My first outboard preamp was the much-maligned Drawmer 1969. I wanted to keep the signal chain as simple as possible and use a preamp with a built-in compressor, so I chose two channels of Drawmer over one channel of Avalon. I used it for everything on the front end, and you know what? It worked just fine on all the pop/rock recordings I was making at the time. Then I started reading Tape Op and became a member of online forums such as Gearslutz, PSW, and 3Daudio; and eventually gear selection got complicated. Should I just use one preamp model with many compressors? Should I use several preamps and several compressors? Should I write about all of this for Tape Op?
Obsessive-compulsive behavior ensued, and I found myself tasting it all. The march of preamps included the Great River MP-2NV, BAE 1272, Portico 5012, API A2D, UA LA-610, Buzz MA 2.2, Great River MP-2MH, Audio Upgrades Reference Preamp, and finally the Gordon Model 5. My preamp tastes went from colored to clean, just as the music I recorded went from pop/rock to Americana. As of this writing, I've got three types of clean-Great River MP-2MH, Audio Upgrades Reference, and Gordon Model 5-and one colored preamp-the LA-610.
Time to do a shootout. I decided to leave the Reference preamp out of the mix and focus on the LA-610 and the no-longer-made MP-2MH against my newly acquired Gordon. I took one of my songs, an acoustic rock number, and recorded two acoustic guitar tracks, one bass track, an electric guitar track, a lead vocal, and two harmony vocals. For bass and guitar, I used the DI from each preamp, and for the acoustic guitar and vocals, I used my favorite mic, a vintage Gefell UM70/MV692 combo. All of the tracks went from the preamp straight to the Lavry Blue ADC and then to Pro Tools, with one exception-the bass track was compressed by a Purple MC77.
Here's what I heard. The acoustic guitar in both the Gordon and MP-2MH sounded great, but I'd have to give the edge to the Gordon. It was rounder, richer and fuller... slightly. Both preamps had great high ends, but the Gordon had almost a Neve-ish bottom. The LA-610 also had a nice low end on steel-stringed guitar, but it lacked the clarity of the other two preamps. Bass guitar worked fine through all DIs, but I would give a slight edge on electric guitar to the LA-610. Must be the tubes. On vocals, the Gordon wiped out the other two preamps, especially when I mixed everything to 16-bit, 44.1 kHz and put it on a CD for the home stereo. The vocals on the Gordon sounded like the tight, focused sound I used to hear on tape.
Just for kicks, I decided to take all the tracks I had recorded with the Gordon and do another preamp test on the lead vocal, but with tracking compression this time. I limited this test to the Gordon and the LA-610 preamps and kept the Gefell for the vocal mic. I recorded three vocal takes with the Gordon: the first with compression from a Purple MC77, the second using a Tube Tech CL1B, and the third with a Jim Williams-modified Aphex Expressor. I used the same compressors with the LA-610 but tracked one more vocal with its built-in T4 opto-compressor that's based on the LA-2A design. In this test, the Gordon coupled with the Expressor was the surprise winner, followed by the Gordon with the MC77 and then the LA-610 with its built-in compressor. So what exactly did Gordon founder Grant Carpenter create down there in Nashville? The Model 5 preamp includes two XLR inputs and outputs on the front side of the unit, as well as two 1/4-inch DIs. There are only two buttons per channel on the unit, one for 48 V phantom power and another button to switch to a low input-Z. When the phantom power is engaged, the sound cuts out and a green status light flashes for about thirty seconds while the power ramps up-a very convenient feature. As to the low input-Z button, well, I couldn't find any use for it personally, and Carpenter says most musicians concur with my findings but added that some mics might benefit from the low input-Z. It's all up to you and your ears. On the back of the main unit are the fuses, power cord connection, serial number, and nothing else.
The companion piece to the 1RU-height main preamp is a 1RU rackmount control unit, which features two detented control knobs that increase gain in 5 dB increments, from a low of 10 dB to a high of 70 dB. Personally, I've never had to push it beyond 50 dB, and at that setting, I was able to get all the power I needed to use a handheld SM57. There are also two buttons per channel on this unit, one for polarity (called invert phase) and the mute button. Two red lights on the front indicate per-channel +24 dBu peaks (clipping occurs above +30 dBu), and on the back of the control panel unit there's an XLR input to connect it to a corresponding XLR connection on the front of the main preamp unit. Conveniently, any XLR cable can be used to connect the two units.
I asked Carpenter about a couple of things I thought were design flaws in the preamp, and he immediately took me to task. Everything on the preamp, he says, is the way it is because it's based on the design priorities of sound, durability, and cost-including the lack of a power switch. According to Carpenter, the XLR connections are in the front of the unit instead of the back because keeping the internal signal path short and as far away from the power supply as possible is good for the sound. Carpenter does offer a free optional outrigger to convert the main preamp to a freestanding unit, that way you can keep the control unit in your rack and the preamp unit close to the microphones. In fact, the Gordon was designed to be used that way, since the sound quality is optimized by keeping the mic cables as short as possible.
So what gives the Gordon its rich yet transformerless sound? If you want to ask Carpenter himself (his number is on the website), grab a cup of coffee and find a comfortable chair because you're in for a long technical answer. I'll try to simplify it for you. First, the unit has true, variable, open-loop gain with no attenuators, which means no loop feedback. Most preamps have plenty of loop feedback, but Carpenter says avoiding it is better for the sound. Second, the input impedance is 2M Ohms. Nope, that's not a typo-two million Ohms. High impedance makes microphones feel better, and when mics feel better, they tend to sound better. Finally, the output of the preamp can sense the impedance it's being connected to, and it will adjust the output stage accordingly, whether it's one hundred Ohms or more than a million. The net result is a measurable reduction in distortion. I would say these three innovations are the major differences between the Gordon and other mic preamps, although Carpenter might also point to the separation of regulators between channels and his use of discrete FETs instead of op-amps in the audio path. Maybe so. There's really only one thing I know for sure about the Gordon Model 5; it sounds amazing. ($2600 direct; www.gordonaudio.com)
Tape Op is a bi-monthly magazine devoted to the art of record making.