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What is this strange-looking piece of equipment?

An Audio Masterclass student spots a strange piece of equipment in a photo. What could it be?

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Here is an unusual question from an Audio Masterclass student...

"I'm curious as to what piece of gear is on the desk just above where his mouse is in that image?  The round thing with two round protrusions on the front of it."

The first thing to note is that the photograph is from an image library. We bought a licence to use it because all of the photographs we have shot ourselves were taken in professional studio surroundings and we wanted something more typical of the way our students work.

The photo does appear to be of a real studio setup. It seems to be a two-person studio because there is a shelf or table with DJ equipment in the background. There is an element of 'staged for the photo' though because neither piece of equipment on the desktop is connected, nor is the laptop on the left. It doesn't matter - it's a stock photo and it conveys a positive image of someone working in a home recording studio.

But getting back to the question - exactly what is "the round thing with two round protrusions on the front"?

It took some diligent searching on Google, but I found it - it's a Blue Robbie mic/instrument preamplifier. It's expensive and you should expect to pay something around $1000 for one.

Whether you want one should depend entirely on how it sounds. I suspect however that many buyers will be attracted by its Robby the Robot from Forbidden Planet look. There's no harm in audio equipment looking good, but there is another issue...

I have to say that the designers of this preamp have put looks well ahead of function. There's a gain control on the front, which is where you need it. But what about the pad, phase switch, phantom power switch, mic/instrument switch?

Er.. they are all around the back. So you have to turn the preamp round to get at them and make sure you get the settings right.

To me, this is totally inappropriate. The Blue Robbie would need a particularly distinctive sound texture to make up for these shortcomings. It's also worth saying that having an output level control as well as a gain control is a useful feature on a vacuum tube preamplifier. That way you can increase the gain to achieve more warmth, then bring down the output level to compensate, but maybe that wasn't the way the designers wanted to go - the specification of this preamp is first class and perhaps it would be inappropriate to degrade the Robbie's performance intentionally.

In summary, the Blue Robbie has an interesting look, an there's nothing wrong with that. But putting essential controls on the back is not the mark of a professional piece of equipment.

By David Mellor Sunday November 24, 2013
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