Field Test: Grace Design m802 Remote-Controlled PreampTRANSFORMERLESS DESIGN WITH 130-VOLT OPTION 9/01/2006 8:00 AM Eastern
When I first opened the box containing a review unit from Grace Design, I thought that it would be difficult for the company to improve upon its original Model 801R. But Grace Design has succeeded in taking the 801R a few steps forward. The new m802 remote mic preamp features control directly from Digidesign Pro Tools HD systems; an improved output current capability that is three times greater than that of the 801R, which allows for longer cable runs without incurring signal loss (down to 50-ohm loads); and a provision for adding a high-definition, 24-bit/192kHz converter card. The signal path has also been updated to fully balanced transformerless ins and outs, allowing a greater dynamic range.
The m802 can also be controlled by a variety of MIDI devices, which allows for an even wider range of uses that extend far beyond basic location recording, such as theaters, interactive events, etc. The Remote Controller Unit (RCU) can control up to eight separate preamps for a total of 64 channels from as far away as 1,000 feet. (That's a lot of serious preamps!)
In addition to a local/front panel lockout function, the 15 user-definable presets include phantom power, input gain and polarity reverse for each channel. While powered up, the remote is always in touch with the preamps, and as long as lockout is not in use, you can use either panel to control or modify settings at any time. Any loss of power with the remote will leave the preamps in their current state, unaffected until you update them locally. A factory-supplied extension cable allows medium runs with full functions from the remote, while supplied XLR adapters provide for longer runs with a balanced mic cable.
The m802 is a solidly built box that does not compromise on cabling, circuit boards and hardware. Its jam-packed interior shows serious attention to detail and inspires confidence whether the m802 is part of a touring rack or lives peacefully in a studio installation. Clearly, lots of TLC happened before the box was closed and shipped.
Inspecting the preamp cards, I noticed that the audio path doesn't have electrolytic capacitors. In transformerless preamp designs, film- only capacitors are used in the phantom-power decoupling circuitry. Grace Design states that its preamps use “transimpedence current feedback vs. voltage feedback,” allowing for a more musical sound.
MORE POWER, CAPTAIN
Users of DPA's 4003, 4004, 4012 and 4016 microphones are in for a nice surprise with the m802. The m802 sports a new 130V power option to power these mics, available on a per-channel basis. (A separate 4-pin XLR connector ensures that only the correct mics are plugged into the 130V inputs.)
The reviewed m802 was a hot item, only available for about a month before it had to go back. In the brief time I experimented with it, my varied classical and jazz recordings sounded about as I expected: stunning. Running a pair of DPA 4006-TLs through the m802 gave me the best detail and dynamic range that I have found anywhere — period. I performed an A/B comparison between a full dress rehearsal one day and a live performance the second day with a full chorus and chamber orchestra in an oratorio concert setting. The sound of the dress rehearsal with various MOTU and Mackie Onyx pre's would have been enough to satisfy any serious listener, yet at the concert, the m802 added transparency and seemingly endless headroom, which immediately sold me on its value for any recording project.
In real-world use during other sessions and concerts, my assistant and I found the bright, backlit RCU easy to read, fun to use, reliable and safe enough to keep us out of trouble and avoid “pilot error” with the phantom switching and gain settings. It's all clearly marked, keeping disaster at bay. A minor complaint was having to use a separate wall wart power supply for the remote controller, but considering what it does and how well it does it, it's a small inconvenience.
Most installations will likely have the remote far enough away from the preamps that a power supply cable strapped to the controller cable won't raise an eyebrow. (I know what you're thinking, but Grace Design's techs confirmed there's just too much power consumption and data flow to make the RCU wireless.)
SAY GOODNIGHT, GRACIE
With all of its improvements in output power and line-driving capabilities, the m802 is another perfect “loft” unit for large concert halls, cathedrals, theaters or any other space where it is important to keep the preamps near the mics and drive a longer line down to the recording rig. Owning eight preamp channels like this would be heaven; 16 would be out of this world. I was never more sorry to have FedEx come pick up a package.
Prices: $4,995; 130V option, $295; and M802 RCU remote, $1,495.
Grace Design, 303/443-7454, www.gracedesign.com.
Joe Hannigan runs Weston Sound & Video in Philadelphia.