I am a home recordist with a humble 12-space rack filled with affordable (and occasionally interesting) gear. I am also a sucker for anything odd, old, and esoteric... and bonus points for strange paint jobs. Like many of my bedroom and basement brethren, purchasing rack after rack of thousand dollar gear ain't happening anytime soon, so I keep my eyes open for oddball gear that does what it does-and does it well. With this in mind, I have never been let down by my trusty, green Altec 1589 mic preamp.
The 1589 is a 1RU-height, all discrete mic and line amp utilizing Altec's octal socket transformer cans. This is a no-frills piece of kit-no pad, no polarity switch, no phantom power, and definitely no fancy "toob" knob. There's a gain knob for each of the mic and line inputs, which can be utilized at the same time (and are summed to mono on the output). Having access to both is useful for sources like bass cabs, where a DI is often mixed with a mic on the cab. Like many pieces of Altec gear, access to the guts inside can be had by removing two small front-panel screws.
Despite its unassuming appearance, the 1589 is full of attitude. It seems that some people already know how cool it can be on snare drums, and I fully agree that this is where the 1589 really shines. While tracking drums for rock band Ocali Flash, one particular song called for an aggressive, trashy snare sound, and the 1589 brought out a thick, midrange crunch perfect for the song. Make no mistake-this is not a preamp where transparency is a priority. Because of the noticeable high-end rolloff, snare drums run through the 1589 take on a slightly compressed, all-buttons-in sound.
On other sources, the 1589 is hit or miss. For certain electric guitar tracks (think gnarly overdriven Supergrass or Mudhoney sounds), hitting the Altec with a hot signal is just the ticket. Same goes for the occasional rock vocal, though it's probably not a sound you'll want to overuse as it may lose its uniqueness. Using the line amp with a bass DI or re-amping soft synths imparts a definite analog color. When it's right for the source, the 1589 makes sounds rock a little bit (or a lot) more; but when it's not right, it can be downright ugly.
In these days of do-it-all yet disappointing channel strips, it's great to know that there is solid, vintage gear out there that is not demanding a king's ransom. If you prefer the unique over the mass-produced, the Altec 1589 is worth searching out. Even if you already rock racks of top-shelf gear, this little green monster is one more way to mangle that next snare drum carried through the studio door.
Tape Op is a bi-monthly magazine devoted to the art of record making.