Recording - April 2016 - 40

B Y PA U L V N U K J R .

Empirical Labs EL9 Mike-E
A preamp with a sweet take on the famed Empirical Labs compression sound
When one mentions the company
Empirical Labs, the first thing that comes
to mind is the EL8 Distressor, a classic
studio staple which was released 20
years ago in 1996. Happy Anniversary!
Next, we might think of the company's
other compressor, the EL7 Fatso... but this
month we're looking at the company's
other other compressor, which is one half
of Empirical Labs' EL9 Mike-E.
As its name more than suggests, Mike-E is
the microphone preamp of the Empirical
family. It holds "channel strip" status, thanks
to a new take on the company's much-loved
compression and saturation paradigm.
Howdy Mike!
Mike-E is a single-space 19" rackmount
box. It comes in Empirical's standard black
finish with blue and white accents, along
with a pair of the company's instantly recognizable large white Distressor knobs
and stepped LED push button controls.
The preamp section on the left is a
transformer-coupled design with a frequency response of 3 Hz to 200 kHz, a
signal-to-noise ratio of -130 dB, and a
>600Ω input impedance. Mike-E is capable of 70 dB of gain-60 dB from the
preamp and another 10 dB on the output
stage. Note that while Mike-E's input has
a transformer, its output is transformerless
with a transformer option available.
Connections and possibilities
Getting connected on the back, there
are balanced XLR ins and outs, a balanced/unbalanced 1/4" TRS input, and a
1
/4" unbalanced out. Other stock connections on Mike-E include a 1/4" TRS insert
point for injecting additional processing
into the signal chain. Of course Empirical
suggests its own Lil Freq EQ as an option,
and even sells a Mike-E / Lil Freq combo
called the Trak Pak.

40

RECORDING April 2016

There is also a TRS input for linking
the compressor sections of two Mike-E
in stereo. There are two empty slots on
the rear for the aforementioned optional
transformer output, as well as a TRS mic
pre output that allows you to take a
direct out from just the microphone preamp.
The preamp (good and Bad!)
Rather than a traditional input gain
knob, Mike-E makes use of digitally controlled stepped switching in 5 dB steps.
According to the unit's designer, Dave
Derr, this keeps the input free from static,
crackles, and such, since there are no
traditional pots to get dirty and scratchy
over time. This design also makes for
easily recallable input settings from session to session.
These 5 dB steps offer a nice cushion
of headroom while tracking, when used
in conjunction with the unit's Empiricallyfamous Bad! Clip LED that lights red
when the input level is within 2 dB of
hard circuit clipping. Setup is simple-
when you see the Bad! light hit red, back
it down 5 dB at a time until you don't.
The preamp section also has 48V
phantom power, phase/polarity flip, and
an 80 Hz highpass filter. The latter is a
steep 3rd-order (18 dB/octave) filter with
a pleasant vintage-style corner resonance
peak that keeps the low end punchy
while cleaning out the rumble.
Last in the preamp section is a frontmounted 1/4" auto-sensing/self-switching
instrument input with a 332 kΩ input
impedance. This is similar to the one
found on both the Lil Freq and the
DocDerr channel strip (reviewed in our
December 2015 issue). Note that Mike-E
can also accept straight balanced and
unbalanced line-level signals by setting
the mic pre input to Line.

Let's get Toasty
The compressor-saturation (CompSat) section is a great blend of the Distressor's compressor, the saturation of the Fatso, and the
blend control found on the DocDerr.
The Saturator is a multi-stage clipping
circuit. As you dig in with the Drive knob,
there is a yellow LED marked Warm and
a red LED labeled Toasty. Unlike the Bad!
Clip light on the microphone preamp,
here there's no need to be afraid to hit
the red. Toasty signals sound great, and it
will not be uncommon to push the drive
knob to 10... heck, it even goes a touch
beyond! So just remember: Toasty is
Good, and Bad! is, well, you know.
This is not an overdriven distortion so
much as a thickening and rounding of the
sound with just a hint of fuzziness. As on
the Fatso, it mimics the characteristics of
hitting a vintage analog input stage and
offers allusions of tube and tape saturation.
Next up is HF Emphasis, a two-stage
circuit that boosts high frequency levels
prior to hitting the CompSat circuit, and
then brings those same frequencies back
under control post-compression. This has
the net effect of gently soft-clipping and
rounding out the highs, akin to the tape
saturation sound of the Fatso. Similar
emphasis circuits were often found on vintage tape machines and allow for a better (albeit saturated) signal to noise ratio.
To clarify, HF Emphasis has an audible
effect like that of hitting tape, but it is not
a tape-emulation algorithm like those
found in the plug-in world.
Squeeze it: from hug to Nuke
The compressor section on Mike-E offers
five compression ratios of 1:1, 2:1, 4:1,
8:1, and the famous Empirical Nuke brickwall ratio. There are four selectable Attack
times of 0.9, 8, 20, and 100 msec and
four Release times of 0.05, 0.1, 0.25,



Table of Contents for the Digital Edition of Recording - April 2016

Contents
Recording - April 2016 - Intro
Recording - April 2016 - Cover1
Recording - April 2016 - Cover2
Recording - April 2016 - 1
Recording - April 2016 - 2
Recording - April 2016 - 3
Recording - April 2016 - 4
Recording - April 2016 - 5
Recording - April 2016 - Contents
Recording - April 2016 - 7
Recording - April 2016 - 8
Recording - April 2016 - 9
Recording - April 2016 - 10
Recording - April 2016 - 11
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Recording - April 2016 - Cover3
Recording - April 2016 - Cover4
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