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 has come.
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.