In a galaxy long ago, it was not uncommon to spend a day or two getting a snare drum sound on a big-budget record. Numerous drums were carted to the session and the pounding "thwack" would begin. The rest of the band was probably nowhere to be seen as the engineer and assistants EQ'ed away, with different mics and placement. All waited for the producer's Oohs and Ahhs. After sonic nirvana was found, the bass and guitar players would show up and get their tones scrutinized with microscopic precision, putting up various cabinets and mics and pulling out guitars like ice cream flavors. Throughout the process, no one mentioned mic preamps; you used what was in the console. Alas, many of the world's greatest recordings were done with the console preamps, as they had been for years.
Fast forward to the last decade, and the number of mic preamp choices on a session has exploded. Now it's often the mic preamp that is getting scrutinized, like evidence at a crime scene. Many studio owners feel the need to have numerous flavors, and I can't remember the last session I've been on, either as a player or producer, during which there weren't at least half a dozen different preamps in use. Switching devices like the Manley MicMAID and the Radial Engineering PS4 Cherry Picker [Tape Op #94] even allow you to audition different preamps before having to commit.
Obviously, lots of great records are made this way and will continue to be. But for a number of years, I've preferred working with a single mic preamp, rarely using outboard preamps. In my case, I found that API preamps could track me just the right amount of thickness, clarity, and bandwidth. They work great with all types of mics, from ribbons to tubes, and hold up well. The workflow is amazing — no more thinking about single tracks, but rather, how does this all sound. The focus is on mic placement and then the musical concept as a whole. When the concept and the sonics come together, I find you have great music. For me, the single mic preamp is an invaluable tool to get there. When we installed our Tree Audio 500 Console three years ago, the API 512 and 312 modules we had on hand went right into the new 32-channel board. Since then, our pair of Neves and our small assortment of tube preamps have rarely been used.
It is this philosophy of capturing music that's embedded in NonLinearAudio's Flexiguy preamp design. It's interesting that the first Flexiguy was the 8-channel FG8000. They were going for the full-on, "what happens when you record with a bunch of these at the same time" experiment. How do these things play together? When I first tried the FG8000, I started with seven channels on the drums — kick, snare, hat, overheads, and stereo room — and then overdubbed a mono piano. Drums and piano tend to be good test subjects for mic preamps, due to their full tonal spectrum as well as their percussive transients. What first struck me was that the Flexiguy preamps sounded really good, but didn't blow me away as if someone had just sewn a third ear to my forehead and I was hearing things I'd never heard before. They sounded useable and subtle and forward and thick, like a great stereo system, as they captured the instruments and the nuance of the performance. There was excellent clarity, but not at the expense of blending together well. I started sneaking the Flexiguy preamps in on drums, bass, and guitar, and then finally committed to doing 8-track sessions with only these preamps. I pushed up the faders on playback and was astounded by how well all the instruments consistently mixed together, like a delicious meal at your favorite diner. I soon had 16 of the Flexiguy FG500 modules stuffed into our console. Their black faceplates and big, red, hand-painted gain knobs looked really bad-ass. What the heck was going on here, and why was I able to capture rock bands, jazz trios, and string players — all with excellent results?
NonLinearAudio is the brain meld of John Klett and Jens Jungkurth. A visit from this pair is like getting a house call from Frank Zappa (if he was a gear designer) crossed with both The Marx and The Funk Brothers. Klett is one of the best techs on the east coast and formerly led a supercool band called the Hawaiian Pups. Jens is a young audio designer who came up in the studio world and has developed gear for Purple Audio, Hairball Audio, DIY Recording Equipment, AwTAC (where he leads design and engineering), and Eisen Audio (his own company). What makes NonLinearAudio unique is that John and Jens retained a musical sensibility that is the ethos of their design philosophy. They don't give a shit about how it looks on the scope or that you're not supposed to put this transistor into that circuit. If it sounds good, then they're on the right path.
The Flexiguy was born out of a desire to make gear that is both standard issue and unique. Employing a ZUTT input transformer and John and Jens' own design for the custom output transformer, the Flexiguy is seemingly straight-ahead with gain, polarity reverse, 20 dB pad, phantom power, and 1/4'' DI input. But things get very interesting. A mode button lies above the gain knob, and it serves two purposes. First, it's what they call a "winky" level indicator — a very accurate single-point "meter" going from a dim green at -30 dBu all the way up to peak-level red. Even more fun are the two available modes. Mode 1 with the button out provides gain from 6 to 65 dB. The input impedance goes lower as gain is increased, making for a more saturated and thicker character. As gain is reduced, input impedance rises, and the sound becomes more open. In Mode 2, the gain range goes from 20 to 70 dB, but the input impedance remains constant. The sonic imprint becomes wider and more 3D. One of the little secrets of the Flexiguy is the pad switch, which works in both modes and with the DI. This changes the impedance to a 1200 Ω load. You still have plenty of gain, but this switch can really help tailor your sound depending on the mic. It might sound counterintuitive, but on some sources, say a single Coles 4038 ribbon mic [Tape Op #15] on a close overhead, the pad's resistor imparts a certain muscle to the tone while smoothing out and amplifying the lower frequencies. With just a little hint of kick drum mixed in, I've had amazing results with a two- mic mono drum sound. I also have to mention the DI. In short, it is one of the better DIs I've used, especially for overdriving a signal. I'll often use the DI for keyboards, and I've yet to find a better stompbox for distorting a Rhodes or synth. One minor problem I've run into is that the three silver switches on the faceplate- for polarity, pad, and phantom power-can be hard to see in low light, although the bottom half of the "8" in the "+48" label does have an orange LED indicator ingeniously incorporated into it.
The Flexiguy preamp has just the perfect amount of variables, without confusing the user, and is so seamless in operation that, after 5 minutes, I began to understand all of its possibilities. I've never seen a mic preamp operate in this way, and it gives the user enough flexibility (pun intended) to capture anything from string quartets, to booming drum sets, to walls of guitars — all of which hold up beautifully when mixed together. I know several producers that have swapped out other preamps in their 500-series racks, utilizing Flexiguy pairs for overheads and vocal overdubs. The numerous engineers and producers that have worked in our room since the Flexiguys have been installed have really taken to these, often foregoing the APIs and the outboard preamps. As we do a lot of tracking of bands playing live, we have enough album projects under our belts now to feel like we found a powerful and useful tool. Overdubs sound seamless, and come mix time, I'm using much less bus compression, already feeling like the tracks are wonderfully glued together. I think these guys may have just invented a new hammer.