The Cloud Microphone Company, based in Tucson, AZ, produces American-made ribbon microphones based on the designs of John R. Sank, who had a hand in many of RCA's well-known ribbon designs like the BK-11 and BK-10a.
In our June 2010 issue reviewer Scott Dorsey gave us his thoughts on Cloud's JRS34 active ribbon mic as well as the JRS34-P passive version; he also took a brief look at the Cloudlifter, which was essentially the active circuitry found in the above-mentioned JRS34 microphone, but made for use with any passive ribbon or moving coil dynamic mic.
The original Cloudlifter was a direct-box-sized dual inline device that contained a phantom powered 4-FET amplifier circuit designed to add 18-20 dB of gain, and a fixed 3k Ohm impedance load to the above-mentioned mics -- in layman's terms, a better loaded and louder signal. Scott felt that the Cloudlifter was "a reasonable device to use with any microphone that wants to see a higher input Z (impedance)" that would "help you get the best sound out of the ribbon in a wide variety of environments".
Since that review the Cloudlifter has undergone a few design changes and branched out into a few additional models. The Cloudlifter CL-1 is a half-sized single-channel version of the original Cloudlifter, and now gives up to +25 dB of boost, while the CL-2 is the updated +25 dB version of the dual-channel original.
While I love the extra volume found in active ribbon mics, one thing I miss is the almost magical and unpredictable way that a passive microphone reacts to the varied impedances found in different microphone preamps. While often not even the "correct" impedance load for a given microphone, they are usually unique and interesting. If you really want to get me excited, give me a preamp with selectable/variable impedance! Often when given the choice of a higher noise floor and variable impedance vs. an active mic design and a cleaner signal boost, I will choose the later for purposes of vibe.
However, with the introduction of the third and newest variant of the Cloudlifter, those clever folks at Cloud have found a way to give you both options at one time!
Introducing the Cloudlifter-Z
The Cloudlifter Z is billed as a variable impedance mic activator. It gives you the massive gain boost of its brethren as well as a variable impedance to boot. And if that's not enough, the Cloudlifter-Z can be an interactive/variable highpass filter with multiple gain choices.
Similar to the CL-2, but a tad bigger, The CL-Z is housed in a 3.375" x 5.375" x 1.5" blue metal housing that weighs just over a pound. It has a female XLR jack on one end and a male on the other. It lives between your mic pre and your chosen ribbon or dynamic microphone; once phantom power is engaged on your mic pre, you are good to go. (It's also worth noting that all of the CL models use phantom power to operate themselves, but block said phantom power from hitting and damaging your ribbon mics.)
Dial in some Z
The CL-Z is the first model of the line to offer knobs or switches of any kind and the central and most prominent is the larger silver 1.25-inch "Z" knob on its center. Before getting into its function I must mention that this pot is super smooth, yet firm with nice resistance.
Okay, so it feels nice. What's it do? In audio terms, Z stands for impedance, as in "Hi-Z guitar input". The Z knob starts in the 12 o'clock position at 3k Ohms, which is the stock setting in all of the other CL models. Moving it to the right increases the impedance all the way up to 15k, and moving it left brings it down to 150 Ohms.
One way to use this control would be to scour the Internet or your microphone manuals and match the CL-Z to each microphone's designed impedance, or you could take Cloud's recommendation of setting the CL-Z anywhere from 3 to 20 times the mic's output impedance for peak performance. Another option still, and maybe my favorite of all, would be to simply go "by ear" and tweak it to the sound you want -- thick, forward and huge or thin and pseudo-lo-fi.
Filtered, More, and Max
The next feature of this box is a highpass filter switch, but this is not your typical 80 Hz variety found on most modern mic pres and mics. Instead, like the impedance, it is variable from 20 to 250 Hz. What's even more interesting is that when engaged it interacts with the impedance -- so as you move up in load, which typically makes the mic sound fuller and thicker, it shelves off more and keeps the low end more consistent as the signal fills out. It took me a while to get the hang of this and its use, but in my mind this enforces the use of the CL-Z as a "feel" box rather than one where you fuss scientifically over "proper" settings.
The last control on the CL-Z is a two-position switch marked More and Max. When set to More it offers +12 dB of gain and at Max it gives you the full +25 dB level similar to the other CL boxes. A better way to view this switch is that the More setting can be thought of as a 12 dB pad setting, useful when you desire the benefits of the variable Z and/or highpass filter on loud sources like snare drum and guitar cabinets.
My favored use of ribbon mics is on vocals and quiet acoustic instruments in folk and jazz sessions, rather than just for guitar cabs (which seems to be "what you use ribbons for" these days). Normally I find myself pushing my preamps past their comfort level and living with the sheen of induced noise. I used the CL-Z with ribbons such as the Cascade Fat Head, the sE Voodoo and the Royer R-121, and in each case it gave me a clean, clear sound that was free from said noise. I could get used to that! Even better-I could still dial in the impedance for each source like a unique presence eq.
The CL-Z was equally awesome on dynamic mics, specifically the Shure SM7B. As you may know, the SM7B can be an industry-favored secret weapon-especially on powerhouse vocalists, bass cabs, kick drum and more. Of course, all of these are loud sources, and like many ribbons, the SM7B is very level-challenged on quiet ones.
One of my favorites is its original intended use as a broadcast mic for spoken word. Time and time again I have tried to use the SM7B for voiceovers, books on tape and general narration duties, and usually it sounds like the voice was recorded in a hiss factory. But with the Cloudlifter-Z's gain the signal was clear as a bell.
This box delivers on all of its promises with top-notch quality! Whether you've been enticed by the ribbon-mic revolution or not, this is still a device that every studio should consider, since every studio typically has a dynamic mic or two laying around. Bottom line, the Cloudlifter CL-Z is a great way to breathe new life into them all.
Price: $369 ($299 street)