I'm not going to be at all coy about this. I won't pretend to be neutral as I describe the Juggernaut Twin mic preamp. I am smitten. After months of owning it, I find myself still reaching for it and discovering new sounds. I've developed a few favorites, but this thing is an all-you-can-eat sonic buffet. This two-channel unit will never leave my rack.
As I was mixing act after act for a new PBS series called Infinity Hall Live, featuring live performances from some great artists, I found myself trying to overcome certain sonic obstacles that come with recording live shows. I came upon the Juggernaut Twin and had a eureka moment. Re-amp the lead vocal! I tried this technique with dozens of mic preamps, but the allure of the Juggernaut was too strong.
And so it begins......
I'll get to the many ways in which I've employed this option-loaded preamp, but we should get to some of the features first. The Juggernaut Twin is a 1RU-height, two- channel enhancement of the mono Juggernaut 500- series [Tape Op #68]. Each of its channels employs two rotary pots controlling the gain and input load (impedance) settings. These pots are detented and feel like money. A gain switch has two scales activated by a simple "Gain Boost" pushbutton allowing for twice the gain. In addition to the pots, each channel has an array of small buttons that light up when engaged: Gain Boost, Fat, Iron/Nickel input transformers, Line to Mic, mute, clip indicator, +THD, Iron/Nickel output transformers, polarity reverse, and phantom power. Each time a change is made, the unit mutes itself for a second. This is a handy feature for jackasses like me who would forget to do so manually while cruising for tones.
Who knew that variable impedance would breathe new life into so many microphones? Many modern mic preamps come equipped for the ribbon revolution, but few encourage you to play freely with the impedance loading. The Juggernaut, by going from 300-10,000 Ω, acts like a tone control. Each mic seems to have its own unexpected sweet spot. I can't overstate the usefulness of this feature. Invaluable.
See the picture of this box, and it's worth 1000 words. A very simple interface, yet deeply sophisticated in its potential applications, the Juggernaut Twin is advertised as having 656 possible combinations of sounds. I didn't get to all of them, but I'll take APA's word for it. Keep in mind that the Juggernaut does not emulate or model vintage and modern mic preamps. It uses actual transformers and Class A circuitry to achieve its "vintage," "modern," "British," and everything-in- between sounds.
Other great features are the DI and two discreet outputs per channel. The latter was very helpful in choosing signal paths. I was able to route the same mic or mics into various compressors and EQs, and compare the processing very easily. Talk about an option anxiety attack!
A quick word about the unique DI. The Line to Mic function does two things when engaged. The DI on the front passes through the switchable input and output transformers, and variable input impedance is also active. It also switches the rear input from the mic jack to the +4 dBu line-level jack, allowing you to re-amp a previously recorded track. When Line to Mic is off, the DI on the front is transformerless on input, impedance is disengaged, and the back reverts to the mic jack.
At the heart of the design are the switchable transformers. One can choose iron in to iron out, or nickel in to iron out, etc. It's a cool matrix that yields amazing variations when combined with the other features like Gain Boost, Fat and, +THD. Factor in the impedance control, and there's your palette.
Now, back to my test-drive on the PBS show and re- amping vocals. The first test came when mixing a performance by Ben Taylor. Throughout the series, we record with "live" mics and use the natural hall sound a lot. I found that the Shure SM58 that Ben sang into didn't do justice to his voice, so into the line input of the Juggernaut Twin his vocal track went. I experimented with a number of configurations before settling on my final choice. The nickel-to-nickel was too big for the mix, but nickel-to-iron with load set to 1000 Ω was perfect. The result was a much truer, richer sound without making Ben's voice seem separate from the mix.
Next up was a promotional remake of an old Joe Maphis tune. My band, The Shinolas, were about to do a mini tour with Chris Collingwood (Fountains of Wayne), Freedy Johnston, and Syd Straw, so cutting "Dim Lights, Thick Smoke" seemed like a good idea (except to record labels - but we cut it anyways). While tracking drums, I used a pair of Royer R-121 ribbon mics [Tape Op #19] for overheads. I didn't want a "retro" or "modern" sound. I just wanted to capture the sounds I was hearing. Many mic preamps have a load setting for ribbons, typically at 600 Ω, but I was amazed to find that using a nickel-to- nickel combination and setting the load to just under 1000 Ω gave the Royers a new sweet spot. This discovery was eye opening, helpful, and happened again and again with every different mic I tried. The overheads delivered the right amount of detail with no shrill cymbals or imbalance of the kit.
Onto bass. After a couple of honest tries and some input from the other artists involved, we had to make a key change - enter bass player with old Danelectro. Danos can get plucky, or conversely, lost in a mix, so I used the DI with the Fat switch and iron-to-nickel setting, and an awesome sound resulted. This was perfect. Again, dialing in the right load was key. Both bassist and I were delighted.
Next up were the acoustic rhythm guitars. I chose microphone overkill here. Wanting to avoid too feathery a sound from pencil condensers, I went with (have your fun) a Brauner VMA and a Lucas CS-4. I know what you're thinking - "Showoff," right? Well, it worked great. Slightly retro and it totally drove the track. Again, the load pot was key. I was able to get a tad off the sweet spot to avoid the guitar being over-present without having to reach for an EQ. This time, the nickel-to-iron configuration worked the best. We took another pass up an octave by doubling the acoustic part in Nashville tuning. For this, we changed the Juggernaut to nickel- to-nickel mode and moved the mics back 2 ft.
The vocals and electric guitar tracks ended up sounding great also. Though the placement was a bit atypical for me (Shure KSM353 ribbon as a close mic and the Lucas as a room mic), the Juggernaut gave the tracks an overall consistency in tone that helped them nestle right into the rest of the instruments. While experimenting with tones, I found that the +THD feature adds coloration to anything you throw it on and is a great additive for electric guitar or DI bass, and even room mics for drums.
After re-amping the vocals, it was clear that this little box had become the invisible glue that held the whole song together. The song sounded great in the end, but unfortunately, legalities are holding the music hostage, and so it sits in my studio and the tour is now sadly over.
Another note on the versatility of this box. I got an afternoon call to write an essay for NPR about scars. Flattering - but I do have a good collection. The only catch was it had to be written and recorded in an hour. It needed to be 3 minutes long. Easy, right? Sheesh! I scribbled some notes. I ran a Brauner VMA into a trusted tube mic preamp. Without my assistant to tweak the sound, I had to judge from headphones, and it sounded too crispy. With time running short, I took a chance on the Juggernaut. Fat, iron-to-iron, and it was as smooth as glass - Ira Glass. I knocked it out in two takes and made the deadline.
The Juggernaut Twin is just an incredibly versatile mic preamp that offers anything from huge, transparent sounds (think Crane Song Flamingo) to darker, smooth sounds (Neve). This box delivers the goods over and over. I continue to reach for it first in most applications, and I'm waiting for the novelty to wear off, but I think it's going to be a long wait.