UNIVERSAL AUDIO DCS REMOTE PREAMP
Is it a pre? Is it a console? Is it a master section? Well yes… and no.
Text: Calum Orr
Universal Audio’s new DCS (Desktop Console System) aims to provide professional preamps, monitoring and metering in a compact desktop format. At first glance it’s difficult to know what the unit really is, or what role it’s trying to play. So let’s check it out.
The DCS concept was originally co-designed by Universal Audio and former Euphonix founders, Scott and Rob Silfvast. Physically, the DCS is a system comprised of two main parts connected with a single Cat-5 cable. The ‘console’ unit is constructed of sturdy aluminium and is no bigger than a baby Behringer console or an Electro-Harmonix Big Muff (for all you effects pedal heads out there). The unit certainly looks the part, with glowing VU meters, and a total of seven pots for channel gain trim, reverb and cue level controls. Sharing this compact desktop are a grand total of 23 low profile, backlit buttons, which provide excellent visual feedback of all parameters at a glance. Even the meterbridge is adjustable between a low profile option and a 45° tilt. Implementing this is as easy as removing four hex bolts that hold the meters in place (with the supplied Allen key), shifting the meter bridge into the alternate position and screwing it back together. I prefer the 45° tilt, myself. At this angle, the meters can be seen from anywhere in the room, plus it allows more clearance around the back for the ethernet cable.
The other part of the DCS is a plain box that carries all the mic preamp circuitry and necessary mic/line, cue and headphone I/O connectors. The I/O box can be as far as 300 feet from the console, which is a very handy feature.
The mic pres offer yet another UA preamp option alongside notable flavours like the LA-610 and the 4110/8110. I was pleasantly surprised at the preamp’s quality. They remind me quite a lot of some old Valley People mic pres I’ve used in the past, albeit quieter, due to their modern components.
The mic preamps are a ‘trans-impedance’ design (sometimes known as a ‘current-feedback amplifier’), which, to my ears, provides a very sturdy yet neutral-sounding amplified signal. It’s almost like having your ears do the recording for you, rather than microphones and preamps – there’s basically no ‘colour’ to speak of. I used the DCS preamps to record many different source sounds, such as acoustic guitars, simple drumkit setups and vocals. I quite liked the preamps for vocal recordings, using both a Shure SM58 and an Oktava 351.
Both channels – ‘A’ and ‘B’ – have buttons for Mic/DI and 48V phantom power (which cleverly ramps up and down to eliminate that dreaded ‘thump’ phantom power can generate). It’s these kind of well-conceived and useful features that make the DCS a truly professional device. Polarity inversion switches are provided, as are three separate roll-off points on the low-cut filter of: 30, 70 and 100Hz (the 100Hz roll-off is attained by pushing in both the 30 and 70Hz buttons simultaneously). The unit also has a handy ability to record in stereo via the ‘Stereo’ button in the centre section. In this mode, Channel A controls both channels – great for dead accurate gain control when stereo miking or DI’ing a stereo keyboard.
In DI mode, the DCS sounds great for bass and guitar. Again the sound is solid and uncoloured, although I would have liked to see a link output on the I/O box. I got around this by splitting the signal prior to the DCS, or after the DCS channel output stage.
Yet another neat extra is the DCS’s mid-side encoding function (denoted as ‘mid’ on Channel A and ‘side’ on Channel B). It’s activated by depressing the two lowest buttons marked ‘stereo’ and ‘A-B’ in the centre section of the DCS. I recorded some great-sounding vocals using this mid-side function. I set-up a U47FET (cardioid) in the ‘mid’ position and a Reslo ribbon (figure-8) on the ‘side’ – the results sounded superb. This setup also sounded great about a metre in front of a drumkit. Although you can alter the ‘width’ of the DCS’s outputted mid-side encoding in your DAW by varying the pan, you can’t ‘break down’ the DCS’s outputted mid-side signal later, to easily change the focus of the ‘mid’ mic. To that end, I prefer to retain control over the matrix by recording the mics separately. However, I found it great for ‘auditioning’ the MS recording with the DCS in ‘M-S’ mode and then setting the DCS back to ‘A-B’ mode when recording.
LIFE WITH A DCS
I found the DCS very intuitive to work with. Once all the connections are made, it’s a breeze to operate. I successfully used it alongside my Presonus Faderport DAW controller in both the tracking room and control room. If I was recording myself, all I needed was a headphone extension cable, two mic leads (or instrument cables), a USB cable for the Faderport and an ethernet cable for the DCS. It quickly became second nature to lock down the channel preamp parameters on the DCS, unplug its ethernet cable (and the Faderport’s USB cable), and move freely between the tracking space and the control room. [Locking down the channel preamp parameters is as easy as holding down the dB button for two seconds until the red LEDs light up.]
SO IS IT A CONSOLE?
To really be considered a true ‘console system’ there must be talkback, so I was happy to find that the DCS packs comprehensive talkback facilities – talkback mic level, EQ and talkback destination can all be adjusted. The talkback switch is momentary but you can set it to ‘On’ by pressing the left parameter button in the middle of the console simultaneously with the talkback button. A text and numerical readout in the centre of the unit makes it easy to see if your talkback is latched or not via the abbreviated ‘t.on’ indication. This readout also shows the digitally controlled reverb, gain, and cue in/out levels. Furthermore, when depressing the left and right parameter buttons, you can set up various routing options for headphone sends and talkback levels via the configuration menu.
To that end, the DCS provided a simple and elegant foldback solution when I was on location recording a duo. The I/O box was placed near them in one room, while I had the controls and talkback facilities in another. In terms of broader functionality, the mix and cue buses on the DCS can be EQ’d, as can the Channel A and B monitoring paths. (UA has cleverly made the channel EQ ‘monitoring only’ – meaning that the EQ is bypassed at the preamp outputs on the DCS I/O box).
During the review, I used various other mic pres in the chain ‘before’ the DCS, while running the DCS in Line mode. It was cool having VU meters for my Phoenix DC2 preamps (via the metering on the DCS) and even cooler that it could now be used for mid-side recording. I also checked out whether the unit was colouring my sound by recording directly from the Phoenix and simultaneously at line level through the DCS unit and comparing the two signals. In double-blind tests (listening in speakers and headphones) I really couldn’t hear any difference in the audio quality, which is testament to the neutrality of the DCS.
However, while the audio isn’t affected by the signal path, the DCS I/O box unfortunately makes a small, but audible, hum. While this acoustic hum isn’t all that loud, it’s certainly noticeable, especially since I’ve been in the midst of a ‘Silence your PC’ geek-fest of late. At this juncture I should also make mention that I would have also liked a power switch on the I/O box.
LAST BUT NOT LEAST
Other features found in the DCS include on-board effects, which are designed for ‘monitoring while tracking’ purposes. These certainly sound good; the downside is that they’re untweakable except for the ‘Amount’ knob. There are 12 settings in all, including obvious candidates such as Plate, Studio, Hall, etc. The most useable preset among them seemed to be Plate 2, which was nice and short and great for a little ambience.
And finally, there are two other features that help make the DCS a true console equivalent: the cue in mute (for muting the backing track) and the speaker mute button for – yep, you guessed it – muting your monitor speakers. Cleverly, these two buttons can be reconfigured to perform other muting options via the configuration menu.
It’s obvious that UA, along with Scott and Rob Silfvast, have really given the DCS’s operational characteristics plenty of thought. They’ve also paid particular attention to the ‘transparency’ of the unit’s sound. The DCS is a worthy addition to Universal Audio’s burgeoning and innovative product list.