Mercury Grand PreQ15sVersatile Old/New-Style Preamp With EQ 3/01/2013 4:00 AM Eastern
Mercury Recording Equipment Co. is the brainchild of David Marquette, founder of Marquette Audio Labs. Since 1994, Marquette Audio Labs has been giving new homes to classic console components in custom, rack-mounted housings, fit for the modern studio. Having a strong familiarity with vintage gear, Marquette began creating handmade, modern tributes to his favorite designs under the brand name Mercury. His first designs addressed popular classics like the Fairchild 660 and Pultec program equalizer, but eventually led back to familiar home turf in re-creations of console components.
The GrandPreQ15s gets its name from the console preamplifier/equalizer module that inspired its design, the Calrec PQ15s. Vintage Calrec consoles are known for their distinctly British sound, resembling a Neve-like tone, but with its own unique flavor and character. Mercury’s take on this classic console echoes the original with a single mic preamplifier with a 3-band equalizer, plus highpass and lowpass filters, all between transformer-coupled inputs and outputs. The new design builds upon the original, though, with a few bells and whistles of its own.
On the Surface
The GrandPreQ15s is a single-rackspace unit with a separate DC-1 power supply, which is connected by way of a proprietary cable with a 5-pin XLR-type connector on either end. Besides the power supply connector, the back panel of the unit features two standard XLR-type connectors, one for input and one for output. The front panel updates the ergonomics of the original console-bound unit.
The unit’s input section features a coarse gain control that is detented at 12dB steps, ranging from 0 to 60 dB of gain boost. While clicking between these settings, a relatively loud thud is produced through the circuit, however Mercury’s Dave Marquette promises this issue has been addressed in later production models. The fine-gain control rests in a groove at the 12 o’clock position, at which point it has no effect. A boost or cut of 8 dB is produced by twisting to the left or right. Given this effective 16dB swing, an overlap between the coarse gain settings is produced. At first, getting the hang of setting levels using this pair of controls was a little cumbersome, but as I got familiar with the preamp’s tone and how color changed as I applied more gain, it became a more intuitive process.
An EQ With Personality
The preamplifier circuit is followed by the equalizer section, which features three bands of fixed-Q equalization, as well as highpass and lowpass filters. The three bands—named Treble, Presence and Bass—are distributed from left to right in this order. Though this arrangement appears backward when compared with a modern, rackmounted equalizer, it is important to note that, were this a console channel strip, the highs would likely be on top, and thus, swung 90 degrees, they are now on the left. I’ll admit that more than once I reached for the wrong knob when attempting to make an adjustment, but I’m sure that purists would complain if it were any other way.
It took me a few tries to get used to the EQ. There is subtle overlap in the Presence and Treble, but a gap from 160 Hz to 350 Hz between the Presence and the Bass. A few times, I idly searched for something around 250 Hz and came up short. The two upper bands exhibited a bandwidth that seemed tight and focused, which made the effect seem subtle until the boost or cut became more pronounced, but there was more than enough boost or cut for it to get the job done. It didn’t feel like the API EQ, which has a fixed Q but narrows its bandwidth as gain is increased. Instead, the higher bands seemed consistently tight, while the Bass band seemed subtly wider. The equalizer’s character, however, had a distinct personality, producing interesting overtones and musical effects uncommon in a more sterile, modern, utilitarian equalizer.
Whether I used the Grand PreQ15s for voice-over, musical vocals, guitars, or even recording Foley footsteps, the first thing I noticed each time I fired it up is how stunningly clean the signal is. I could crank the gain and never hear so much as a hiss or a hum from the circuit. Its overall tonality was extremely pleasant. The lower frequencies had a melty quality reminiscent of Neve electronics, but the high frequencies were a bit different. The upper midrange had a certain bite to it that could make a vocal really pop, cutting through a bed of midrange-y guitars. It also gives you the right combination of controls to really exploit this.
In addition to the input gain controls, there is an output gain that follows the equalizer and serves as an effective equivalent to a fader. Juicing the input, boosting the presence at around 2 kHz, scooping the low midrange and backing off the fader, I could saturate the transformers and slightly singe the hot peaks in a vocal. The result was a gritty Jack White/John Lennon type of sound.
While this channel strip did great things for vocals and created an interesting vintage flavor on acoustic guitar, I was probably most excited by the sounds that I captured when plugging a guitar into the direct input. I could back it off and pull out really fat, clear, clean tones. The GPQ15s gave me great detail in the top end, bringing out the subtle articulation of the performance. It was a bonus that I could pick up a little grit from the preamp before feeding it to a software amp like IK Multimedia’s AmpliTube. The preamp couldn’t produce a sustained drive, but AmpliTube has never sounded better than it did after being fed signals from the GPQ15s. The subtle analog drive that preceded the software really did something special to the sound.
At times, the EQ was a little tighter than what I was looking for when tracking electric guitar, but it was fine when I made subtle adjustments. When I plugged in an electric/acoustic bass that was being picked by the bassist, the equalizer was hitting in all the right places to enhance the thump and the pick attack, producing a spectacular tone. It wasn’t the type of tight bottom end you hear from an API or SSL. It was that warm, buttery bass that can hit hard but gels in a mix. The top did feel a bit like an API with a tight, snappy clarity that clarified the intricacies.
Do I Want One?
It was a pleasure using the Grand PreQ15s. Once you hear it, you want to use it on everything. Anyone who is consistently disappointed with the DI’d guitar tones they’ve been getting needs to check this out. If I were going to invest in just one high-end channel strip as my go-to for everything, I would say that the lack of Q controls in the equalizer and the distinct personality of this EQ would limit its versatility. Additionally, there is no insertion point for placing a compressor between the preamplifier and equalizer. However, if you are looking for that missing piece that will warm up your tracks and shine some new inspiration on your projects, you’ve got to try it. Just a warning, though: It might be hard to settle for just one.
Company: Mercury Recording Equipment Company
Product: Grand PreQ15s
Pros: Extremely musical character. Clean and quiet.
Cons: Fixed signal flow with no insert.
Boosting upper midrange frequencies is an easy way to make a vocal pop in a mix. Likewise, boosting lows simulates proximity effect and makes that vocal sound more in your face. However, adding EQ can add coloration and change the natural timbre in those frequencies. Try cutting low-midrange frequencies instead to make the lows and highs pop even more. Boost the EQ and sweep between 300 and 500 Hz and when you hear a crowded sound, scoop out that frequency. That way you can boost the gain on the pre and use more of its flavor without adding so much EQ.