I first got to know Grace Design in 2001 when a friend loaned me a Model 201 for a location recording session. It was early in my audio career and I hadn’t been exposed to many high-end preamps, but the Grace made an unforgettable impression on me that has influenced my gear choices since. Grace was a boutique company at that point, catering mainly to location recordists and audiophiles.
Fast-forward to 2009, where Grace Design has matured into a robust audio manufacturer with a full line of products used on hundreds of top productions. The latest addition to the Grace lineup is the m101, a single channel mic preamp/DI that’s a revised take on the retired Model 101 (reviewed August 2002).
Looks and specs
The m101 is a meticulously crafted piece with a steel chassis and black aluminum faceplate. The m101 is the first Grace product to feature this visual design and it looks fantastic.
The layout of the front panel is straightforward. From left to right, the m101 includes a Hi-Z instrument input, 48 V phantom power switch, gain knob, trim knob, ribbon mode switch, high-pass filter, and a power switch. The controls on the m101 are well built and respond positively when pushed or turned. The m101 includes five indicator LEDs for phantom power, signal/clip, ribbon mode, highpass filter, and power.
Back panel connections consist of a power connector, unbalanced and balanced 1/4” outputs, balanced XLR output, and an XLR mic input. The m101’s internal power supply (no wall wart) is auto-sensing and accepts a wide range of input voltages. The m101 puts out 10–75 dB of gain with a frequency response of 4.5 Hz–390 kHz at the mic input and 2.5 Hz–195 kHz at the Hi-Z input. In ribbon mode the m101 features a higher input impedance, bypasses the input capacitors, and has a 48 V lockout to protect sensitive ribbon mics from damage.
Adjusting levels on the m101 is a two-part process. The Gain control features 12 discrete positions between 10 dB–65 dB and this control is used to “rough in” the approximate level. A continuously adjustable Trim knob adds gain from 0 dB–10 dB, for a total of 75 dB of gain boost. If you own an original 101 this is a vital difference from the setup you’d be familiar with—the original 101’s Trim was an attenuator, not a boost control. Grace reports this new design offers more usable headroom. A single LED glows green when a signal is present and red when the input has been clipped. All three outputs can be used simultaneously, which allows for plenty of flexibility when connecting the m101.
I used the m101 exclusively in the studio, but the m101 would work fine in a live environment as a premium DI. I tracked two songs through the m101 with a variety of sources including vocals, guitars (electric and acoustic), bass and percussion. Using the m101 as a DI is easy thanks to the auto-sensing Hi-Z input—just plug in an instrument and the m101 automatically switches to the Hi-Z input. For a small studio this a great feature that lets users leave a mic cable connected at the rear panel and plug in a guitar for quick configuration changes.
The quality and sonic character of the m101 is pristine. On par with Grace’s higher-end preamps like the m201 I reviewed in May 2008, the m101 delivers a rich, full sound without leaving a sonic fingerprint on the instrument or voice being recorded. On all sources the m101 delivered more than enough gain without a discernible noise floor—even at max output the m101 is dead quiet.
My favorite application for the m101 is acoustic guitar, followed by anything with a fast transient (percussion, cymbal, hand claps). The m101’s impressive frequency response translates to rich transient detail in the upper frequencies. When paired with the right mic, the m101 sounds fantastic on vocals. The m101 is equally capable of delivering deep, full bottom end. DI bass tracks through the m101 sounded big and accurate. The m101 doesn’t color the sound, but it will deliver every last bit of detail in the source. If the source doesn’t sound good the m101 won’t add any mojo (in fact, it will probably magnify any shortcomings).
Regardless of mic choice the m101’s delivery is consistent. I used the m101 with two large and three small-diaphragm condensers, two dynamics, and a ribbon mic. Ribbon mode worked like a charm with my ribbon mic, but the increased impedance offers useful tonal changes with dynamic mics as well—a Shure SM57 produced additional depth when pushed through the m101 in ribbon mode.
With the exception of drums, each song I recorded included 10–12 tracks all recorded with the m101. The tracks mixed very well without stacking up, which is where a lot of lower quality preamps show their true colors. With the m101 each track had a place in the mix without sounding dull or flat.
Until you’ve spent time with a Grace preamp it’s hard to truly appreciate the quality that goes into these designs. I’ve visited the Grace facility in Boulder, Colorado, and can attest to the workmanship and attention to detail that goes into their products. The m101 is flexible and affordable recording preamp that brings Grace quality to the masses in a compact, easy to use package. The m101 handles even difficult sources with aplomb and should be on your “desert island” preamp list—it may take your recordings to a whole new level.
More from: Grace Design, 2434 30th St., Boulder, CO 80301. 303/443-7454. www.gracedesign.com.
Nick Casares is a musician, producer, engineer, and web designer living and working in Colorado. Write to Nick via our writers’ mailbox at firstname.lastname@example.org.