by Jerry Vigil
Working in the communications industry in these last two decades of the twentieth century comes with a lot of advantages. The wizards of technology offer toys to producers like us that were never even dreamt of a decade ago. Yes, having access to these many high tech pieces of gear is wonderful, but along with this high technology also come long learning curves. Too many buttons and too many pages in a manual serve to discourage quite a few would be fans of all types of studio equipment. Does this ring a bell? If so, you'll love what AIR Corp has done to the ever popular mike processor.
AIR Corp is short for Advanced Instrument Research Corporation, which is based in Nashville. The box is called the Pro Announcer Model 500. If neither of these names rings a bell, you might recall the recent ads in the trades that have the word "BALLZ" screaming across the top. Yes, same machine, and "ballz" is what this box aims to give you.
The minds behind the Pro Announcer 500 are Jim Loupas and Michael Morgan who together make up AIR Corp. They decided there was a niche in the mike processor market and they set out to fill it. Jim, former production engineer and Director of Engineering for WCFL, knew what he wanted this box to do, and Michael made it do it. The result is a very clean and effective microphone processor designed by radio people for radio people that is not only affordable but extremely easy to use.
Beginning with the front panel controls, from left to right, we start with the Input Select buttons. These two up/down push buttons are used to select one of four different input level ranges. Four LED's to the left of the buttons indicate the selected range. The four points are at 0dB, -10dB, -30dB, and -50dB. This allows for either a mike level input or line level input to be connected to the balanced XLR input jack on the rear panel. An Input Adjust knob to the right of the buttons provides additional adjustment with a range of ±10dB. There is a red Clip LED next to the Input knob for visual assistance in setting up the input level. This very versatile input configuration makes it easy to use a wide variety of inputs. If you want to input a phantom powered mike directly into the Pro Announcer, an optional phantom power supply is available for around a hundred bucks which connects to the rear panel.
While the four input ranges mentioned above are fixed, they are very easy to change (by changing resistor values) to customize the unit to your particular needs. Let's say the box is to be installed in the control room where several jocks would be using it. The morning jock may be a smooth, quiet talker while the night jock is a screamer. The input ranges can be easily adjusted to compensate for the difference in levels of the two jocks. Furthermore, remote control of the input ranges is possible. The jocks can simply push a remote button to obtain their setting. More on the remote control abilities later.
Next on the front panel tour we approach the EQ section of the Pro Announcer. Here is where we first come to appreciate the simplicity of this box. There are three EQ controls: Low, Mid, and High. The EQ is peaking EQ as opposed to shelving EQ, and the center frequencies of these controls are pre-selected and fixed. This means there are no bandwidth controls to deal with. Because the center frequencies are fixed, where they are is very important. This box is designed to process only the voice, so the center frequencies are carefully placed at 130Hz on the low end, 1.2kHz for the mids and at 6.8kHz for the highs (approximate figures). While different engineers, producers, and designers might have placed these center frequencies at different places, a lot can be said for the points chosen for the Pro Announcer. They give the Pro Announcer a sound, even a character, all its own. For most of the voices we tested, both male and female, the low EQ was at the right spot. So was the mid EQ. The high EQ, being centered at 6.2kHz, seemed more like an upper-mid frequency control, however, it boosted those frequencies that seemed to make the voices really punch through when mixed with music. If you're used to punching the highs more around the area of 8 or 9kHz, the high EQ on the Pro Announcer won't do it for you, but external EQ can be used before, after, or even within the Pro Announcer using the unit's insert point. An additional Clip LED on the back side of the EQ section warns of any excessive boost from the EQ section. All in all, the EQ section is ideal for voice work, but most of all, it is as easy to use as the bass and treble controls on your car stereo. Another advantage of this simple EQ section is that when using several Pro Announcers throughout several studios in a station, it is very easy to match the settings from room to room and mike to mike.
To the right of the EQ section on the front panel is the Send button which activates the insert point accessed on the back panel. The two ¼-inch jacks on the rear panel provide a line level in and out for insertion of reverb, external EQ, digital effects, or whatever else you might want to add to the Pro Announcer. The on/off function of the Send button is very quiet and smoothly turns external processing on and off by cross-fading the signals rather than abruptly turning one on and the other off. Cross-fade time is 30ms one way and 60ms the other.
Next up on the tour is the compressor section. Again, what is refreshing to see is a compressor with just one knob. If you want more compression, you crank it. If you want less, you crank it the other way. No decisions to make about attack times, release times, ratios, etc., just plain, straightforward operation. How does it sound? Great! You get up to 20dB of punchy compression with preset attack/release times and ratios that are set for voice work. An LED bargraph lets you see just how much compression is occurring. Again, this simplified operation makes it very easy to match settings when using multiple units throughout a station's studios.
What mike processor would be complete without a de-esser? The Pro Announcer's de-esser is in the compressor side chain. Amount of de-essing is predetermined and so is the frequency the de-esser works on. The only control over the de-esser you have is whether it is in or out. For that you get one button, the DS button. Perfect! Keep it simple!
To the right of the DS button is the Gain Reduction LED bargraph for the compressor. This bargraph also functions as a meter for the expander section of the unit which is controlled by the Expander Range control to the right of the bargraph. Once again, operation is kept simple. One function, one knob. You may add as much as 30dB of expansion to control room noise, equipment noise, etc.. Cranking the Expander Range beyond 30dB changes the expander into a gate. This downward expander, with its preset attack/release times and ratio, functions very smoothly and effectively eliminates room noise. This is particularly helpful when large amounts of compression are in use. The LED bargraph automatically switches between metering of compression and expansion. Green LED's below the bargraph indicate which function is being metered.
The other bargraph is a VU meter for reading input and output levels. Input and output metering is selected with the VU Select button below the bargraph. To the right of this bargraph is the Output Gain control which adjusts both the line and mike outputs on the rear panel as well as the level at the headset jack to the far right on the front panel.
Off to the rear panel we go, where we find the mike output and the line output just mentioned. Both of these outputs are balanced XLR type. The mike output is -50dB below line level. The line level output is nominal +4dBm. There is one balanced XLR input for either line or mike inputs. Remember, the Input Select buttons let you adjust the input to match whatever level you're sending. The ¼-inch line send and return jacks are also balanced. There is a power on/off switch on the back as well as an on/off switch for the optional phantom power.
Finally, on the rear panel, is the remote control jack. This 25-pin jack provides remote control of the Input Select buttons. You can remotely activate the insert point, turn the de-esser on and off, and switch the VU meter from input to output.
For the techies, specs include useable dynamic range of greater than 100dB. Compressor and expander attack time is 10ms. The release time for both is 40dB/second. Both times are program dependent. The compression ratio is 4:1. The range of boost and cut on the EQ section is 20dB either way. The unit takes up one rack space.
List price on the Pro Announcer from AIR Corp is $699. Considering what you get, that's a pretty fair price, but our hats are really off to AIR Corp for providing a technically advanced mike processor with the operational simplicity that seems to elude many of today's processors. Does the Pro Announcer 500 give you "ballz?" Well, a pitch shifter is still the best cure for Tiny Tim Syndrome, but you will sound better with the Pro Announcer on your side.