The four-channel, Class-A, solid-state 4110 is Universal Audio's first mic preamp that is not derived from earlier classic designs. The 3RU-height device is simple to use and smart looking. It is solidly built and is easy to get around due to its basic simplicity. The individual preamp channels are arranged in vertical rows that have level, gain, and input-selection knobs alongside an LED output meter, an input indicator, and buttons for polarity, low cut, pad, and phantom power. There's also a Shape switch (more on this later). The buttons are similar to the old- school wink-eye buttons but have blue LED's behind them instead of colored discs. It seems blue LED's are all the rage now, and I'm seeing them appear more often as indicators, and quite honestly, they bug me. They are too bright and distracting, and I find they pull my eye towards them more than necessary. I know this sounds nitpicky, but eye fatigue is as much an element to recording as ear fatigue. Thankfully, the LED's on the 4110 are a bit muted by the button lens cover, so they're not as blindingly bright as on some devices I've seen.
The input LED indicator is much easier on the eye and changes color as you get closer to overload. It goes from green to orange to red. This is handy for verifying input and maximizing gain during setup. The output meter is a four-segment, three-color, LED bar-graph that reads from -10 to +10 dBu. Between the input LED and gain knob, and the output meter and level control, finding optimum gain is easy and fast.
The 4110 differs from the other unit in this series, the eight-channel 8110. The 4110 has 1/4'', unbalanced, Hi-Z inputs located on the front while the 8110 has none. This means that the 4110 input-selector offers mic, line, and Hi-Z settings. The mic input has two impedance settings: 500 Ω or 2 kΩ . The Hi-Z input also has two impedance settings:47kΩ or2.2MΩ.Theunit'sratedgainis74dB (mic), and its maximum output level is +30 dBu.
The unique feature of both the 4110 and 8110 is the Shape switch. According to the manual, when the switch is in the off position, the preamp is in "Modern" mode and offers the purest signal path. I originally found this position to be somewhat un-inspiring as it added no color to the sound at all. In fact, it seemed to make some mics-dynamics in particular-sound downright dull. A quick flip to position 1, the "Vintage" setting, which changes the transformer-loading at the input transformer, remedied that problem, and it definitely added more body and sizzle to the microphone. This setting worked well with ribbon mics as it added a nice mid-boost. It also worked well on large-diaphragm condensers for vocals. Position 2 adds a soft-limiting circuit which the manual calls "Saturate." This setting is supposed to help tame transients and reduce clipping. It requires more drive from the gain input, and the effect is more noticeable as you hit the preamp harder. I found this setting worked well with a small-diaphragm condenser on aggressively-picked acoustic guitars as it seemed to push the pick sound down into the notes without sounding compressed. It's also where I ended up with drum mics as it really did a nice job on the snare transients as well. For overheads, I found that the Vintage setting was the best at maintaining the openness and depth I like in my drum sound.
On numerous occasions, I tried to use the 4110 in the normal, Shape-off mode, but I kept on going back to the Vintage setting on almost everything, except for one Kevin Ayers song on which I was asked to mic the hi-hat. Brooklyn-based band The Ladybug Transistor were the studio musicians. Using a small-diaphragm condenser, the 4110 in Shape-off mode did an excellent job of faithfully capturing all the nuances of a busy hi- hat pattern that became the foundation of the drum track. This is where the openness of the unadulterated signal-path really stood out. The next song we recorded was a low-key number with brushes on the snare. I had been using the 4110 on the snare in Saturate mode when we were using sticks. The "A-Ha" moment I experienced with the hi-hat carried over nicely to the brushed snare, and I really began to understand the sonic differences the Shape switch offered. Now I began to wonder if I had been a bit quick on my judgment of the Shape-off position. Maybe I had been fooling myself by changing settings too quickly instead of swapping or moving mics. This is an easy trap when you have built- in sonic choices that make it easier to flip a switch than to actually get up and move something.
With the selectable Shapes, the 4110 almost becomes three different mic preamps in one box. If you want a flexible, solid-sounding mic preamp that is well laid out and classic looking, the 4110 is definitely worth checking out. ($3195 MSRP; www.uaudio.com)