Millennia Media STT-1 Origin
By Barry Rudolph
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Mix Magazine "Compression And Compressors"
The STT-1 Origin is a single-channel recording chain that combines all of the functions of Millennia Media's best products in a single two-rackspace unit. The Origin includes the highly acclaimed HV-3 discrete hybrid transistor microphone preamp, the M-2b all-tube mic pre, a single channel of the NSEQ 4-band parametric equalizer and the TCL Twincom optocompressor. Two Origins can be linked for stereo dynamics control via a rear panel RCA jack.
The STT-1 (Straight-To-Track) Origin also includes Millennia's unique Twin Topology feature, providing users with the choice of either tube-based or solid-state-based amplifiers for the NSEQ equalizer, the TCL Twincom and De-esser circuits. A new twist is a choice between transformerless input (available on all Millennia gear) and the new MIT-01 input transformer. The comprehensive user manual discusses the pros and cons of transformers in audio circuits, and, as Millennia acknowledges in its description of the MIT-01's "euphonic coloration and pleasing distortion," the pop music recording aesthetic often eschews sonic purity. Ranging in sound from the extremely transparent to many levels of tube and transformer coloration, the STT-1 offers a total of 134 possible processor configurations. Whichever combination is chosen, the audio path is 100%, Class-A and all discrete from input to main output.
The Origin has a thick front panel (nearly 1/4-inch) with a platinum-crackle finish and a 16-gauge, cold-rolled, steel chassis. The large German-made ITT pushbutton switches on the Origin's front panel are LED-lit; with so many options available, it is just as well that every switch is well marked and illuminated. In general, all switches push in to engage; the same button switches between tube amps (button out position) to solid-state when depressed. In most cases, pushing a switch toggles an Aromat TQ-2E sealed relay with gold contacts; no audio runs through the front panel switches.
The first front panel switch in the audio chain is a Grayhill mil-spec and gold-plated rotary Source switch that selects among the rear XLR microphone input and the XLR line input (which are both Neutrik Galvatronic gold-plated connectors), and the 1/4-inch front panel DI input (Switchcraft). The DI input passes through a 12AT7 tube impedance converter/amp to keep the DI input impedance greater than 1 megohm. Whatever source is selected, the next step in the chain is a passive Phase Reversal switch and then a choice of either the MIT-01 transformer or transformerless circuit. The user manual points out that the transformer "will likely be most sonically pronounced when used with microphones and offers more of a sonic signature when driven hard."
The Input TT switch selects between the HV-3 and the M-2b tube preamps. The output is momentarily muted when switching back and forth between pre's and when selecting phantom power, so there is no switching noise, a great feature. If you have not matched levels sonically (not just the knob positions) of the separate Vacuum Tube and Solid State Gain controls, then there may be level changes in A/B comparisons. The gain in either of the preamps can be measured at the balanced XLR direct output connector on the back panel. This output is essentially the same monolithic, solid-state output amp as is used in the stand-alone HV-3 unit. When selected, the M-2b tube preamp shares this output amp.
The gain range for the M-2b tube preamp at the direct output is 18 dB, from +22 to +40 dB. The HV-3 ranges from +10 to +50 dB, or a total of 40 dB at the direct output. You can custom order an Origin with an additional 20 dB of solid-state gain if necessary. The variable glowing OL LED, a clear indication of when to stop pushing level, and especially useful when using an all-tube path, shows any overload starting at +18 dBu up to +24 dBu. I found myself lighting up the OL a lot, but it had no adverse effects until the LED stays brightly lit. The OL LED is on the direct output line that also feeds the next section, the 4-band parametric equalizer.
John La Grou of Millennia Media explains the unique equalizer: "The NSEQ-2 equalizer is called a 'shunt design', because the four EQ bands are neither in common series or parallel configuration to the audio path. Rather, each of the four EQ bands, when selected, is placed within the operating network of a single audio path amplifier. The EQ In switch places that single amplifier in the audio signal path. This means that an EQ band will have no effect unless its Boost/Cut knob is off the center zero position and that section's In/Out button is in." The EQ/COMP TT button changes both the equalizer's and compressor's amplifiers from tube to solid-state at the same time. You may hear a 1 or 2 dB difference when A/B evaluating. I would just push or scrub level somewhere else to make comparisons as fair as possible. When operating both the EQ IN and EQ/COMP TT switches, there is an output mute of about a half-second. This is unavoidable, because muting prevents an otherwise audible "pop" on the output.
Each of the four EQ sections features a large, knurled metal knob offering up to 15 dB of boost/cut adjustment in repeatable steps. The four EQ sections are LF (low frequency), LM (low-mid), HM (high-mid) and HF (high frequency). The LF frequency choices are 20, 34, 56, 100, 180 and 270 Hz. The HF frequencies are 4.8, 5.8, 8.0, 10, 16 and 21 kHz. Both the LF and HF sections have switches that change them from 6dB-per-octave shelving filters to peaking filters with a fixed Q of 1.0.
The LM section continuously sweeps from 20 to 220 Hz (from 200 to 2.2k Hz when the X10 button is engaged). The HM sweeps from 250 to 2.5k Hz (2.5 to 25 kHz with X10 in). Both sections have sweepable Q controls ranging from 0.4 (fairly broad) to 4.0 (nicely sharp enough). For repeatable Q settings, you can order the Origin with 21-stepped pots.
The Twincom TCL-2 optocompressor in the Origin uses just a single amplifier stage in the audio path. Tube or solid-state circuits are selected by means of the EQ/COMP TT switch. The TCL-2 is a passive shunt design using an opto-resistive gain reduction element (Vactrol), and only the Output/Buffer Make Up amplifier is required if you need to get some level back after gain reduction. Changing from tube to transistor is more noticeable with the compressor, especially under severe gain reduction conditions.
Threshold, Attack, Release and Ratio controls feature conductive plastic rotary pots. Attack times range from 2 to 100 ms, while release times range from 20 ms at the fastest to a glacial, 3 seconds. I found the taper of the Release control very sudden and touchy at the shorter release time values. Millennia Media is working on this. Ratio goes from the very smooth 1.4:1 to 30:1. I especially liked the Flip Dynamics button that, when pushed, places the compressor before the EQ (the compressor is normally after the EQ). Much easier than changing patch cords!
The DE-ESSER rotary switch selects the center frequency for de-essing. Designed for minimal de-essing, the de-esser frequencies are 4.9, 6.8, 8.2, 10.7 and 12 kHz. Because the de-esser takes over the compressor's settings for de-essing and the gain reduction meter quits, you cannot compress normally AND de-ess at the same time.
There are three outputs: the aforementioned balanced monolithic direct output, a main XLR unbalanced from a Class-A discrete, JFET amp (Millennia's FSA-01 module) that is 6 dB lower than the second main output, and the XLR balanced monolithic output. A large knurled aluminum knob controls the master output. At fully clockwise, there is an additional 10 dB of make-up gain available. Rotating the knob fully counter-clockwise allows for a fade-out to infinity, useful for live recording. When compressing about 2 to 6 dB average and getting dim OL LED flashes (just making an occasional +18 dB) and using the main XLR unbalanced output, I needed a good amount of make-up gain and almost ran out of the gain necessary for a full 24-bit/equivalent analog level.
A large, backlit Sifam analog meter is calibrated to read 0 dB when +4 dBu is reached at the balanced output. The METER GR switch toggles the meter between output level and gain reduction. I would suggest that a Meter Range switch (+10 dB or more) be added in order to make it possible to measure a +14dB output level at 0 dB on the meter. At present, the output meter is pegged a lot of the time when driving 24-bit digital systems.
Millennia Media sent two sets of 12AX7 and 12AU7 tubes to try in the Origin: smooth plate Telefunken and RT Production tubes, and a set of Sovteks. The DI input uses a 12AT7, and I did not change it. I found the Sovteks cleaner and offering less personality than the Teles and RTs, but I liked the bigger difference between the tube and solid-state paths when using the Tele/RT tubes, so I stayed with them.
The first task for the Origin was recording acoustic guitar. It is my experience that close-miked acoustics require a fair amount of "carving" with a good 4-band equalizer in order to sit well in a big pop track. I recorded two different Martin D-18 acoustics, a tenor acoustic and a nylon fingerpicking part. I used a Schoeps CMC 5U condenser mic with a cardioid capsule and started with the tube mic preamp, no transformer and solid-state EQ and compressor. Switching between the solid-state and tube mic preamp, you can hear the openness of either path. I preferred the solid-state path with no transformer for fingerpicking because of the extra gain and sparkle. For all acoustics, I liked the solid-state EQ and compressor paths for their cleanliness.
Recording vocals was interesting because I was looking for some tube and transformer coloration. I was using a Neumann U67 (no pad) driving the M-2b tube preamp and transformer hard with lots of OL LED flashes. I went with the tube compressor path without any EQ. (You must make sure that the EQ IN switch is in and all four EQ sections are disengaged.) This delivers a more "blooming" sound although still extremely clean compared to some other all-tube mic/mic preamp/compressor paths I have used.
The Millennia Media Origin offers so many choices it is almost overwhelming at first. But, like a fine musical instrument, the different sonorities and sounds possible became more easily realized with each session, and the STT-1 offers the user a convenient and high-quality tool that provides both tube and solid-state sounds on demand. MSRP is $2,895 for the gloss black version; $3,195 for the platinum.
Millennia Music & Media Systems, 4200-B Day Spring Court, Placerville, CA 95667-9500; 530/647-0750; fax: 530/647-9921; www.mil-media.com
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