For this review, I asked two of our contributing writers to send me their thoughts on the API A2D. First up is Joel Hamilton, whom many of you know from his popular appearances at TapeOpCon and his moderating at the Tape Op Message Board, as well as his work with Elvis Costello, Frank Black, Unsane, Martha Wainwright, Tom Waits-the list goes on. Next is long-time contributor Eric Tischler, who heads up the DC-area band The Jet Age (and before that, The Hurricane Lamps). Eric gives us a detailed account of how he chose the A2D's converter over his Audio Upgrades-modded MasterLink and a LavryBlue 4496. -AH
You know when you need to clean your car windows, but you just sort of power through the traffic on the Brooklyn Queens Expressway, just wanting to be done with the drive? You know the way it feels when you finally just clean the windows, inside and out? Like everything gets a little easier. You don't have to squint to see what exit you are at; you can just see much better in every direction. Things just outside your insulated little bubble just seem a bit more colorful, and there is a striking depth of field that comes from removing a little haze right up in your face.
And sometimes life just feels easier. You may not know why things got a little simpler-like catching the subway right at the perfect time so you actually have a minute for a cigarette before running into a meeting-but the world seems to synchronize with your schedule.
The API A2D marries two channels of classic API 312 mic preamp with a really great converter. As basic as it may seem, this union works really well and has made my view clearer and my life simpler. I kind of figured that the preamps would be great-I mean it is an API after all-and I wasn't disappointed. The converter was really the surprise in this unit-an amazing front end for anyone that likes good sound. Refer to the first five sentences of this review to get an idea of how I felt about the sound. I usually use Digidesign 192 I/O and Apogee converters. The API is better. Recording through the API (and coming out of either the Apogee or Digidesign boxes), I liked the sounds better. My pal Andrew Schneider (Cave In, Blue Man Group, Waltham, In Pieces, Unsane) of the Brooklyn studio Translator Audio inspired those first few sentences when he used the A2D in both preamp and converter capacities.
The API A2D is a really, really solid piece of gear. I am excited about putting one permanently in my travel rack that I have with me at every session-inside or outside of my HQ at Studio G Brooklyn. I only take things I absolutely know I will be using, no matter what the studio has where I will be tracking. At Studio G, I have a vintage Neve console and lots of nice outboard preamps and great mics. The A2D is a welcome addition to this already very complete collection of tools. The fact that I can take an Mbox with me to someone's apartment and record super-high quality tracks by going into the Mbox via the A2D is incredible. With just a 2RU-sized rack, you could have a mobile overdub rig of doom! Throw a Distressor under the A2D, and you are doing vocals anywhere. Pretty amazing. Anyone from the beginner to the seasoned veteran will see the benefits of this box. From now on, I will probably use this box almost exclusively to print mixes back into Pro Tool. What little color this box imparts as a converter is very welcome. Think of it this way. Would an ATR-102 be the same machine with cheap repro electronics? Would an MCI JH-10 2" 16-track sound better without transformers everywhere? Of course not. What does "transparent" mean to
us, as subjective beings? I don't know, but this box imparts something I like on everything I have put into it. The low end is really nice, the conversion feels top notch, and the preamps are great (duh).
You can use it as just a mic preamp if you want to. It has standard analog outputs for the preamps as well as standard digital outs for the converter. It has six different sample rates available (44.1-192 kHz), and it can sync to external "Super Clock". Balanced analog I/O can be used to insert your favorite processors between the preamps and the converter. Plus, you can link a couple of these together using the DB-9 connectors on the back.
The bottom line is that this thing is a super solid box that isn't a million dollars. In fact, it seems to street for around $1675. This thing is a winner for sure. Thanks for making my life a little easier, API.
-Joel Hamilton, www.joelhamiltonrecording.com
Well, it's that time of year again: I listen to the last record my band made and wonder where I went wrong. What happened to the guitar tone? Why does the kick sound so dull? Was all that time spent on careful mic placement for naught? What happened between everyone loving the mixes and tonight? Whilst pondering, I had this idea: "Maybe I should think about new converters." A couple years ago, I got the Jim Williams Audio Upgrades mod on my Masterlink. The top opened up, the bottom tightened up, and the stereo image widened noticeably; I figured an improvement that big meant I was done with the digital side (my studio is all analog). "Still," I thought, "it can't hurt to check." I called Sonic Circus (good people, they is) and asked what they recommended. The immediate response: "The API A2D."
I'd noticed the internet buzz hadn't been too good. (What? Like you don't read the Internet?) But it seemed like people had been misusing the converter, as the metering had confused some. So I decided to take the A2D for a ride. At stake: the rare chance to kill two audio birds with one stone!
The A2D arrived, and I got cracking. I already knew that the API preamps are great on kick and electric guitars, so the only thing I needed to know was how the converter rated. I picked the fastest song from my band's last album; it begins with some strummed open chords-all six strings a-ringin'-and dramatic fills, punctuated by silence, then kicks into a manic tune (think the Wedding Present on crank, backed by Keith Moon, if you'll forgive me for being so bold). I figured this would give me a good idea of how the A2D handles transients, as well as how clearly it could translate what was a very busy performance.
Sadly, the Masterlink walloped the A2D on the very first pass. You should've heard the toms that introduced the song-so magnificent, so powerful! Sure they sounded tight and punchy through the A2D, but Masterlink (again, modded) had the beef. I told Sonic Circus I was gonna need a return authorization number. While I waited for the RA number, I kept on listening to the mixes, and the more I listened, the more I realized the toms sounded so good on the Masterlink because the entire mix had a weird midrange boost-to the benefit of the toms, but nothing else. Once I got over the initial impression, I realized the midrange of the entire mix was blurry, with the snare, guitars, kick, some of the vocal, and most of the bass all seeming to blend in a wash. Everything was audible, but I found myself having to listen to individual parts, rather than just enjoying the mix. Meanwhile, the API presented an incredibly balanced mix: I was hearing cymbal flourishes I had completely forgotten about, the kick regained its punch (and lost a little weight), and the guitar got its teeth back. Great, right?
But what if some of the other converters on the market, the ones with well-established, stellar reputations, could offer even more? I mean, I thought the Masterlink, post-mod, had to be near the top of the food chain, and I was wrong about that. The question could only be answered by testing more gear.
Lavry Engineering enjoys a virtually bulletproof reputation, so I cancelled the A2D's return and ordered the LavryBlue 4496 two-channel A/D. It's got a lot of features, but again, all I wanted was to know how well-how accurately-it could convert my mixes to digital. I ran the same mix through the LavryBlue, and I'll be damned if the toms didn't sound bigger. Kick, too. I thought I heard more reverb and my voice sounded real purty. The mix seemed to have a bit more depth. "Well," I thought, "It's a good deal, but I guess I won't be getting those API preamps after all."
But I kept listening. And I noticed that the cymbals through the API were better defined; the guitars and kick were more present. After I'd assimilated the differences between the two converters, I realized that, once again, the A2D offered the more articulate mix; it seemed to be more balanced tonally, with brighter cymbals, tighter low end, and again, the guitars sounded more present. Given that API gear, to my ear, is naturally aggressive, it occurred to me that maybe what I was hearing was just the euphonic effects of the gear, and I didn't want that; I wanted to hear my mixes. If they weren't good enough, I'd work harder. But how to be sure? My solution was inspired, and really took too long to arrive: I'd check the mixes against the tape. (Duh.)
Immediately, it was clear that the A2D had nailed my guitar tone. And those cymbals? They were there, all right. The kick really was lean and punchy, not tubby (the Lavry, while adding girth, did not sacrifice the punch). The LavryBlue was not without its charms-it had a great sense of depth, a nice presence, and like the A2D, was fast-but it sounded different. So I'm keeping my new API preamp (with the 2:1 transformer tap for extra rawk!), and more importantly, the converter what brung 'em. ($1995 MSRP; www.apiaudio.com)
Tape Op is a bi-monthly magazine devoted to the art of record making.