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Safe Sound P1 Audio Processor
Reviewed by Kane D Williams

Safe Sound Audio is a new audio-design company and manufacturer located in West Yorkshire, UK. Their products are designed and manufactured in the UK., with the P1 Audio Processor being their first product to market. Right from the moment I unpacked the half-rack sized Safe Sound Audio P1, which retails for $699 in the US, I was confident of the build quality of the British-designed and built unit. It felt tough, durable and heavy and the pots and buttons all felt solid. The finish is adequate, rather than luxurious, and it won't be winning any design awards, but it is definitely more utilitarian in appearance that some of its rivals. In the same way I think the FMR stuff kind of looks like hospital apparatus, the P1 reminds me of some sort of ham radio equipment.

Atop the unit are screen-printed descriptions of the back panel connections, which make life a little easier if you can't get to read the back panel itself. All the connections are balanced 1/4" TRS sockets, except for the Neutrik XLR microphone input. There is a generous 70dB of gain for the mic input, -10dB to + 20dB for the line input and 0dB to +30dB for the instrument input. I found that the line input was a little 'jittery', but Robert at Safe Sound Audio assures me that this is only due to the fact that this is the first unit made and has thus been passed around many hands for demos, becoming a little bruised. He offered to send me out another unit to review if this was a problem, but I found I could manage just fine with the model I had, as I would not be using the line level input except for set-up purposes. To set the unit up, I followed the guidelines in the manual and downloaded the 1kHz 50% duty 'square wave' from the Safe Sound website. I played this back into the line input of the P1 and then used the preset output gain control, which is adjusted with a standard screwdriver, to set the input level in my DAW (Logic) to -1dB. The idea is that the P1 will then not allow any signal to go over this level and thus make it impossible to overload the converters. However, I found that when driving the P1 hard into the red I was hitting above 0dB and getting clipping and so I readjusted the input to -3dB (using the test tone) and then the feature worked like a charm. I was told by Robert that generating a true square wave test signal digitally without overshoot is almost impossible, so that some DAWs may need to be set a little more reservedly.

Even though this is not a high-cost device, I was expecting a lot from the P1, having read the white paper outlining the design aims of the product and knowing that the designer had worked for both Neve and Calrec. To test the P1, I primarily used two microphones, a Studio Projects C1 and a Groove Tubes GT55. I chose these two LDCs as I believe they have very different characters. I would describe the C1 as quite bright and upfront in a pleasant 'new school' way and the GT55 is thicker sounding with a more natural upper end, kind of 'vintage' in tone. The source material was vocals, bongos, tambourine and kalimba. I did not test the DI. I compared the P1 with my Joe Meek VC1Q (non CS version) and the DMP2 pre built into my M-Audio Omni Studio with an RNC inserted for compression.

Through the GT55, the P1 sounded similar to the DMP2, only smoother, warmer and more natural on my voice. Both the DMP2 and P1 are very detailed and I would describe both pres as being on the transparent/neutral side of the fence, but the P1 is just a little more musical and less 'crunchy' in the higher end of the spectrum. In comparison with the Joe Meek, the P1 delivered more clarity and detail. The VC1Q has a thicker, distinctive tone in the mids, which can work very well in some occasions, but for general purpose, and with a 'darker mic', I believe the P1 to be a wiser choice. When I raised the gain so that more of the signal was in or near the red, there did seem to be a little distortion to the peaks of my voice, but it is possible that this was the AD/DA of the Delta 66 or the mic as I can't remember the C1 showing the same thing. In any case, it wasn't bad and with the input gain set how I would normally work, this was a non-issue.

Through the C1, my findings with the GT55 were further confirmed. The P1 came across as smoother than the DMP2 and VCQ1 and this time I noticed my voice had more body than through the Omni Studio and yet seemed softer in the mids. Not softer as in less focused, but simply not as hard-edged, just basically nicer! Again the sound was clearer than what the Joe Meek could deliver and rather than the C1 sounding unnaturally hyped in the highs as some describe it, it just came across as nice and airy! Through both mics, the Tambourine once again sounded just a little more strained and crunchy with the DMP2 than the P1. However, the VC1Q had more weight to the sound and it is hard to tell which would have worked better in a mix -- the more natural sound of the Safe Sound P1 or the heavier, ballsier tones of the Joe Meek. The best bongo track I got in terms of real punch and woodiness was using the DMP2 and RNC combo. However, I could not duplicate this again and assume I just got lucky with mic placement, air pressure or whatever else can affect bongo recording. Generally, the P1 sounded equally as good.

The compressor section of the P1 is very impressive, easy to set up and works in a similar way to the RNC in that it uses multiple side chains to deliver very transparent results. The main difference is that the P1 is totally analogue, whereas the RNC utilises digital methods to control the compression. There is not much I can say about the compressor, except that I could not get the damn thing to sound bad and as long as you don't push every setting to the extreme, it is simple to achieve effective, transparent gain control. I found it worked well on everything and did nothing to mess with the complex harmonics of the kalimba (thumb piano). As the notes decayed, the instrument never sounded anything but natural even at quite extreme settings. With the ratio set to infinity to make the compressor act more like a limiter, it did manage to impart some of the ducking characteristics of a 'vintage' limiter, although it still remained reasonably discrete under the circumstances. Like all compressors, when being used to simply even out the level of a sound source, the P1 is capable of adding a little more body to the sound, especially when applied in heavier doses. But for those who want to create an obvious, compressed sound as an effect, I don't think the P1 would be the weapon of choice. However, on the many occasions when one does not want to hear the effects of compression, the P1 is a definite contender and as unobtrusive as the wonderful RNC in 'Super Nice' mode!

The P1's limiter is always active, automatically engaging when needed and is almost as transparent as the compressor. Even when driven hard enough to hear, it was never ugly and reminded me of the natural compression of analogue tape. In 'normal' use, where just the odd phrase or transient would hit the 'Lim' LED, no ill effects could be heard. If set up correctly this clever limiter could save more than a great performance or two by eliminating 'overs.'

The Expander, like the rest of the P1, works very well. Although it only has one control, as much of its workings are taken care of automatically inside the unit, this is enough to find a setting that delivers what is required. My personal choice is not to track with a gate or expander switched in. I did a few vocal and bongo takes with it in and the results were pretty good and usable. I didn't appear to be losing any valuable information and I could set it up to keep the sharp intakes of breath if I wanted. The sound is dropped to a maximum of -20dB rather than complete silence and this helps to keep the sound a little more natural.

There are a few minor negatives about the P1. Safe Sound Audio have done a wise thing by incorporating a proper internal PSU instead of a wall wart, but they have not included an on/off switch, which may be a pain in the backside for some users. I also found the sparseness of markings to indicate settings a little frustrating; for example, you never quite know at what ratio you are compressing and it is only the fact that the compressor sounds so good at any settings that makes this less of a problem! They have admirably succeeded in creating a very transparent analogue compressor which in my opinion is every bit as good as the RNC in 'Super Nice' mode. But unlike the RNC, which can operate without the 'Super Nice' mode engaged to give another flavour, the P1's compressor can only manage clean or cleaner! When I mentioned to Robert that it would be nice to be able to get the compressor pumping a little, he laughed, saying that they had worked hard to abolish those kinds of side effects to satisfy the need for clean, transparent compression. However, he would seriously consider a way of allowing both types of compression on future products. He did comment that one of his customers claims to have managed to get the P1 to pump.

For what it's worth with my limited experience, I found the P1 to be an excellent piece of kit, which seemed quieter than my other units even with the gain cranked up. The pre amp delivers a full, natural and musical sound with just enough second-order-harmonic distortion to warm things up without loss of detail. It doesn't appear to favour any particular area of the frequency range, and thus comes across quite neutral, but not flat or clinical. The Expander is a clever design, giving the user just one knob to adjust. Fortunately, this is enough to acquire effective results and I can see this getting used more than one would expect for both tracking and post processing. The compressor is also a top-notch design and a breeze to use. It is pretty much impossible to detect at any settings and I think that when the multiple channel version of this unit is introduced with linkable channels for stereo recording, many people will buy that unit for the compressor alone. The Limiter has no user controls and is always monitoring the audio, waiting to subtly spring into action. When it does so, it is very effective and discrete and I can't imagine there are any other units that get as close to brick wall limiting with such transparency, at least not under a couple of grand. Of course it is not 100% invisible, and I don't think this is technically possible, but it is a very fine attempt! The unit is a terrific value, but with established names like Focusrite producing decent channel strips in the same price bracket, I hope that newcomers Safe Sound Audio can grab a piece of the market, as their products definitely deserve recognition! I will definitely be buying a unit from them. In fact, I'm not sure I can let this little fella go. Quick, hide my chequebook!

Safe Sound Audio is currently lining up for US distribution of their products.

For more information on the Safe Sound Audio P1 Audio Processor and other products, visit safesoundaudio.com.

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