"Colorful" mic preamps have been the primary focus of the preamp market for the past few years, and with good reason. Many recordists who moved from analog tape to digital media during the 1990s found that they missed the natual compression and coloration of tape, and sought relief in vacuum tubes and colorful overdriven circuitry.
I have to admit that I am quite a fan of colorful preamps, and own a few that range from "pretty and warm" to flat out "rack-mounted stompboxes". Most of my recordings require some character, and I like to be able to crank up some tubes and get a little hair on my signal when the urge strikes.
But what about those times when you need to be clean? What do you do when you need a straight wire with gain? Enter the True Systems Precision 8.
Great Numbers, and a Couple of Frills
The Precision 8 is a no-nonsense 8 channel preamp with a few cool features and tremendous sonic purity. It offers high (+64 dB) gain, extremely wideband frequency response (1.5 Hz - 500 KHz +/- 1.5 dB), and very low noise (-132 Db e.i.n.) especially considering its high (+31 dBu) output. When it comes to running the numbers, the Precision 8 is definitely world class. And, as I'll explain later, these numbers are no lie.
The Precision 8 only provides "straight-wire-with-gain" capability. There is no EQ, no compression, no limiting. Not even a pad or a bass rolloff. Each channel gives you a smooth-feeling gain knob, phantom power, and phase inversion switch. The case is very well executed and feels wonderfully solid. I appreciated the front-mounted power switch - a need-to-have strangely overlooked by many manufacturers.
On the back, 8 inputs are offered, two of which can be used as direct inputs. There are also eight balanced TRS outputs, as well as a DB25 breakout connector. No surprises there.
However, although the Precision 8 ascribes to the "simpler is better" approach, there are a few nifty features that set the Precision 8 apart from some of its other audiophile bretheren.
One such feature is the adjustable peak metering. The Precision 8 does not have huge, sexy meters. Rather, it features utilitarian 5-step LED meters that give you a signal-presence indicator and four closely-spaced steps near the peak. A unique 5-position switch controls the peak reference point for the meters: +26 / +24 / +22 / +20 / +18. This lets you calibrate the meters to match the desired output level from the unit. What a terrific feature. I found that the +20 setting was a perfect match for my soundcard, letting me use the Precision 8's meters to perfectly prevent digital overs.
Another great feature is the built-in mid-side decoding. With the press of a button, the channel 1 gain knob becomes the "mid" control and channel 2 knob becomes the "side" control, and the unit outputs M/S decoded material on channels 1 and 2. If you like to do M/S work (I do) then you'll appreciate this feature. In the past I have had to rely on digital M/S decoding in my DAW, but with the Precision 8 I can let the preamp do the decoding and audition the sound before I commit it to disk.
That's pretty much the entire feature rundown of the Precision 8. It did leave a little to be desired. I can live without a bass rolloff, but at the very least, I would have like to have had input pads on each channel. Using the Precision 8 to record kick drum and toms, I found that I had to use inline pads on the mics to prevent clipping. True Systems sells DB25 and TRS inline -15 dB pads to use with the Precision 8.
The real feature of a preamp like the Precision 8 is the jaw-dropping clarity and purity of its signal, and on that count, this preamp absolutely does not disappoint. I had several preamps in-house to compare against. Since this is not a "product shootout" I will not name names, but suffice to say, these are some of the top names in the esoteric market. In every case the Precision 8 offered first-class transient response, frequency response, and absolutely no noise. It compares favorably with any of the most esoteric mic preamps available. Basically, you reach a level of accuracy where it becomes very difficult to discern a difference in a fair A/B test environment. I found a couple of preamps which were the sonic equal of the Precision 8. I found none that were its sonic superior.
Cymbals and acoustic guitars had a beautiful brilliance that was not overstated, but which seemed to just go out for miles into the ultrasonics. Kick drums and close-miked toms had that rip-your-face-off snap that is the trademark of excellent transient response. Vocals were clear and unmolested. Stereo X-Y and M/S miking delivered rock-solid imaging and positioning. The overall result, when used with accurate condenser mics, was a highly photographic image of the recorded instruments. When used with slightly colorful tube mics, the Precision 8 helped the tube character shine through by faithfully reproducing all of the wonderful harmonics. In particular, vocals recorded with my Groove Tubes MD2a - a mic that has a little tube character and a lot of air on top - were beautiful and fluffy, and really filled out in the mix.
One of the beautiful things about using a preamp like the Precision 8 is that, because you are going to be recording an unaltered signal, there is no advantage to running "hot". By contrast, when using older, noisier tube gear, it is often necessary to get more and more gain. With the Precision 8, you have vast headroom and a very low noise floor, so as long as you are using accurate, 24 bit converters, you can leave yourself ample headroom. I found myself dialing in as much as 20 dB of headroom on dodgy signals like vocals and dynamic drums. With all of that headroom in the analog stages, the sound was immaculate.
At about $2800 list, the Precision 8 is not a bargain. The price comes out to about $350 per channel. On the other hand, other preamps with comparable sonic quality often sell for $700 per channel. The great thing about the 8 channel format is that you are not limited to the typical scenario of, say, 8 channels of preamps on your old Mackie board, plus a couple of tube preamps and one "gold channel". The Precision 8 gives you fully 8 channels of "gold channel" -- enough to mic up a drum kit or small ensemble with preamps that are as good as anything else you're likely to hear.
The difference is real. The True Systems Precision 8 offers audiophile quality sound, some great features, and a reasonable price point considering its immaculate quality. If you want to retire the old mixer, and move up to a rack of world-class preamps, the Precision 8 is your ticket.