In his review of the J99 and C84 preamps from Seventh Circle Audio, Chuck Hanning touches on the design and assembly of SCA's preamp kits. The first time I met SCA founder Tim Ryan at TapeOpCon a few years ago, I was impressed with how beautiful his modules looked. So when I had the opportunity to try out his preamps, I asked for two each his four designs. He sent them all assembled and installed in a PS03-equipped CH01 8-channel chassis, except for one C84 unassembled kit. The kit came with all the parts enclosed in an envelope along with a bill of materials and schematics. As Chuck mentions in his review, the instructions (with color photos) are available on the website. I still haven't built the C84 kit, but I did read through the instructions completely, and I was impressed with how thoroughly the assembly process is documented. Pretty much every possible "gotcha" is clarified (in colored text, no less!), and with the amount of electronics know-how included here (not to mention the shared knowledge on SCA's online forums), building one of these kits would make for an excellent course on audio electronics-a tremendous opportunity to learn! And you could have a field day swapping out op-amps, transformers, or other components if you really wanted to geek out.
When I first unpacked the chassis with the preamps installed, I made it a point to "fly blind" and use the preamps without knowing which modules where placed where in the chassis. I also kept myself from looking at the kit so I wouldn't know which module had only one channel. Over several recording sessions, I swapped sources, mics, and preamps (including my own outboard preamps) to find the best-sounding combinations, and I took judicious notes. Afterwards, I took a peek inside the chassis to identify the modules. Here's what I discovered.
The A12 with SC25 op-amp compared favorably to my Brent Averill-refurbished API 312 preamps (some with Reichenbachs, some with original API transformers) in terms of bringing the midrange forward in a punchy way. But the A12's highs, especially for drum overheads and acoustic instruments, were much clearer, and there was a sense of greater detail throughout, even in the lows. In fact, the A12/SC25 combo sounded almost identical to my Avedis 1122 and Jensen-equipped BAE 312A preamps. I actually preferred the A12/SC25 (and BAE 312A) preamps over my vintage APIs!
I liked the midrange creaminess of the N72-similar to my Averill-racked (vintage) Neve 1272 but with much clearer highs and less tendency to get muddy in the low mids. For vocals especially, I really liked what the N72 did to soften some of the bite from large-diaphragm condensers (like my Gefell UM92.1S and M990 mics), without taking out as much air as the 1272. If I were making a purchase today, I'd buy the N72 before I'd buy a vintage 1272-sacrilegious, I know. Even on guitar amps, the N72 provided a welcome bit of presence that my 1272 lacks. Worth noting is that Tim Ryan got the gain staging "right" in that the gain is divided as evenly as possible between the two stages; therefore, the N72 can provide a total of 70 dB of gain while all the active stages are operating within design limits. I had no problem using the N72 with my ribbon mics.
I was blown away by how huge the J99 (equipped with John Hardy 990C op-amps) sounded. Pretty much dead-on in terms of capturing "the sound" of everything I put in front of it. Super clear, yet super ballsy. Especially on drums, bass guitar, and piano. Somehow bigger than real life, without affecting the "character" of the source as much as an API- style preamp. It wasn't the right choice for a female vocal sitting in the middle of a lot of percussive instruments, or a lead electric guitar that needed to cut through a dense mix (the N72 was better for that), but for mic'ing rhythm parts that really needed to rock (without the lows sounding overdone), the J99 was perfect. On one tracking session with a male vocalist, the band members and I unanimously chose a Groove Tubes GT60 mic feeding a J99 after listening to three different mics and fourteen different preamps.
The C84 was the most straightforward sounding preamp of the bunch. No discernible distortion (good or bad). No low-end buildup. No midrange creaminess. No smearing. Even before I had positively ID'ed it as a C84, I was almost certain of its identity. My Royer SF-12 ribbon (one channel of it, since I had a single assembled C84) sounded amazing through it as a mono above-and-front overhead for capturing cymbal detail. I also liked the C84 with an AKG C 460B on the bridge side of an acoustic guitar-a beautifully clear sound that didn't need the low end tamed with a band-specific compressor when it came time to mix.
I have nothing to report on the PS03 power supply, as it seemed to work flawlessly. But I do have a couple gripes about the CH01 chassis. Because it's made to fit different preamp models, none of the gain markings really mean anything. The cost would go up, but I'd like to see front- panel "inserts" specific to each preamp model. Also, I think the phantom power markings should be to the left of the switches-or the switch state should be reversed left to right-because flipping the switch toward the label turns off the feature. Otherwise, the chassis is solidly built, and it's easy to pop open when you're adding more modules.
Elsewhere in this issue, I talk about my desert-island reverb (WizooVerb). Well, if I had to choose a desert-island mic preamp, I'd cheat and choose eight Seventh Circle Audio modules inside a chassis. These may be the biggest-bang- for-buck high-end preamps in existence, but even if my desert-island budget were unlimited, I'd still pick these preamps! Plus, they're built well enough to survive the parachute drop.
(Single-channel modules are $149-$324 as kits, $324- $499 assembled; CH01 $299 kit, $499 assembled; PS03 $269 assembled; discounts apply on complete systems; www.seventhcircleaudio.com)