Audio / Buying Guide

Vintage Vibe or Crisp, Uncolored Tones: 500-Series Microphone Preamps

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The idea of having a variety of microphone preamps at your fingertips is, relatively speaking, a more modern advent in recording. The “golden era” of making records saw engineers using the preamps found in the console in the studio, and didn’t give much thought to mixing a Neve sound on the overheads while using APIs on the snare and toms. As more and more engineers (pro and hobbyist alike) explore the 500 Series, many feel no real need to fill a 10-slot rack with the same exact pre. As the adage goes, variety is the spice of life, and there is impressive variety available in 500-Series mic pres, many of which have applications that can extend to mixing, as well.

If you’re after vintage vibe, you’d be hard pressed to do better than the BAE 1023L, which accounts for its price tag, thanks to its choice of Carnhill transformers and hand-wired build. This 1073-style preamp/EQ gives you a wider selection of available frequencies for the center frequency EQ than the original 1073, adding versatility to its vintage vibe. For obvious reasons, the 1023 is as useful in the mix phase as it is in tracking.

BAE 1023L Mic Preamp and 3-Band EQ (500-Series Module)

Adhering to that vintage vibe, Chandler has become synonymous with making recreations of the unique equipment designed and used at the legendary Abbey Road Studios. The TG2-500 is based on its popular TG2 rackmount unit, which in turn is based on the EMI TG12428 preamp found at Abbey Road. Though renowned for its warmth and “mojo,” and the TG2-500 can be quite versatile sonically, depending on how hard you drive it. A mic/line input allows it to act as a color box on mixdown, and many favor a pair for bus duties. Many fans of passive summing amps prefer a pair to get their mix back up to proper levels after being summed, as well.

Chandler TG2-500 Preamplifier

Taking a step out of pure vintage tone (but with a great nod to heritage), the Rupert Neve Designs Portico 511 offers a lot of punch in its 500-Series package. It’s the first preamp designed by the man himself for the 500 Series format (as opposed to adapting an existing design). It has many of the features you’d expect from a modern pre, including gain, trim, and phase reverse, but Neve adds a lovely high-pass filter that’s sweepable from 20 to 250 Hz. The real special sauce here is the inclusion of Neve’s red Silk circuit, from his higher-end rackmount Portico gear. The Silk button provides some mojo-inducing harmonic distortion to your signal, which can be fine-tuned with the Texture knob, allowing you to dial-in just a bit or really crank it. The 511 can be used on line-level sources, as well, and I’ve had great success using them on acoustic and electric guitars in mixdown, using both the high-pass filter and a touch of the Silk circuit.

Rupert Neve Designs Portico 511 Mic Preamp

While beastly tone machines are always fun, they aren’t always the right choice in a preamp. If you’re tracking jazz, or classical, or voice-overs, a crisp, clean, and pristine preamp that doesn’t add much in the way of color might be in order. Grace Design has become synonymous with this style over the years, and its m501 pre follows suit. It’s based on the m101 rack pre and shares with that its dedicated Hi-Z input for instrument Dis, as well as its “Ribbon Mode,” which alters the input impedance while making sure ribbon-damaging 48V phantom power is off. The sound is pristine, because Grace’s circuit design intends to impart as little coloration or harmonic distortion as possible.

Grace Design m501 - Microphone Preamp

These are just a few choices of the wide style of preamps available for the 500 Series. What’s ultimately available can range from boutique uni-taskers to affordable “Swiss Army knife” preamps that can add color or processing during mixing, as well as tracking.

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