I have way too many mic preamps. The problem is that I like lots of different flavors. We have Neve, API, Chandler, Daking, Hardy, Summit, UREI, Sony, Amek - in some cases several different ones of each. At Chase Park Transduction (Athens, GA), we have two rooms, both with Sony MXP-3036 consoles. One of the things I like about the Sonys is the fact that there are not only a variety of Sony preamps and EQs available for the console, but also modules by other manufacturers as well - API, John Hardy, Avalon, and Troisi, for example. Now Greg Norman [Tape Op #87] gets into the game with his MXPre LC1 drop-in mic preamps.
Greg is an engineer at Electrical Audio Recording in Chicago. We met at one of the TapeOpCons. Years later, he was astute enough to remember that I was a Sony user and sent me a couple of his preamps to check out.
So what are these things? For starters, these are solid, well-built units. In Greg's words, "It sports a fancy Lundahl transformer; a 16-position gain switch (3 dB steps); and an ultra-quiet, low-distortion amp capable of driving low- impedance inputs." The switches on this are of a quality that make me feel like somebody who cares built this.
The stepped gain is nice for remembering settings, but there are a couple of drawbacks with stepped gain switches. One is that you can't tweak between the stops. The other is that sometimes a dead spot appears, which is a problem I run into from time-to-time with virtually every piece of gear I have that has a stepped gain switch. A little working it back and forth generally takes care of it. That is just sort of nitpicky stuff, though. It is also worth noting that if there is some sort of problem, or the user has a question, Greg is way more responsive than many bigger manufacturers are, which is, of course, a major plus.
How does it sound? Describing things like this without using everybody's favorite meaningless adjectives can be a bit like trying to describe the color of the sky. For me, the best gauge is comparison. If I was ordering solid-state mic preamps from clarity on one end to fullness on the other, they would go: Hardy at the clear end of the spectrum, Neve at the full end, and API in between. The standard Sony transformerless preamp is clear, but a little lifeless. The standard Sony transformer-based preamp has a little more life, but isn't as detailed at either end of the frequency spectrum. Neves generally have a little extra on the bottom. The Daking (as with a Trident A Range) has a little more sheen on the top. The API again is sort of in the middle. And so on and so forth. The Normaphone for me is sort of between the API 312 and vintage Neve. It is tonally balanced but does impart its own character. I am going out of my way not to say that they facilitate a sound punching through the mix, but the only reason I am avoiding saying that sort of thing is to avoid offending the correctites who are overly sensitive to saying something is "punchy". And don't worry, I won't describe anything as being "warm".
On kick drum, I like to use the Normaphone in conjunction with an Electro- Voice RE20 or an Audio-Technica AT4047 [Tape Op #20]. Not as much with an AKG D 112, or anything that tends to sound scooped. The Normaphone sounds solid without an over-emphasis on the sub-bass or the top. On snare, if I want some thud, but not quite the extra bottom that a Neve provides, then the MXPre LC1 is the choice. It's also a good choice for acoustic guitars - quick enough on the top to get the transients, without any harshness on the top. I've also achieved good results on vocals, especially with mid-fidelity vocal mics like the AT4047, Neumann KMS 105, and Shure SM7; electric pianos like Wurlitzers and Rhodes, amped or direct; and acoustic piano, especially with a touch of limiting from a Chandler TG1 [#37] for some late-'60s/early-'70s English rock vibe.
As many different preamps as I have, I sometimes wish that I had a console full of one set of good sounding, versatile preamps that I just used for everything. If you were configuring a Sony console from the frame up, I think you could do that with the MXPre LC1 and have all the bases covered. The MXPre LC1 is an extremely useful preamp that doesn't break the bank and adds value to the increasingly popular Sony MXP-3000 consoles. It sounds good, it's dependable, and it's reasonably priced. I highly recommend it for all Sony console owners. ($400 direct; www.normaphone.com)
-David Barbe <www.chaseparktransduction.com>