A Designs Audio MP Tube Mic Pre/DI
Reviewed by Dan Richards
Way back in 2003 I contacted a, then, little-known company, called A Designs Audio about including their products on our preamp tests. The MP-1 has been discontinued, and the current MP model available is the MP-2A. We've included this MP-1 review, as it's relevant to the MP-2A, and also we - through our enthusiasm for A Designs products - had a small part in spreading the word early on about what has turned into a brilliant company with a number of homerun products.
The MP-1 microphone preamplifier is a new single-channel version of the successful MP-2 by A Designs of California, USA headed by Peter Montessi, and an addition to the ranks of excellent, top-quality mic pres.
There's been lots of discussion of tubes and using them to warm the signal path, but if you didn't have a thick wallet, a true tube microphone preamplifier was probably out of reach. Getting into tubes for under $1,000 has meant hybrid-tube designs or even units that claim to have tubes, while in reality the tube had little or nothing to do with the sound of the unit and more to do with marketing.
The MP-1 arrived for review and I was immediately struck by its large two-rackspace size and its vintage appearance. While many designers are coming out with small half- and third-rack sized units, the design of the MP-1 is a return to everything that was cool about quality vintage tube gear: elegant simplicity, solid construction and warm sound from even-order harmonics.
The black front panel of the MP-1 is simple and to-the-point: featuring a variable input gain knob, backlit analog VU meter, switches for polarity, phantom power and output between 600 ohm and 10K ohm as well as on/off power switch and lamp. The back panel is minimalist and contains an IEC socket with 100/120/230 VAC rated at 42 watts, XLR output connector and a Neutrik Combo XLR 1/4" Input Connector for microphones and instrument DI.
We've tested many microphone preamplifiers and ever since the MP-1 arrived it has been standing out for its ease of use, impressive but minimalist design, superb sound and, of course, price. I really appreciate the inclusion of the variable input gain, and although with a gain range 46 dB the MP-1 wouldn't be considered a high-gain mic pre, there was more than enough gain for any of 30+ different microphones that have been used with the unit, including many FET and tube large condensers, dynamics and older ribbon mics. The 600 ohm and 10K ohm switch allows the user to operate the MP-1 between balanced pro studios and unbalanced project-studio systems. Toggling the ohm switch also results in a change in volume and sonics so it can be considered as additional variability in the sonic palette of the MP-1.
The MP-1 runs 6NI-P and EF86 tubes with a Jensen input transformer on the front-end and a custom-wound output transformer, which yields stunning sound quality with serious bass response and a warm, airy top end typical of great tube mic pres. I don't find the MP-1 to be overly colored, in fact its actually quite clean. In tracking sessions, any source that sounded too thin has gotten the MP-1 treatment. The introduction of a good tube design adds even-order harmonics mostly in the area of seconds and fourths. This occurs in nature and is what makes ours ears define a sound as "pleasing."
In DI listening sessions with a Lakland Bass through over 20 pres, the MP-1 rose to the top of the pack and was among the favorite of several engineers and was chosen as the best pre by the bass player. On syth/workstation sessions, the MP-1 was used to thicken otherwise thin piano and pad sounds. The MP-1 has also become a first choice for vocals. I'd really like to try an MP-2 version on drum overheads.
When the MP-1 was first released, the only shortcoming of the unit I originally tested was that the 1/4" DI jack was on the back panel rather than on the front panel. A Designs Peter Montessi told me that a front panel 1/4" jack was in the works for the next production run, and now all MP-1's have the DI jack on the front panel. [ As shown in the photo in this review. ] Other than that, I simply can't find anything wrong with this unit. Everything is right.
After being so impressed with the MP-1, I asked Peter Montessi of A Designs to fill me in a little about the origns of his mic pres and the design philosophy of the company. Peter said, "The idea for the mic pre came out of desperation and simple economics. I know that there are thousands of mic pres out there some good, some bad some expensive and some very low cost. But, no one seemed to be providing the best of both worlds. High quality with affordability. The high quality mic pres are primarily tube but very costly. The lower-quality mic pres are primarily made up of IC's and resistors, which are very inexpensive. The mid-cost micpres are hybrid or "discreet" a combination of tubes and IC's cluttered with compressors, effects and EQ's. No one seemed to be focusing on the fact that anyone could produce a high-quality mic pre at an affordable price. I determined that would be our niche. So, in keeping with the overall philosphy of A Designs, 'Making Pro Audio Affordable,' the MP-2 was the first product with that in mind and the MP-1 followed."
If you've been wanting to add a real all-tube microphone preamplifier/DI to the front-end of your recording system, I highly recommend the A Designs Audio MP-1 or its 2-channel bigger brother, the MP-2. At a street price of near $1000, the MP-1 is within reach of even budget-minded recordists and yields a sound only obtained from quality and an all-tube mic pre. I have seen no other all-tube mic pre that compares with the MP-1 in its price range. Having used many mic pres, I place the MP-1 as one of the top mic pres near $1000 and flat out the best tube mic pre in its price range. For project studio owners, the MP-1 is, in my opinion, a no-brainer and a must-have unit.
For more information on the MP-2A and A Designs, visit adesignsaudio.com
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