When I asked a handful of reviewers to consider writing about Hamptone's 500 Series JFET microphone preamp, the prolific Don Gunn from Seattle and stalwart Detroit gear nerd Chris Koltay were among the first to accept. Hamptone's owner, Scott Hampton, generously provided preamps to both reviewers; we offer their thoughts below. -SM
CK: I first subscribed to Tape Op in the spring of 1998. It was a blurry time, filled with 18-hour sessions while I was a house engineer at the venerable Ultrasuede Studios in Cincinnati. Not having been outside Ohio much at that time, Tape Op became my window into the world of other studios in other cities, and other sessions. Almost immediately I became aware of Hamptone products but could only imagine what they might sound like. The Silverbox 4, four channel tube preamp [Tape Op #55] was a thing of lore. I missed building one of Scott Hampton's DIY kits by a few years, and a few clients did bring their HVTP2 and HJFP2 [#64] preamps by and I only had minimal exposure due to hectic sessions, but I experienced enough to note an insane build quality and unique sonics. Unfortunately, when you're doing 14 songs top to bottom over a long weekend, you don't get much time to experiment, but I was always curious! Now I finally have the opportunity to check out the new MP500A, Hamptone's first foray into the 500 Series world, and I am stoked!
DG: The 500 Series market is overflowing with preamp options these days; everything from the cleanest, simple transformer-free circuits, to mojo-laden, transformer-heavy models with discrete op-amps, and even some tube models. The Hamptone MP500A mic pre straddles the line between a couple of these topologies; input and output balancing transformers with a JFET transistor for Class A gain control. It's an improved version of the Hamptone HJFP2 JFET Dual Mic Pre (available for a number of years, both as a kit or pre-built). Hamptone's new preamp design offers improved headroom, a lower THD, a superior signal-to-noise ratio, and metering. Since the new 500 Series model is only a single-channel pre, a few additional, handy features have been added given the front panel's size and PCB real estate.
CK: The MP500A is a discrete Class A JFET preamp with 59 to 78 dB of gain. You can adjust the gain range and bias internally. I have mine in the lower range and have had zero issues with low impedance mics, like ribbons or Shure SM7s, however, Hamptone also makes a high gain version of the MP500A. Both inputs and outputs are transformer balanced, with a pad at both stages, and it has an 80 Hz high-pass at the input, allowing for a huge variety of harmonic content and tone shaping in a super simple package. The discrete JFETs giving you all of this Class A gain and flexibility have been matched by a computer and biased to handle large transient spikes. The gain stages are being powered by immaculate DC power rails with heavy LRC filtering. I didn't know what LRC filtering meant, but Scott Hampton was kind and patient enough to explain! He told me why what I already knew was true – this preamp has plenty of gain and is super quiet. The meter on the MP500A is very accurate and switchable from input to output, which is super handy once you start realizing what an asset the 18 dB output pad is!
DG: The output pad is fantastic when you're feeling creative and want to play around with pushing the input to get some saturation and distortion. Put the pad in the path and drive away into the input! I put this to great use with synth bass and bass guitar through the DI using the preamp as part of my tone-shaping of the signal – exceptionally handy! The saturation tone can go from subtle shaving of the transients to full on, glorious sonic destruction.
CK: One of the things I love about my job are the habits I'm developing over time and how they might change or stay the same. Being a live sound guy, I'm used to just "getting the boat in the water" and adapting to all kinds of situations. At home not so much. A source where I tend to stay put once I find something that works is the snare drum. I move around depending on band and genre, but this usually happens on the microphone side for me. The chain in the control room of late is an A-Designs Pacifica P-1 and half of a Urei 1178. For whatever reason, this works for me. It also provides a barometer for what to do on the front end, if anything. I try other equipment and it's cool, but I always end up back where I started. After spending some time with the MP500A, I had a hunch it would excel on the snare drum, and to say I was correct would be a gross understatement. I love the P-1, but the MP500A has something special happening that can only be described as rare or even magical. It has a defined midrange that I love, and at lower gain settings the low end is very pleasing without being muddy at all. As you increase the gain, things get different in a way that's hard to describe. At first, you notice almost imperceptible harmonic content being added, nothing obvious though, just subtle excitement. As you increase the gain it morphs through Captain Beefheart Safe as Milk snare drum grit, to Beastie Boys Check Your Head vibes, to total saturation without ever losing definition.
The above is my experience using the MP500A on the snare. This trajectory of sonic content and harmonics translates to many sources. At normal gain settings, vocals are upfront and articulate with a comforting low end that is arresting. Turn it up and get some Scott Walker "The Plague" gain happening, and go further still to arrive at total fuzzed-out psych madness. Guitars are another favorite use. A Fender Telecaster Deluxe guitar into a '65 Fender Deluxe amplifier with an AEA N22 [Tape Op #102] ribbon mic offered a blooming low end and was straight up "sparkle city" on the top. A lead track with a Fender Stratocaster guitar into a dimed out '64 Supro 1600 amplifier with a Sennheiser 441 mic on it went from huge Norman Petty goodness to downright Sharrock astral plane hairiness. It's unreal how much real estate there is sonically with the MP500A. The above extremes were easily attainable and provided lots of rad stops in between!
DG: Chris mentioned the 80 Hz high-pass filter – super handy for vocals, acoustic guitar or anything that you want to clean up the bottom couple of octaves. When used for clean gain, the MP500A was fantastic on drum mics (mono front-of-kit with a Chandler TG Mic [Tape Op #131]) providing a huge, natural tone without a hint of distortion. Vocals were also gorgeous and present – I never felt like anything in the source was being compromised by the preamp in the least. Even a lowly Shure SM57 on guitar cab was enormous, and exactly what the track needed. This is a preamp capable of far more than the seemingly simple interface would belie. If you're in the market for some new 500 Series preamps, do not overlook the MP500A!
CK: I totally agree with Don's earlier comments about the DI on the MP500A – it's mind blowing. Oberheim DX drum machine claps sounded perfectly saturated. A Fender Telecaster Deluxe solo through an Emmons String Machine was so clear and detailed it sat like a synth in the mix. Bass DI was total Klaus Voormann Plastic Ono in a box. Having the above gain spectrum to work with proves essential when tracking synths direct. Clean, it's detailed with a healthy low end, making a Minimoog Model D synthesizer lead easy to place while pushing it with a Make Noise 0-COAST single voice synthesizer bass line made it sound almost three dimensional. Its DI alone makes the MP500A a justifiable purchase in my book. Add to that the palette of tones at your disposal and it's a must-have. I have a hard time finding anything this preamp didn't flatter, and, for a piece of equipment that has so much character on tap, I noticed zero weirdness or build up even when stacking overdubs. If you're looking for a preamp that can give you beautiful and unique clean tones with an absurd amount of harmonic options at hand, get yourself one of these. I'm keeping mine and getting a second!