Top producer / engineer, George Shilling, also takes time out to review interesting audio equipmentGeorge Shilling reviews:

Helios EQ1 Lunchbox

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A brief history lesson: The late Dick Swettenham was a maintenance engineer at Olympic Studios in its late 1960's heyday. In the early 1970's he built a rather wonderful desk for Olympic and subsequently a number of Olympic clients' private studios. When Island Records wanted Swettenham to build a desk for Basing Street Studios legend has it that his Olympic employers were none too happy, so he left and went into business with the Helios name. As time went by, gear fanatic and music producer Tony Arnold started to buy old Helios consoles and acquired seven of them for export to the US.

 

With a c.1973 desk built for Eric Clapton as his reference, Arnold set about replicating Helios modules carefully including all the faults of the original to begin with. In the course of his research he found that the original desks' 20dB pad used a centre-tap from the Lustraphone input transformer. These sounded better than later Helios desks, which used Beyer transformers with resistors rather than a centre- tap for the pad. Arnold approached Sowter to copy the Lustraphone transformers. He then built a console for Elvis Costello and Chris Difford's Helioscentric Studios and put in 20 original Helios modules and 18 new modules.

 

Over a period of over two years incremental modifications to correct problems with the original modules were carried out on the new ones. Each time these were carefully compared to the originals to make sure none of the modifications had any detrimental effects. Cyril Jones of Raindirk helped with some aspects of problem solving. Having acquired the Helios name, Arnold set about perfecting the EQ1 modules we now have here.

 

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The originals' unreliability was always a bugbear for Arnold, so the new units are built to military specifications by CLI who amongst other things makes tyre-warmers for Formula One racing teams. The front panels are dipped in paint and the discrete circuitry is bulletproof. Modules from subsequent production runs will feature phantom power (which is already included in the rack version).

 

The lunchbox comprises a flight case with two vertically mounted Input/EQ modules alongside a panel with 6 bantam sockets for mic and line inputs and outputs - very convenient if you encounter bantam patchbays, a nuisance when you occasionally don't - and an IEC mains socket. There are no LEDs or lights anywhere. And with everything on the front, there is no need to open the back of the box.

 

The Input section features a three-position toggle switch for mic/padded mic/line input and a stepped control for gain.

 

I had a couple of the original modules in a lunchbox for comparison: the old ones sometimes sounded slightly smoother. This is probably due to the new ones' extended high-frequency response, which if audible, is not necessarily preferable to my ears. But any difference is extremely subtle. One vast improvement over the originals is in the build quality and reliability - crackly knobs are understandable on something almost 30 years old, but the originals were notoriously unreliable.

 

The stepped gain fixed 10kHz high frequency band is gentle and open, wonderfully enhancing clarity without introducing harshness. It goes in 2dB steps from -10dB to +10dB, although I have an inkling which way it will generally be turned. The Mid band comprises a selection of eight switched frequencies from 0.7 to 6kHz. A toggle switches boost or cut, with an uncalibrated pot giving a roughly 10dB range. Gain for the Low frequency band is also controlled by uncalibrated rotary pot giving a maximum boost of approximately 10dB at 30, 80, 120 or 240dB. These are 'boost only' frequencies. The frequency selector becomes an attenuation switch below zero, with cuts in 3dB steps down to -15dB at a fixed 75Hz shelf. I thought I might miss the ability to cut low-mid frequencies, being something of a fan of subtractive EQ, but with the Helios, boosting always sounds so good that I quickly adapted to this way of working.

 

One Helios aficionado I spoke to testified to the glory of "F'BAAF" (Full Boost At All Frequencies) on the Helios desk he had used! On the low frequency gain pot there is a click at the off-extreme. The originals had a low-frequency boost of 1dB even when the EQ was bypassed. For purists this has been retained, but the click position gives you the option of switching it off. A high-pass filter gives 15dB/Octave cut at 40 or 80Hz, which is bypassed if the EQ is bypassed. A proper phase switch circuit is incorporated, the original design for this being something of a bodge.

By modern standards the features and control are limited. But here the sound is everything. You know you're in heaven when just about any setting sounds good, not just one compromise setting, which can be the case with many desk EQs. I recorded and processed all sorts of sources and the Helios always imparted a wonderful openness and clarity. If I were to own just one input module the EQ1 would certainly be near the top of the list.

A giant from a previous era returns in style, and in a portable package to take wherever you go.

 

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Reproduced with kind permission from www.George.Shilling.Com.  Copyright ©


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