If you are newer to audio production, you may have asked this question – and if you are a veteran of audio production you have absolutely been asked this question – "What preamp should I buy?" The answer is far from easy. These days we have a huge selection of available mic preamps at almost every price point with every conceivable type of circuitry. But we are always looking for the one that is going to give us "that sound" (however that translates to us individually). If you have the means to fully equip your toolbox with enough preamps to cover all of the sonic characteristics available, it will likely cost you a small fortune. With all of the circuitry options (Class A, tube, electronically balanced, transformer-isolated, FET, etc.), there is much to purchase in order to cover all the bases.
Cranborne Audio is trying to make this quest a little simpler. They have released the Camden 500 (500 Series) preamp with the goal of being able to fine tune the character of the preamp to suit your needs in the moment. The design idea was to make a preamp that can be completely clean and transparent when needed, while offering the ability to dial in some extra harmonic information, to emulate transformers, tubes, or tape. That's pretty cool. There have been preamps that have employed companion plug-ins to accomplish this, but very few have used only analog hardware circuits to deliver these various vintage sonic characteristics. So, this type of analog gear would likely be priced so that only the elite can afford it, right? Here's the best part: The Camden 500 sells for $349!
That is a rock bottom price for any good preamp, let alone for one that claims to be the "...most astoundingly clean, linear, transparent preamp you've ever heard." Using the 500 Series rack format surely helps to keep cost down, since power supplies and full chassis are not required. Nevertheless, delivering this preamp at this price point is impressive. But I'm getting ahead of myself. Let's first talk about the Camden 500's features.
The basic preamp controls are pretty straightforward. You have a preamp gain control, but no output control. You have, of course, a +48V phantom power switch, as well as an 80 Hz high-pass filter. Additionally, there is a polarity switch, and a Mic/Line/Hi-Z switch. The 1/4-inch front panel input completes the standard preamp controls, but it's the extra adjustments that make this unit interesting. At the top of the faceplate is a rotary knob labeled Mojo and a switch that selects between Thump or Cream. This is where the Camden 500 gets its versatility.
I had the opportunity to use the Camden 500 for a few weeks on various sessions. In addition, I did some direct comparisons against various well-known preamps, and I wasn't exactly fair. Keeping in mind the Camden's $349 street price, I put it up against preamps that were much more expensive.
I listened to the Camden 500 initially with the Mojo settings off and then with various amounts of Mojo. First, let's talk about recording a kick drum. With Mojo off, I liked the sound of the Camden 500's transparent preamp. As compared to another transformerless transparent-style preamp, the Camden 500 did indeed sound very natural. At first, I thought the Camden 500 might be lacking a little top end on the attack, but, the more I listened, I did get the feeling that it was just a natural, un-hyped sound, with plenty of fullness in the lower mids. Engaging the Mojo's Thump mode made things interesting, however. According to the manual, in small settings Thump emulates transformer harmonic content and is quite subtle. As you crank the Mojo knob clockwise, the effect gets obvious. Aside from the subtle transformer emulation, it starts adding a good deal of additional harmonic content below 100 Hz. I found that this works wonders on low frequency sources such as kick drum or bass guitar. In this case, I could dial in an incredible low end on the kick, without it sounding synthetic or out of place. As with many things in life, it was certainly possible to go too far by adding absurd additional low harmonic content at extreme settings. But with some restraint, it can certainly make a wimpy kick drum work well in a mix by adding a solid fundamental note. Keep in mind that this isn't being accomplished with EQ or digital effects but rather by using analog circuitry to create additional harmonic content. The other preamps I tried could not match that same effect. The transformer-based Class A preamp that I compared it to had a bit more initial fullness to the sound, but I found that the Camden 500 could be dialed in to the same ballpark, with the option of a huge low end as well. The tube preamp I tried in comparison had a rather less linear mid to high end contour than the Camden 500.
When recording electric guitar, I had an opportunity to play with the Camden 500's Cream control. According to the manual, this control starts with a similar transformer effect to Thump while on subtle settings but takes a very different direction when dialed up. When pushed, it deals more with the mid and high end frequencies than Thump does. You start to hear more high frequency harmonics, and greater articulation in the mid frequencies. As you turn it up further, you do start to get a slightly fatter lower frequency feel as well, but that is secondary to the mid and high harmonics. Cranking this control to extremes really starts to bring in a good deal of compression and harmonics and can be useful to punch up less than ideal guitar tones. It is not a distortion or gain box, but the harmonic content can definitely make electric guitar tones more interesting.
I don't have the page space to detail every instrument and how it performed with every preamp in the world, but I did track piano, kick drum, snare drum, drum overheads, electric guitar, and electric bass with the Camden 500. While comparing it with other preamps, some common traits came through. The Neve-style preamp I compared it to offered more focus in the mids but less overall clarity. By dialing in the Cream setting I could start to approach a similar sonic signature – not exact, but similar. The other transformer-based Class A preamp sounded initially fatter than the Camden 500, but was obviously much less linear in clarity and articulation. Dialing in Mojo yielded better overall results, depending on the source. You could dial in the fatness on the Camden 500 but with slightly more natural mids and highs.
Listening to drum overheads, I noticed one of the only characteristics about the Camden 500 that some people may not completely love; in comparison to other preamps, it has no trace of hype in the higher frequencies. At first, it can sound as though it is lacking a bit of higher frequency detail, especially with Mojo off. It is just conjecture, but with their goal to make the Camden 500 neutral and clean, they may have designed it to avoid anything that resembles exaggerated higher frequency response. I was concerned at first, but after using the preamp for awhile, I started viewing this trait in a similar way that I view a ribbon mic. Generally, a ribbon mic has less high end than a condenser, but, with a little EQ, you can get a characteristic from the ribbon that you can't get from a condenser. I found that by adding just a touch of EQ to the Camden 500, I could get a sound that is smoother, yet more detailed than what I might get with a preamp that had more "sizzle."
I should mention that the build quality is excellent. The knobs and switches are solid. Gain is controlled by a 12-position switch that toggles in discrete resistors at exactly 5.5 dB increments, ensuring the exact gain value at each position for a total of 68.5 dB of gain in Mic mode. Is this a preamp that makes your outboard rack of vintage preamps obsolete? No, of course not. There will always be preamps that do their specific "thing" like nothing else can. But consider this: At a street price of $349 you could put a pair of these in a 500 Series rack for likely less cost than a single channel of many other preamps. Then you'd have the ability to dial in neutral and transparent tones, thunderous low end tones, or thick harmonic tones depending on what was needed. As a bonus, selecting the line level input allows you to run your entire mix through the Mojo circuit. Pretty cool! So, the next time someone with a limited budget asks what preamps they should buy first, you'll have a really good answer. I don't know another product with this range of versatility anywhere near the Camden 500's price point.