Sometimes, it's right in front of your face, and you just don't see it. You're working with your preconceptions and past experiences — and it takes a little time, a flat out mistake, or just some loud guitars to show you what you had been overlooking, what was there just a knob twist away. Some devices, while seeming initially simple, can have a lot under the hood.
I was lucky to get to spend a good amount of time with the TG2-500, Chandler's new 500-series mic preamp jumping off from the original Chandler TG2 rackmount preamp [Tape Op #39]. Both are based on the EMI 12428 preamp used in Abbey Road's recording consoles in the 1960s, with the TG2-500 more specifically based around the circuit found in the mastering desks.
The TG2-500 has fairly minimal controls. Along with a rotary output fader, there's a rotary gain switch that offers +20 dB to +50 dB of gain in 5 dB steps, with an additional ±10 dB available from the variable fine gain pot. There are switches for mic/line level and 300/1200 Ω input impedance. At the bottom are buttons for phantom power and polarity reverse, right above the EMI and Abbey Road logos.
The first time I saw the TG2-500, I thought, "Oh no, where's the DI?" As a fan and user of the original TG2, that DI was my go-to for bass and direct guitar. I wondered why replacing one of the most useful things on the original unit with a fine gain knob would be that compelling. I know that my own preconception about 500-series modules was that they were portable Swiss Army Knife problem-solvers that would move around to wherever they were needed. With the explosion of module choices in the last few years, I think that's not the case at all anymore, but old impressions die hard.
In initial usage, I found the TG2-500 to be clear and full sounding, with great low-mid detail and a lovely high-end tilt upward. On vocals and acoustic guitar, all that upper harmonic information was really musical, not tight and documentarian — all hallmarks of the original TG2. Over the next bit of time, I leaned on the TG2-500 for a wide variety of sources, and it never failed to sound wonderful on percussion, piano, Rhodes, and anything that I threw at it. I never hesitated to reach for it, but honestly, it wasn't really getting my groove on. Little did I know where I would wind up with the TG2-500 in the end.
More Neve than API, but with smoother harmonic characteristics, it sounded musical but polite — not problematically polite, but maybe a bit genteel outside of its exemplary tonality. And try as I might, I wasn't really "getting" the usefulness of the fine gain control. All was fine and motoring along, seeming like a review of a beautiful sounding preamp in an age of great sounding gear, when I finally got to recording electric guitars. That's when I somehow crossed through the Looking Glass with the TG2-500, and there was no turning back.
The amps were really cranked, and when I overshot turning the coarse gain control, gobs of glorious syrupy fuzz just spilled out of the monitors. I thought the top of my head was going to fly off. The artist I was working with just let out a hiss of a "yesssss." And the next few hours were filled with total happiness.
"Frying my brain" is a phrase I never want to wear out, but it's totally appropriate here. These tones knocked me backwards. It sounded like I had dropped the MKII Tone Bender of the Gods on the guitar. This was easily the loudest thing I had recorded with the TG2-500, and it cracked the preamp wide open for me. It made a world of difference, easily illustrating how I had been stupidly ignoring the upper ranges of gain staging with the TG2-500. It was like walking through a mountain pass and finding Shangri-La. Cue the beams of light ripping through the clouds, and hit the massive mountain horns — it was time to get some fuzz on. And it was completely due to the amazing usefulness of the fine gain control.
With a little bit of quick knob maneuvering, I started with the output down a bit, the fine gain all the way up, and the coarse gain as high as possible, between "way too much distortion" and "not enough." The coarse gain steps seemed to be perfectly spaced for this approach. Then it was a really simple matter of just slowly dialing the fine gain backwards until hitting the sweet spot, for just a bit of desired saturation, hairy distortion, or choppy blown-out fuzz, while the impedance switch allowed a bit more control over transient response. I also got great results feeding the line-level inputs and gain-staging for another response slope into the desired amour of distortion.
Gain-staging so conservatively at the outset of my usage, I almost missed the heart of this really amazing preamp. With the original TG2, I had enjoyed the distortion at high-gain settings, but had never dialed it in so easily and just never really leaned on that preamp quite like this. You can get the whole range of original TG2 warmth and clarity if you want, and it's a lovely preamp that is happy to be run without gobs of saturation, but the real uniqueness of the TG2-500 is definitely to be found in its upper ranges. Get out your oxygen masks, we're ascending.
When overdriven, the TG2-500 sounds amazingly stompbox-like. This is a compliment. The saturation is really full-bodied, not unlike some really classic coveted overdrives, and it moves smoothly from slight overdrive (although I feel compelled to use the newer stompbox term of "underdrive" that almost feels like parallel processing), through uncompressed distortion tones, into saggy circuit-starved fuzz. It has a really, really smooth curve into breakup that's easy to focus. And I mean really easy. It's wonderful and totally addicting.
My complaint with most mic preamps is that they always seem to distort too quickly at some frequency bands more than at others — or they overreact to low frequencies and transients — leading to really uneven tones. This can be useful, but generally it takes time to nail just right. It's either too much or not enough.
On the other hand, the ability to dial in usable levels of saturation is really the most unique thing about the TG2-500. I've never found another preamp that could do that this well. It changed how I approached the preamp on everything, and now I just wish it was this easy to gain-stage everything. It sounded lovely on lower gain inputs as well, and using the TG2-500 as an insert on tracks in line-level (or even mic-level for fully blown-out, near-gated fuzz) was wonderful. Drums? Well we all love distortion on drums. The TG2-500 sounded amazing, saturating really well on upper low-mids rather than just wildly distorting on every kick hit. I also got great results just using the TG2-500 as an insert for clean gain on tracks, imparting a sense of depth and dimension that I just couldn't replicate by turning the track up in the DAW. It's really a hallmark of great gear when just running through a piece makes the source sound demonstrably better. No wonder the TG2-500's circuit was at the heart of a mastering desk.
The TG2-500 has by far the best overdrive saturation that I've ever heard in a mic preamp. The fine gain control makes it incredibly simple to control and choose your flavor. I'll never miss that DI again.