For years, David Marquette cultivated a reputation for elegantly racking and powering Neve, Telefunken, and other desirable vintage modules. He eventually decided to branch out and produce his own versions of some classic vintage pieces under the Mercury name. I recently had a chance to try the entire line, and, boy oh boy, Marquette has done it right from start to finish. It's a happy day when you use gear that can seemingly only make things sound good. The debut line of outboard gear from Mercury accomplishes this in spades.
Just unpacking the units from their shipping boxes inspires confidence. The housings are all grey Hammertone finish, heavy-gauge steel, and the custom, powder-coated front panels feature '50's style engraving. These things look like they'd survive a hydrogen bomb unscathed and totally remind me of the A/V closet from my Eisenhower-era grammar school.
The first units I used were the EQ-P and EQ-H Tube Program Equalizers. These are 2RU-height recreations of the highly desirable Pultec EQP-1A and EQH-2, respectively. In recent years, demand for original Pultecs has become so great that it's common to see them sell for over $4000, often in terrible condition. The original Pultecs have a beautiful, thick, musical sound due to their transformer- balanced ins/outs as well as their passive tone circuitry and fully balanced, push/pull amplifier. The passive circuit does not use negative feedback and thereby does not introduce any distortion or phase problems into the signal. Mercury states that these new versions are as faithful as possible in performance to the original Pultecs. Other than some bonus frequencies added to the Mercury units (200 Hz on low for both; 2, 4, 6, and 16 kHz on the high for the EQ-H), the only other modification introduced is a switch on the EQ-P that allows the user to bypass the interstage transformer for a more open, modern sound. I used the EQ-P and EQ-H extensively in mixing scenarios, and they performed like champs. I was able to dial in silky top end on vocals and acoustic guitars and beefy lows on kick drums and mic'ed bass cabinets with truly "pro" results. I found myself nodding with a goofy grin on my face as I tried out different frequency cuts and boosts. There were many times when I hit upon a certain setting and found it was "that sound" I had heard for years on "that famous record" that didn't seem possible to get with "other gear." Even though there are only a handful of frequencies that can be manipulated, those familiar with Pultecs will appreciate the fact that you can cut and boost frequencies at the same time. This sounds confusing, but suffice it to say that experimenting with this technique can yield very cool sounds ranging from subtle to downright weird. The EQ-P is a bit fancier and flexible than the EQ-H in that it has a Q (width) control as well as the ability to select three additional frequencies to attenuate. But, really, they're both outstanding. These EQ's are so perfectly geared to music that-even with extreme settings-it's hard to get bad results with them.
Next up were the 2RU-height M72s dual mic preamp and its big brother, the 3RU M76m. These are based on the legendary Telefunken V72s and V76m preamps, made famous by a certain British group at Abbey Road Studios back in the early/mid 1960's. For decades, these original Telefunken modules have been sought out by discerning engineers and studios, and more than a handful of talented techies (Marquette Audio Labs among them, of course) have made a living by mounting and powering the raw modules into user-friendly rack units. Cosmetically, the cool-looking chrome badges on the front panel of both the M76m and M72s lend a nice visual nod to the Telefunken's original mounting clasp.
The M72s is basically a V72s clone with contemporary accoutrements that we've all grown to expect, such as phantom power, a direct input, polarity-reversal, and continuously-variable gain control. A nice dual-setting (-16 dB and -28 dB) pad allows the user to run line-level signal through the tube circuitry for "warming up." The M72s sounds every bit as good as an original V72s, imparting that nice pillowy softness that is so difficult to get. It pairs perfectly with every mic I tried, with the possible exception of ribbon mics on low-level sources; it didn't sound bad, there just wasn't sufficient gain to amplify soft sounds with a ribbon. But in most instances (i.e., electric guitar cabinet, drums, "normal"-level vocals, etc.), it did the trick beautifully. I should mention that this has always been the case whenever I've tried to use an original Telefunken V72s with a ribbon mic on a quiet source.
On the other hand, low-output ribbon mics do not present a problem with the M76m. They sound fantastic. Not only does the M76m have significantly higher gain than the M72s, it also has more bells and whistles, opening up sonic possibilities. In addition to phantom power, direct input, and polarity-reversal switches, the M76m has a mic impedance selector (a subtle yet invaluable feature that has only recently begun popping up on mic preamps), a rad-looking backlit 6 dB-stepped input gain control (just like the original V76m's), an output attenuator (which David Marquette suggested could be cranked down while the input gain is cranked up for subtle tone-tweaking; I found this technique most noticeable on electric guitars, which sounded almost compressed and tended to sit in the mix better), and a continuously-variable level control (which I would liken to a console fader; turning it down allows the user to overdrive the input stages). With its stellar sound, faithfulness to the original V76, unique tonal flexibility, and helpful array of modern conveniences, the M76m could very well be the ultimate "vintage-style" mic preamp available today.
Finally, I tried out the big gun of the Mercury line, the Mercury 66 Limiting Amplifier. Weighing in at a girthy 42 lbs and occupying three rackspaces, the Mercury 66 is about as close as you can get to a Fairchild 660 limiter without scouring the globe and plunking down five figures. Meticulously reverse-engineered from the Fairchild, the Mercury unit contains eight tubes and many custom-fabricated transformers.
Though I wasn't able to A/B the Mercury 66 with a real Fairchild, I'm fortunate enough to have had extensive experience with a Fairchild 670 (essentially a stereo 660), which for a time was on long-term loan to Zippah Studio. I've also used Anthony DeMaria's 670 clone, the ADL 670, at Mad Oak Studio and also when I reviewed it in Tape Op
#35. Having spent quality time with these venerable devices, I can safely say that the Mercury 66 is, for all intents and purposes, the same animal. Featuring a signal path that's transformer-balanced from start to finish, the Mercury 66 has that thick, glommy quality that you just can't get with any other device. It's killer at taming kick drums, beefing up vocals, squashing room mics, giving that magical shimmery sustain to acoustic guitars, etc. And, if you've got two of them stereo-linked, you just can't get a better 2-mix compressor.
This Mercury stuff does not come cheap. And I'm not suggesting you can't get outstanding results without this caliber of gear. But for studios or individuals that can make the numbers work, the Mercury line is a worthy investment, being more affordable and more reliable than the vintage counterparts. (EQ-P $2400 MSRP, EQ-H $2100, M72s $3500, M76m $5000, Mercury 66 $7500; www.mercury-rec.com)