I have been very remiss in publishing updates to the ScotMan Review. Most of my tech reviews can now be found in Sound on Sound and Tape Op. Unfortunately, SOS requires a subscription. However, I should have some rejects from them, and will place them at the new ScotManReview. You can address any questions via e-mail. Hopefully I'll be adding some new reviews soon and even some past stuff from the Scotman reveiw.
FOCUSRITE ISA ONE
In between Rupert Neve selling his self-named company and the new Rupert Neve Designs, one of his stops was at Focusrite. There he designed the ISA 110 preamp/EQ to fit into his older consoles, and the same design went into Focusrite’s Forte Console. All this happened in the mid to late eighties, and since then Focusrite has had a winner since they’ve produced a slew of rack units using the same basic design right up until today. It is kinda biblical, with the ISA 110 begetting the 430 and the 220 begetting the 828 and the 428 and finally begetting the ISA One. As you can guess, the One is a single preamp, sans EQ and compressor found in the 0 series strips. The One uses the same preamp topology as the others, a transformer-coupled input with a zobel network. Don’t ask me to explain what a zobel network is – I’m not an electrical engineer even if I know enough terms to play one on TV. It has something to do with damping the higher frequencies. Focusrite couldn’t help but make it more than a simple preamp, though, and added features to make it extremely flexible for use in a small studio or on stage. These include a front-panel headphone output with gain knob, an insert point, a cue mix with mono or stereo input and the optional analog-to-digital convertor. Before we get to the meat and potatoes, let’s finish off these hors d’oeuvres extras.
The stereo cue mix input takes a headphone mix, say, out of your interface. Press the front panel “cue mix” button and turn it up via the headphone knob. Unfortunately, there is no way to hear the signal you are actually recording, just the pure headphone mix. Workarounds include the trusty “one can off the ear” technique (except for that wispy-voiced singer who wants the cue up so loud it gets into the mic). Or you could bring a cue mixed with the One’s recording using your DAW or interface’s soft mixer, but then you have any associated latency. Another option is to use the mono rear input with a mono mix. Disengaging the cue button delivers that line l, as well as the One’s output, to both of the headphone’s cans with no latency. I can only imagine that a “mix” knob for simple, built-in, zero-latency mixing on the One itself would have put Focusrite over their target price. So I think I’ll stick to my interface’s built-in “zero-latency” ability and skip all the re-patching. The insert is another function which is nice to have, although redundant for many users. A patch bay or mixer can accomplish the same thing, although for a compact studio or the traveling man the insert is a valuable feature. The optional AD is probably better than most sub $1000 interfaces, and if not cheap ($400 street or less if you buy the AD version of the One) beats getting an entire new interface if you only need the two inputs. Most useful is the eye candy of a huge front panel VU meter. There is no substitute for one, especially when tracking down problems – “Well, at least I know the ISA is getting the signal.” A front panel button switches the meter pre/post inserts, and there are two LED peak meters next to it for the input and DI/ext. Metering is gratuitously covered, as is calibration for them.
Moving on to the main course, the ISA One is a brick-style unit. This is both clunky yet functional, especially if you take it with you to gigs. It comes with a nice case with room for cables and the manual. There is a centered strap handle on the unit, but it isn’t recessed into the body so the top it isn’t flat. However, I perched my two-slot “treehouse” API rack on top and it has stayed. The brick-design leaves plenty of room on the sloped front panel for the controls. The left third of the face contains all the usual preamp controls – buttons for phantom power, phase and a high-pass filter starting at 75 Hz. An “insert” button routes the signal correctly for use with the DA – since I don’t have one of those we’ll just ignore it. All buttons light up when engaged so you can see their status without copping a feel. The main gain knob is stepped, adding 10 dB with each click to the mic or line input. A button at the bottom left adds 30 dB to this level. To the right is a non-stepped rotary knob that adds up to another 20 dB, giving your mic a total of 80 dBs of gain. Three controls might seem one too many, but they allow for delicate adjustments to the incoming volume. If the mic volume is low, add the 30 dB. Use the stepped knob to get close to the optimum volume, and then dial in the perfect amount with the free-wheeling rotary. It isn’t exactly repeatable, but pretty damn close. The rest of the buttons below the knobs round out the typical mic preamp controls, except for the “Insert,” which routes the insert before the conversion, if you have it. Along the bottom of the panel there is an input button, which straps the single transformer across the Mic, Line or Inst inputs and routes the corresponding signal to the main output. To the right is the impedance button. This variable impedance gives you low, ISA 110, med and high. Variable impedance is a modern concession, and a very nice one. It alters the character of the mic’s sound, with higher impedance generally being louder but also brighter. As part of the unit’s testing at Kitchen Studios, we ran a mic’ed guitar through the mic input. John Painter usually uses a Shadow Hills Gama preamp on the discrete setting, and we listened side by side. When we got to high impedance, I couldn’t tell any difference, and JP, who owns the Kitchen besides being a guitarist and general tone freak, was happy to use it. The guitar was bright with plenty high end, yet not losing any of the low.
The DI is a complete and separate circuit with its own input, level knob, hi/low button and output. So the ISA One is actually a two-channel unit, although only one mic preamp . By itself, the DI is better than many home studio “interface” DIs or a bargain box. For a singer/ songwriter gigging at a local coffee shop, etc., this is ideal. Use the mic preamp for the vocal and the DI for guitar, thereby passing the house’s suspect musical equipment as much as possible. Or in the studio one can mic the vocals and DI a guitar with one, no-fuss unit. You can also drag the One into the tracking room, shortening the guitar, etc. cable run and using the balanced output(s) for the longer run(s). If you just need the DI, you can switch the input button to DI, which puts the transformer into line. With the transformer, the DI takes on a different sound. At the Kitchen we tested it on bass against a Vintech Neve clone. Patching between the two DIs, the Vintech was darker, while JP described the ISA as “smooth.” As Frank Zappa (I believe) said, talking about music is like dancing about architecture, but the One had more high end. Nothing strident, just cleaner than the Vintech. It was early in the day and JP was working on one of his songs, and laid in the bass part using the One. It sounded great in context, not really calling attention to itself but still cutting through the mix.
You can also use the Line input to run a synth or your DAW through the Lundahl transformer and the rest of the electronics. My old ARP Odyssey loved such treatment – much better than simply plugging it into my interface’s line input. Even with only one in/out, you could bathe your stereo mix by running it one channel at a time. I haven’t tried that trick since I have a high-end stereo comp, but routing selected single tracks imparted some of the transformer goodness. Indeed, for the “home studio” recordist even a single high-end preamp can take your work toward the next level. Overdubs, and especially vocals, can benefit from the headroom and “ump” (technical term, there) of a good preamp, which the Focusrite units are. If you’ve worked in a proper studio or just watched, you’ll notice that the singer’s mic is usually a foot or more away from the singer. In home studios the singer is usually closer. With 80 dB of gain you, too, can back your singer up, even on a less than stellar mic, just like a pro (cue advertising music hit here)! But really, this has advantages. First is the proximity effect inherent in all cardiac pattern mics. The closer you get, the more the bass is accentuated. If the singer rocks back and forth, like they do, especially to “work the mic” (you know who you are), you’ll get a performance which changes timbre. Distance minimizes this effect. Also, the closer one is to the mic the more those little side to side movements affect the sound. This can be a bear to mix. And simply backing the singer off adds a little natural compression. More air between the singer and mic dampen the dynamic range, helping with the volume and especially plosives. Not a lot, but certainly more than a mic swallower. But wait – (cue music hit again) – there’s more. If you’ve ever wondered why your mixes sound so flat in comparison to commercial recordings, part of it have to do with the “air” that surrounds the individual instruments (including vocals). Of course the writing and arranging are more important, but many good recordings have space in between the individual tracks. Backing off the mic and getting a little room can help with that, even if you are putting on reverb and echo like it is 1967, man, man, man. Unless you are recording a screamer that resonates a really bad room, it is fairly easy to deaden most the bad reflections by hanging a quilt behind the singer. Since cardioid mics reject most of what comes from the sides and a lot of the rear (bring on more quilts if that is the case!), it isn’t that hard to makeshift a usable space. And that space will help define the track, so it breathes in the mix. It ain’t magic, but recording ain’t rocket science either, and soon becomes a game of inches.
The ISA design came off Mr. Neve’s bench after his legendary 1000’s series (1073, 1081, etc.) which went into his consoles at some of the finest studios in the world. He was searching for a more transparent sound – amplification with less distortion. As such, the ISA is sort of a “goldilocks” mean – neither too colorful like his earlier transformer in and out designs, nor too clean. As a preamp the ISA One delivers plenty of clean headroom with a hint of extra bottom and smooth, unstrained highs. I’ve read a lot of comments decrying the ISA series as boring. If you’re after that vintage sound with lots of (admittedly nice) distortion, the One might be too polite. If you are looking for a super clean, larger than life presence the One might be too rounded. However, if you just need transparent amplification between those extremes, the ISA units hit a happy spot. If you are a pro, you won’t need to dump the One, even if you don’t use it on your front and center sounds. If you are working in a home environment, a high-end preamp by itself it isn’t going to be the difference maker, but does make the job of getting a “pro” sound easier. And if all you have to work with are your interface’s preamps, the transformer in the ISA One will add some analog thickness and saturation to the digital edge in recording. And the price is nice, too. When it first came out the ISA One listed for $1000+ and streeted for about $800. It has since fallen to $500 or less, which is a great deal for a pro preamp, much less the other goodies the ISA One includes. If you can only add one preamp to your home set up, it is hard to beat the One and its middle of the road sound. It works on just about everything, unlike some similarly-priced preamps that are more of a one trick pony, either good only for electric guitar or on certain male voices. It is more true to life when recording, not bigger than it.
The ScotMan Review