Rascal Two-R Microphone PreampBoutique Gain Box with DI
The Rascal Two-R uses a three-stage gain design, providing many ways to dial in tone from clean to overdrive.
Rascal Audio is a “quality at all cost” company that, until now, has had just two products: the Analogue Tonebuss summing box and the Two-V dual 500 Series mic preamp. The Two-R reviewed here is a rackmount unit version of the Two-V, adding an integrated power supply and DI inputs. All Rascal Audio products are designed, built and assembled in the U.S. by lead rascal and product designer Joel Cameron, who handpicks components based on their impact on circuit performance. It’s not just about bench specs but how the parts sound in use.
The input and output transformers were developed in collaboration with Ed Anderson and Dave Peterson from Altran, which manufactures both transformers for Rascal. Cameron’s goal was to “find a transformer combination that produced a dynamic, responsive, natural organic character with a little bit of butter/richness to the sound that would always give a vintage vibe, yet treat delicate signals with a respect that the typical Neve clunkiness didn’t have.” The Hi-Z input feeds the mic input transformer, putting any instrument through the entire circuit. But the metal inside is just part of the story. Other features include a HZ/LZ switch, highpass filter, polarity flip and an LED-lit phantom-power switch.
The Two-R takes its lineage from Neve circuit designs that use three gain stages along the circuit path. Cameron simplified the design using only two gain blocks for lower settings, using a six-position gain switch starting at 40 dB, then increasing in 6dB steps up to 70 dB. The Two-R also features two other, completely variable input gain stages to take you between the steps, and an output trim knob, which is where the personality of the unit comes in.
I first used the Two-R to record a kick drum using a reissue of the Neumann U 47 FET on the outside of the front head. This combo was paired with an AKG D12 VR with the EQ set to full boost and cut (position 3), then sent through the second channel of the Rascal. I started both units with the Two-V set to the 1-volt settings that I discovered during our bench tests (more on that below). The sound was solid and full-bodied, with the attack nicely represented by the chain. The low end was also well represented, with plenty of chest tone in the 50Hz range.
On another session, I used the Two-R to gain up two Royer R-121 microphones over a drum kit. The Two-V gave me plenty of gain without any discernible noise at the highest settings needed to represent the Royers on the Pro Tools meters. These mics, like all ribbons, cry for clean gain, and it’s sometimes tough to find a preamp that has both clean gain for quieter passages and personality to properly represent hot transients. In both cases the Two-R brings the goods.
Next, we used the Two-R to record Nashville’s mother/daughter vocalists Two Steel Girls in Blackbird’s Studio B. We used two vintage vocal mics—a Neumann U 47 and Telefunken 251, both powered by the Two-R. The chain on the insert of both channels was first an LA-2A providing moderate compression at 4 to 6 dB at the peaks, then a GML 8200 adding just a bit of top at a 10dB shelf with the gain at +1.5dB. Once again, I started the gain setting at the 1-volt output and used the final output trim to send gain downstream to the LA-2A at the proper level to push the gain reduction meter according to plan. Both women sounded fantastic through the chains, with great definition and natural presence across the vocal range. The vocals sat nicely on top of the track and hit the reverb perfectly.
To find the full personality potential of the Two-R, I recorded a guitar through a Fender Deluxe amplifier using a Sennheiser 421 and a Neumann U 87, both powered by the Rascal. I purposely pushed the input to the max setting and brought back the output trim to adjust levels to Pro Tools. The center knob was used for fine-tuning at this point, which I could use to add or subtract personality by fussing with the three controls. The trifecta of gain made for an interesting way to dial in various levels of roundness and edge to the tone, which I further brought out by adding substantial gain at 2.5 kHz using a Maag Audio EQ2.
On the Bench
We first heard and bench tested an early production model of the Two-R using our Stanford Research SR-1 audio analyzer. On this first unit, the crosstalk was inconsequential. Then we compared THD+N between channels at the six steps provided by the first knob. We found a sizable difference between the channels, enough so that I alerted the company and they sent another unit. The second unit was more in line with expectations, only showing a difference between channels when we approached clipping. With the new unit, channel 2’s noise was higher than channel 1’s at all stepped settings, but there was a 10 to 12dB difference between the distortion produced by channels 1 and 2 between 20 Hz and 200 Hz at 70dB of gain (see Figure 1, and the rest of the bench tests at mixonline.com).
The noise disparity is due to the second channel’s proximity to the 48-volt switching power supply inside the box. When brought to their attention, Rascal Audio promised a redesign of the chassis for all future production to provide a shield around the psu. There were also some instances of connectors being board mounted on one channel and wired/soldered on another, which could account for some difference.
Another plus of putting the two units through the SR-1 is that it gave me a benchmark where the unit was outputting 1 volt—just under the 1.22 volts produced at +4dBu. On the first unit, we achieved this by setting the output trim all the way clockwise, the variable input gain knob at 12 o’clock, and the stepped input gain knob at “52.” On the second unit, there was more gain, and we achieved the 1-volt output with the left and right knobs set the same, but the center gain knob at 9 o’clock—a 25 percent difference in the knob setting.
At nearly full gain, the Two-R exhibited a 12dB difference of THD+N between channels 1 and 2.
The Rascal Audio Two-R is a personality product. You can buy cleaner preamps, but there’s room for everyone in the recording game. The Two-R is more Chandler than Millennia, and more old-Neve than Grace Design. I was able to dial in gain giving clean, beefy transformer love to drums and silky, overdriven grunge to hard-played guitar. It sounded great with the gain/drive set in between on female vocals paired with classic Neumann U 47 and Telefunken 251 tube mics.
Even though we went deep into the diagnostics and found some differences between the channels and gain on two different units, I wouldn’t put that into the minus column. It just gives you more to work with. Like old (or new) guitars, and great tube amps or compressors, they’re never the same. Life would be boring otherwise. So if you’re tastes lean to the dull and monotonous, don’t buy the Rascal Two-R. This rascal has character to be treasured.
Kevin Becka is Mix’s technical editor.
COMPANY: Rascal Audio
PROS: Clean machine, or not. Plenty of personality.
CONS: Some slight differences between channels in THD+N at higher gain levels.
Because any analog device can sound different from another, even a stereo unit, first patch your audio into the left channel, record several short passes at different gain settings, then try the same sequence using the right channel. It may sound the same, or you may find that you enjoy one side more than the other, especially at higher gain settings when things may start sounding different. Dig in and enjoy the disparity.