Behringer Rack Effects
Behringer's studio processors may have had a relatively low profile in the UK, but their high quality and reasonable pricing make them well worth a second look. Wilf Smarties finds they're just what he needs.
Behringer sell cost effective, well-made 19" rack-mounted studio effects. They do not, at the time of writing, have any truck with the following: MIDI, digital products, or anything that doesn't fit into 1U of rack space (though rumour has it that a 3U dynamic equaliser is scheduled for next year).
In other words, they choose to trade between the margins of the glamour markets. Here I shall be reviewing five of their extensive and increasing range of down to earth products, but before I get into the merits of individual items, a few words about the whole range.
All the units are extremely well built, and it's not just the solid steel cases and heavy aluminium front panels that account for their unusually high weight. There are obviously some serious power supplies and so on inside. Pots are all indented, and the knobs and caps aren't likely to fall off in a hurry. Switches are silky, and you get the feeling that you're dealing with production values from a previous decade, notwithstanding the implementation of some up-to-date circuitry.
Most units come with electronically balanced inputs, while transformer balancing, for the ultimate in hum bucking, is a welcome optional extra, available in the 'Professional' range. Prices quoted in this review are for the basic models, however.
Such is Behringer's faith in their German build quality, (all units are treated to a military-standard burn-in before hitting the streets) that they offer a five year warranty with all their products.
They are clearly also willing to respond to criticism of their products. When I first got my hands on these processors, I found that some of them showed an alteration in output gain when the processing circuitry was switched in, depending on whether or not a balanced feed was selected. For example, with the denoiser and equaliser: in unbalanced mode the denoiser exhibited a +3dB gain when the circuit was active; feeding a balanced signal into it (from the equaliser) cured this by effectively raising the dry level by 3dB. When the EQ circuit was activated, however, the 3dB problem returned to haunt the denoiser! The only conclusions I could draw from this were that 1) when the circuit was active in the EQ, the (balanced) output became unbalanced, and 2) the denoiser circuit was level matched to a balanced input only (unbalancing always reduces a signal by 3dB). I reported this to Behringer, who have already announced that they have fixed the problem.
So, on with the show...
Audio equipment doesn't come much more basic than the SNR 208J 8-channel denoiser (£359 inc VAT), which aims to remove something from, rather than add anything to, your music. If you are using state-of-the-art digital equipment throughout, pass on this. If, however your recording environment is less than pristine, you might like to investigate this unit. Its aim is to shut down those noisy tape tracks and reverbs in a much more musical, less brutal way than is usually possible with gating, fading, muting or expanding. Here the frequency content of the incoming signal is analysed, and a low pass filter, active between 800Hz and 20kHz, is trimmed to suit. (Smart samplists will already be using envelopes that track the HF roll-off of decaying piano notes and the like.)
Each channel has a threshold pot, bypass switch, and a 2-colour LED which lets you know both when the denoiser is in circuit and also when it is denoising. Stunningly simple. It only remained for me to try the unit out on some program material.
On a noisy Microverb III it performed admirably on all patches, subjectively reducing noise by about 5-10dB in the upper registers. That may not sound much, but remember that every 3dB increase is equivalent to a doubling of noise levels. Extreme settings on repeat echoes gave rise to the old Watkins Copycat tape loop effect: progressively more muffled echoes as the sound decays. 'Analog-ise' your digits with this machine! On a sensible setting the processing sounds quite transparent, though on a bright and long reverb tail you might notice the filter coming in. I found that the denoiser actually made some digital reverb programs sound more natural: the analogue filter seeming to add warmth that the DSP filter lacked (SPX900).
Trying the unit out on a live vocal from my 3M M79 tape recorder, I found it of limited use in cutting out headphones spill, which tends to have a fair sub-800Hz component, but much better at handling tape hiss (though you get precious little of that from a 3M at 30 ips!). Provided a low enough threshold was set, minimal or no damage was done to the frequency content of the recording, and I saw at least 10dB subjective noise improvement. On treble boosted material the noise benefit was considerably better again; perhaps 20-25dB. This is just where you need it, too.
Compander noise reduction systems such as those marketed by DBX and Dolby work on the encode/decode principle. Playing back a tape requires the correct equipment to recover the original signal from a pre-emphasised recording. Furthermore, these systems must be precisely lined up in order to work properly. Single ended noise reduction systems like this leave no audio footprint, only coming into the signal chain on replay. No lining up is required: instead you set a threshold below which the filter becomes active. Though this method offers less drastic noise reduction than the former, it is cheaper, and non-destructive (a big plus in my book).
In the mix this could save you all that time spent muting inactive FX unit returns and noisy tape channels: just slap one (or several) of these babies in instead. Inexpensive and rather good. Quite possibly a must for all owners of 8-tracks with no on-board NR.
Behringer's EX 802J Dualfex (£179 inc VAT) is the best seller in their range. I'm not surprised, for despite its modest price it is by far the best exciter I've used. Two channels have three pots each for Tune, Process, and Mix. Tune determines the frequency above which the Process is applied. Mix goes from no processed signal to about as much as you could unreasonably want, and Process is in effect a balance control which sets the ratio between the two effects on offer. Hard left and you have 100% enhancer, hard right an exciter, and anywhere else, as Paddy Ashdown would say, you have something in between. Thus it is possible to access any enhance/excite/dry mix with consummate ease. Full marks from the Faculty of Ergonomics.
The unit's uncanny ability to skilfully avoid unwanted distortion is accounted for in the accompanying literature. Apparently the inclusion of an 'Automatic Level Control' circuit does away with the need for the 'drive' (input sensitivity) knob found on most conventional exciters. There does seem to be some truth in this claim, although I did manage to extort some distortion from the unit at high input levels. Incidentally, the manual goes on to de-mystify the enhancer and exciter concepts — a welcome excursion. Briefly, an enhancer is a device for pulse widening; an exciter artificially generates upper harmonics. Either way the net result is a perception of increased clarity due to boosted and/or modulated high frequencies.
There are two audio switches: Out is a bypass which acts on both channels simultaneously; Solo cuts the dry signal from the outputs, allowing you to hear just the excitement/enhancement process going on. (Hot tip: exciters are usually designed to work in series with your music, ie. on a channel insert, total mix etc. By working in 'Solo' mode and isolating the processing, you could treat this unit like any other time-domain effect — which in fact it is — and hook it up to a spare aux. buss. There, I've told you. Damn!)
One very minor criticism: as on most exciters the two channels cannot be slaved together. Duplicating the setting L + R, however, is made easier by the perfectly calibrated indented potentiometers and aligned knob caps. It is fairly obvious when you are or are not resting on the right notch.
To sum up, this is the best buy in exciters I've seen, and you get a free enhancer thrown in. Of course, there are those who are dubious of the merits of exciters per se, but that's another story. Let's just say that "an exciter is a device which can make badly recorded music sound good, and well recorded music sound bad!" Actually, I achieved a pretty attractive result when applying enhancement warp factor 10, followed by counter-equalisation with a treble filter, to mixes on the latest Fini Tribe CD [oddly enough, currently being played in heavy rotation round at my place — Ed.]. I managed to set up the Enhancer/EQ pair so that net tonal balance remained approximately unchanged whether both units were either active or bypassed. I felt there was a perceptible improvement in clarity and punch when the enhancer was in circuit.
I won't be returning this unit to UK distributors Shuttlesound; I am buying it.
The MDX 402 Autocom compressor is another very nice sounding product with some pleasant surprises, notably under the 'Auto' button. Usually compressors without manually variable attack and release times cannot cope with both fast transient and complex material. By selecting 'Auto' this machine compresses according to an analysis of the incoming signal. In practice, it seems to be set up dead right for vocals, on which it performs better than many expensive units, and as well as the best. Switching out 'Auto', tailors the compressor for drums, piano and bass etc., with a fixed fast attack and slower release times.
There are two channels, each of which sports, on the front panel (L to R), an In/Out bypass switch, an LED for indicating whether there is anything connected to the side chain, and a Threshold pot variable from -40 to +20dB. The aforementioned Auto button is followed by two more pots, compression Ratio, variable from 1:1 through 8:1 to limiting, and output level. High compression ratios will reduce the signal: the level control enables manual compensation for this, and hence facilitates A/B auditioning of the compression effect. Between these last two controls lie horizontal 8-segment LED meters for displaying gain reduction.
Selecting dual mono or stereo takes a bit of getting used to. Stereo compression is activated by the 'Couple' switch. Unlike most units of this type, there is no master or slave channel. All pots are still active, and the manual advises ensuring that settings for channels one and two are identical. In practice I found that only the thresholds seem to be stereo linked, and the pot with the lowest setting (ie. maximum compression) took precedence. Other pots seemed unchanged in their operation, so Behringer are right to advise you to match up the knobs, otherwise it's bye-bye stereo imaging. Fortunately this annoying prerequisite for true stereo operation is mitigated by the accurately indented and legended knobs (see Dualfex review above).
The typically fulsome manual gives many examples of uses for the compressor, including de-essing and ducking, the latter two making use of the side chain facility. For example, you can split the audio signal in two and send it both to the compressor's input and also to an equaliser patched into the compressor's sidechain. Compression is in this case frequency dependent. Now you can get the compressor to ignore bass transients or respond only to sibilance, etc. I like dedicated de-essers myself, and am not too fond of mucking about with side-chains. Fortunately, Behringer also make a bona fide de-esser.
This compressor utilises a proprietary 'Interactive Knee' circuit. Here an apparently successful attempt has been made to combine the benefits of both 'Soft Knee' and 'Hard Knee' units. In the case of a Soft Knee compressor, as input level is pushed beyond the threshold, compression is applied at a ratio progressively variable from 1:1 to that set for the compressor. This is reputed to (and does) lead to a much smoother onset of the compression process than does the more common Hard Knee type, which has a fixed compression ratio. In the Autocom a transition is effected between the two types of compression according to the severity of the ratio and threshold overshoot. Well, that's how the manual describes it; I would say it sounds like a switchable soft/hard knee stereo compressor, but a damned good one. No, it's better than that even. Overall, this is a compressor whose performance belies its price, and another unit that Shuttlesound won't be getting back. I bought it without hesitation.
"Let's just say that 'an exciter is a device which can make badly recorded music sound good, and well recorded music sound bad!'"
The EQ 305JX (£316) is a mono, 5-band parametric equaliser of an unusual design. Instead of the filters being connected in series, as is normal, here a diagram in the manual shows them to be wired in parallel. I was unsure of how this would work, since, while one filter was being used to cut a certain frequency, it seemed to me that this would then be summed with four others that did not, thus reducing the first filter's effectiveness by 80%. A preliminary trial showed that this was not the case, and that in fact its behaviour was not massively different from that of any other parametric. Further investigation was obviously required.
Behringer are understandably unhappy about letting out too many industrial secrets, but I can give you a clue: the filters work in conjunction with a negative feedback loop, sort of in a side chain mode — though not exactly. Presumably this accounts for the slight increase in noise perceptible when applying maximum cut. Suffice to say that the diagram in the manual is a gross over-simplification, and should not be taken literally. Nonetheless this equaliser is a very different animal from those found in semi-pro (and most pro) gear.
This unit has been designed to show constant Q characteristics, generally held to be highly desirable in an equaliser. Here the filters are designed so that they do not modulate one another (although they do superimpose), and equalisation of a high precision is possible.
The front panel has five groups of three knobs, and an In/Out switch for each of the frequency bands. Larger Level (cut and boost) controls are flanked by those for Bandwidth (Q) and Frequency. In addition, both the high and low bands have a peak/shelving EQ switch. Q is variable from 0.03 to 1.5 octaves, cut and boost from -15 to +15dB, and the frequency bands are (L to R): 20Hz to 300Hz; 60Hz to 1 kHz; 150Hz to 2.5kHz; 450Hz to 8kHz; 1 kHz to 20kHz. From these figures you can see that a healthy overlap is provided should you want to assign more than one band to a single frequency. (You could, by way of an extreme example, go for 60dB of cut at 1kHz!) There are sub and ultrasonic filters trimming the audio band to a mere 15Hz to 70kHz, and frequency response is quoted at an academic 20-20,000Hz +/-0.3dB. Needless to say, distortion is miniscule and dynamic range up to digital specs. An overall input level control, and signal present and clip LEDs complete the picture.
The manual recommends placing a series filter before this parametric if severe corrective EQ (like tuning out a resonance) is required, leaving the Behringer the task of musical equalisation. In practice I was able to do both tasks at once with only the Behringer, with satisfactory results.
I also tried it with our singer at a club PA. Room resonances were fine-tuned out successfully, proving that corrective EQ is not out of the question with this unit. However, as a musical tool it comes into its own. Auditioning an equaliser like this is tricky, since it tends to show its true colours only after considerable use over a variety of program material. The impression I have so far is that it does sound quite different from normal desk EQ. It is of similar power to the latter, though the inclusion of five bands is unusually generous. However with non-extreme EQ settings it exhibits a transparency normally associated with no EQ at all! Presumably this is due to the reduced phase-distortion afforded by its 'parallel' architecture.
On bass the equaliser has distinct vintage Neve-like qualities: a positive control way beyond that afforded by modern desk EQ. If you have ever swapped a cheap hi-fi amp for a decent power amp with a high damping factor, you will have experienced a similar degree of bass end improvement. One for the dance market, perhaps?
Quiescent noise at first listen seems a little higher than you might expect, until you realise the massive headroom available. It was difficult enough getting the Signal Present LED to illuminate, far less the Clip LED!
Plugging the output from a valve Neumann U67's power supply straight into the balanced input of the EQ 305 was a revelation. With the equaliser's input gain wound all the way up I was treated to the cleanest, quietest vocal sound I have had from that particular microphone in a long while. I think the U67 is a bit 'hot' for some mic pre-amps. If you have had similar problems with high value, high output microphones I recommend you to try this unit out.
Per channel, this parametric does not represent the same excellent value as some of the other products on review here, but the performance compares with some very expensive units indeed (check out the price of Massenberg EQ!). This is a luxury item at a workhorse price. If Mr: Behringer stopped making these it would not be long before they became a classic and began changing hands at a considerable premium. As I was about to pay £100 plus for a half decent mic preamp anyway, I managed to justify to myself the purchase of the review model.
The first thing to say about the Studio Gate noise gate (wot, no model number?) is that it is totally transparent. This gate passes sub bass frequencies intact, something I'd never entrust to a certain studio standard. However, unlike its established rival, the Studio Gate has no mask for frequency-conscious gating. Keying in an equaliser via the side chain can achieve this, but how many engineers want to go to such lengths? In all other respects this gate performs impeccably: chatter is kept to a minimum by the hysteresis circuit which places a differential between the switch on and switch off thresholds, and response time is as fast as you can hear. A/B comparison revealed absolutely (I mean it!) no audible difference in the sound whether the gate was in circuit or not (gate open). Up to 80dB of gating is available (fairly common these days), and each of the two channels has controls for the following: Attack (continuously variable from 8 microseconds to 0.3s), Hold (similarly from 20 milliseconds to 4s), Release (0.1 to 8s), and Range (0-80dB). For stereo gating a master/slave configuration may be used. Here the slave's controls become redundant.
In use it coped with a fast kick drum with no perceptible attack softening over a wide range of threshold values. Nor was the sound audibly altered until deliberately set to do so. On a noisy percussion loop it performed admirably, picking out transients and closing down again sure-footedly.
You can, as with most gates, use one sound fed into the key input to gate another. For example, a kick drum can be used to tighten up a live bass track, or, more usefully, hi-hats used to chop up sustained sampled chords or vocals. Most gates can do this.
Minor criticism time: whilst use of indented pots is generally welcomed by this reviewer, for threshold settings on a noise gate without filters they are not appropriate, as their resolution is not really fine enough for critical situations. Key filters, were they present, would act as fine tune for threshold setting, circumventing the problem.
Overall, this is a simple, well-priced and well-made, sonically excellent gate, if you can live without on-board frequency consciousness and ducking switches. I can't, therefore I'm going to wait until the all singing/all dancing 'Intelligate' comes out. Watch this space.
On the basis of these five processors, Behringer certainly have the potential to become market leaders in affordable dynamics processors and equalisers. A pleasure to use and review.
SNR 208J 8-channel denoiser £359 inc VAT.
EX 802J Dualfex £179 inc VAT.
MDX 402 Autocom £269 inc VAT.
EQ 305JX parametric EQ £316 inc VAT.
Studio Gate £226 inc VAT.
Shuttlesound, (Contact Details).
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Review by Wilf Smarties
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