Coming up in audio in the early 2000s, I was present for what was maybe not the most universally trustworthy or well-informed era of the online audio forum, but definitely the funnest. There were certain distinct concepts, mantras, and methods clung to by each different site’s hive-mind (some of us still have that Electro-Harmonix 12AY7 mic preamp we never got around to modding, sitting in a drawer somewhere to show for it, I’m sure), but also there were a few standards that seemed to be in play everywhere. Back then, when any new preamp hit the market you were certain to see questions as to where it landed on the API-to-Neve scale. Or, whenever someone would suggest that drums were best recorded with an API preamp, suddenly the internet lost its will to argue. You may not have ever actually used an API pre, but you felt like maybe you knew something about it. If you told me the audio proto-meme “warm, yet punchy” was born of an attempt to describe the API character, I’d probably believe you.
Eventually, our experience catches up with our opinions (I read that on one of the boards ages ago), and I got my first taste of the API sound with a 2500 Stereo Bus Compressor [Tape Op #52], a 560 Graphic EQ [#26], and an older version of the 3124 preamp. The 2500 was instant love for me and has anchored the drum group on just about every record I’ve mixed since. The 3124 was good too, but I found that I was frequently sticking inline attenuators on the outputs so I could drive the input a little harder, particularly as I started moving consistently away from recording to tape – the API matched beautifully with the slight transient softening of my tape machine, but in the digital world I was less enthusiastic. In time, the 3124 came out of the rack and sat on top of it, so I could more easily get at the outputs, and eventually, it was off to a new home. For the past six years, I’ve worked on a 1608 console [#81], which I adore. Being able to so easily manipulate gain stages made the API mic amp into something I could love again. Other engineers working out of my old spot agreed; having that greater ability to easily fine-tune levels just made for a better experience and end result.
Enter the new 312 preamp; API sent along the 500 Series variant of the preamp (though there is an updated version of the four-channel 3124 for those not in the 500 format). The 312 is a handsome unit – a simple faceplate layout features the characteristic blue API gain knob, a nice matte black finish, and an amber-glowing meter bearing similarity to the 50th Anniversary model. There are illuminating switches for Pad, Pol (polarity), 48V, and 3:1 output transformer tap selection. The 312 offers 69 dB of gain (yet it somehow feels like more than that) with lots of headroom and a favorable signal to noise ratio – ribbons and your lowest output dynamics mics will get along very happily with the 312! In the past, I’ve never felt like a meter was something I needed on a preamp – and really, I still don’t – but it’s a luxury I appreciate when it’s there. We’ve all had those moments where you’ve wired everything up, you’re ready to get to work, then where you expected signal: None! Being able to see if the problem is at the mic end or recorder end can save time, and anything that helps keep momentum going is a boost in my book. Additionally, this may be a bit more superficial, but the glow coming off of those amber meters (especially en-masse) is just so nice if you’re someone like me who keeps the lights a little lower in the control room. All that said, it’s the transformer tap feature (labeled “3:1”) that is the real point of interest here. When engaged, the output gain ratio drops to 1:1. I’m no electrical engineer, so it’s a little counterintuitive to me that the 3:1 switch activates a 1:1 ratio, but what you really need to know is that this comes out to about a 9.5 dB drop, allowing more room to push the input gain while introducing a light saturation and coloration without blowing out the rest of your chain. It opens up the easily usable range of the pre, and is exactly what was missing from my old 3124.
As with many studios, tracking has been a pretty limited endeavor here at Bastille Recording Services this year. I first put the 312 to use re-amping guitars for Ice Out, a local instrumental guitar/drums/electronics duo. The guitars had been recorded direct at home, and I set them up through my old Fender Super Reverb with an AEA R92 [#56] ribbon mic into the 312. Since there was nothing else to do during quarantine, I ran tracks through the 312 into a channel of my 1608 – all level matched in Pro Tools guided by iZotope Insight [#97]. The 312 in standard mode and the pre in my desk sounded darn near identical when compared at similar gain settings – good news as far as I’m concerned; clear, bright, and well-balanced top to bottom! With the output transformer tap engaged and the input driven harder, the difference was there, yet subtler than expected. Granted – electric guitar bathed in effects isn’t the most telling of sources, but still, there was a perceived density unique to the harder pushed track. The standard mode track was more open and felt more full bandwidth, whereas the output transformer tap track came off a little more concentrated in the midrange, with the attack of the single coil guitar pickup slightly subdued. It sounded great either way and on this particular source, I would’ve been happy with either setting. In the end, I favored the standard loading, as I imagined more stereo effects and imaging being added later in the mix and felt the increased clarity would be an advantage.
Those subtle differences became more apparent when I mic’d up an acoustic guitar – now that 1:1 tap was showing what it’s about! There’s a magical spot before you cross into “okay, that’s too much” that reminded me of driving an acoustic track hard onto tape – and I LOVE that sound! There’s a suggestion of audible saturation, but you’re still short of it sounding over-treated. It brought out all the buzz and bloom of my Gibson J-45 in the best way, and the slight compacting of the spectrum into denser midrange just sat so nicely. This would be a perfect strummed acoustic tone to sit with a band mix, with enough life to it that I had the flexibility to compress further. The initial pick attack was still there; just softened. The standard transformer loading sounded interesting too, with lots of detail, a nice high end, and a clearer bottom. This worked well for gentler, more intricate parts, where I wasn’t looking to get a single instrument wall of sound. The standard setting followed by a compressor would probably be my starting point for acoustics in a sparser setting, or if the guitar was the lead instrument.
On to drums. On a mono overhead small diaphragm condenser mic or front-of-kit ribbon, hi-hats were a bright “TSK” sound in normal mode, and a grimier “CHK”/turned up sound with the output transformer tap engaged. I like driving my snare mic amp a little, and the output transformer tap makes that easy to do. With only one 312 on hand, it was hard to hear it shape a kit, but I imagine a lunchbox full of these preamps would be a ton of fun to record drums with. Each setting had lots to offer. The ability to quickly and easily dial in those variations with minimal fuss is inspiring. A gained up output transformer tap setting was perfect with a ribbon mic in front of the kit for a slightly crunchy and compressed character, but I generally preferred the standard setting over the kit with a condenser for a more natural tone. Likewise, for voiceover and foley applications, the 312 in standard mode was spot-on and gave me that precious “one less thing to worry about” feeling.
I put the 312’s headroom to the test when I needed to generate some quick sound effects to fill out a tricky transition on a television program I was mixing. Eurorack oscillators can really clobber an unsuspecting front end, but I was able to run three Analogue Systems RS-95E Oscillators at levels that maintained the growl I like from the system VCA, which was fed into the 312 via a DI. The 312’s meter suggested the unit was being pushed pretty far, but it never caved in on itself. I have found that close drum mics can overwhelm the 312 if not padded and can result in an unpleasant pinched tone, so I just leave a few Shure inline pads sitting around the drum snake for the close mics, and all is well. If you’re not a creature of habit like me, you could also just (duh) activate the onboard pad!
All in all, the 312 is a strong entry into the 500 Series field and one that’s worth a fresh look for those who might have not clicked with the previous generation of API offerings. The new 312’s intuitive and straightforward design enables you to get a ton of mileage from a single pre while making it easy to get right to recording and work in poorly lit spaces – if you’re building a 500 Series mobile rig, that’s extra points right there. Sonically, it’s everything the API reputation suggests it should be, and then some. I’d happily take a lunchbox full of 312s to any session. Don’t forget about the five-year warranty.