In my experience, germanium circuits are not for the faint of heart. Not for playing it safe. Not for those seeking clarity, or wanting to retain transparency. This type of design is for the engineer looking for certain textures on the front end while committing to a sound. The Kludge Audio Model 511 Germanium mic pre is a 500 Series, dead simple preamp with a single knob for gain and a single switch for phantom power. I also reviewed, and now own, the Kludge Audio Transwarmer [Tape Op #128] – another simple design that builds on nontransparent character designs of yesteryear.
The first aspect I noticed with the 511 is that it has a surprising amount of gain. I was barely turning the knob up – a dynamic mic in front of a vocal was typically only in the nine o'clock range. The sound was dense and upfront right away on all sources. When used conservatively, it has a hefty tone with a little bit of upper midrange bite. Next, I noticed that even when the gain stage was relatively clean and safe, there was a subtle softening to the louder transients, and when I pushed it a little further, it was definitely imposing its character and soft clipping nature to anything that passed through it. This helps push elements to the front of a mix, and is well-suited for the hands of an experienced engineer that knows the line between just right and too far.
For a rock vocal recording, I split the signal for a test. One side went to a Neve 1272 mic pre followed by a vintage Urei 1176LN; my go-to vocal chain. The other side went only to the Kludge 511. After fine-tuning my standard vocal chain with good results, I matched its average volume with the 511's signal and recorded the two separate tracks into my DAW. Looking at the song's softer verses and louder choruses, I noticed that the two waveforms appeared very similar. This was evident even in the loud passages where the 1176 was doing its thing. The 511 was also compressing the vocal, but in a different way than my standard signal chain, and without the timed attack and release character from the compressor. In solo, the 511 track was robust sounding with a pleasing upper mid-tone that pushed the vocal forward in the track. In the most dynamic parts of the song, the Kludge began to saturate the vocal, but it's not as noticeable in the full mix – unless you crank the gain into full limiting/saturation land. This isn't that buzzy sounding "preamp gone too far" sound. It's a nice distortion that sounds unique, like from an overdriven tube pre or a silicon transistor pre, making the 511 pretty versatile. If you are short on compressors, or simply don't like to use traditional compression while tracking, this pre is somewhat of a combo deal on its own. I loved it on vocals, but it really revealed its character on bass guitar and sources like a jangly, slightly distorted guitar amp. The 511 can barely soften any source to help find its place in a mix, or – like I mentioned before – it can dig right into full-on distortion and limiting.
If I was to criticize anything, the phantom power switch has no indication of what position is "on," so be careful when using ribbon mics. An output attenuator wouldn't hurt either, and would make the saturation of the unit a little more flexible, but an external in-line pad could remedy this too, I suppose. That said, I do dig the super simple design. If you're looking for a mic pre with loads of character that can do extra duty as a subtle to an intense compressor and/or saturator, this will do it. For a high-end mic pre, it's not at all too expensive, so try it out!