It’s hard to believe that the humble VU meter has been with us for almost 85 years. It was conceived in 1939 by a partnership of American broadcasters (CBS, NBC and Bell Labs) as the Standard Volume Indicator (SVI). It’s been used, albeit mostly in simplified and less accurate forms, ever since, and history has proven its practical effectiveness as a reliable indicator of the perceived volume of an audio signal. (VU meters are frequently rejected as being ‘old‑fashioned’, and the BBC long insisted that VU stood for ‘Virtually Useless’, but neither claim is true: when correctly calibrated, VU meters are remarkably useful, and it’s no accident that the Momentary Loudness mode in the BS.1770 Loudness Normalisation metering standard is almost identical to the classic VU meter spec!)
Of course, our DAW software provides digital sample‑peak meters and, increasingly, sophisticated true‑peak and loudness metering. Some even offer virtual VU meters. But keeping these in view takes up precious screen space, and if they’re not kept in view they can’t provide the at‑a‑glance information needed to discern whether or not a mix is in the right volume ball‑park. A high‑quality, well‑designed mechanical VU meter that can be calibrated easily (a feature most omit!) addresses that need very well indeed (as well as looking cool in any studio!), has the advantage of not consuming screen space, and it doesn’t need the user to focus intently on and mentally interpret complex on‑screen numbers. Instead, it conveys crucial, instinctive level information, even when only peripherally visible, just through the angles of the needles, conveying all the information required in an instant, and allowing the user to concentrate entirely on what is being heard — which is a really good thing!
Crookwood are a small, high‑end audio manufacturer based near Salisbury in the UK, and they build an impressive range of mastering consoles, monitoring controllers, routers, converters and mic preamps, and all of it modular and customisable. We’ve reviewed various Crookwood products over the years, and I’ve been using my custom Crookwood mastering console almost every day for over a decade now. Their stereo VU meter is available in two formats, with the meters arranged either in a vertical array (to fit into Crookwood’s modular console control panel) or side by side on a standard 2U rackmount panel; I was sent the latter version for review. There’s a cost option to have it fitted in an oak case, and they also offer a 1U rackmount version with six smaller VU meters for 5.1 metering.
Sifam’s superb Presentor AL39W VU meters are employed in both stereo versions. These meters each have a visible display area of roughly 90 x 40mm and they conform closely to the original SVI ballistic requirements, which is key to their accurate audio metering performance. Crookwood have added their own lighting, with LEDs along the bottom of each meter giving the unit a lovely, warm‑yellow glow, which looks fabulous — just like the classic festoon incandescent bulbs traditionally used in vintage consoles, but without the heat or short lifespan!
The rear of the panel is open, but the wiring is neat and well secured, and the audio electronics are enclosed in a simple folded metal box at the centre, carrying a pair of XLR sockets for the inputs and a coaxial DC power inlet. A universal wall‑wart power supply is included, with clip‑on plugs to suit different international mains outlet standards.
A rotary switch in the centre of the front panel is the only user‑control, and it attenuates the input signals in six 3dB steps. The attenuation facility is critically important in the meter’s practical usefulness and was central to the original 1939 SVI spec, but it’s mostly omitted in modern VU meters, for reasons of both cost and ignorance! At the 0dB setting Crookwood’s VU meters are calibrated in the traditional way, such that 0VU is displayed for an input level of +4dBu. In most cases, though, mixes and certainly masters are hotter than that — the attenuation settings effectively shift the meter calibration so that 0VU is shown for nominal input levels of +7, +10, +13, +16, or +19 dBu.
The idea of recalibrating the meter reference level is not new, and an early digital reincarnation came in the form of Bob Katz’s popular K‑meter system, with its K‑20, K‑14 and K‑12 settings. The K‑20 setting is equivalent to Crookwood’s 0dB calibration, while the K‑14 mode can be replicated with 6dB attenuation, and the K‑12 mrookwood recommend plaode with 9dB (not perfectly accurate, but close enough!). To choose an appropriate attenuation level, Cying pink noise at the desired mix level (eg. ‑14LUFS for streaming) and adjusting the attenuator so the needles sit around ‑2VU — close to vertical on the scale. Quick, easy, and surprisingly accurate!
Being able to recalibrate VU meters for different nominal operating and mix levels is what makes this particular design so useful in mixing and mastering...
Being able to recalibrate VU meters for different nominal operating and mix levels is what makes this particular design so useful in mixing and mastering, and the classic mechanical moving‑coil meter implementation provides an intuitive understanding of when the needles are hitting the ‘right spot’, even with the quickest of glances. In summary, then, this is a very high‑quality, accurate, professional‑grade stereo VU meter, with adjustable front‑panel attenuator. It’s also highly practical, easily configurable, looks the business and is relatively affordable — I’d suggest that it’s worth 2U of anyone’s rack space!