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Mic Preamp Shootout by Lynn Fuston

In our last episode, Lynn Engineer and Larry Producer had decided with Amy Artist that the Manley mic was the best. So now it was time to decide on preamps. We lined up all four. Using 30 dB of gain on each.

1) The console pre in the Neve 8068 that we were recording on. This is the pre we had used to decide which mic to use, so it was the benchmark. It sounded very nice. Very usable. Everyone thought it was very nice sounding. 

2) The Martech MSS-10. This unit belongs to a good friend of mine that I greatly respect as a great engineer. He loves it and uses it exclusively. So I was quite eager to hear it. 

We plugged the Manley into it and rolled the tape. Ouch. Very bright. Enormously bright. And very hard, even brittle in the midrange. We turned it off after about 10 seconds. The sound was so piercing that I kept wanting to turn it down, and even after turning it down, I kept wanting to turn it down. I know the person who designed this preamp and have used his gear and modified consoles for years. He's a genius. The only way I can describe this reaction and this sound is that there must have been some mismatch between the output and input impedance of the mic and the pre. It was really unusable. (Again, that is for THIS voice in THIS studio with THIS mic on THIS day.)

3) The blue Focusrite ISA-110s. This unit, which I have owned since 1987 (the first ever piece of Focusrite gear in Nashville, by the way), was my reference pre for years. There are few things that don't sound phenomenal on it. I plugged the mic into it.

  Sure enough, I was not disappointed. It sounded about 60% bigger than the Neve pre. There was a depth and dimensionality that words can't describe. It was warm and present and seemed to have "more of everything" than the Neve, which we had all agreed sounded nice. We think we have a clear winner. It probably can't get any better than this. But on to contestant #4.

4) The Buzz Audio MA-2. This 2 channel mic pre is very rare....they are made in New Zealand. I found out about them when a producer returned from recording a project "down under" and we spent 6 hours trying to match a vocal sound. We couldn't do it with ANYthing in Nashville. So I spent months tracking down the builder and eventually bought six pair of them. I can tell you more if you want to know.

So we lined it up and rolled the tape. Wow. It wasn't like the Focusrite. It was warmer and bigger and had all the presence of the Focusrite but it was smoother in the midrange. It made the Focusrite sound more like the Class AB design that it is. (The Buzz is all discrete Class A.) The midrange was silky, not forward. The warmth of the vocal just came out of the speakers and wrapped around you like a big warm hug. The sound was huge. It accented her enormous voice and brought out the lower midrange richness that we were looking for like no other pre did.

So, the verdict? The artist came in. Agreed with my conclusions on the first two, nice on #1, harsh on #2. Now the hard part. Do we like the more focused, present but slightly forward midrange from the Focusrites or the warmer bigger sound of the Buzz?

After some discussion, I convinced them that getting the midrange presence of the Focusrite would be easier to accomplish by EQing the Buzz than to get the warmth of the Buzz by low end EQing the Focusrite. So the final verdict was Manley to the Buzz with 28 dB of gain. We tried patching in my Tubetech CL-1A and it messed too much with the sound. We tried patching in my Pultecs to do any EQing that we might need on a cut to cut basis. It changed the sound too much too. 

So the whole record has been cut with the mic feeding the pre feeding the tape machine input. It sounds fabulous. It doesn't need a thing. My second heard it today and was bowled over by the depth and warmth of her voice. I think we captured the best her voice has to offer and she agrees with us. It really does sound great.

Now to make sure we keep that sound in the mix. That's the task for this week.
Posted by Lynn Fuston on May 26th, 1999. 3D Audio Inc

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