Though I can't remember ever having used any Aurora Audio gear, I have heard of Geoff Tanner, the brilliant tech who left Neve to pursue his own Class A preamp designs. Fellow friend and engineer Craig Liviach, while outfitting his crazy and formidable home studio, recently purchased a 10-channel Aurora Sidecar for (mostly) recording drums in his living room. Craig had booked me for three weeks in June to help track a project, and during preproduction discussions he could not stop talking about how great the Aurora preamps were. After checking out the company's website, I was immediately drawn to the Aurora Audio Stinger - one of the coolest-looking pieces of analog gear I have seen in a long time. Craig immediately put me in touch with Alan at Aurora, who graciously shipped a Stinger out for our tracking session.
When I first looked at the Stinger's indigo blue, sturdy steel chassis, with its dark red controls, single long-throw fader, and abundant connectivity, I had to scratch my head a little. Is it a DI? A mic preamp? A re-amp box? An EQ? Some kind of cool overdrive channel? Wait — is it two channels? There's a lot going on, but suffice it to say, the Stinger is all of these. To put it succinctly, it's a discrete Class A mic preamp, DI, and 3-band equalizer, and it includes a second instrument DI channel that offers an optional overdrive color effect.
The Stinger's Class A preamp has a fantastic '70s vibe, and it sounded great on everything I threw at it in the last two months. Favorites include: guitar amps (wow!), acoustic guitars, vocals, snare drums (WOW!!!), bass cabs, saxophone, and so on. Though visually, its chassis style, color, and controls liken it to a Neve 1073 aesthetic, I found the Stinger to be more open sonically and less gritty in character — with oodles of headroom. Though overworking the preamp and pulling back the output on the fader really creates some cool harmonic grunginess.
Tied to the preamp/DI channel are a high-pass filter (80 Hz) and a bypassable three-band EQ (12 kHz high shelf; 80 Hz low shelf; 400 Hz, 1.6 kHz, or 3.2 kHz selectable midrange). The knobs for boost/cut (±16 dB) are detented. There's also a 100 mm fader with a 20-segment LED meter that's switchable from pre to post-fader. The Stinger's chassis shape really mimics a console channel, and I can't think of another standalone preamp that offers a full vertical fader with this kind of feel. Sitting on my desktop, right next to my mouse, I can easily ride the fader during vocal takes — so intuitive and natural!
The Stinger's second instrument DI channel has a different character than the mic preamp side, and it's nothing short of pristine. Very, very clean. According to Aurora, this DI channel was really built with bass guitar in mind. It includes an FX Overdrive that "woolies up" the path in a super-grungy way and seems to place the bass "just right" in a rock mix. Perfectly law- abiding bass players will try to steal this from the studio! With the FX Overdrive circuit bypassed, electric guitars and keyboards sounded equally good, but I prefer the overdrive on lower- frequency source material. It's definitely one of those effects where you'll know immediately if it's working or not. It can be really cool on LFOs, doubly cool on TR-808s, fuzzy/psych cool on an electric guitar's high-output bridge pickup (like a P-90), and not as cool on a Telecaster's single-coil bright pickups.
It sounds amazing, looks really cool on your desk, and is built like a vintage console. What else? The Stinger's main preamp channel and second instrument DI channel are independent circuit paths that have multiple I/O options. On the Stinger's front panel, both DI inputs have parallel thru outputs.
On the Stinger's back panel, its preamp channel offers a balanced XLR mic/line input, a balanced XLR output, and an unbalanced (great for re-amping) instrument output. The second instrument DI channel offers a balanced XLR output and an unbalanced instrument output. The Stinger becomes infinitely more flexible when you entertain the possibilities of plugging the output of one circuit into another while using amps and effects pedals. Wrap this around your head: From the unbalanced instrument output of a vocal being recorded on the main preamp channel, plug into the DI of the second instrument DI channel, and distort the vocal to your liking, while recording both channels at the same time. Or try putting some stompboxes inline between the preamp's instrument output and the second DI input, and feed the Stinger a pre-recorded track from your DAW, effectively turning your stompboxes into outboard effects for mixing. The scenarios are endless.
The Stinger is a stellar preamp, DI, and EQ. But more than that, its ingenious architecture and flexible I/O demonstrate Aurora Audio's brilliance in taking classic designs and assembling them into a product that fosters creativity within modern (or even unconventional) workflows.