In Dev Review: Focusrite ISA-ONE Single Channel Mic Preamp

The Focusrite ISA One

I’m not entirely sure what there is to say about the ISA preamp that hasn’t already been said.  It’s a legend.  The original Focusrite Forte console of the 1980s that first introduced the technology was a game changer, and the modern-day ISA series remains largely unchanged from the original.  I’ve used ISA preamps on more sources for more recordings than I count.  If I’m doing a high-budget professional project, I want a combination of Daking and ISA pres on the drum buss.  Period.  Nothing else ever sounds as good to me.  Pound for pound, as far as I’m concerned, the ISA is the platonic workhorse preamp.  With all due respect to Focusrite’s now defunct Red series, I think the ISA is the better pre at half the price.  It makes perfect sense to me that, through the last quarter-century, no matter what else has changed, Focusrite has left their ISA preamps damn well enough alone.  Were I restricted to the use of a single type of preamp for the rest of my recording career, the ISA would make my short list of candidates.

Of course, these are boutique pres, and they carry a boutique sticker.  The 8 channel ISA 828, which is a fixture of major studios, is a $3000 unit.  Most of us are lucky to be able to budget that kind of money for our entire home studio.  There’s a reason why companies like Focusrite and Blue, who built their reputation on stratospherically expensive boutique pieces, expanded to and eventually focused the bulk of their marketing efforts on much cheaper lines.  You will not find yourself selling all that many $6000 microphones, but you will certainly find yourself selling a lot of $200 ones.  To be fair, some of the cheaper gear is still pretty good.  Focusrite’s own Saffire pres, for example, are eminently decent.  They’re clean, they have enough gain, they’re relatively detailed; they work.  Their price necessitates design compromises, and for the most part the right compromises have been made.  For most home studios they’re perfectly adequate.  But what if some of you uppity mortals decide you want a little taste of the good stuff?  Obviously you can’t afford eight of them, but what if you wanted just one ISA pre for lead vocals and the like?  Well my friends, may I turn your attention to the Focusrite ISA One.  Every laudatory statement I’ve made about any of the onboard preamps in any of the excellent interfaces I’ve reviewed (with the possible exception of the RME Babyface) you can pretty much shelve for the time being.  Because you’re about to get a crash course in the real elite.

Sound Quality

The ISA One is exactly what it sounds like: a single channel ISA pre, with an independent DI.    Focusrite also makes a version with an onboard ADC card, and while my review unit does not include it, my understanding is that it features the same converters you can purchase for the 428 and 828 series, in which case I can assure you the converters are excellent.  The DI, however, I can directly attest is top notch (my upcoming professional release actually features the ISA DI on electric bass).  Some may find it a touch harsh for a softer, jazz guitar type sound, but for grungier rock guitars and bass of any kind, it has a fat, growly bite that will send shivers down your spine.  It also has a surprisingly good onboard headphone amplifier (it’s as good or better than many of the entry-level to mid-range dedicated HPAs I’ve heard), which will give you latency free monitoring of the active inputs as well as playback of a line-level stereo signal through dedicated balanced back-panel inputs.  Gross gain is attenuated via a 4 step detented pot, and trim can be adjusted within a 20db range from there.  The sheer amount of available gain is monumental, so start out gingerly.  That said, with a picky ribbon, don’t be afraid to crank it up.  All that nasty noise you’d pick up from a cheaper pre simply will not be there, no matter how hard you drive it.

I’ve worked with ISA preamps in some incarnation or another for the better part of a decade now, so I have a fair bit of experience with how they react in a wide range of situations.  The short version is that they always work, and they usually work beautifully.  ISA pres don’t have quite the same crystalline transparency as some of the more renownedly neutral boutique pres, such as the Grace Design M201 or Benchmark MPA-1, and they sound positively fat next to the likes of a ‘straight wire with gain’ pre like the DACS Clarity or Earthworks ZDT 1024.  That said, they don’t have anything close to the kind of brashness or coloring of the classic ‘preamps of character’, such as the Neve 1073 or A-Designs Pacifica.  What they do have is unbelievably wide frequency extension which in turn gives it a very natural, organic voicing and excellent detail retrieval, and a touch of warm grain that you can either accentuate or minimize by changing the input impedance setting.  Different microphones will react differently to a given impedance setting (ribbons, for example, tend to prefer a higher input impedance), but as a general principle, go for the low-z or ISA 110 settings for a cleaner sound, and the mid-high z setting for an edgier one.  The differences are subtle though; regardless you will end up with a quite breathtaking, sweeping, open sound with tight, controlled lows and delicate, airy highs.  If you’ve never used a boutique preamp before, the ISA One is an ideal place to start.  You may find yourself wanting a more aggressive color for certain situations, and there is a camp that would argue that the ideal preamp essentially disappears, but for my money, ISA preamps are about as close to perfect everyday pres as you can find.

Design and Build Quality/Ease of Use

The ISA One is a stunningly good looking piece of gear.  The build quality is absolutely top notch: from the heft and feel of the unit in your hand to the hole-punched double ‘F’ venting on the sides, to the fit and finish on the indicators and pots, everything about the ISA One is done right.  The design is gorgeous; the all-metal casing and leather strap, the classic blue and yellow color scheme and old-school indicators and the awesome retro analog VU meter all give the ISA One an aura of days gone by.  It feels like a vintage piece in every sense, and that’s a huge compliment.  The ISA One is the exception that proves the rule that they don’t make ‘em like they used to.  It feels like it will last for decades, and given that the preamp topology hasn’t changed much in the last quarter century, odds are you’ll find yourself still wanting to use it right down to its dying breath.

If you’re accustomed to working with unnecessarily convoluted software control systems and sub-menus, the pure analog immediacy of the ISA One will likely be a refreshing departure.  It seems like psychosomatics, but for whatever reason, you will never experience quite the same kind of connection and control with a mouse and a computer screen that you will with physical buttons and knobs.  The ISA One is a very simple unit, and using it is utterly intuitive.  Just plug in your mic, rout the output to your converters, set your gain and impedance/phantom power settings and you’re good to go.  Straight out the box the ISA One has a very shallow learning curve, and if you have any experience with any kind of mic pres at all, you’ll have no trouble using any and all of its features.  Every input and every control is so thoughtfully laid out and precisely labeled that within minutes you’ll feel like you’ve had the unit for years.

Versatility/Value

I’m combining the two for the purposes of this review, because as far as I see it, price is going to be the primary factor that limits ISA One’s usefulness.  In terms of the versatility of the ISA One as complete unit, my only qualm is with the fact that it’s single channel.  There are enough instruments that I like to mic in stereo that only having one pre to work with limits the number of sources I can comfortably run through it.  That said, in terms of that pre alone, and what it can lend itself well to, if you didn’t gather by now, it’s probably the most well-rounded preamp I can think of.  It does have something of a more vintage sound on account of the slight bit of grain you’ll always end up with, but you can always count on an ISA preamp to deliver for you.  Precious few mics are too picky for an ISA pre to push.

At $500, however, the ISA One is essentially in a class of its own.  The only other single channel mic pres I can think of at that price are the True Systems P-Solo and the Grace Designs m101, both of which (but especially the latter) offer up some stiff competition.  And this presents two significant issues.  First, there are a LOT of good two channel preamps at that price range, and many situations simply necessitate a stereo micing setup.  Now, pure sound quality-wise, the ISA One is better than pretty much all of them, but at twice the price per-channel it should be.  Secondly, and more importantly, to justify this level of fidelity, you really need Apogee Duet grade converters or better, and at that point, from a price perspective, you could just as easily buy a unit like the RME Babyface that sports excellent onboard preamps (albeit still not in the same league as the ISA One, especially from a clean gain perspective) and freakishly nice conversion for a solid $250 less   Basically, my point is that the ISA One feels sort of like a ‘tweener.  From a studio perspective, I fear that for those who are looking to put together something small and low-budget, $500 for a single pre is just too much, and for those who are trying to build out a more professional-grade project studio, a unit like the ISA 428 or 828 is going to be more practical.

There are, however, two distinct niches where I see the ISA One as ideal.  The first is for singers, voiceover talents and solo instrument overdubs.  If all you need is a single, very high quality preamp, the ISA One will give you a level of fidelity that you’d be hard-pressed to match at its price.  For those who are a fan of ribbons as well, this is probably the only $500 preamp on earth that will give you enough headroom for quiet sources.  And given the quality of the independent DI, singer/songwriters could comfortably cut whole albums using an ISA one plus converter of choice alone.  The second is as a portable super-channel.  Especially if you buy it with the built in ADC, you could theoretically pair it with a unit like the RME Babyface that has ADAT in, and expand your ability to do quality overdubs or live micing exponentially.  You could run a set of overheads off the onboard pres and use the ISA One to power a single omni or figure-of-eight microphone for a more holographic sound, or to push a spot mic on a picky solo instrument like voice or trumpet.  You could get a quality drum sound using the ISA One to push a nice ribbon in front of the kit to pick up the toms and the kick, and use the onboards to power overheads.  I even know a couple of cats who use it as a super channel for live gigs.  Being able to pack it up and go is a major upside.

The Final Verdict

The Focusrite ISA One is an undeniably sexy piece of equipment, and a stunningly good sounding one at that.  The only question is going to be whether or not it fits your budget and needs.  If you find yourself in need of a single channel, truly boutique grade mic pre you can use with essentially any mic and on any instrument, and the ISA One can fit into your budget, I strongly recommend giving it a shot.  For the purposes of cutting demos and the like it’s probably a bit overkill; for the money it costs you might be better off just getting a really high-end all-in-one like the RME Babyface.  But if you want to be able to cut genuinely professional overdubs or voiceovers, or just have a single, portable super channel you can take anywhere to push your most important source, the ISA One is a real facilitator.  Make no mistake, this is multi-million dollar studio grade gear.  Think of it as the cheapest cure you’ll ever find for upgraditis.

Focusrite ISA One Review by ProAudioStar

Dev is a professional jazz-fusion composer, singer, sound engineer and front man for the band Wire Spoke Wheels, living and operating in beautiful Bushwick, Brooklyn. He’s also co-founder and co-chairman of Frost Audio, a small Michigan based audio company specializing in high performance cables and loudspeakers, all hand-made in the USA. He’ll be releasing his next studio album, Tears of Men, in early 2011. To learn more or hear his work, check out www.devavidon.com

Denon DN-MC6000 video with DJ Anubus


When saw DJ Anububus’s amazing DMC Online routine we sent him a message right away to see if he lived remotely close to us in NY and was interested being in a feature video.  Lucky for us both things were true and we met up with Anubus in Brooklyn to hand off a Denon DN-MC6000.  He spent a few days with it and came up with the routine you see above.

Anubus had never used a dedicated DJ controller before but was used to his M-Audio Trigger Finger for cue points and effects, so diving into the controls on the MC6000 wasn’t hard for him. He made efficient use of both the virtual decks and sample decks in Virtual DJ and kept one channel switched to analog input to sprinkle scratches in via a Technics 1200. I got a chance to ask Anubus a few questions about the MC6000 while we were on the shoot:

Thanks again to Anubus for checking out the DN-MC6000 and coming up with a totally ill routine on the quick. Watch out for more music, and videos from Anubus in the near future on his website and in the finals of the DMC Online Championship happening in August!

Crane Laptop Stands Now In Stock!

In our quest to bring you the best DJ accessories to keep your set looking and sounding smooth, we knew we had to get our hands on these Crane laptop stands.  Already lauded but the top DJ blogs, the Crane stand is light, durable, super fly looking and super innovative with swiveling Z design to let you set it up in a variety of scenarios.

With the bottom arm swung back the Crane stand will solidly prop your laptop up on to the side of your setup with extra flexibility for height since you’re able to adjust the angles of the Z shape.

With the bottom arm forward this stand will slide in right under your Turntable (or mixer with rubber feet underneath) to set right over your setup if that’s where you want it.  With the attachable tray you then have the perfect place to keep your Serato or Traktor interface tidy and out of the way.

The locking mechanisms on this stand are beefy and give you piece of mind that there isn’t going to be any wobble when tightened up properly.  And the matte black paint and welds make this thing looks super sleek.  Check out more from the Flickr set we shot with this on the street to get up close and personal with Crane and call us to grabe one yourself!

FULL CRANE PHOTO SET HERE!

Zombie Nation Rocks a Monotron

What would make you want to buy one of these things more then watching a dance music heavyweight rock out with one in his own studio!?!? Zombie Nation certainly has a grip on synthesis from the looks of his gear list but it’s cool to see him rocking out with Korg’s little analog ribbon synth also.

Zombie Nation has been doing a series of online collaborations with fans via his Soundcloud and Youtube accounts, having fans vote on which parts he would use for songs.  He even had fans tuning into a live Ustream broadcast send in their own sounds for him to sequence. You can see a short snippet from that session called Day Of Many on his Youtube. His next single (with video edited by yours truly) is out March 21st with a full length not far behind. Lots to looks forward too from ZN, maybe some of which will feature the Monotron who knows!?

In Dev Review: AKG Perception 820 Tube Studio Condenser Microphone

The AKG Perception 820

It seems that everywhere you look these days there’s yet another company making yet another low-to-mid cost valve mic in an attempt to cash in on the nostalgia and mystique of tube electronics.  The prevailing consumer sentiment in nearly every manufacturing industry is that “they don’t make ‘em like they used to,” and just as vinyl is making a comeback, the venerable vacuum tube has been tearing its way through home and pro-audio circles, making an appearance in everything from microphones to iPod speaker docks.  In nearly every instance, the marketing hype gets laid on thick.  ‘Buy a tube mic and instantly add the warmth and richness of a major 1960’s studio to your home project studio today.’  It’s never that simple, but to be fair, a tube mic can soften out a lot of the harsh bite of a solid-state condensor, and can give you some of that vintage, flattering vibe that every singer dreams of.

While you can drop anywhere from about $150 to $6000 on a modern tube mic, the stiffest competition in the market is right where the Perception 820 drops in.  With excellent mics such as the MXL Genesis and M-Audio Sputnik roaring onto the scene with bravado, making bold claims about how their quality compares to five and six thousand dollar legends, the Perception 820 has flown under the radar somewhat.  To be perfectly honest, for whatever reason, AKG mics just don’t seem to have the same trendy cachet that AKG headphones do, or that companies like Blue or MXL have created for their microphone lines. That’s a real shame, because AKG’s one of the oldest names in the business and, despite having been bought by Harman International, they still make a consistently quality product.  In my mind, the entire Perception line is one of the most underrated out there.  So when I saw an 820 sitting on the B-stock shelf, I figured it was high time I gave it a spin.

Sound Quality and Tone

Just as the Perception 820 is one of the least overhyped modern tube mics on the market, it also has one of the least overhyped sound signatures you’ll find from a new-production valve mic.  Yes, there’s a  mid-range bump around 2-5k and some typical tube treble extension from 10-15k, which you’ll have to account for in source choice.  But that’s fairly typical for an ECC83 tube stage (if I’m not mistaken, it’s a new-production EI ECC83, which is one of my absolute favorite modern 12ax7 types).  The warmth, bass extension and richness you’d expect is all there, but pound for pound this is one of the more neutral tube mics you’ll find.  If you want that big, bright, sparkly tone or buttery, rich saturation, there are better options in this segment of the market.  Yes, the treble extension is definitely there, but it doesn’t jump out and smack you over the head the way many of its brethren do.  If you want something more subtle, and hence considerably more versatile, the Perception 820 is an excellent choice.

One of the more disappointing discoveries for me in experimenting with the 820, however, is that the detail retrieval is only about average.  It certainly doesn’t sound sticky or muddy like some of the cheapo-depot Chinese tubes out there, but compared to a mic like the Genesis, it does sound a little rounder.  This is not necessarily a bad thing, as superior detail retrieval, especially for the higher-noise floor home studio, is not always desirable.  Even in an ideal setting, more often than not detail plays second fiddle to tone, and a slightly warmer, softer sound can be perfect for applications like backing vocals, strings, brass, etc.  Combined with its tone and voicing, this could be an ideal mic for reeds like oboe, or English horn, for example.  But as a main mic for a lead singer, this wouldn’t necessarily be the first mic I’d reach for.

Tube mics, by nature, are bound to be character mics, but finding one that doesn’t overflow with character – for better or worse – is difficult.  The term “workhorse” mic doesn’t have a lot of sex appeal, but versatile mics like these that perform admirably in a wide range of situations are the absolute backbone of a quality studio.  My single favorite tube mic on the planet is the Peluso 2247 SE.  It is, undoubtedly, a workhorse mic.  I’ve used mine on everything from voice, to piano, to shakuhachi, to room micing.  It’s one of those rare mics that you can instinctively reach for without having the faintest idea what kind of sound you’re looking for, and be fairly certain you’re going to get an excellent result.  Now the Peluso is in a completely different class (and price range) from the Perception 820, but the principle is the same.  If you’re going to buy a single tube mic to use on every source you want some tube character for, then the Perception 820 would definitely be my vote at this price.

Design and Build Quality

There are things here I like, and things here I don’t, but right off the bat I’ll note that the microphone itself, and especially the casing, is beautifully crafted.  I know these are made in China, but you would not know it from the gorgeous, powder coated aqua chassis.  The heft is unbelievable, and the hand-feel just exudes quality craftsmanship.  That said, the accessories leave a little something to be desired.  For starters, while several European power chords come standard, a purpose-built pop filter doesn’t.  Maybe I’m just getting spoiled, but given that the last couple of mics I reviewed both sported nice, all metal filters, I was a little disappointed.  Unfortunately, the shock mount and flight case do honestly feel like they’re made in China, and there’s not even a purpose built insert for the flight case.  It’s just cheap-feeling styrofoam cutouts.

So far, none of these qualms are deal-breakers for me.  However, the PSU build quality represents a much truer cause for concern.  The metal face-plate is nice, but the rest of the case itself feels pretty flimsy, and just taking a peak at the wiring inside does not do much to further instill confidence in me.  On the first unit I took home to review, the PSU died within five minutes, and I had to grab a second.  Little things like this really drive home for me why I strongly prefer American or European made products.  To be fair, most large companies manufacture their units primarily in China, and the build quality of the microphone itself is testament to the fact that “made in China” can still signify a solid product, but I disagree strongly with the “Sound On Sound” sentiment that this could be little better made in Vienna.  This would be leaps and bounds better made in Vienna.

Returning to the real world from my soapbox, the biggest design feature worth raving about here is the remote pattern selection.  Using an attenuated dial on the PSU itself, you can adjust the microphone’s pickup field to nine selectable polar patterns, from figure-of-eight, to cardiod, to omnidirectional, and everything in between.  Words cannot describe how incredibly versatile this makes the Perception 820, though I’m about to try.

Versatility

Every recording scenario you come across is going to lend itself naturally to one or two optimal pickup patterns.  Recording a vocalist?  You generally want a pretty tight cardiod pattern, though omni in a good, quiet room can add a nice touch of air and resonance.  Figure-of-eight can be ideal for certain brass scenarios.  And while many multi-pattern mics that feature omni, figure-of-eight and cardiod pickups can solve a lot of these kinds of problems for you, often-times you’ll find yourself somewhere in the middle, with no real good solution.  Close micing a tom, for example, or an upright bass as part of a small ensemble, often works best with a hyper-cardiod pickup pattern, both to help optimize bleed and reduce proximity effect.  Having nine polar patterns gives you phenomenally good control over exactly what your mic picks up, and as any engineer worth his salt will tell you, good placement and proper pattern is as important as having a good mic to begin with.  An excellent mic in the wrong place at the wrong time will still sound like trash.  And when you then factor in that the polar patterns are selectable from the PSU, allowing you to experiment with different possibilities remotely, the Perception 820 gives you a ton of options.

Of course, none of this would matter if the Perception 820 had such a colored voice that it only really excelled on a handful of tailor-made sources.  Fortunately, as I’ve mentioned before, it does not (not that you’d ever know that just looking at the frequency response charts).  Yes, there’s a very tube-like high-mid and treble boost, but neither’s quite as obtrusive as you might anticipate.  Frankly, the band-shaping feels relatively subtle, and it takes EQing like a champ.  The color is consistently (sometimes even shockingly) subdued, and that in turn makes the polar flexibility all the more useful.  This is about as versatile a tube mic as you’re going to find south of a grand.

Value

Just as this is a solid, all-around mic, the value is solid too.  It’s not the same kind of value you get out of a very colored character mic like the Genesis, because while that’s going to give you a grade of performance that well exceeds its sticker, it’s also going to give you a much more narrow band of performance.  The Perception boasts a level of sound quality that’s pretty much exactly what I’d expect from its price, and it’s the versatility that sets it apart.  Having nine remotely selectable polar patterns and uncommonly neutral character for a tube mic will do that for you.  It’s not the flashiest valve mic out there, but it can get the job done well in a huge variety of scenarios, and that makes it essentially unique for its segment.

The Final Verdict

No, the Perception 820 is not the hottest lady on the block right now, but she does pretty much everything right.  For all the appeal that a sports car has, most of us end up with versatile, practical, well-made sedans, and that’s exactly what the Perception 820 is in this segment.  It doesn’t do any one thing quite as well as the net sum of its competitors can, but it does everything better than most, and as such if you want to lay some tube tone on a vast swathe of tracks, the Perception 820 is the best way I know of at this price to do it.  If you’re looking for a very specific mic for a very specific usage, there are several offerings in this range that do one or two things spectacularly, but none that I know do as many things even decently as the Perception 820 does well.

A Special Edition Spoken Word Sample

In an attempt to demonstrate a small portion of how you can shape tone, impact, room sound and feel by experimenting with the different polar pickups, the spoken word sample for this piece actually runs through all nine patterns sequentially, beginning with cardiod and working its way clockwise through hyper-cardiod to figure-of-eight, and then returning to cardiod and working its way counterclockwise to omnidirectional.  In no way should this demonstration be taken as indicative of how each and every source will react to variable pickup manipulation (especially given the very limited frequency band of a male spoken voice), but hopefully folk will find it interesting or insightful in some small manner nevertheless.

Dev is a professional jazz-fusion composer, singer, sound engineer and front man for the band Wire Spoke Wheels, living and operating in beautiful Bushwick, Brooklyn. He’s also co-founder and co-chairman of Frost Audio, a small Michigan based audio company specializing in high performance cables and loudspeakers, all hand-made in the USA. He’ll be releasing his next studio album, Tears of Men, in early 2011. To learn more or hear his work, check out www.devavidon.com

Evaready Scoops a Midi-Fighter

Some of my Boston bros invaded Brooklyn’s best party and held down the basement at The Rub this past weekend.  DJ’s Knife and Tommee have DJed Boston’s best hip hop night for years and on this trip to NY they brought DJ Evaready with them as their secret weapon.  Craig (Evaready) stopped by and picked up one of the Midi-Fighters I had setup for demos here at the shop.  Can’t wait to see him in action with it!

We still have Midi Fighter kits available here for in store customers. If you’re buying online be sure to check out MidiFighter.com for more on the Midi Fighter. We’ve also got some special projects up our sleeves coming together slowly but surely with these little guys. Check out the video below for a sneak peak!