Blues Magoos drummer and engineer Geoff Daking has been manufacturing high-end custom recording desks for the pro studio market, as well as outboard microphone preamps, compressors and equalizers, since about 1993. His newest creation is the Mic Pre One, an affordable single-channel microphone preamp and DI box.
I joked with my Associate Editor that I could make this review super short: "This preamp rocks! Check it out! The end"... but he insisted you would most likely want to know why. So here goes.
What it is
The Mic Pre One is a slightly modified single-channel version of Daking's popular Mic Pre IV 1U rack 4-channel preamp. It is about the size of a masonry brick, contained in a sturdy brushed aluminum enclosure with 4 rubber feet. It is small, rugged, and highly portable.
On the back of the unit is a single XLR microphone input and a choice of 1/4" or XLR balanced line outputs. Power is supplied externally from an included line-lump adaptor.
Around the front is an additional 1/4" instrument input which is selectable from one of four small backlit push buttons. The other three buttons control phase, 48v phantom power and a 20 dB pad. Two sturdy metal knobs control input gain (24-70 dB) and highpass filter frequency. Rather than the usual single-button filters found on most mic pres which tend to be of a fixed frequency somewhere between 60-100 Hz, the Mic Pre One's highpass control is more similar to that of a full-scale mixing desk: a sweepable range of 10-120 Hz. Lastly on the Mic Pre One's face is a 20-step, multi-colored LED input meter. This is another welcome addition, as most microphone preamps offer only a mere clip indicator or no indicator at all.
Internally the Mic Pre One uses all discrete class-A circuitry, with a Jensen input transformer; unlike Geoff's previous designs, however, it has a transformerless output stage.
How it sounds
What does it sound like? It is smooth, clean and present; being neutral, it stays out of the way of the microphone and the performance. It's not dark, woolly or vibey, nor is it of the über-hifi variety made to capture the air around gnats' wings in flight. It does not have a sound per se, and essentially, that is its sound. Think of the mic pres found on quality high-end mixing consoles and you would be spot on. Not so much "vintage" as classic.
Unlike many mic pres which may favor one source over another, be it male vs. female vocals, or guitars over drums, sonically the Mic Pre One fared well on almost everything I threw at it, with almost every microphone I tried with it: Electric guitar cab with a Royer R-121 or Shure SM57, male vocals with a U47 clone, acoustic guitar with a Neumann KM 84, violin with a Brauner Phantom, kick drum with an Audix D6... you get the point. I had a female voiceover with a quietly conversational speaking voice into a Shure SM7 dynamic mic that didn't give quite enough level, but that was my lone issue in weeks of tests.
The DI is also highly useful and worked well on everything from a vintage Fender Rhodes to DI'd Jazz guitar, electric bass, and analog synths.
Of course there were times when I did miss the instant vibe I get from, say, a Chandler TG-2 on electric guitar or my Universal Audio SOLO/610 on Bass, but then again that is not the point of this preamp; if needed, it was more than easy to dirty things up with some compression and eq.
While the Mic Pre One's features are pretty lean, they are well chosen, especially the highpass filter. One of the biggest problem areas in most bedroom and project studio recordings is that of too much low-frequency information. The rumble of traffic, airplanes and even footsteps in the next room built up across your tracks can make for horrible sonic mush come mix down. Being able to carve out just the right amount of lows at the source makes the Mic Pre One's variable highpass filter a feature I wish more companies would adopt in future designs. I am also a big fan of full stage metering on preamps, another trend I am noticing and which I hope continues.
You may still be wondering why I am so ga-ga over an essentially neutral, no-frills mic pre, especially given the range of choices and competition? Simple—it just sounds that good! You can stack and layer as many tracks as you like without the imposed sonic signature or buildup common to many "flavored" mic pres.
While it's easy to be seduced by the latest exotic preamp of the month, it's more satisfying to become familiar and intimate with the sound of a classic, especially when that choice is under $800. The Mic Pre One is one of the best choices for "my first microphone preamp" on the market today.
You may have heard the phrase, "This piece of gear just sounds like a record"? Well, to my ears this piece of gear is how you capture the sounds that sound like a record!
Price: $850 ($765 street)
Paul Vnuk Jr. (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a recording engineer, producer, musician, and sound designer in Milwaukee. His latest projects can be found online at www.majale.com. His latest release is the Continental Drift sound library for Sony Creative Software.