of processing is divided and labeled accordingly and flows left to right: mic preamp, compressor, de-esser, enhancer, expander/gate and output. In the mic preamp section, gain control is available and can boost input as much as 60dB. A four-LED meter indicates the input level and clipping. The unit provides 48V phantom power and an 80Hz highpass filter to cancel rumble. The process bypass completely bypasses the entire unit, making it transparent in the signal flow.
Performance at a glance
80Hz highpass filter
48V phantom power
Simple adjustment controls
External insert for adding other processors
Accepts mic and line level inputs
A real highlight on the 286A is the absence of ratio, hard/soft knee, threshold and hold/release adjustments in the compressor section. But isn't this supposed to be a vocal processor? It is, but DBX takes a different approach by simply offering drive and density adjustments. These parameters basically decide “how hard and how much.” The drive adjusts how aggressively the processor levels and compresses the signal, and the density adjusts how deep the compression goes and for how long. For example, if you really want to squash the material, turn up the drive considerably. The adjustments are scaled one through 10, which is easy for newbies to the world of audio processing to use. The processing is metered on an eight-LED meter in this section. Setting drive and density at about six to seven is a good conservative start, but as with any processor, experimenting is important.
The next section is the de-esser. This pinpoints unwanted high frequencies, and sets the threshold where the frequencies will be compressed. If the voice talent is considerably “ess-y,” for example, or if the microphone favors high frequency response, 8kHz to 10kHz can be compressed, or quieted. The de-esser however must be used with great care, as I've found that incorrectly de-essing can give the voice talent an unwanted lisp.
Next in the processing chain is the enhancer. These adjustments are again scaled one to 10 and offer low frequency (LF) and high frequency (HF) detail. This is essentially an equalizing section. As with the rest of the 286A, simplicity is paramount, and the LF and HF adjustments are more than adequate. The LF and HF attributes intelligently equalize vocal material. Low frequencies are accented without creating a muddy sound, while high frequencies are accented without creating shrill sibilance.
The expander/gate section of the 286A reduces noise when program material is silent. Buzzing, hissing or general unwanted noise can be attenuated, or gated, using the expander/gate. This is a more traditional section of the 286A, as the threshold and ratio are measured in decibels and ratios respectively. The user can also create a tight and punchy sound on a kick drum for example, or cancel noise that is picked up by other open mics on the stage or in the studio.
The rear panel of the 286A.
The final stage is the output. Any compressing or gating can result in level changes, so increasing or decreasing the output level at this stage is needed to set a nominal line level output. A single LED indicates clipping.
Taking a look at the back of the 286A, the line-level output is a ¼" jack, and the unit accepts mic and line level inputs, and an external processing insert for adding other processors into the processing chain. This provides several options in integrating the 286A. For in-studio setups, I use the unit as a dedicated in-line mic preamp and processor. However, for field applications, I insert it into the console using a Y-cable. The back panel displays a wiring diagram to help.
Of the many mic preamps and processors available to sound engineers, the DBX 286A stands out as a simple, conservatively priced audio processor. I've used the processor to level and compress singers, guitars, radio voice work, and I've even used it in mastering radio spots and music selections. It's great in the studio and in live applications as well. The novice finds it easy to operate, and the experienced sound designer enjoys its transparent effectiveness.
Wygal is the programmer, engineer and Web designer for WRVL in Lynchburg, VA.
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