Electric & Company, operated by Mattie Smith and crew out of Austin, Texas, hand-build a small lineup of tube microphone preamplifiers and refurbish vintage units. My first experience with this company was to have them convert two Ampex 601 reel-to-reel tape recorders into two preamp/DIs. These modified units always bring a smile to my face and get used on almost every session, so I was eager to get my hands on their newly released Ampex 351 preamp reproduction: the EC3.
The Ampex 351 was a tape machine first introduced in 1958 in either a mono or stereo format. Many engineers love the special tonal characteristics of a modified 351, however, they can vary widely from unit to unit. As impressive as it is having a vintage 351 preamp in your studio it comes with its own caveats: the price of these vintage units has skyrocketed, the unit is still 70 years old (regardless of modification), and there is also the historical preservation to consider for an unmodified unit. There is also an excess of circuitry in the 351 that adds heat to the unit and noise to your signal. Additionally, you’d need to add phantom power to the unit if you were to use some condenser mics. These are all obstacles to be hurdled in a modern-day studio.
The two rack space EC3 is less than half the size of an original 351, due to eliminating the record/repro electronics and keeping only the mic preamp circuit. The faceplate is a clean, eggshell white color with easy-to-navigate controls. Using two 12AX7 tubes (one for the first and second gain stage; the other for the phase inverter/driver), and a single 12AU7 tube for the output stage, this pre offers up to 70 dB of gain. You also can swap out the tubes for their ECC83/82 counterparts. Military-grade resistors and boutique capacitors are used throughout. Both the mic and line signals can be attenuated before the Jensen input transformer, with 20 and 35 dB pads respectively. The output attenuator is stepped in increments of 10 dB and is placed after the Cinemag output transformer. Other major improvements include the addition of regulated phantom power, a Flip Phase switch, a DI input, and a proper VU meter with defeat switch. This is a DC-coupled push/pull amp, and I tend to think of it as a low watt, hi-fi amp assigned for mic pre duties.
Gain staging is key with the EC3, as the interplay between the input Pad, Level control, and Output Attenuator create a broad spectrum of tones. Because of the increased negative feedback when the unit is pushed harder, the low end response will tighten up. This is two-fold, because as you drive the amplifier more of the harmonic content is also increased. The addition of the Output Attenuator wins it for me because the sweet spot is usually too loud for my A/D converter, and with one switch levels are reigned back in. The preamp shined on dynamic and ribbon microphones where you could take advantage of the monstrous gain on tap. This is not to say that it’s a slouch with condenser mics; it handles them beautifully. I tracked quite a bit of vocals, and the EC3 was dead quiet – imprinting much less saturation with a light-handed touch, which has not been my experience with vintage 351 pres. The DI is simply wonderful. Overdriving guitars through this creates such a beautiful gnarly sound – even running a slew of pedals into the EC3 yielded awesome results. I also tracked through the DI with Fender Precision bass and multiple synths, adding different levels of tube saturation with great success. I used the line level to saturate both a kick drum and bass, and I would describe the sound of the EC3 as hairy with bite as opposed to sweet and smooth. The way it breaks up is very close to a driven instrument amp – a big, edgy punch with a slight bit of compression.
The EC3 has loads of attitude and is certainly the most colored circuit from Electric & Company to date. You have the security of a newly built unit, with both vintage vibes and modern-day amenities. Both the mic pre and the DI are fantastic, offering up plenty of tube goodness. These units are hand-built in the US, and customer service has always been top-notch. I am a big fan of Electric & Company, and am happy to report they delivered. I’ll definitely be getting in line to buy an EC3!