First introduced in 1994, the 801 series eight-channel mic preamp set a standard for quality, value, and unique design that still resonates in all the excellent products that Grace Design now offers. This two rack space unit has simple to use preamps, with each channel sporting a single stepped gain control, a level indicator LED, and buttons for phantom power, polarity, -20 dB pad, and RBN – a ribbon mic setting with no phantom power, higher impedance, and a 10 dB boost. The rear panel has XLR ins and dual XLR outs (you can feed two inputs simultaneously). Differences between this unit and the original Model 801 and the 2006 m801 upgrade include an onboard power supply, lower noise floor, and wider low end bandwidth.
I've had a pair of Grace m501 500 Series preamps, which feature similarly-designed circuits with different features, for several years now. I've always liked the neutrality of these preamps, and the ones in the m801mk2 work in the same way. I'm not the kind of engineer that counts on my mic preamps to provide color when tracking. In fact, I have turned around and sold many that I thought were too finicky with their levels or added too much of their own character to the source being recorded. But my studio has also become a haven for at least 16 different brands (and different types) of preamps, meaning that the engineer has to pick and choose which to use on each source. Sometimes this is great, like when a preamp mic combo comes alive on a certain instrument, but other days it's a bit more of hassle, and we have to think about how every preamp reacts to transients, certain mic levels, and other subtleties. That's where a product like the m801mk2 comes in. Here we have eight channels of a high-quality preamp, with proper controls to get a quick level on any mic. The single LED metering helps immensely, and I was able to intuitively get a sense of level off them via color changes and brightness; a well implemented feature. Please note that with this many channels, the cost per preamp drops to around $500 per channel, which is one heck of a deal.
I started the review unit out on a 16-track tape session with Cotton, a rockin' songwriter-based project, and put all the drum mics through it for a stress test. Once I determined if pads were needed, levels were quickly set via the gain knob, phase checked, and we were on our way. Transients from the dynamic mics on kick and snare came across perfectly, and details from the tube, small diaphragm overhead mics came through clearer than ever. I tried the m801mk2 on guitar amps, percussion, and vocal overdubs with great results. My next session was a string trio layering up orchestral-style overdubs for an upcoming M. Ward record. With close mics and a pair in the room, we were capturing different levels of detail and the m801mk2 once again performed flawlessly, and the layered tracks of strings never sonically cluttered up the mix. I've kept using these preamps on every session since and have grown quite enamored with them; in fact, I now own the review unit. These mic preamps simply never got in the way of working fast, and no source ever sounded lacking in clarity or punch.
The attention to detail in the design of this preamp shows. No electrolytic capacitors in the signal path, true differential amplifier circuitry, and a transimpedance (current feedback) gain stage result in all the detail of my many microphones coming through. And the pre comes with a 20 year warranty (no joke). I could work with two or three of the m801mk2 units as my only preamps at Jackpot! and I'd be totally happy for the rest of my career. And I could stop worrying about which mic preamp to use...