In collaboration with the Conservatory of Recording Arts and Sciences, one ot the country’s leading pro audio teaching facilities, PAR has introduced a regular series of in-depth reviews conducted at the Conservatory’s state-of-the-art teaching faculty in Phoenix.
In this world of pro audio where products that follow the classic designs of vintage Neve and API models are almost expected, SM Pro Audio introduces the PR8E, an enhanced eight-channel microphone preamplifier. Instead of being one of many manufacturers trying to get a foothold in the boutique preamp market, the PR8E is designed specifically with the home recordist and project studio in mind. In the packaged literature, SM Pro Audio explains the PR8E is designed to fill the void created by the often-compromised quality of preamps located on many consumer digital audio workstation interfaces. At a suggested retail price under $200, how does it stack up against other preamps in its price range and beyond?
The PR8E is a single rack-space unit that has a very solid feel. Each of the eight preamps has an XLR combo input on the unit’s face and a TRS output on the back. The preamps provide an impressive 60 dB of gain. Alongside phantom power and peak indicator LEDs on every channel, a 48V switch is a nice feature compared to a different multiple channel preamp I tested which offers a universal 48V phantom power switch and no indicator lights. Each channel has a smooth gain potentiometer, adjustable up to a maximum output of 23 dB. The power switch and accompanying LED are also located on the front. A polarity reversal switch is also given for every channel and is located on the back of the unit, next the TRS output. The design of the PR8E is clean and modern, mostly black with silver potentiometers and swatches of gray and red. It is very user-friendly in both setup and operation.
I tested the PR8E in a number of situations and was impressed across the board. As a guitar player, I was anxious to see how the preamps did with both acoustic and electric guitars. Using a pair of AKG C451E mics in a spaced pair setup on a Tacoma Koa Jumbo acoustic, I was pleased with how balanced the PR8E sounded. The preamps have a gentle dip around 90 Hz and a rise at both 2.5 kHz and 10 kHz. As the Tacoma can have a big bottom end, the PR8E tempered it while permitting the detail to shine through. On electric guitar I used a Fender SRV Stratocaster through a Fender Twin. Miking was done with two Shure SM57s on the speaker, two Audio-Technica 4047 back about two feet and two omnidirectional AKG C451E about 10 feet back in the room.
After attempting to make all three setups as even as possible, I ran one set of outputs to three channels of the PR8E, and the other set to three inputs of a Neotek Elite console. Recording all six microphones to six tracks of Pro Tools HD, the PR8E revealed a bit of lower midrange emphasis, but not in a way that made the sound overly muddy. The guitar seemed to be beefy, but lacking slightly in the “bite” the part needed. My artist felt the PR8E had more “depth” than the Neotek preamp. Engaging the polarity reversal took out some of the “beef,” allowing for the “bite” to come through a bit more. Having the polarity reversal on the back of the unit limits access once the PR8E finds a home in a rack, but many of my friends who run DAWs at home would rarely, if ever, have a need to change the polarity.
Moving to drums, I used all eight channels simultaneously on a Pacific kit. I did not encounter even a single hiccup on the PR8E’s part. While soloing tracks while recording, my assistant and I were amazed at how quiet the PR8E is in operation. The output sound is clean and detailed and not dragged down at all by a noticeable noise floor. The PR8E has a consistent sound among all eight channels, so each part of the kit takes on some similar sonic characteristics, which unifies the performance, but results in the potential need for some minor equalization on things like the kick drum and floor tom which suffer slightly at the hand of the dip at 90 Hz.
The PR8E was also used as a DI for bass, and the sound was as expected from the other tests: clean and quiet with very solid output and a slight push around 2.5 kHz. In this case, the bass part actually benefited from the clarity of attack the slight bump provided.
While the ultimate verdict lies in the ears of the beholder, the PR8E offers terrific value and performance. Eight channels of extremely clean and quiet audio packaged with features like independent phantom power and polarity reversal for under $200? While having the polarity reversal on the back might make more savvy engineers and studio owners raise an eyebrow, SM Pro Audio focuses the PR8E on users of DAWs and simplified bedroom setups whose recordings would really benefit from an upgrade in the quality of their preamps. Bang for the buck, this is one of the best pieces of equipment available.
Paul Richards is an instructor in the Audio Recording/Production and Digital Audio departments at the Conservatory of Recording Arts and Sciences. He also runs The Musetrap, an independent recording service. He has worked with classical artists Andre Watts, Hilary Hahn and others in working with the Phoenix Symphony for over 150 performances.
“I like that fact that every channel has an LED that shows you input. Just knowing that you’ve got signal into the box saves time in troubleshooting. The PR8E is a great value.”
– Robert Brock, Digital Audio Department Chair, CRAS
“The PR8E is an upgrade over my current setup both in quality and quantity. The eight channels enable me to record a stereo miking setup on my acoustic while I sing. My demos sound full and detailed while maintaining the ‘live’ feel.”
– Kelli Heath, Singer-Songwriter, Honolulu, Hawaii
“I think the PR8E is an excellent pre, especially given its price. It brought out appealing highs from the Martin acoustic we recorded, sounding airy and bright without being brittle. For the money you can’t afford NOT to own one!”
– Greg Perrin, Assistant Engineer