Cullen West, vocalist/guitarist for Bums Lie, laying down a control room vocal overdub for the benefit of our cameras.
Coveted by location recordists and those with limited rack space, eight-channel microphone preamplifiers are the unsung heroes of the pro audio world. Rarely grabbing the same attention as their glamorized siblings — the channel strip or dual-channel models — eight-channel pres typically offer lower cost per channel, thus much more "amp for the buck." Here, in Pro Audio Review's second installment of our new Session Trial review series, I will examine and employ five eight-channel versions of previously reviewed mic amp models, comparing them in close quarters to report on performance-based detail and difference in a real-world and professional setting.
Reggae/ska/punk masters Bums Lie joined me in the studio, first to test our Session Trial preamps and then, after determining our favorites for each instrument, to lay down a bonus track for the band's new CD. The band's intense focus and seasoned ears proved to be invaluable as we found all five of the preamps to be overall excellent performers and their differences to be nuanced. Nonetheless, we found definitive favorites, almost unanimously. No signal processing of any kind was used during this evaluation.
Millennia Media HV-3D
If there were an industry standard for an eight-channel preamp the HV-3D would be it; this unit has been a staple in production trucks and location rigs for years. The rugged build of the HV-3D and its transformerless design yield an ultra clean and transparent sound, big on detail and realism.
We all picked the HV-3D as our overall favorite on drums for being the most "natural with the most separation," although, frankly, some of the other preamps offered compelling, more colorful sounds on particular drums. Our AEA R44 ribbon microphone loved the HV-3D on drum room, picking up deep, resonant kick tones nicely balanced through the mids and rolled-off top. The Millennia was our favorite preamp paired with the R44.
None of us were fond of the HV-3D on bass guitar, where both our DI and mic were smooth, yet lacked punch. Electric guitar tones — both clean and dirty from a fine, all-tube Mesa Boogie — were accurate and natural but unexciting. It elicited the word, "vanilla," from some of us. I have only one complaint regarding the HV-3D. It sorely misses one feature: polarity reversal. In my opinion, no polarity reversal is an unexpected sacrifice for a unit with an MSRP of $4,459.
Hands down the sexiest of the class, everyone commented on the looks of the m801 upon first entering my control room. I can't blame them, but they had yet to find out that it is also "straight wire" clean as well as ultra-smart; the m801 senses when you have a stereo condenser mic connected to channel one, automatically turning on 48V phantom to the second channel as you apply it to the first. List price, at $4,595, is the most expensive of the group, you do get quality features such as sealed gold relay contacts and a ribbon mic mode, not to mention a five-year warranty.
Sonically, and not surprisingly, we all found the m801 to be more crisp than thick on drums. The high end was extended and sweet, no problems there, but the bottom seemed just a little understated in comparison. Imaging was good, but not as well defined as with some others. Personally, I wouldn't hesitate to use the m801 if I needed a more aggressive drum sound.
We all gushed about the m801's response on our bass guitar DI. Our vintage '70s Gibson Ripper bass delivered its deep bottom, right down to your toes, and the 801 captured it without a hint of distortion or modification, a very natural and pleasing sound for a DI. Distorted electric guitar tones were pretty good, but our clean tone seemed unusually uneven and spiky (as we used both a Shure SM57 dynamic and an Audio-Technica AT4033 condenser).
Of all five stellar preamps featured here, the ISA828 was the only "fully featured" one (at least by our modern standards): with polarity reversal, an input pad, quarter-inch DI inputs, and selectable impedance. And all things considered, the ISA828 was our overall top preamp choice across the board — not because of its features, per se, but because of its appealing sound.
This baby offered punch and "improved accuracy" beyond each of its competitors, especially if the sound source was a bit flabby or muddy. During our sessions, we had some kick drum problems (couldn't seem to get the right beater/head combo), and our sound lacked a certain level of definition, slap, and punch. The ISA828 got the best kick sound and was overall very drum-worthy, even if some of the other preamps sounded more interesting or had a wider soundstage.
The Focusrite was our overall favorite on bass guitar, with a super focused DI sound and the tightest response from a Sennheiser MD421 mic on a fat-sounding SWR tube bass amp. The ISA828 fared quite well on electric guitar, too, with an unrestricted clean sound and accurate distortion reproduction, if possibly "a bit cold." A list price of $3,299 and an optional digital output card make the ISA828 an excellent value not to mention a highly flexible performer.
ATI 8MX2 (JDK Audio 8MX2)
True Systems Precision 8
The number-one professional choice for sheer value has to be the 8MX2. [As of July 2012, ATI parent company API Audio rebranded the 8MX2 under its JDK Audio brand. - Ed.] In one rack space, you get eight preamps, eight limiters, tape send and return on DB25 connectors, a mixer that can mix your inputs or tape monitor path, a cue bus, a headphone amp, and a cooling fan. Yes, the limiters are only good for tapping, not smacking, and those with big fingers need not apply (very crowded real estate on its front panel), but the 8MX2 has become a fave of location recorders and live sound engineers because of the inherent quality of its preamps.
In PAR's original 8MX2 review, contributor Tom Young praised the 8MX2 for its "natural" sound. On drums, so did we; nice and punchy and round, the 8MX2 had a very pleasant lack of hype, which was desirable on all drums except our (muddy) kick. Imaging was wide and realistic, if it lacked overall some of the high-frequency excitement of the Millennia or True preamps.
The 8MX2 tied the Focusrite as our overall best on bass guitar, with impressive punch and unaffected mids. Oddly enough, it was our top pick on electric guitar with this super lively, clean, and transient guitar sound with an animated, detailed translation of dirty sounds (for instance, we mentioned that "Prince would love it"). At $2,995 list, I'd like to buy one and experiment further with a full array of ribbons, condensers, and dynamics on electric guitar. I've personally been seeking a guitar sound like this for some time.
True Systems Precision 8
The Precision 8 has the simultaneous advantage/disadvantage of being a model I have owned for years and am quite familiar with. The most affordable price point of our class at $2,995 list (the same price as the 8MX2), the Precision 8 offers two combo inputs with instrument DIs and two channels of Mid-Side decoding.
The band and I all concurred that the Precision 8 sounded good overall on drums, while our muddy kick seemed to become only muddier. With it, overheads offered very nice imaging and were a bit forward by comparison to the others. On rack tom, we really loved the Precision 8 for its musical roundness and the great "shell-i-ness" it conveyed, to make up a word.
Bass guitar frankly didn't sound all that realistic with the Precision 8 if the instrument was soloed. However, with our band tracks, we loved the Precision 8's mix placement and response; sometimes a little nonlinear color is more entertaining, at least according to our ears. Electric guitar from the Precision 8 was much like the bass; the clean sound was a little undefined and unrealistic, yet the distorted tones were delightfully colored, exciting and perfectly balanced.
On Acoustic Guitar
For acoustic guitar, I couldn't pick a favorite between the Millennia HV-3D and Grace m801. Both were so detailed and accurate with transients (although the m801 was a little more "forward") while the HV-3D was a little wider; both were quite deep (front to back, if you will). The lack of distortion and harshness was amazing.
Both the Focusrite ISA828 and the ATI (JDK) 8MX2 were tied for smoothest of class, with a "kindler, gentler" recreation of transients and frequency response. The ISA828 struck us as extremely lifelike, if not quite exciting, and the m801 as more pleasant and full, if not at all forward; these are varying qualities one may prefer depending on the nature and application of your acoustic guitar tracks.
The Precision 8 proved to be the "rock 'n' roll" preamp for acoustic guitar. With a lean but not thin bottom and aggressive high mids, this colorful sound might help your acoustic keep up in a crowded mix or just make up for old strings.
I tried out the preamps with two male vocalists using a Violet Amethyst Vintage and a Neumann U 87. We found all five to be very likable, more so than on any other source we tested. After much wrangling, we chose the Grace m801 for our keeper tracks; its clear top-end definition and pleasant sibilance on a slightly hushed vocal track were most notable. On more forceful vocals, we chose either the Focusrite for its faithful linearity and truth or the Millennia for a little "hi-fi sheen" that flatters and polishes. The ATI (JDK) was pleasant and nearly flat, but oddly showed a little strain on peaks. The True wasn't as detailed as the above, but did offer a slightly compressed sound that would work well for loud singers and yelling rockers.
Any concerns I had about eight-channel preamp performance were put to rest from this rigorous testing. Worries of inadequate power supplies, phantom power sag, and noisy channels in proximity to transformers were unfounded in every instance. Out of the myriad of tests conducted, only a handful of times did we hear a performance that we would deem "unusable" or "undesirable." Although we picked the Focusrite ISA828 as our overall favorite, the Grace Design m801 and Millennia HV-3D missed that honor by only the narrowest of margins, followed closely by the ATI (JDK). Finally, the True Precision 8 has its clear advantages with the best-sounding quarter-inch DI inputs, an excellent space saving layout, better metering, and being the only model with M-S decoding built-in.
Rob Tavaglione owns and operates Catalyst Recording in Charlotte, NC. He welcomes your comments, questions, and inquiries at email@example.com.