FiveFish Studios is a Tennessee-based company that offers pre-packaged DIY audio kits. For this review, I'm covering the SC-1 mk500, a preamp designed to fit in 500-series racks and lunchboxes. The SC-1 comes in two configurations, transformerless or with a Cinemag input transformer. We tested both types for this review.
All PCBs, electronic parts, and schematics are provided in the package. Nice quality knobs and a first-rate, milled-aluminum front plate round out the kit. Additionally, well-written, fully-illustrated assembly guides are available in PDF format from the FiveFish Studios website. This allows the company to make any updates or revisions to the instructions and provide everyone with the most recent version.
Opening up the box reveals every component shipped in its own, labeled plastic bag. The first thing is to check the included parts against the shipping manifest to make sure you have the type and quantity necessary for the job. The main PCB is professionally manufactured with crisp, white silk-screening against a bright red surface. In the most minimal sense, all you need is a soldering iron, solder, and some wire cutters. Nice-to-haves include de-soldering wick (for mistakes), and a vice or clamp to hold the PCB. Super nice-to-haves include a signal generator and bench power supply (for calibrating the LED meters).
I tried to assemble it one day but Marisa Falatovich, a visiting engineer, had the first unit nearly completed before I knew what was up. (Immediately, I stole the metering PCB from her and got to work on that section.) Taking our time, assembly for the first unit took under 2.5 hours, including calibrating the meters. Marisa put the second unit together in under 2 hours, so some efficiencies were gained with repeated builds. Both units worked on the first try, which we attribute to the clearly labeled PCB, non-crowded component layout, and the well-written instructions. Honestly, this project builds itself. In terms of features, the design has a stepped input gain, 48 volt phantom power, polarity reverse, and output trim. A multi-stage LED array provides input metering. There is no instrument/DI input-understandable at this price point.
We loaded the modules into our 500-series lunch box and tested them with matched mics placed in side-by-side configuration. This allowed for accurate A/B comparisons. At first analysis, both units sound similar. Concentrated listening was required to note differences. As expected, the unit with the transformer sounded more rounded, with a tighter low end and more focused highs. The transformerless unit seemed to provide more dynamic range, especially on fast transients. If you're tight on funds, I want to reassure you that the transformer is not an absolute necessity. These preamps are a big improvement over built-in mixer preamps and those found on most affordable digital audio interfaces. Of course, the transformers can always be added at a later date.
We tested the preamps on drums, acoustic guitar, bass, electric guitar, piano, and female voiceover. Again, the overall sound was similar irrespective of transformer option. In general, I would describe the SC-1 as solid, meaty, with an open top that avoids harshness. I'm convinced these preamps are on par with those found in British recording consoles of old. They proved to be a great complement to the high-headroom, vastly flexible Purple Audio Biz preamps (Tape Op #55) we have on demo. On drums, piano, and acoustic guitar, the transformerless version captured quick transients more accurately than the Cinemag-equipped module. However, the preamp with the transformers had a tighter low end. For example, the acoustic sounded woody and focused and less boomy through the transformer-coupled module. On the voiceover and bass guitar, we preferred the version with the Cinemag. Dave Hidek, our mix engineer commented, "that source sounds more like I ultimately EQ and compress it to sound. So why not skip those steps and record it correctly in the first place?" Ultimately, it came down to subtleties, but we all agreed that both versions will be getting constant use in our studio.
Another thing we observed was the SC-1 bringing out the hidden potential of entry-level mics. For example, a Taylor acoustic through an AT2020 (Tape Op #49) and the SC-1 sounded like the guitar was sitting between the speakers, not playing back from them. The R0DE M3 (#69) also got along with the SC-1, especially on electric guitar. Any preamp that brings the most out of other gear is a treasure in my book. The only issue we had with the SC-1 was the section on calibrating the LED meters. While the main instructions were written in a step-by-step manner, the calibration section seems to be written as a shorthand discussion between two experienced engineers. Since the instructions are web-published, FiveFish assures us that the calibration section will be enhanced with additional information.
If you have a 500-series rack and are not afraid to build your own gear, the FiveFish Studios SC-1 is a must-consider for your setup. The sound is rich, meaty, and alive. I can't wait to hear some of the new designs FiveFish Studios has in store. ($299 direct or $369 with transformer; www.fivefishstudios.com)
Tape Op is a bi-monthly magazine devoted to the art of record making.