Make Mine a MindPrint DTC

All of MindPrint’s products are eye-candy, and the DTC — a dual-channel mic preamp, four-band equalizer, and compressor/limiter designed as both an analog DAW front-end and as a standalone outboard unit — is no different. It’s cosmetically beautiful — but there’s more. Oooh, much, much more.

I mean there’s something medieval, even ecclesiastic, about it. The dried-blood red front panel and translucent, amber-colored switching. The small, round window etched with a leaded glass labyrinth design, edge-lit purplish-blue; the surrounding milled aluminum panel creates a Cross Pattée — it’s a 21st century reliquary (but you see the soft glow of the two 12AX7 tubes instead of a saint’s bone) From a sketch in Leonardo’s notebook? Part of the ‘Rambaldi’ device? The control panel for an Auto de Fe? If the thing had been found in the Vatican basement I wouldn’t be surprised. It’s sensational looking.

Clever, arc-shaped metering circles the ‘tube window’ and takes a little getting used to — but seeing the level and gain reduction moving in opposite directions makes sense. It’s quiet (there’s no fan), and it runs warm (only slots on the rear panel). But not too warm. Three units high and about 22 cm. deep; at 6 kg. not heavy. On is down instead of up. You want to have it turned on. With even half of the switching in, it puts out more than enough light to scribble in a dark room. And, while its acronym stands for Dual Tube Channel, it’s important to remember the tubes are used in the limiter circuit and are not part of the mic preamp.

I plugged my beloved Conqueror Bruno (Hofner-copy) bass into the instrument input on the front panel and soon found myself using the limiter much more than the compressor. The combination of the HF and HMF bands really worked well, adding edge to the string sound without making it ‘clack.’ Took only a minute or two to come up with something workable. Whiled away a quarter-hour fiddling with a Les Paul, direct. A huge amount of high-end with the compressor maxed yielded outstanding results.

Next, I ran a profusion of previously recorded program through the line inputs so I could experiment with the equalizer and limiter. Crappy keyboards, electric guitars, horns, room mics, snare; the DTC improved everything. EQ’d and squashed a kick drum for a pretty cool effect. But the biggest surprise was the way the equalizer-compressor combination works on vocals. I was able to take a shocking, single-track load of divergent, off-axis screaming, mumbling, whispering, and ‘singing,’ and turn it into something useable. I did notice some popping on the bypass switching, which can be aggravating if switching in and out during a mix.

It’s a microphone preamp, right? It’s very clean, low-noise and transparent. To make it more interesting, I thought I’d do a quick A/B: the DTC against the preamps in my old Mackie 24-8. I plugged in a general-use condenser mic (an AKG C414B-TL II, phantom powered from the DTC), split the output to both the DTC and the Mackie, and recorded to ADAT (levels matched throughout, of course) several minutes each of acoustic piano, acoustic guitar, and vocals. I switched mics to a dynamic (a 25-year-old Shure SM 57) and taped several minutes of snare drum being whomped by my smaller children. In every case, the DTC sounded quite a bit better: more defined, more open, and more ‘punchy.’ Most telling was the piano recording; the Mackie preamp didn’t sound bad, but I could easily hear it coloring the sound, the lower midrange a little more pronounced and overall more ‘closed’ sounding; like the mic had been turned a bit off-axis to the piano. I thought it wise to repeat the experiment using the preamps of my MOTU 828mkII interface instead of the Mackie.

The A/B against the 828’s preamps was an entirely different story. The DTC and 828 sounded almost identical, although I preferred the DTC on acoustic piano. To be perfectly honest, I thought the 828’s preamp actually sounded better on acoustic guitar. But like I said, they are sonically very close. And that’s why folks use different preamps. They sound different. Yes?

Geek note: With one microphone feeding two preamps (the DTC and the Mackie board preamp) panned right and left, I could achieve quite a nice ‘stereo’ sound — the small differences in the response complementing each other and almost no phase problems at all. This was all but impossible using the MOTU preamp and the DTC — with all manner of weird phase problems between them; switching the phase on one of the preamps only compounded the problem. Only with the channels panned hard did the source not sound like it was being recorded through a plastic tube. Why? I probably should know. But I don’t.

As a work-a-day product it’s easy to use, easy to reset and it sounds very, very good. It is not an ‘effect.’ It’s also not cheap, but getting a preamp of quality with an integrated EQ and comp/limiter for about $1,000 per channel is a good deal. I enjoyed using it. For those recording by themselves, it has a ‘set-and-forget’ quality that is damn nice — especially for computer recording. Because of the simplicity of the limiter design, a few easily resettable settings work fine for direct bass, say, or vocals.

But Tom, if the preamps in the MOTU 828mkII interface sound almost as good as the MindPrint’s, why do I need it?

Because of the EQ and the dynamics processing, which are both fantastic. My old-school dictum: Make as many of your decisions up front as possible. Record it as it will be: Sorting through tracks, fixing-and/or-futzing-with-everything-later is death. The DTC, with its kick-ass equalizer and worry-free limiter makes it effortless.

Finally, my kids and their friends all had to get down close and look in the ‘window’ — any device that inspires such interest has to be good! (it reminded me of that 1960’s Outer Limits episode “Don’t Open Until Doomsday,” where the guy can’t help himself from looking through a tiny window in the box — and a one-eyed, quivering pile of meat sucks out his soul. . .). Which brings us back around to the DTC’s churchly appeal. You can peer through its window — yes, even metaphorically — and it leaves your soul intact.