Mic preamp madness.

In 2006 I went crazy.

It’s true.

In the interest of making a very long story somewhat digestible, I guess it all started to get heavy when I decided to buy a Manley VOXBOX sight unseen and sound unheard. This was just after I’d gone off on a rant in a hard-bound notebook I wrote for a girl I was stupidly in love with about how absurd I thought it was to spend a ridiculous amount of money on one microphone and/or a single mic preamp.

But, see, this was a channel STRIP, with compression and EQ thrown in to sweeten the deal. I felt like it was time to step up from the DBX Silver Series preamps I’d been using for the past few years. They’d served me well, but I felt a seismic shift in musical direction approaching, and I thought that was a good excuse to spend a painful amount of money on a Neumann U87 and the VOXBOX. Maybe I really would get what I paid for.

I think for just that one channel of pre/EQ/compression and the one mic, the total price came out to eight or nine grand. That’s insane. But I was convinced this would be my magic bullet and the VOXBOX would make my voice and Arp Omni-2 sound so gooey and magical I would soil myself with joy.

It didn’t quite work out that way.

I think it was Christmas Eve of 2005 when my VOXBOX was delivered. That seemed encouraging. As soon as I fired it up, there was this strange loud hissing/humming noise happening. I tried bypassing different stages, taking the EQ and compressor out of the signal path, messing with gain staging. Nothing got rid of it. I couldn’t record anything useful with that amount of noise.

I got on with recording THE BITTER SIDE OF SWEET and putting the NOSTALGIA-TRIGGERING MECHANISM EP together with my existing equipment to bide my time until this was all taken care of, while stockpiling songs and ideas. I sent the VOXBOX back to have the tubes changed and was told no one at the factory could hear any ugly noise. When it came back to me the noise was still there.

The U87 came along and sounded downright boring through my DBX preamps. The cheap Rode NT1 I’d been using as a vocal mic since 2003 put it to shame. I was flabbergasted. The U87 got sent back and I got a refund, minus an absurdly steep restocking fee (thanks again, Long & McQuade). After a while I gave up on the VOXBOX and sent it on its merry way as well.

Here I have to commend Gerry at Sonotechnique in Toronto for making the experience a lot less frustrating than it might have been. Even though none of the people working there could find anything wrong with the VOXBOX and no one heard what I did, he took it back anyway because I wasn’t happy with it, and he let me use the money I’d spent toward something else. I got a Crane Song Flamingo. Months later, I was able to take the credit I still had leftover (that VOXBOX was one expensive hissing beast) and use it to buy a Chandler TG channel. We only ever communicated through emails, but the longest it ever took for Gerry to ship anything to me was a day or two. The treatment I got from him put most music-related businesses I dealt with in Windsor — and in person — to shame.

I continued my quest to retool the “studio” and accelerate my breath. Or revitalize my soul. Or something. In the summer of 2006 I discovered the Gearslutz site and read all about the Great River MP-2NV. I got weak in the knees thinking about what the “Neve sound” could do for me, though I’d never worked with anything near that quality/price point before (I didn’t count the VOXBOX, since the noise issues never allowed me to use it). I just knew it was sexy. You’ve got your Neve Campbell, you’ve got your Campbell’s soup, and then you’ve got your Neve preamps. Jeff Martin (Idaho guy, not Tea Party guy) swears by them, and that’s good enough for me.

I ordered two of the stereo Great River preamps from Mercenary Audio, hooked them up, and then said, “Holy fucking shitballs,” about twenty-three times. Maybe twenty-four. These weren’t like the DBX pres I’d grown accustomed to working with. These preamps let me know what was what and revealed the true sonic character of my microphones. The emperor truly had no clothes, and man, he looked pretty scary naked.

Most of the Rode mics I liked so much through the DBX pres went from “present” to “horrifyingly fizzy” in an instant. They would never be of any serious use to me again. Only the K2 survived with some amount of usefulness intact, and I still haven’t been moved to use it once in the past three years.

On the other hand, the Neumann KM184s that hadn’t done much to excite me before now opened up and I realized they were all I would ever want to record acoustic guitars with. An SM57 became a lot more interesting. My digital piano and synths grew balls I never knew their digital scrotums could handle. I went about building up a more respectable collection of microphones, the Rode mics went back into their pouches with their heads hung low, and the rest is RiceARoni.

I think it’s pretty obvious if you compare something like BRAND NEW SHINY LIE to the last few CDs I’ve made on a decent stereo that things have improved a bit on a sonic level, thanks to better outboard equipment and better ears. But then the sound of things has always been changing for those same reasons, almost album-to-album, and you can hear it happening even as far back as the Papa Ghostface days of old. The whole thing is a never-ending learning process, and I’ll continue to get better (or worse) at what I do as I make new mistakes, try new things, and get drunk with Bono in Dublin.

All of this is meant to lead up to something. Not a revelation exactly, but something that’s been festering in my brain for a little while now.

The way I went crazy three summers ago was in how I went about buying expensive mic preamps blindly, convinced they were my gateway to a better sound. They did turn out to be that, in some ways, with some help from good microphones. And the Great River pres have always made me happy no matter what I’ve thrown at them, while the Chandler Germanium has become my default bass DI choice and makes a single SM57 in front of a guitar amp sound better than I ever knew it could. I don’t know if the Great River preamps really do sound like a Neve 1073 without the “mush”. I just know they’ve made what I do a lot easier, and I don’t have to work anywhere near as hard to get things sounding the way I want them to as I did with other preamps.

The thing is, I could have taken some of the money I spent on mic pres and paused to grab some stereo EQ and a compressor or two. Granted, I don’t find myself feeling a need to EQ much when I’m recording. I learned the hard way that less is often more here, and with mic placement you can eliminate a lot of the need for EQ right off the bat. But I have a feeling adding a high boost with a good outboard piece would probably sound a bit better than the digital boost afforded by the roland 1680 when it comes to something like giving a ribbon mic a bit of air. Maybe I went a bit overboard when I discovered what a difference genuine high-end preamps could make. I mean, there are mic pres I have that I don’t even use.

Forget the cheap ART things that were my first sweaty steps into the magical land of mic preamps after not having any at all for a long time. Forget the Bellari piece of shit with a dead tube I got burned on via eBay. Forget the DBX pres that were a huge improvement but still genuflected once they heard what the an MP-2NV could do — they’ve depreciated so much in value since I got them, selling them now would be kind of stupid, and besides, they kind of look cool even if I’ll likely never use them again, and they work well as pedestals for other pres to sit on top of. I never could really get into the concept of rackmounting gear. I’m more a “stick stuff on top of other stuff” kind of guy.

I could say a lot about all of these preamps — the things I recorded with them, what I learned from them, where they were ticklish — but they’re not the point here.

There’s that Chandler TG channel. It’s just sitting around getting no play. It doesn’t have the quarter-inch line-level input the MKII version does, but that’s no excuse for letting it feel unloved for so long. It’s home to the only true outboard EQ I have, and it’s only one channel…which is part of the reason it gets no play. I need at least stereo EQ happening, preferably separate from a preamp altogether since I already have more than enough of those.

Then there’s the Crane Song Flamingo. A seriously cool-looking piece of gear with maybe the best metering I’ve ever seen on a preamp. I could track something at the other end of the room and as long as the Flamingo was facing me I’d still be able to see how much headroom I had to work with. There’s no quarter-inch input here either, but this is probably a pre you’d want to use more with mics instead of keyboards or direct bass anyway, given its cleaner, faster sound. The only time I could ever live with myself using the rode K2 as a vocal mic was when it was plugged into the Flamingo. It would probably sound pretty tasty with the stereo ribbon mic going into it, but I wouldn’t know, because I’ve been sucked into the Great River vortex.

I just don’t find myself moved to turn to the Chandler Channel or the Flamingo for anything when the Great River already gives me what I’m after with no argument or resistance.

It would make sense to sell at least one of these things, if not both of them. That would probably generate just about enough money to get two channels of some nice EQ without making me weep to think of how much money I’ve now spent on gear in total (I figured it out last night while updating my studio “inventory” for insurance purposes, and it’s pretty nuts…sometimes I forget just how much stuff there is here).

The problem is, these aren’t the cheap ART pres. I paid a lot of money for them. And I don’t think they’ve really depreciated in value much over the past few years. The Chandler piece is probably a little less desirable than its line-level-input-endowed successor, but it’s still easily worth somewhere in the region of two grand. The Flamingo costs more than that. These are serious pieces of equipment that have been well-cared-for, and I wouldn’t want to sell them for a whole lot less than what I paid for them.

But who would want to spend that amount of money on a used mic preamp? Professional studio owners either already have enough high quality pres or a console for whatever they need to do. They either don’t want to spend the money (because that game is all about making money), or they’re happy with their Mackie and ART stuff, a hundred dollar mic, and a bunch of plug-ins, and they would wonder why I’d want to sell something that would look pretty on my lawn.

Not that there’s anything wrong with that. I started with low-end gear and knew nothing about what I was supposed to do with it all once upon a time myself. I’m still proud of more than a bit of the music I made and the sounds i was able to get with that equipment. It’s what you do with what you have, and all that jazz.

But I digress. It’s not something I could put in the classified section of the newspaper expecting to get a serious response, and I doubt Kijiji would be the way to go here. Nor would most people with home studios have any interest in something so expensive. I guess I was the exception to the rule, but I’m nuts, and I had some extra money to burn at the time.

Then again, why would I want to sell them? Unlike the ART and DBX pres (which would net next to nothing because their resale value has gone to seed), there might come a day when I will get some serious use out of them. Maybe I’ll come to a point where I want a cleaner sound for something and the Flamingo will be there to show what it can do. Or maybe I’ll snap out of this minimal drum mic’ing mode I’ve been in for a while and the Chandler Channel will bring the kick drum to life when I put eighteen mics on the kit and Nickelback it up.

So maybe I should keep the tools around, even if I haven’t really found cause to use them yet, because someday they might save me from a fate worse than dinner with Tom Cruise. I’m not good at getting rid of things anyway. The first acoustic guitar I ever bought is a hunk of junk with the tone of a toothbrush, but I could never part with that shitbox. We’ve been through too much together.

I dunno. These are some things to think about if you’re between the ages of eight and eleven and you’ve decided to put together something of a home studio.

I think the time has probably come for me to look at finally getting some outboard EQ one way or another. The compression I have, while nothing to salivate over, has served me well, and I enjoy the way it never really imposes an aggressive sonic signature on anything. So I don’t feel a need to upgrade in that department. It’s just there, making sure I don’t overload anything while recording. I never really got into transient-shaping with compression, and I’d probably be lost with a four thousand dollar compressor and endless tweakability anyway.

With EQ, though…the digital stuff will only take you so far. And most of the time you won’t even want to go there in the first place. I think a good outboard piece would make a discernible difference, especially at this stage in the game. Some would say I should dump the VS-1680 while I’m at it and jump into the world of Pro Tools or something, but I’m too set in my ways for that. Outboard analog EQ wins instead.

Hey, my birthday’s not that far away. Anyone want to buy me a Neve 8803? Or a Great River EQ-2NV? Or two Avedis E27s with an R52 case? I’ll make it worth your while. I’ll sing you a song about the trials and tribulations of a fast food restaurant manager. That’s just how much I care.

On a random note, I just learned I lost a patch cord to the show on the weekend that made me never want to play live again. Fuck that shit.

Potty mouth is back in full force! yes!

6 comments

  1. A lot of the technical stuff still goes way over my head, but it’s been a strange and fascinating learning experience, working with different equipment at both ends of the spectrum. I just wish I’d used real guitar amps on “Brand New Shiny Lie”! They were right there in front of me, and I went for the amp simulator instead. I still wake up in tears thinking about it.

  2. Have you tried the U87 again since getting the MP-2NV? I have used this mic in the past, and can’t believe that you would find it lifeless. Granted I was using it with a Sony/MCI console recording to a Studer tape machine, but still, I absolutely LOVE this mic.

    Great blog by the way. As a recording geek, I love the insight into your work.

  3. Thanks Jake…I’m glad someone besides me finds this stuff interesting and I’m not just talking to myself on the internet (though that can be fun too).

    Sadly, I sent the U87 packing just before I finally got a mic preamp good enough to show me what it could really do. If only I’d waited another few weeks…I think the problem was that I was running it into one of those DBX preamps, which had the interesting quirk of making cheap mics sound expensive (the Rode mics didn’t exhibit any of the sibilance they’re known for) and expensive mics sound sterile. The recordings I made using those pres still sound better to me than I think they should, but there’s no comparison between stacking tracks with the DBX pres and doing it with the Great River. A world of difference in depth and three-dimensional something-or-other. Upgrading the pres certainly opened up my ears to some things I hadn’t heard before.

    I wish I held onto that U87, because I imagine through the Great River or Flamingo it probably would have made my head spin. Plus it would have been a fun conversation piece. “You have a U87?! That’s like the best mic ever! Recording magazines tell me so! And it looks pretty!” I’ve also been tempted by the Gefell M930 and UMT70, the latter of which is supposed to be very U87-ish for a significantly lower price.

    In any case, I’ve been very happy with a Pearlman TM-1 as my main LDC for a while now. It was a little less than half the price of the U87 (that mic cost me more than four grand…it was painful), but three years down the line it still makes me happy with pretty much anything I put in front of it, and I’ve never had to EQ anything. It always just sits in the mix for me somehow.

    I’ll probably always wonder about the U87 and how it would sound with the MP-2NVs, but at this point I think I’d rather rent it instead of buying it to find out, and I’m in Windsor, where high end pro audio gear is kind of scarce. I’ve had to do a lot of the online ordering thing. I’ve been lucky and have rarely been unhappy with what I’ve bought, and I try to do as much research as possible before taking the plunge, but it’s still a bit of a gamble.

    The Rode mics haven’t seen any use since the pres were upgraded, though I hear if you put a gym sock over the grille it tends to make them less harsh. I need to try that just for fun. There’s still a lot left to learn, too, which is part of what makes it all so interesting to me.

  4. do what i do:
    autograph everything (either “pablo picasso” or “george clooney”, i find both to work exceptionally well; hell, put BOTH autographs on there), and then sell it on ebay for twice MSRP
    limited edition profit!

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