I received an audio comment from James Clausen with some questions about microphone preamps. James inquired about my recent purchase of several Grace Design M101s and wonders how they compare with the Millennia Media HV-3D.
As I mentioned in the previous episode, I won a bid on the M101s in an auction of gear from a studio going out of business. I wouldn’t have gone out of my way to look for the M101s but they are very nice for the price and especially at the auction price at which I purchased them. I would have probably preferred the John Hardy pres that were originally housed in the studio’s racks but, alas, they were gone before the auction even began…
I sent the pres to Grace Designs for a +10 dB gain modification so I didn’t have time to do a proper shootout. However, when I did bring the pres to the studio, I plugged them in just to make sure they were in working order. I did a very brief comparison to the HV-3D just to see if they were at least as clean. I have to say, they were awfully close. I detected only a perceivably higher noise floor, perhaps 3 dB or so. Otherwise, they really were comparable. The front panel Hi–Z input and high pass filter are welcomed features not available on the HV-3D. I do wish they had an easier option for rack mounting but, with a rack shelf, a drill and two #10 machine screws, it’s not a big deal.
James asks about how the Grace and Millennia pres compare with some other offerings from Focusrite, Manley and Avalon. The thing is, some of the pres he mentions are more along the lines of channel strips that include compression and/or equalization in addition to amplification.
Rather than comparing them to the HV-3D, I’d sooner compare them to something like the Millennia Media Origin STT-1. The Origin is a full recording channel although it also has a feature not found in too many preamps which is a twin topology design that allows for discrete solid–state and tube paths for the preamp, compressor and EQ sections of the unit.
I had to break the news to James that, when recording a drum kit, one could, indeed, easily use tens of thousands of dollars in preamp channels. Of course, one probably wouldn’t find that kind of arsenal in a home studio but it’s par for the course in commercial facilities and higher–end project studios. Think about using 8 channels of a vintage Neve console to mic a drum kit—with a price tag of several hundreds of thousands of dollars, what would you say is the per–channel cost of the signal chain? Yeah, I know, it seems almost depressing, doesn’t it?
But why? It shouldn’t be depressing at all! One can get fantastic results with simple, straight amplification of signals right into a DAW. In fact, that’s what some engineers began doing in the 80s and 90s with preamps going straight into analog multitrack recorders and bypassing the console altogether. These days, it’s possible to find great multichannel preamps with plenty of clean gain to help get several tracks of high–quality audio into your recording platform of choice without totally breaking the bank.
If you do a little searching, you’ll find that Rob Hunter (Branford Marsalis’s engineer/producer) often uses Millennia preamps. What you probably won’t find out is that, depending on the client with whom he’s working and their budget, he sometimes uses the PreSonus DigiMAX. The DigiMAX is a wonderful 8–channel preamp with plenty of nice, clean gain. I’ve used it on a couple of projects as well and I think it’s great. I’ve also used the preamps on the Focusrite Control|24 as well as the OctoPre. Apart from lacking a little extra gain for the many ribbon mics I often use, they’re perfectly fine preamps for a wide range of applications.
A recent episode of Ronan’s Recording Show featured a review of several preamps in the $500 range. Among the contenders, Ronan appears to like the True Systems P-Solo which, incidentally, my buddy, Allen (Big Al) Wagner, just won in a Sweetwater Sound Twitter promotion. Congratulations, Biggy!
So, with all these choices, what do I look for in a preamp? Well, to try and keep it simple, I look for three main things: 1) clarity, 2) headroom and 3) reliability. I tend to favor transparency in a preamp. I generally don’t need crunch in my sessions but, if I do, I reach for a tube pre and then I’m not so concerned with the clarity. Ample headroom is a great thing when trying to capture sound with a large dynamic range like an orchestra or even a piano. Reliability is worth every penny that you pay for it. That may not be apparent most of the time because most gear works just about all the time. When you’re in the middle of a session, capturing a never–to–be–repeated live performance of a jazz combo or vocal take and the equipment fails, well…
That’s not to say that the more affordable gear is necessarily more prone to failing. If it doesn’t fail in the first few days, it’ll probably last a long time. Perhaps not as long as a vintage preamp built in 1964 and still kicking but long enough to possibly get you through the next few years until you save up enough money to climb to the next rung on the great gear ladder.
All of this talk about preamps and comparisons made me think of a wonderful collection of discs from 3D audio Inc. Lynne Fuston and company put out a series of shootouts featuring mics, preamps, A/D converters and even DAWs. He brought in a team of engineers to help with these massive projects and documented everything very diligently. I’d highly recommend these discs as a point of reference for anyone interested in comparing gear including many of the classic pieces as well as current offerings.
My two criticisms of the mic shootout, specifically, are:
1) I wish the singers had used a tempo reference to keep their vocal performances consistent. With the files imported into a DAW for A-B comparison, it’s distracting to flip from one track to the next and have it be out of sync with the other tracks only a few seconds into the performance. I think it would’ve been a simple thing to implement and I hope they consider that for any future shootouts.
2) The three examples of ribbon mics in the lineup were horrible. In a phone call, Lynn admitted to me that, at the time, he was fairly new to ribbon microphones and that he had mistakenly chosen to position the vocalists only 8 inches from the mics. This, of course, is fine for moving coil and condenser mics but absolutely not for most ribbon mics. Now, that’s a fair explanation for his own oversight but, my goodness, I would’ve thought that one of the other engineers would’ve said, “Wait a second…”
Anyway, apart from the ribbon anomaly, the rest of the stuff is really quite nicely put together. One of the preamp discs features a DVD with a Pro Tools session that includes multiple performances with various preamps used on multiple playlists for each track. In other words, one could hear an entire performance on several instruments and vocal through one type of preamp versus another or any combination. I believe it was the second in a series of preamp discs and it was clearly more thought–out. I’d highly recommend the entire series as an excellent point of reference.
Aside from the two brief clips from Libby Richman and George Hrab, the background music featured in this episode came from instrumental mixes from an album I produced for Cathy Rose entitled “Soul and Sky.”