I seldom find products worthy of unmitigated praise, and that suits me just fine, as such praise often appears insincere and/ or biased. So I am just going to have to take my chances this time as Manley Labs has done it again: They’ve built a box just the way you would (if you could) based on a novel idea, one so cool that you’ll desperately want it and you don’t even know it yet.
The MicMAID is basically a routing matrix, albeit a rather specialized one. Its 17 rearpanel XLRs provide I/O for four microphones and four mic preamps, direct outs for the mic amps and a master out, the Mon/Rec output. The primary purpose here is the ability to set up connections between the mics and preamps, in any combination you desire, and quickly audition them. As anyone who has ever staged a product shootout will have learned, the fundamental task here is to get levels matched closely enough to avoid giving the loudest source an unfair advantage; the MicMAID solves this dilemma with a gain range of plus or minus 19.5 dB (in half dB increments) for each mic pre.
An LED matrix of backlit buttons display input selection, routing status, phantom power (which is provided by the MicMAID and not the mic pre in use — more on this later). A lock button allows locking a given mic to a given pre to avoid accidental patches. A graphic display shows values of the gain trim knob directly below and also shows data for recall functions.
The front panel of the MicMAID provides some interesting “bonus features” beyond primary switching/routing. A transformer-isolated quarter-inch DI input, THRU jack and ground lift have been wisely provided; it’s wise considering the next feature — the polarity and variable phase facilities. Polarity provides polarity inversion as you’d expect, and the variable phase adjustment is offered in normal or high ranges. A quarter-inch fader jack allows insertion of an external fader for riding levels to tape.
To use MicMAID to its full potential, you should connect all its I/O to your patchbay. I know — that’s a whole lot of interconnect, but the advantages are worth the effort. The Mon/Rec output will be your main out to the recorder; it outputs the selected path, has the effect of the polarity and phase adjustments and is as clean as you might demand (sealed gold relays, no transformers, etc.).
After positioning two to four mics as close to coincidental as possible, you can then rapidly switch between the mics — between four pres or between both without any pops, surges, phantom power issues (remember, phantom is provided by the MicMAID) and allows you to make decisions with more information than ever before. It’s fast, too — as fast as you are, so you can switch sources mid-word or even mid-note and hear subtleties with precision. Once you’ve taken a minute to use the fine gain adjustment for perceived equal loudness, the minute differences between mics and mic amps becomes astonishingly defined; you will discover differences between your old favorites you did not know existed.
Vocal tracking via MicMAID is accomplished in two primary ways. Let’s say, for one reason or another, you’ve queued up your favorites, say one great mic or one great mic pre. Cycle that one fine mic through your four best flavors of mic preamp or, conversely, try four nice mics all through your one favorite pre. You must have the vocalist placed just right for the multiple mics (perhaps by auditioning just two at a time), or instruct him/her to move from mic to mic on cue. Not only will you find your absolute favorite mic and pre combo, you’ll also have some slightly different options ready to go for other parts of the song, or slight variations for stacking.
The MicMAID is also ideal for the two-channel mic/DI combination we often use for electric basses and acoustic instruments. First, connect your mic to the MicMAID’s MIC B input, pick a preamp, and connect the corresponding direct output to channel one of your interface. Then, run the instrument output into the MicMAID DI, pick a preamp, and route it through the Mon/Rec output to channel two of your interface. You can then adjust the DI’s gain, polarity and phase until you have coherence between the pair.
The MicMAID delivers on every promise, and its problems aren’t problems so much as unfortunate side effects. For example, on big tracking sessions you’ll want to try out the detailed comparisons of the MicMAID on all your important channels (kick, snare, bass DI, soloists, live vocalists, etc.), and that requires lots of lines to be run and lots of re-patching as you find your ideal choices. With vocalists and single input sessions, the ability to fiddle, tweak and compare is essentially addictive and is probably more fascinating to you than your quickly exhausted talent. At least with diligence you can do in one take what used to take four!
For what it’s worth, the MicMAID has facilities for a remote that will allow cycling through selections while in the sweet spot. Oh, the possibilities; this thing may get even better!
Hopefully I’ve justified my gushing, as it appears the MicMAID is an idea perfect in its physical execution: solid construction and flawless performance with unique abilities. And like all the best new products, it is needed far more than is readily realized. The only thing between me and three or four of these maidens — all racked, patched and ready for my next big live tracking session — is the $3,150 street price per box. That’s costly for the extreme convenience the MicMAID offers, but if your budget has room for one MicMAID, I implore you to try it; only then will you realize how much you’ve needed one of these for a long, long time.
Price: $3,500 list
Contact: Manley Labs | manley.com
Rob Tavaglione owns and operates Charlotte, NC’s Catalyst Recording.