Cloud Microphones has intrigued me since I first heard about its JRS-34 and JRS-34-P ribbon mics (Tape Op #78), which utilize the same ribbons as those in the classic RCA 44-series mics. When asked about reviewing the Cloudlifter CL-1 Mic Activator, I was unaware of what it was but became very curious upon investigation. The CL-1 is an active, fixed-gain amplification device designed to “provide 20–25 dB of clean, quiet, extra gain for any passive microphone.” Hey, I have passive microphones that need extra gain! Sure! Send it on!
The Cloudlifter seems like an interesting solution to problems often encountered with certain microphones. Recording quiet instruments with low-output mics can often sound wonderful, tonally, but can be problematic in terms of noise floor from the microphones themselves or from preamps without ample quiet gain. The CL-1 provides a unique solution. Phantom-powered JFET circuitry allows for an extra jump in quiet output volume before the mic preamp. Basically, the CL-1 is connected between the preamp and the mic, and when phantom power is applied, the signal from the microphone is amplified without increasing the noise floor. Because the phantom power will not pass through the CL-1 (avoiding any potential damage to vintage ribbon mics, for instance), it can only be used with microphones that do not require phantom power, so using the CL-1 to get extra gain out of a phantom-powered condenser mic is not possible without an external phantom power supply between the Cloudlifter and the mic. Getting extra gain out of almost anything else is.
The CL-1 appears to be well-built, in a hefty little metal box a little smaller than an average passive DI box. I’m a sucker for blue equipment, and this box looks great! It has four small rubber feet for keeping scratches off the surface when set on the floor and a small metal “belt clip” designed to strap the CL-1 to a mic stand using one of the two Velcro straps included with the unit. Smart.
I first used the CL-1 on an electric guitar amp with a Royer R-121 (Tape Op #19) in front of it. The amp wasn’t all that loud, and the noise would not have been a problem under normal circumstances, but since I had the CL-1, I figured I’d see how well it worked. The CL-1 did indeed raise the output of the mic, allowing me to use a lower preamp setting for the recording. I could see this being quite useful in a variety of intended and unintended circumstances. While I had the unit, I also ran it through a number of similar tests, including an acoustic guitar recording with an old EV RE15, which is a dynamic mic with a notably low output. The RE15 is often good for a certain “vintage” acoustic guitar tone, but its low output can be an issue in terms of noise. One thing about the Cloudlifter became clear in this situation; if the mic itself is inherently noisy, the Cloudlifter is going to amplify that noise along with the desired signal. While the Cloudlifter wasn’t the ideal solution I’d hoped for in this situation, it did help get me a bit more signal so that I wasn’t maxing out the gain of the preamp (in its noisier realm) in order to get usable level.
In another interesting situation, the Cloudlifter saw some action running a mic some 75 ft or so outside to the front of the studio for one particular vocal take. Concerned about running that kind of cable length before a mic preamp, I decided to use a high-output vintage tube mic with the CL-1 in-line. The combination of the two gave me more than ample gain and a clear, clean signal with no unwanted artifacts.
In addition to increased output, the Cloudlifter also provides some slightly more appropriate impedance matching for older microphones. Putting the Cloudlifter in-line did usually result in a slightly more forward and robust sound from the microphones, but I found the difference to be fairly subtle with all the microphones I tested.
I wish the CL-1 had arrived about two weeks earlier. Prior to receiving the review unit, I had problems recording an acoustic guitar where the sound of an RCA BK-5A (Tape Op #65) was terrific, but too noisy to be useful, and on one other session, a Coles 4038 (#15) across the room from a drum kit sounded fantastic, but the extra gain from setting up an ADR Compex like I wanted gave the mic an ugly amount of extra hiss. I think the Cloudlifter would have been an ideal solution for both those situations. Overall, it’s an extremely useful tool, especially for someone with a decent collection of older, low-output microphones. I’m certainly keeping the demo unit. Cloud also makes a two-channel version, the CL-2. (CL-1 $179 MSRP, CL-2 $299; www.cloudmicrophones.com)
–Chris Garges, www.chrisgarges.com
Former Trillium Labs software engineer Steven Massey (Tape Op #68) — who worked on both TL Aggro and TL Space — now makes Pro Tools plug-ins for the rest of us. No dongles, affordably priced, no time-limit on the demos, and each plug-in is always of the highest quality, Massey has given us compression, limiting, EQ, echo, and even a de-esser plug-in. This time Massey came up with something a little bit different, an AudioSuite plug-in called Drum Replacement Tool. Simply put, DRT converts your drum tracks to MIDI for use in your favorite drum machine. People who have used the Pro Tools SoundReplacer plug-in will see a similarity in the interface, but unlike SoundReplacer, the output of DRT is either audio clicks (which could then be used in SoundReplacer) or MIDI code, which can be used in BFD, Battery, EZdrummer, or any other software drum machine you prefer.
To test the plug-in, I decided to generate an audio drum track using EZdrummer (Tape Op #61). First, I imported a MIDI track of kick drums into Pro Tools then ran the MIDI to the Pop/Rock section of EZdrummer. I ran the audio output of the kick drum to another audio track on Pro Tools, and on this track, I called up the DRT plug-in from the Instrument section of AudioSuite, highlighted a section of the kick track, and hit the analyze button. I took a look at the track, and using the loudness fader, moved it to the left until I found what Massey calls the “sweet spot”, a gap between true drum hits on the left and the bleeds, false double-hits, and other extraneous noises on the right. When I found that sweet spot, I boosted the velocity fader and then clicked on the button called MIDI drag-and-drop. I moved the cursor over the audio track until I saw the outline of a box around the track, and when I released the mouse button, a dialogue box came up. I made sure that New MIDI Track was selected as well as Session Start, so that the MIDI track would line up perfectly with the original audio track. I clicked okay, and a MIDI track with the code created by DRT appeared.
I ran the newly generated MIDI track into EZdrummer, and it worked perfectly, although there was a four-sample delay. Before that test, I never even considered there might be a delay using EZdrummer, but then four samples isn’t all that much, and it’s not like I’m doing a lot of technopop productions.
Having just re-read what I’ve written so far, the explanation of what I did seems much more complicated than the actual process. Fortunately, there’s a quick-start guide and an instructional video at the Massey website to guide you. In actual practice, you wouldn’t start with MIDI-generated audio anyway, you’d start with a snare track you wanted to clean up, or a kick drum track where you liked the feel but didn’t particularly like the sound. For my purposes, I used to record myself banging on a kitchen pan to record snare tracks, and then replace the pan sound with a real snare using SoundReplacer. I can use DRT the same way, but it’s much easier to use than SoundReplacer and much more flexible.
As it always goes with Massey plug-ins, the demo version gives you a lot of functionality for free, but there are some key functions I really like in the paid version. In the demo version, the MIDI is generated at C3, but you can change that to C1 or any other configuration in the paid version. EZdrummer likes C1, so I made the change in DRT just to simplify things, as you can always transpose manually afterward. Another feature I really like in the paid version is the ability to add and delete triggers for drum beats. You can also modify the velocity and position of the triggers as well. Finally, the entire Learn section of DRT only comes in the paid version. In this section, DRT learns the drumbeat you want to keep and the plug-in finds all similar beats on the track. This is especially handy if you have nothing to work with but a stereo drum track. You can separate the snare, the kick, and the cymbals so they all appear on separate tracks. Nice.
Like any pro-audio device I try, there were a couple of things I’d like to see improved. Although you can change the plug-in to output from, for example, C3 to C1, it will default back to C3 every time you use the plug-in. It would be nicer to be able to make that change permanent, since EZdrummer only works correctly on C1. In an email I received just as I was finishing this review, Massey’s Todd Hodges said this bug was being addressed and a fix would be available shortly. Also, I thought the drag-and-drop function was a little bit tricky. Fortunately, there’s an alternate method to create the MIDI track. Just click on the MIDI drag-and-drop button and a MIDI file of the DRT-modified track will appear. You can then drag that file into any open MIDI track on Pro Tools.
One more thing about DRT and all Massey plug-ins — you have to be a Pro Tools user to use them. There are no VST or AU versions, and there are no plans to make them in the near or distant future. But if you are a Pro Tools user, you definitely want DRT and all the other Massey plug-ins in your arsenal, as the quality’s high and the price is right. ($69 direct; www.masseyplugins.com)
–Mike Jasper <firstname.lastname@example.org>
by Dave Hidek
The SF-2 is a phantom-powered version of Royer's discontinued SF-1 ribbon mic, which means you get to press the +48V button without feeling like you've brought about the end of humanity. After that...