Apogee Electronics Mini-MP Preamp

The features which put this little box at the top of my current list of most beloved and useful gizmos are its smooth sound, its high gain (76 dB), and its wonderfully functional M/S encoding/decoding ability.
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What, another mic preamp Dr. Fred likes? Has the guy lost his powers of discrimination? No, au contraire, the high-end ones just seem to keep getting better and better! And what other preamp can be turned on -- fully functioning and nestled beneath my right arm -- while I sit sprawled out on my couch, writing about it?
Product PointsApplications: Recording, post production, live sound

Key Features: Two-channel; Hi-Z direct instrument inputs; M/S decoding matrix

Price: $995

Contact: Apogee Electronics at 310-584-9394, Web Site.

Plus:

+ Warm and clear Apogee sound

+ Small size

+ Great ergonomic design makes M/S feature very easy to use

Minus:

- No A/D conversion

- No headphone jack

The Score: The Mini-MP has become my go-to mic preamp on just about every live gig.
And it's so cute -- roughly 10 inches x 5 inches x 1.5 inches, with three knobs (two of them purple, of course), seven tiny toggle switches, and 10 LEDs on the front, and pairs of male and female XLRs, and a DC input jack on the rear -- no nasty AC up here on the couch with me, no sireee.

But seriously, folks, the features which put this little box at the top of my current list of most beloved and useful gizmos are its smooth sound, its high gain (76 dB), and its wonderfully functional M/S encoding/decoding ability.

Features

Like most top-of-the-line solid state mic preamps these days, the Apogee Mini-MP's circuitry is so designed to take anything from heavy duty line level (+18 dBu max), to the low-level high-impedance outputs of passive guitar or bass pickups, in addition to any kind of mic known to man, and convert any of them to standard +4 dBm line level. And also, like most other known suspects, it has individually-switched phantom power, polarity reverse and (less customary) a pair of 18 dB/octave high-pass filters, cornering at 80 Hz.

What sets the Mini-MP apart from every other mic preamp I own -- including the incredibly clean one contained within my trusty Apogee Trak2 -- is its M/S function. What's M/S? Well, simply the most "tweakable" way to record a stereo mic setup, that's what. One merely treats one of the capsules of a stereo mic (or two single mics arranged in a "coincident" manner) as the M(id) and the other as the S(ide), and you're ready for the wonderful world of Mid/Side recording. Although the mathematical theory specifies the use of a cardioid pattern for the mid (front-facing) capsule, and figure eight for the sideways-facing one, one can also use an omni for the mid. Basically, M/S involves encoding the two dissimilar mic channels into Left and Right as "Mid plus Side" and "Mid minus Side;" one then simply varies the relative gain between them and -- magically -- your image comes to contain more or less stereo-ness. Pages six and seven in Roger Robindoré's clearly-written User's Guide will teach the M/S newbie all s/he needs to know about this technique; it's also available online at www.apogeedigital.com/support/usersguides.php.

But what the Mini-MP does with M/S, which is particularly special, involves that third knob -- the non-purple one smack dab in the middle of the front panel. Just like the master fader on a console, this smooth and accurately tracking tiny stereo control enables one to fade the two stereo channels down to nothingness, or up to +6 dB above the nominal "0 level" afforded by the 0-70 dB gain selection available on the two purple pots. I've spent many years kluging M/S on "normal" mic preamps by simply putting one of the two channels "out of phase" and gingerly adjusting their relative gains. But in all those cases, changing the overall recording level necessitated trying to turn them both up or down together -- an exercise in futility. Not too many stereo mic preamps -- even today -- have a master stereo output level (it introduces one more gain stage, don't you know) but when electronics are as pristine as Apogee's, it doesn't matter one whit.

The Mini-MP's mic preamp sounds very similar (i.e., smooth, quiet, and dynamic) to the one contained within my Trak2 (perhaps with a little more "personality"), but I now find myself using each piece of Apogee gear for a different function. The Trak2 is now employed in my studio when I need a great-sounding neutral preamp with A/D converter to "get to tape" with no muss, no fuss -- but it presently stays there most of the time, and I actually now use the Mini-MP in M/S mode on just about every live gig--as "the tail end" of one of my three variable-pattern stereo mics. It's so easy to set up and, with its "cable lump" power supply (combined with Apogee's thoughtfully-included strain-relief tab and thumbscrew) is a completely stable and dependable mic conditioning system for me. Yes, I have used it a bunch of times in "normal" stereo mode (a centrally-mounted toggle switch enables the user to alternate between the two modes, as well as cycle the unit's power), but for a long-time stereo-mic guy like me, the Mini-MP in M/S mode is just what the doctor ordered.

In Use

As usual, I hit the ground running with my Mini-MP. Last July, I was asked to record six nighttime "faculty concerts" at Groove Camp, a week-long traditional/fiddle music camp in the Pennsylvania Poconos and, due to an over-committed schedule, arrived at the campsite at 5 p.m. Saturday evening, with the first concert set to begin in fewer than three hours. There was no way I could set up 16 mics and a full-blown multitrack recording setup by myself in that amount of time, so I just unloaded the contents of my MDX into the dance hall, "placed" all the equipment on several large tables, but mounted only one stereo mic -- my 0.9 micron Stephen Paul/Neumann SM69 -- onto one of my old fashioned Atlas mic stands, ran cables to the newfangled Apogee Mini-MP hooked into two line input channels of my Crane Song Spider mixer, and sent a stereo digital output -- 16-bit/44.1 kHz -- to my lowly Superscope PSD300 CD recorder. There wasn't even time to set up my "backup" 24-bit TASCAM DA-78HR.

And you know what? Of all the recordings I made that week, that simple stereo M/S direct-to-CD first-night recording of the "Old-Time Fiddle" concert was judged by the camp's faculty musicians as the best-sounding one of all! Maybe it was the pressure, maybe it was the simple, yet elegant acoustic music provided by a group of the country's finest fiddle, guitar, and banjo players -- but I'd like to think it was the fact that I was able to set my SM69/Apogee Mini-MP combination up in M/S mode so quickly, and tweak it so easily!

Every subsequent multitrack recording I did during the following evenings at Groove Camp used the same mic and the Mini-MP in M/S mode as the "basic hall" stereo pair. It was certainly helpful to have a wonderful-sounding reference of what the bands actually sounded like in the room, when I mixed the dozen or so other close mics to create the final masters.

I've now standardized on using my Mini-MP in M/S mode with one or the other of my two Neumann stereo mics, and use that setup with them every Sunday at my church gig, as well as during the week to capture whatever impromptu music happens in my studio. I've never been able to get such a good sound, so easily!

Summary

What's not to like? It's small, it's cute, it sounds great, and does one particular thing -- that none of my other mic preamps can accomplish -- exceedingly well. Apogee, it looks like you created the Mini-MP just for Dr. Fred!