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Old 9th November 2008 , 11:16 PM
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Lightbulb The words you've been waiting for!

OK folks, this is absolutely long overdue and I apologise to all for that, but here are some words on *gasp* the actual mic amp section of the ISA One pre that the DV gods bestowed upon my way-back-a-when...

First, I'm gonna identify a few cool features of this thing that I like, so when I refer to them, you'll be in the know.

1) The selectable mic impedance is cool and fairly unique (not entirely, but it's more likely your preamp WON'T have this feature). There are four settings - "Low," "Med," "High," and "ISA 110" which falls between "Low" and "Med."

2) There is a monitor foldback feature - you can run a set of outputs from your DAW back to the pre and your singer/VO artist/guitar player/whatever can have zero-latency monitoring. This is super-cool.

3) It has a DI! Yes, I already posted about this, I think it's actually a particularly good DI too, as I've said.

4) It has 80db of gain. If there's a mic you can't drive with this bad boy then I'd like to hear about it. We never got a chance to try an SM7b but that's next time for sure.

5) The ADC option has some cool features. In addition to having everything you'd expect (multiple output formats, external clocking, etc.) there are also some other thoughtful touches. First, the ability to plug an external source into the 2nd channel if you're not using the DI. The inbuilt pre will convert and send over the left digital channel. The DI will send on the right. But if you want to skip the DI, you can plug in another preamp, for example, and have it send over the right channel. So I'm getting a second (mono) channel of conversion.

6) The VU meter. VU meters are nigh on useless nowadays, but man do they look sexy.

As our "tests" (very unscientific) aren't proper tests, I don't spend a lot of time noodling around with buttons etc. - I'll press buttons and set levels to what I think will work and that's about it. So please forgive the fact that there may be possible differences with different settings.

My test takes place with a female vocalist and another multi-instrumental musician/recording engineer - we're doing some original music, and have a few things to record.

For our test purposes, we left the impedance setting on "ISA 110" - the reason being is that Focusrite are pushing this preamp as a "modern incarnation" of the preamp section of a Forte channel, which the 110 replicated. Whether it actually sounds like one in reality is up for debate, but we were sticking with the intent.

Right. Test number one. Female vocals through an M-Audio Sputnik.

Result: we don't like it.

Now here's where we think it's oddly funny. The ISA One has a transformer - but only on the input, there is no output transformer (odd, but there you go.)

We think that maybe the tube vs the transformer at this impedance just doesn't sound good. It's lacking a clarity that should be there (the Sputnik is a surprisingly bright microphone even though it's a tube design). Perhaps switching impedance would help, but nah, we're in a hurry, we switch preamps. The Sputnik sounds absolutely awesome through my SSL Alpha Channel, even with the EQ switched out, and it continues to do so today.

Test number two: acoustic guitar. sE 2200a is the weapon of choice in this case. The guitar is a Simon & Patrick. The mic is further back than the main mic, which is a Schoeps something-or-other (forgive me for not recalling, one of their modular ones). We are happy with this combination, it sounds very good. Ever-so-slightly warm, lots of range, doesn't even need a lot of EQ (but we put a bit of EMI TG mastering EQ on it anyway).

Test number three and the last for the day: male BG vox. The mic is the 2200a again (because it was plugged in). This also works! It's not exciting, but it's completely mixable, has a sickeningly low noise floor and is terrific.

(Hilariously, by the way, in the case of this session the people I was working with forbade me from posting samples, but they said they may allow it in the future, we're gonna do more stuff, so stay tuned...)

None of this comes without some overall complaints. First, the ADC card is expensive. Too expensive - I think it's about half the price of the mic amp, and you have to pay 35 a pop each for the digital breakout cables as well. If you want to use S/PDIF or AES out from the ADC card, there's only a D-type connector which is used with proprietary Focusrite cables. The fact is, at least for me, the usability of this amp is improved tenfold with the addition of the ADC card, but it's spendy. If I hadn't gotten the mic amp for nought, it would have been an interesting case to try to weigh up the value-per-channel.

Secondly, I just sort of hate the input gain knobs. Instead of one, there are two - think of them as a "coarse" and a "fine" adjustment. I would prefer just one.

So here's my conclusion, which some will not be surprised by. The ISA One is not an exciting, nor a sexy preamp. It is absolutely useable though, and although there is the slightest touch of warmth, it's definitely more towards the plain white as far as the colour spectrum goes. This is probably due to the fact that the Lundahl is only on the inputs, and thus doesn't affect the tonal colour as much as if it were on the ass-end of the pre. However, the noise floor is very low, it's got mountains of gain, and the switchable impedance means it should be tough to not be able to get a good sound out of most microphones. Our very limited testing showed it to be much better with solid-state condenser mics than tube mics, but then we had limited sources.

I would say compared to the DAV BG1, it's warmer, but less "3D." The SSL Alpha Channel fared better with the Sputnik/female vox combo - it sounded more "present" and detailed.

The portability factor is cool - it comes with a lovely flight case and if you seen the pics you know it has a little faux-leather handle as well. This is an amp you could take to a VO session at an unfamiliar location and use with perfect confidence if you turned up and the "studio" only had an Mbox (yes, this has happened to me!)

Fundamentally, I think this would be a much better bargain if the digital board was included, but I don't think you can go wrong if you're the sort of person who wants as neutral a sound as possible going into your DAW (I am one of those people!) and who likes to manipulate it "in post."

If you're after a super sexy, larger-than-life, standout "money" pre this is not it - please search for "chandler" in that case. But if you need something that won't break the bank, can be stacked in a mix, still give you something of a pro sound and have a lot of cool features, have a boo at this!

I will be testing this thing with more mics and more sources (and more impedances!) soon, I will update as I add more info, and as I said earlier, I WILL post sound sources at some point, I just don't know when...

Cheers, hope this is of use to someone!
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