Analog Obsession: Tonight I'm Gonna Wear My 4110 Shirt.
by Tim Prince
UA's 4110 Precision 4 Channel Microphone Preamplifier
Like so many of you, I have spent my share of time behind one those small consoles from the wonderful Greg Mackie. Mixed some pretty friggin' good CDs with that thing. However, I wanted to take things up a notch. That quest started about seven or eight years ago and made me the proud owner of a Great River preamp from Dan Kennedy. Well, needless to say, lead vocal tracks started sounding a bit better.
Make that quite a few bits better. All was fine in the studio. I was happy, my low-budget friends were happy, my lower-budget clients were happy, the dog was happy. Then I got the tube bug. You know how that goes--the articles and web postings...tubes, tubes, tubes. After a lot of reading and talking, and a little education, I decided to buy an old Ampex tape machine and yank the pre's out. Fortunately, I never got around to it, and in short order several serendipitous events landed me in Bill Putnam Junior's basement, where Christmas came in the summer. There were 2-610s everywhere. I was having a great time.
The 2-610 is a wonderful tube mic pre, and before long I convinced everyone at UA we needed to make a single-channel unit (M610) so people could have this tool for under a grand. Well, it looks a little funky, but it delivers. The 610 tube circuit is now in several UA products. They are extremely versatile and can be the heart of the perfect "signal team." And that is where this article starts. The 610 can be the perfect choice, but not necessarily. If you've ever cruised the Net, I'm sure you've read the posts where people ask, "What's the difference between a tube pre and a solid-state pre? What mic should I use with my preamp? What should I buy, a tube pre or a solid-state pre?" Or, "What compressor will give me that warm sound like Jimi Hendrix got when he played a B note on the second string during..." Well, sorry, I'm not going to answer those questions now. I know, some of you are disappointed. But let me say this: There are two basic ways in which these kinds of questions are usually answered. The first type of response is the always-useful advice to "use your ears, trust your ears, just experiment," and the like. The second type of answer comes from the spit-dribbling mouths of the monks of doom...that's right, technoids. You know what I'm talking about. "First you'll need to get a dual-diaphragm, hyperphase double-dumafaci condenser. Make sure it's 23 centimeters off-axis from the nodal center...etc., etc."
I'll sit in the middle and ask a few questions of my own. When I get ready to record an instrument, I try to get a view of the big picture. I'll ask the artist or producer, "What's the total instrumentation going to be on this cut? What's the song about? Is it fast, slow, happy, sad? Could I hear the part you're going to play, please?" And things of that nature. With this in mind, I will choose a mic and preamp "team." As far as the preamp goes, I will be choosing between clear, clean, well-articulated verses, warm, colored, fuzzy, gritty. Many people simply define the choice as "transparent" or "colored." For instance, imagine a song where a guy plays a steel string acoustic guitar and his wife is going to overdub a vocal. That's it. That's all there is. A very simple production. The guy has a beautiful old Martin with brand-new strings. I put a couple of Josephson C42 condensers up and run them into a Universal Audio 4110 mic pre. I picked the C42 mics because of their quick transient response and clean character. They capture all the transient energy and the complex waveforms produced by the multiple strings, wood resonance and harmonic modulations that make a guitar sound like a guitar. I made this choice because this is all we have: a guitar and a voice. I want the guitar to be big, full and rich. I want it to be the entire countryside underneath the stars. I chose the UA 4110 mic pre for several reasons. First of all, in this scenario I'm committed to realism. In other words I opted for the "transparent" path. But at the same time I want character. The 4110 is absolutely amazing when you want a "hi-end hi-fi" clean sound. It would take a whole separate article to get into it, so for now I'll just say it has this clarity in the low end that is very warm and the overall sound of the pre is "rich." The 4110 is a "capacitor free" design, meaning there are no capacitors in the audio path. This is one of the reasons it is so quick, and mated with the C42 mics, I get stunning clarity and sparkle.
Now here's an entirely different scenario. I'm recording a guitar that is part of a rhythm section with electric bass, drums and two percussion players. Later, other instruments and vocals will be added. It's a nylon string guitar, and the player is doing smooth medium-tempo strumming. Some people might take the same recording approach we used on the previous session. However, on this session, I'm the producer and I have this idea that I want the guitar to be on the mellow side. I want all of the sparkly, clicky percussion instruments to be featured, so my goal is to soften the percussive nature of the guitar. I'm going to make the guitar warm and a little fuzzy. I don't mean dirty or distorted, just kind of cloudy or opaque rather that transparent, in a subtle way. So maybe I'll use my vintage KM84's (small diaphragm condenser, similar to the Josephson mics, but not as clean, a little darker) and a tube preamp.
And there you are. I hope you get the idea. You should use your ears. You should experiment. And you should read all you can bear about what the technoids have to say. If you think about the big picture and learn about the sound of your gear by practicing (just like a musician) it will only be a matter of time before the answers become intuitive. One of the wonderful things about sound is that it's kind of like food or fashion. No matter how much you love pizza or lobster; you would not enjoy it so much if you ate it every day. Likewise, we don't want to go downtown and see every single person on the street wearing the exact same colored shirt. Hell, would you want to wear the same colored shirt every day? Well, I wore that tube shirt for quite a while, and it still gets out of the closet. But tonight, I have a very special date. I'm gonna wear my new 4110 shirt, and next month I'll tell you why.