The 363 is the first product from San Diego-based Tonecraft Audio, but owner Jon Erickson is no newcomer to the studio equipment scene. Most notably, he spent some time at A-Designs Audio and was chiefly responsible for the Pacifica mic preamp [Tape Op #49], among other products. A bass player himself, Jon set out to make a DI that would be just at home in a live setting as in the studio, and he gave it a feature set that makes it more versatile than most other DIs on the market.
Jon was gracious enough to personally drop off the demo unit at my new studio, Rarefied Recording, where he walked me through the basics of the box. It has your usual input and thru 1/4'' connections, but it quickly diverges from your run-of-the-mill DI from there. In addition to a customary XLR output, it also has a separate TRS output. Each output has its own dedicated level control and ground lift, and the usefulness of this will become clear later in the review. Besides the large input gain knob, the unit also has a Baxandall EQ with ±20 dB of boost/cut and a true bypass switch.
The look and heft of this thing is already impressive, but when you turn it on, you are treated to even more of that gut feeling that the box has mojo. You can totally hear and feel the current humming, and the front panel has a beautiful back light that comes up slowly. The mechanical hum may be concerning to some who plan to put the unit in the live room with active mics, but in practice, I did not find it to be a problem. Jon explained that he's switching to a custom toroidal power transformer that has no audible mechanical noise on all units moving forward.
I hit the ground running by giving the 363 a go on a Jerry Jones Bass6 for the band Feathers (Home Tapes). Since I also have an A-Designs REDDI [Tape Op #53], it was only natural to start with a quick comparison. The REDDI is a great tube DI, and I and other engineers who've worked at Rarefied have gotten great sounds from it. So in no way was the REDDI sounding bad in comparison to the 363. However, the added feature set of the 363 really set it apart and gave it a clear edge over the REDDI in this instance. Both units go after that classic and sought-after Ampeg B-15N sound, and having one of those too, I can tell you that both DIs have it, but one annoying thing about the REDDI is that the output is often not hot enough, which leaves you needing to put it into another amplification stage. The 363 does not suffer from this problem. Another note of contrast is that the REDDI basically just has one sound. With only one gain knob and no EQ, there's not much you can do to dial in the desired tone within the unit itself, often leading me to use an EQ after it. The 363's built-in EQ is great. It gives you options to really fatten things up on the low end and tweak the high end to taste. I found the frequency selection by Jon to be excellent. Having control over input and output level also lets you drive the unit into saturation while not overloading the next stage.
Now comes the bit about the dual outputs. I am a big fan of parallel compression for bass because it allows the punch to be retained while simultaneously smoothing out the playing and generally filling in the sound. While it's not a big deal to use a mult to split the signal, not everyone has mults or a splitter handy. Plus with a mult or split, you have to send the same amount of signal to both receiving devices. The independent dual outputs of the 363 negate all of these issues. The sound I was getting on the Jerry Jones was already amazing, but after adding in a parallel path through my Bill Skibbe [Tape Op #44] "Red Stripe" 5-9C, a compressor styled after the LA-2A, I was in heaven.
Later in the session, I also had a chance to use the 363 on a Farfisa Mini Compact organ. I got excellent results again, and just a dab of EQ went a long way to perfect the sound.
A few weeks later, Jon surprised me with an adapter he cooked up for the unit that allows you to plug in a microphone. I tried it on a vocal for my buddy Michael of The Paper Thins. More gain was required to pull the signal up from a Shure SM7B [Tape Op #36], but that is a notoriously low-output mic. Jon told me he is working on a new adapter that will have more gain. Regardless, the sound was still great and had a rich low-frequency response as you might expect. To make up for the lack of gain, I simply ran the 363 into a Purple Audio MC77 compressor. I was going for a distorted sound, so I really cranked it up. I had Michael sing into a Placid Audio Copperphone mic [#85] at the same time and mixed the two mics together. After doubling the vocal take, it was the best vocal sound Michael said he's ever gotten for himself, and I was equally impressed. I think the 363 has a lot of potential as a mic preamp with all its tube/transformer beefiness, EQ, and input/output gain.
A bunch of freelancers work out of Rarefied, and they were eager to try the unit out too. Dan Maier (who has recorded a lot of heavy bands like The Locust) had this to say: "The 363 is perhaps the most versatile tube DI on the market. While recording a vintage P-Bass, I found that overdriving the input produced a very musical distortion."
Additionally, visiting engineer Mario Quintero offered up this review after using it for bluesy rockers, Spero: "I love it! One of the fullest DIs I've ever used. The EQ is really useful and helps clear up the top and high-mid while bringing out the 'fat,' without sounding flubby or farty. I even used it on clean guitar and loved it."
Finally, Mike Butler, from the fantastic San Diego studio The Lost Ark, had two units over at his place and tried some unusual things with them: "One of the most interesting things for me was actually strapping a pair of 363s across the stereo bus while we were tracking. I really didn't know what to expect, but man, it sounded killer. It was surprisingly clean and subtle at low gain levels, but it imparted a really nice depth to the sound. When pushing the gain a bit, you get some nice saturation and harmonics. As expected, when pushed too hard, the mix got a bit mushy, but there was definitely a sweet spot that would be cool with the right track."
Surprise, surprise - this demo unit is not going back to Tonecraft.