If you read my previous review of the Cloudlifter Z Mic Activator [Tape Op #115], then you know I'm a big fan of the Cloudlifter series. The Cloudlifter Zi builds on the success of the CL-Z, but adds a whole new dimension by including a high-Z instrument-level input. Visually, this box looks just like the CL-Z, which can be confusing when you have them side-by-side on a shelf. If you look closer though, you notice that the CL-Zi has a Neutrik Combo input. The other big change is in the switches, which have changed from tiny chrome switches to black plastic sliders. The new switches aren't as sexy looking, but they're definitely much sturdier. I'm a lot less worried about them breaking when I throw this thing into my backpack. This is such a handy tool, you'll definitely want to bring it with you to other studios.
When you use the CL-Zi with a mic, it performs exactly like the CL-Z; it adds up to +25 dB of quiet gain before your preamp. When you turn the big knob, it adjusts the impedance, which dramatically changes the tone of passive mics. There is one tiny upgrade; the gain switch now has three options: Min, More, and Max. This solves the only tiny gripe I've discovered about my older CL-Z. When I'm working really quickly, my brain can't always remember which gives the most gain, More or Max. Sure, it only takes a second to toggle the switch and find out, but the addition of Min clears this up instantly.
Now, what makes this new box interesting, is the instrument input. It uses a CineMag transformer to convert from high-Z before the mic preamp. This allows you to use all the same tonal-shaping features of the fully sweepable impedance knob, which ranges from 15 kΩ to over 1 MΩ (roughly 100× the 150 Ω – 15 kΩ values marked around the knob for low-Z use). I first tried the CL-Zi on a Fender Rhodes, and while its impedance knob was interesting, I decided it was way too clinical for the bluesy song we were recording. I'm sure I could have trashed it up with a plug-in, but decided to use something else. Next, I used it on bass, where it fared much better for my needs. I had it up against a really expensive tube DI that everyone at my studio loves. Both DIs sounded amazing, but the CL-Zi really had a presence to it that was perfect for songs where the bass featured out front of other instruments. We ended up switching back-and-forth from song-to-song, basing our decision on the character of each tune.
Where this box gets the most use for me is with guitars and amp simulators. A lot of times, when I'm cutting basics with a full band and I need isolation for a scratch guitar part, I've found using various plug-in amp simulators is quick and easy and allows me to focus my time and energy on the rest of the recording. In those situations, this is my go-to DI. It's so fun to sweep around the different impedance settings. I can get a really vintage midrange tone, or a bright chirpy one. Especially if I engage the HPF, I can get really extreme sounds. Seriously, if amp simulators are your bag, this is a DI that you need to try. My only complaint is that there isn't a 1/4'' thru jack.