If you have any open slots in your 500-series rack, the PowerPre should be on your shortlist of preamps to consider. Like other products from Radial Engineering, the build-quality is top- notch, and the design is all about no-nonsense functionality. Soundwise, it doesn't try to emulate the personalities of any of the vintage preamps that are discussed ad nauseam on the interwebs. Instead, it celebrates its own individuality by offering a carefully conceived set of controls that allows you to extract an expansive range of character from your recording chain. As a result, the PowerPre is not only an ideal preamp for a wide variety of tasks, but it's also eminently "stackable"; in other words, as long as you're careful not to overdo things, you can record many tracks through this preamp, and come mix time, you won't find yourself wallowing in an overabundance of any single flavor - or worse, too much mud.
The first control worth mentioning is the knob labeled Gain. Most preamps employ an attenuator here to control input sensitivity, which can lead to various signal-to-noise problems inherent to that design philosophy. The PowerPre's Gain knob, on the other hand, turns two concentric potentiometers simultaneously, one each for input sensitivity and gain, maintaining a relationship between them that maximizes the signal-to-noise ratio no matter the knob's position. AccuState is Radial's trademark for this application. In practice, I found the PowerPre to be a very quiet preamp at all gain settings, whether I was using a hot condenser mic on a kick drum or a low-output passive ribbon on a quiet guitar.
The second control that merits discussion is the 3-position voicing switch labeled Vox. Its Breath position engages a smooth EQ curve that's not unlike a "tilt" function, affecting the whole frequency range to gently restrain some of the extreme lows while adding presence to the highs. Switching to Punch does the opposite by accentuating the lows while very subtly reigning back some of the highest harmonics. The middle position, labeled Linear, bypasses the Vox circuit. What makes Vox different than an outboard EQ patched in after the preamp, or a plug-in employed on the track once it's recorded? Good question. The answer is that the voicing circuit sits before the PowerPre's Hammond output transformer, and this topology plays a big factor in the PowerPre's individuality and expressiveness, as I'll try to explain.
It's difficult to give a baseline description of the PowerPre's sound without falling into clichés. Yes it's clean. No it's not clinical. But it does lean toward the "warmth" end of the spectrum, without sounding at all dark or woolly. Moreover, with purposeful use of the AccuState gain control as well as the aforementioned voicing switch, you can stay clean or you can push the Hammond output transformer into various realms of saturation. Subsequently, snare drums can sound focused or crunchy; kick drums can smack hard or thud pillowy; electric guitars can chime high or chug low; vocals can be radio-smooth or in-your-face screechy. I am particularly impressed with how much I can change the character of both male and female voices, as well as emphasize or play down proximity effect. I also really like what the preamp can do on piano. For example, lightly overdriven using the Breath setting, the PowerPre can sweeten my Yamaha U3's tone while adding a delicately textured shimmer to its sustain. In contrast, with Punch engaged and the output transformer hit harder, the preamp adds density and urgency that an EQ alone would fail to do. Very cool. By the way, I've been using the PowerPre for almost a year, and I'm still impressed - and occasionally startled - by its versatility.
Let me briefly comment on some of the other features and design quirks of the PowerPre. The module is fully-encased in its own steel box to shield against electromagnetic interference from neighboring modules or the rack itself. Inside are full-size, discrete components throughout - no chips. The densely- packed 10-segment LED output-level meter works surprisingly well, and in order to minimize the module's power draw, only a single LED is ever lit at once. There is a 15 dB pad as well as a polarity-reverse switch; thankfully, both have status LEDs. A status LED is also associated with a phantom power switch that's recessed for safety. It's kind of a hassle to use a paper-clip or tweaker to push the switch, but it can prevent you from inadvertently damaging a vintage ribbon mic or even a piece of audio gear that you're feeding into the PowerPre for extra gain or character. There's an XLR mic input on the front where you might expect a 1/4'' instrument-level DI input, allowing you to use the front-panel XLR in lieu of your 500-series rack's channel input. Admittedly, I can imagine this arrangement being useful in many situations, but given the choice, I'd personally opt for the DI on front. To use the DI now, the PowerPre needs to be in one of Radial's Workhorse racks (Tape Op #85), and the special 1/4'' jack (labeled Omniport) on the back of the Workhorse becomes the DI input. On the back of the module is a ground-lift switch for the front-panel XLR input. As with all of Radial's offerings, the included manual is well-written and educational, and a great deal of useful information about the PowerPre is also available on the Radial website, including a thorough explanation of why the preamp is so affordably priced.
Given the quality of its sound and engineering, how can the PowerPre be priced so low? In short - economies of scale. Radial manufacturers more discrete-component direct boxes alone than the total units of gear sold by any of the boutique manufacturers. With that said, even if the PowerPre cost twice what it does, I would still recommend it highly. But since it is so affordable, with the money you save buying the PowerPre, you could buy a second channel... or another Radial 500-series module... or even a Radial 3-space Workhorse rack. ($499 street; www.radialeng.com) -AH