Ah, freedom. Today, highly capable DAWs are easily stuffed into featherweight laptops and even tablets; as such, audio can be captured, processed and mixed virtually anywhere, and quite well at that. Other than perhaps the drum kit, most sound sources are most easily recorded with no more than two inputs, thus making a flexible, world-class 1U 2-channel microphone preamplifier a most desirable, useful purchase.
Grab any one of the following 15 preamps, your DAW, converter and/or I/O, headphones and a great pair of microphones: The audible world is yours for the taking, uncompromised.
The solid-state Pacifica was specifically designed to deliver the unique sound of the ’70s-era Quad Eight console’s preamp. It features custom Cinemag I/O transformers, the outputs being custom-wound and identically built as those found in the original Quad Eight desk. Other notable features include a very broad frequency range (9 Hz-101 kHz), 72 dB of gain and balanced XLR I/O plus hi-Z front-panel input, phantom power, -20dB pad and phase reverse per channel.
AEA RPQ Ribbon
Makers of beloved, vintage-style ribbon microphones, AEA offers this preamp featuring its trademarked CurveShaper EQ and useful LF proximity control, plus phantom power and phase reverse per channel. The RPQ’s JFET circuit provides up to 80dB of gain, and its extended bandwidth is reportedly 1 Hz to greater than 200 kHz. Despite its ribbon mic-focused branding, owners of the RPQ report of its complementary nature when paired with moving coil, tube and solid-state mics, too.
API A2D Mic Preamp/A-D
The first API product to feature an integrated digital output—S/PDIF single-ended RCA connector and an AES digital out via XLR per channel—A2D is a great mobile recording package. Further, the A2D features a coaxial BMC accepting SuperClock, which reads as “EXT SYNC LED” on its front panel when locked. The A2D is made up of a pair of API 312 mic preamps and API 2510 and 2520 op amps with phantom power, phase reverse and input pad, 2:1 transformer routing, plus mic/line switches. Six sample rate choices and a slave-ready design (to be paired with other A2D units) rounds out the package.
Crane Song Flamingo
Notably flexible in tonality, the Flamingo provides transparent preamps capable of “vintage-style” sounds or a range of new textures. Features include switchable phantom power and phase reversal settings, a two-choice impedance switch (the second of which is to best match large diaphragm condenser microphones as recommended by mic designer
David Bock), adjustable gain ranging from 6 to 66 dB, and three unique, switchable settings named IRON, SOUND and TONE; IRON puts iron in the path, SOUND changes the type of amp, and TONE—a three-position adjustment—allows standard Flamingo, transparent, and “colored” settings.
Well-known as featuring Earthworks’ famous “ZDT zero distortion preamplifier,” the 1022 provides a pair of David Blackmer-designed preamps featuring a 1 Hz-200 kHz frequency response, +/-0.5 dB—touted as clean as a “piece of wire with gain.” It provides very high output level (+30 dBu), phantom power, phase reverse and clip indicator plus separate XLR and quarter-inch TRS outputs per channel with gain control. Reportedly boasting the lowest noise of any preamp on the market, the 1022 is an ideal solution for stereo orchestral recording, among other such dynamic and detailed audio capture applications.
Focusrite ISA Two
A result of collaboration between Sir George Martin and Rupert Neve to build new console modules for Air Montserrat Studios in 1985, the ISA Two provides a pair of ISA 110 mic preamps with the Neve-spec’ed Lundahl LL1538 input transformer; Focusrite also offers 4- and 8-channel versions of this ISA Series offering. Features include, per channel, front-panel hi-Z instrument input, variable input impedance (low, ISA 110, medium and high), phantom power, phase reverse, variable highpass filter, continuously variable trim, eight LED user-calibrated level meters and more.
Great River MP-2NV
Inspired by the legendary Neve 1073 yet with a reportedly overall “tightened” sound to be quite helpful in mixing as track count grows, Great River’s MP-2NV features dual preamps of a most flexible nature, featuring a 10 Hz-30 kHz frequency response, front-panel hi-Z input, per-channel phantom power, phase reverse, input impedance and output loading switches plus hi-Z input and output level adjustments per channel. Custom-wound Sowter transformers and quarter-inch, -10 dBV output (for “no latency DAW monitoring”) round out this package that so many engineers have grown to love.
John Hardy Co. Twin Servo 990
Why is John Hardy’s preamp regularly called the “world’s finest preamp”? For decades it has been utilized by our industry’s most respected golden-eared engineers, while many fledgling recordists may not even know of its existence—but it’s just that good. Its basic circuit is the Jensen JT-16-B mic input transformer, and each channel uses two 990C op-amp modules that are developed and patented by Jensen. As a result, the Twin Servo 990 is reportedly capable of one-tenth the distortion and twice the bandwidth of a single-stage design. Available with either a 20 ohm mic switch or 20 dB pad, the Twin Servo 990 features, per channel, the JT-11-BMQ output transformer, phantom power and phase reverse, 20-segment LED Vu meter and LED illuminated front-panel switches, and more.
LaChapell Audio 983S Tube
For those needing super-portable tube pre-amplification, LaChapell packs loads of tube tone into 1U with the 983S, featuring dual 583S tube preamplifiers plus phantom power, phase reverse, front-panel hi-Z input with auto-switching lowpass and highpass filters, and more, per channel. The 983S is outfitted with two 12AX7/ECC83 tubes and provides a 10 Hz-50 kHz frequency response with a maximum output (1%, THD+N) of +26 dBu.
Lavry Engineering 4496-18
Here, Dan Lavry offers a 2-channel, transformer-free preamplifier featuring 21 to 70 dB of gain in 1 dB steps, adjustable via an up/down switch and LCD digital readout. Used for stereo pairs, the 4496-18 provides a mic selection switch (condenser, dynamic or ribbon) for mic load optimization; the condenser setting automatically activates phantom power. Other features include a 10 dB pad, which provides 11-60 dB of gain.
Manley Labs TNT “Tubes/No Tubes”
Getting its moniker via a “tubes/no tubes” acronym, Manley Labs’ TNT is a truly unique dual-channel preamplifier. On the “T” side, Manley has included its vacuum tube from the now-legendary SLAM!; the “NT” side (labeled “Cool”) features a clean-yet-tweakable solid-state preamp. Features per channel include phantom power, phase reverse, highpass filters, front-panel hi-Z input, variable impedance (three settings on the “T” side and 10 on the “Cool” side), as well as “Color” and variable “Iron” settings on the “Cool” side. As such, there’s likely not another 1U, 2-channel preamp on the market offering this much versatility.
Millennia Media HV-32P
Out of this 15-product collection, the HV-32P is likely the most “road ready” of the bunch. Built within a rigid, 2-pound DI box-style chassis (measuring 5.67 x 1.69 x 8.19 inches), the HV-32P provides Millennia Media’s pristine pre-amplification featuring continuously variable gain control, ribbon mic-ready +10 dB gain boost setting, phantom power, phase reverse, and -15 dB pad, per channel. The HV-32P also features 12 to 15V operation with a 100 to 240V line lump power supply.
Neve’s dual-channel 1073DPD combines desirable vintage flavor with modern 24-bit/192 kHz A/D technology while offering other notable features. The package includes Neve 1073 preamplifiers, world-class digital converters and a unique Neve DSD output to further increase flexibility. Phantom power, phase reverse, dedicated input gain and output trim controls are available, per channel. Format, sample rate and sync indicator lights are featured on the 1073DPD’s front panel, too.
Rupert Neve Designs Portico 5012 Half-Rack
Even smaller than a typical 19-inch, 1U unit—housed in a half-rack chassis—the Rupert Neve Designs (RND) Portico 5012 is a dual-channel preamp featuring a “transformer-like amplifier,” or TLA, balanced but not floating amp with a toroidal Common Mode Rejection lowpass filter that excludes frequencies above 150 kHz. Per channel, the Portico 5012 provides +66 dB of gain in 6 dB increments with +/- 6 dB of trim, Rupert Neve Designs’ proprietary Silk setting “for nostalgic warmth” when engaged, phantom power, phase reverse, fully variable highpass filter from 20-250 Hz, and more. A “To Buss” output is also offered, an unbalanced, high-impedance output intended for use with RND’s Portico Buss Amp/Monitoring modules.
Slate Pro Audio Fox
Providing 1073-style vintage tones to modern and vibrant hues, Slate Pro Audio’s Fox “QuadTone” 2-channel preamp provides a wide range of great-sounding settings gleaning “finished,” sculpted tracks. Per channel, the Fox offers two independent mic pre circuits, Vintage and Modern. In Combo mode, a Fox channel combines input and output sections of both circuits for unique, flavorful results. Usefully, the Fox manual provides the user with a “quick start guide” based on sound source and need—very helpful in initially learning the ways of the Fox.
Strother Bullins is Technology Editor for NewBay Media’s AV/Pro Audio Group, active musician, recordist and small-venue sound reinforcement wrangler.