Under the Mercury Recording Equipment Company moniker, David Marquette has made a splash with a flurry of new, high- quality, vintage-style outboard gear. In Tape Op #49, I reviewed the initial Mercury offerings: Pultec, Fairchild, and Telefunken- inspired tube devices that wowed me. These units are top- notch-and top-dollar. Now Mercury has a pair of solid state mic preamps that are no less impressive, yet a bit more affordable.
The Grand Pre (why hasn't anyone used that name for a mic preamp before?) is a 2U-height, dual mic preamp based on the classic but sometimes-overlooked British Calrec PQ15s input module. In an email exchange, Marquette told me his motivation. "The PQ15s has always been one of my favorite pre/EQ modules... Personally I like it better than the 1073/1272 sound and always thought the 'Clone War' was funny because to me the Neve wasn't even the best British sound to copy. Although I love Neve and appreciate the build quality and excellence, I personally prefer the creamy, smooth sound of Calrec." The Grand Pre features 1/4'' DI inputs with selector switches, 12 dB-stepped coarse input controls, +/- 8 dB fine input controls, phantom-power and polarity switches, and output trims. The front panel is black with a not-over-the-top racing car graphic theme - kind of a nice combination of fun and serious.
The AM16, on the other hand, takes inspiration from the Yank side of the Atlantic. It's based on the classic American Langevin AM16 module and has a slightly different set of controls than the Grand Pre. Each channel has a DI input with selector switch, five-step coarse input control in 6 dB increments, a generous 24 dB input pad, polarity-reversal switch, phantom-power switch, and an output trim. I should mention the housing on both the AM16 and the Grand Pre is extremely rugged, heavy-gauge hammer steel. The AM16's graphics are a bit more subdued than its sibling's-tasteful, grey powder-coated finish with classic 50s-style red and black utilitarian markings.
Recently, I was joined at Verdant Studio by engineers Chris Fortin and Justin Jacobs. The three of us tried out the Grand Pre and AM16 with a variety of mics and sound sources and subjectively compared them to two other high-end solid state mic preamps, a Universal Audio 2108 and a Neve 33114 channel.
With a PPA R-One ribbon mic about three feet in front of a drum kit, the Grand Pre sounded dark, with a nicely defined midrange, while the AM16 seemed a bit crisper in the upper end. We noticed a similar result with the ribbon mic about a foot off a Vox AC30 with Justin strumming a Rickenbacker. In both of these instances, the Mercury units sounded quite similar to the UA and Neve ones, but perhaps not quite as "warm." I should stress that this is not to say the Mercury preamps sounded "cold"-the sonic differences were extremely subtle. We tried some vocals through an Audio-Technica AT4047 large-diaphragm condenser and enjoyed great results, preferring the AM16, which had a nice silkiness to it. The Grand Pre behaved similarly, but with an ever-so-slightly grainier midrange. In this application, we felt that in comparison, the UA preamp seemed just a tad muddy while the Neve sounded a bit smoother on the upper mids. We briefly tried mic'ing a kick drum with an AKG D 112, and although the drum was not really sounding good tuning- wise, we were able to notice that the Grand Pre handled the super-lows a bit more gracefully than the AM16. A snare drum mic'ed with an SM57 sounded surprisingly bright through the Grand Pre, whereas the AM16 imparted a subtly smoother sound with a noticeably quick response. Meanwhile, the UA sounded fine, but perhaps a bit generic, and the Neve was not as bright, but had an appealing milkiness.
In general, we all agreed that the Mercury preamps held their own in this informal shootout. Any differences were pretty subtle, and it never really seemed like any particular preamp "blew away" another; it was more a matter of somewhat different colorations that would be subject to personal taste. Chris, who may have the most critical ear of the three of us, posited that the AM16 was well-rounded and clean, while finding the Grand Pre to be heavier in the low end and more aggressive in the upper mids. It should be mentioned that Chris, Justin, and I were all on the same page in feeling that overdriving either of these units did not yield pleasant results. When pushing the input gain on either of them, the signal drive was choked, harsh, and square-wave sounding. The user really needs to watch his/her gain staging.
Overall these are very nice preamps that fill a gap in today's mic preamp market. Each has its own sonic character, with plenty of headroom and gain, low noise, and good, clean, no-fuss operation. In a sea of Neve clones, it's refreshing to know that there are some other options out there to provide us with a few more sonic flavors. Calrec and Langevin are certainly very worthy of imitation, and it's cool that Mercury Recording Equipment has figured out a way to make them available at a not-outrageous price.
(2-ch $1695, 1-ch $1095 direct each; www.mercuryrecordingequipment.com)