Grace Design m103 Channel Strip
THE GOOD news: Analog-to-digital audio
conversion and “in the box” algorithms
continue to improve. The bad news:
Deficiencies in the analog elements feeding
your DAW become more apparent. In that
respect, Grace Design was a bit ahead of the
curve with the single-rackspace m103—an all-analog,
mono channel strip dedicated to signal
purity. But as more people concern themselves
with getting the signal right at the source,
before it hits the converters, the m103’s time
Interfacing Separate mic and line XLR ins,
with separate XLR mic pre and main outs,
complement three additional 1/4" jacks for
unbalanced mic pre out, balanced main out,
and unbalanced main out; a front-panel 1/4"
jack provides a hi-Z instrument input (2.5M
balanced, 5M balanced). The 1/4" sidechain
compressor input jack is switch-selectable to
provide a stereo link when using two units, while
the IEC cable jack feeds a global (100-240V) supply.
Preamp The transformerless preamp
sounds—well, it doesn’t “sound,” really; it
just amplifies, with a range of 10 to 65 dB of
gain in 12 steps. It has a clip indicator, mic/
line switch, phantom power enable, and
75Hz (12 dB/octave) highpass filter. Enabling
the innovative “ribbon” switch simultaneously
increases input impedance, disables phantom
power, and bypasses the phantom-power coupling
capacitors. I also like this position with dynamic
mics, due to the input impedance increase.
EQ This is not your surgical, digital EQ—do
that in the DAW. Rather, the EQ’s three bands
gently correct for deficiencies at the source.
The mid band (500Hz to 4kHz) is parametric, with variable Q. The lower and upper bands
can switch between shelving or bell response,
with the low frequency variable from 20Hz to
750Hz; highs range from 3kHz to 20kHz. Gain
for all stages is ±12 dB. The fixed Q for bell
mode isn’t specified, but sounds fairly broad;
I tended to use the shelf mode more, although
the bell response is useful when you want,
for example, a little more “boom” on acoustic
guitar without amplifying frequencies below
its natural range.
Dynamics This isn’t a brickwall limiter, but
an easy way to tame dynamics and add a bit of
a “lift” to signals while remaining unobtrusive.
Based on optical technology for an inherently
smooth response, controls are the expected
threshold, attack, release, and ratio (1:1 to
12:1). Attack goes down to 3ms, while release
extends out to 3 seconds. A 10-stage gain-reduction
meter provides visual feedback.
Extras Both the EQ and compressor have
in/out switches, but the coolest switch
reverses their order in the signal chain. There’s
also a master trim control, 10-stage VU meter,
and peak meter that monitors the internal
headroom. Also noteworthy: the packaging.
The m103 is suspended within the box, almost
like it’s shock-mounted—take that, UPS.
How to Feed a DAW The m103 isn’t cheap,
but the sweetness and transparency explain
why. For capturing a vocalist going through
a quality mic, retaining the nuances of an
acoustic guitar, maintaining the crispness and
snap of percussion, or for any other critical
acoustic instrument tracking, it doesn’t
get much better—or more importantly, less
intrusive—than the m103.
STRENGTHS: Clean path with innovative
“ribbon” switch. Transparent EQ and
compressor. Can switch EQ/compressor
order. Solid construction. Stepped gain
control for repeatability. Global power
supply. Hi-Z instrument input.
LIMITATIONS: Nothing significant.