In 2011 Black Lion audio released the B12A, their take on API’s well-known 312A preamp. Not marketed as a clone of the 312A, the B12A represented Black Lion’s re-engineered take to deliver that vintage “American” sound at a fraction of the price of the real deal. After much fanfare, and the success of the B12A MkII (upgraded input transformer) and the B12A Quad (four-channel version), Black Lion has brought us the B12A MkIII: Their newest iteration of this vibey classic. Its clean black faceplate with white LEDs makes for a sharp look, bringing it into line with their other products, such as the B173 MkII [Tape Op #141].
The B12A MkIII is very portable, in a half-rack space unit, and can be paired with another for a single rack space of stereo glory. All the usual features are there: switches for 48V phantom power, phase, input Pad, Hi-Z operation, with a single knob for Gain. The back of the unit has an XLR in and balanced 1/4-inch TRS output. I had to use a TRS to XLR cable, but if you’re like many who have a console or interface with TRS inputs, it’s business as usual.
In practice, the B12A MkIII certainly holds its own, though obviously in comparison to API preamps at twice its value, the differences begin to show as one could assume. That being said, the B12A MkIII does the job that you’d expect from an API-like pre: fast transient response, articulate high end with smooth but rich lo-mids and lows. The biggest difference to my ear was the midrange, which was more scooped and/or clear, depending on what you’re looking for. The B12A MkIII was also cleaner sounding to my ears, in the sense that API pres can get harmonically complex fairly quickly, which again, could be a good or bad thing depending on the sound you want. For instance, this could offer an advantage if you’re recording something that’s naturally murky (like a Fender Precision bass DI, an old synth, or perhaps when using a darker mic). It depends on the context – I’ll never turn down the chance to use a classic-styled preamp so long as I know its strengths and weaknesses. If I’m recording a Gibson ES-335 with a Royer R-121 ribbon [Tape Op #19] then sending it to a tube compressor. I wouldn’t think twice about using the B12A MkIII to save myself some low-mid build up that may occur with one of my real APIs.
A great addition might be to include an output knob that allows for higher gain settings. It’s not a problem if you’re feeding into a compressor or something similar to duck the level, but this is one feature that would give it a leg up on some of my other more faithful API-style pres. Generally speaking, however, if you’re someone who’s looking for a classically American sound on a budget, the B12A MkIII is a great option – particularly if you want two of something at a very appealing price point!