Capitalizing on the cost-effectiveness of Chinese manufacturing, the first product that Chameleon Labs has brought to market is the 7602, a solid-state mic preamp with a 3-band EQ (see Fig. 1). If it were simply a matter of feature set and audio quality versus cost, the 7602 would be a perfectly acceptable mic preamp for $699 (although you should factor in another $100 for the required CPS-1 power supply, which can power two 7602s). However, in its advertisements, Chameleon states that the 7602 is designed to deliver the classic sound of a vintage Neve 1073 preamp/EQ module at a substantially lower cost than that of any competing product. That's a mighty big claim.
FIG. 1: The Chameleon Labs 7602 features a 3-band EQ and a 4-position highpass filter that are closely related to those on a Neve 1073. The 7602 provides a DI input for high-impedance instrument sources.
With many of the '70s-era Neve consoles gutted for their components, and most modules hoarded away by savvy engineers and collectors, several companies, including AMS Neve, are making products that emulate the various Neve modules of yesteryear. The 7602, however, is the first emulation made in China almost entirely with Chinese parts.
The 7602's design is similar to that of a 1073 in several ways. Chameleon's preamp uses discrete Class A power and circuitry, and it includes input and output audio transformers. The 3-band EQ and the 4-position highpass filter are closely related to those of the 1073 in terms of frequency selection. The preamp's 20-position mic/line sensitivity switch has an Off position between 50 and 60 dB gain, just as the 1073's switch does, as well as an Off position between the +10 and +20 dB settings. That is because there are separate transformers for the mic-level and line-level sections, and a separate board for the higher gain levels.
The 7602 differs from a 1073 in several ways. The 1073 was a masterpiece of layout and PCB efficiency behind a narrow vertical panel, and it used dual concentric controls for its two multifrequency EQ bands. The 7602, on the other hand, takes up a full rackspace and uses single-function pots. And whereas the 1073's high-frequency EQ band was fixed at 12 kHz, the 7602 features five frequency selections, of which 12 kHz is one choice. The front panel of the 7602 offers a DI input and switches for the DI, +48V phantom power, phase reversal, and EQ bypass.
FIG. 2: The 7602''s rear panel includes balanced XLR mic and line inputs, an XLR output, and a connector for the required CPS-1 power supply.
The CPS-1 is a half-rackspace unit power supply (rack ears included) that must be purchased with the 7602. The CPS-1 provides ±24 VDC for powering two 7602 units, and +48 VDC for phantom power (see Fig. 2). The CPS-1 contains an enormous toroidal power transformer and has a front-panel power switch.
Practice vs. Theory
The 7602 is straightforward to use, and I set up a number of tests to compare the preamp with others in my studio. I recorded some sound sources using pairs of mics placed as closely together as possible. For comparison, I used the Blue Robbie tube preamp, a preamp that has a similar amount of gain. To more accurately represent a 1073, I also used my Trident MTA A-Range reproduction, a solid-state preamp with more of the audio-transformer-imbued aggressive sound that characterizes the Neve preamp.
The 7602 performed nicely when used with a Sennheiser MD421 on a single-coil electric guitar that was amplified through a Fender Vibro Champ. The EQ section was great for quickly tuning out a fair amount of 60 Hz hum from the amp. The 7602 evened out the sound more than the Robbie, which was a good thing. Overall, the 7602 produced tones that were more similar to those of the Trident MTA.
While using a pair of Red mics to record male vocals for a San Francisco band called the Men, I noticed that the 7602 track was more sibilant but still very nice. The singer, Hugh Swarts, had a fairly quiet vocal delivery and preferred to stand a couple of feet from the mics. Here, the 7602's ample gain was helpful, and the preamp yielded results that were rich and natural.
EQ to the Rescue
The EQ section came in handy when on a couple of songs Swarts wasn't able to hit the vocals correctly while using headphones. In those instances, the natural sound caused problems. He couldn't tell when he was off pitch, because the fullness of the tone made up for slight pitch variations. In the past, he would set up a monitor mix that returned a thin, trashy version of his vocal to his phones, and the limited bandwidth enabled him to quickly pinpoint what was working and what wasn't. I used the 7602 EQ to alter the sound, and because the mid- and high-frequency sections have overlapping ranges, I could heavily boost one frequency and cut another close to it, effectively shredding the sound.
Furthermore, because all three bands of EQ feature 20 dB of boost/cut (versus the 1073's 16 dB), I could easily overload the 7602 internally to the point of distortion, which can be tailored somewhat by the chosen center frequencies. The effect was most apparent when using the unit with line-level signals. The line-level section incorporates variable gain and provides -20 to +10 dB to accommodate multiple line-level devices. Because I used the +4 dBu analog outputs of my Tascam MX-2424 to play various prerecorded tracks through the 7602, I could apply makeup gain to get the unit to function as if it were hooked up to a -10 dBV device. In this application I could generate wild, crackling artifacts while using the output-level knob as a fader to control the chaos.
The DI input is a useful addition. It has presence, plenty of low end, and more than enough power in the gain department (the best sound occurred when the input gain was turned up to about +70 dB, with the output-level knob fairly low). I tracked guitar and bass through it, and it did a fine job. The ease with which I could manipulate the tone at the input stage using the EQ section was part of what made the DI section useful.
A quiet instrument can test the mettle of a preamplifier. Therefore, as one final test, I recorded a clavichord. Miking the instrument from beneath and at a sound hole using a pair of Neumann KM84s, I compared the 7602 again with the Robbie, which has plenty of gain and low self-noise, and there was no contest. The 7602 provided the gain necessary to capture the true sound of the clavichord, notwithstanding a substantial amount of hiss.
Reinventing a Classic
But does the 7602 sound like a Neve 1073? Senior Editor Gino Robair took the 7602 to Studio 880 to compare it to the real thing. Studio owner John Lucasey and his staff ran prerecorded vocals through both preamps, as well as recorded an acoustic nylon-string guitar. In addition, a variety of EQ settings — in particular the frequency extremes — were set up on the 1073 to see if the 7602 could match the tonal quality.
Despite the fact that the EQ markings on the two devices are different, the 7602 could closely match the 1073. The main sonic differences were subtle: the 1073 had a smoother quality overall, with a heartier lower midrange, a greater 3-D sense, and better resolution than the 7602. In addition, the sound of the distortion, especially when the EQ in either unit was pushed too far, was much more pleasing in the Neve device. After the tests were complete, however, Lucasey noted that the Chameleon 7602 was a great bargain for the price, adding that if it could sound that close to a 1073, it was well worth the money.
Whether or not it performs like a Neve 1073, the Chameleon 7602 is an exceptional preamp with an EQ section that offers a wide tonal palette. Although the price may seem steep for a Chinese-made mic preamp, the hand-wound transformers and the amount of point-to-point wiring in the unit help justify the cost. Add to that the benefits of having a front-panel instrument input and an EQ bypass switch, and you get a versatile preamp with a vintage sound for well under a thousand bucks.
Rich Wells oversees the Supreme Reality, a recording studio and band based in Portland, Oregon. Special thanks to John Lucasey, Peter Krawiec, Doug Logan, and Joey Dunbom at Studio 880 (www.studio880.com) in Oakland, California.
CPS-1 power supply
$100 (powers two 7602 units)
PROS: Plenty of gain. Versatile and helpful EQ section.
CONS: No meter or LEDs. Power supply must be purchased separately.
GUIDE TO EM METERS
5 = Amazing; as good as it gets with current technology
4 = Clearly above average; very desirable
3 = Good; meets expectations
2 = Somewhat disappointing but usable
1 = Unacceptably flawed
On a scale of 1 to 5
EASE OF USE...3
||(1) balanced XLR (mic), (1) balanced XLR (line), (1) unbalanced DI
||(1) balanced XLR
||50, 80, 160, and 300 Hz (-3 db, 18 dB/octave cutoff)
||35, 60, 110, 200 Hz
||360 Hz, 700 Hz, 1.6 kHz, 3.2 kHz, 4.8 kHz, 7.2 kHz
||3.4, 4.9, 7, 12, 16 kHz
||11 Hz-77.65 kHz (-3 dB)
||-129 dBu EIN @ 40 dB gain,
-126 dBu EIN @ unity gain
||0.0245 @ 1 kHz
|Maximum Output Level
||mic 1.2 kΩ; line 10 kΩ; DI 100 kΩ
||19" W × 1.75" H × 11" D