I’m late to the 500 series party, when I say late I mean really late. For those too young to remember the 500 series appeared at the end of the 1970s, but they made a resurgence as a popular studio format in recent years, but the 500 series format still did not tempt me to dive in. However when a company like Maag Audio offer a pre amp packed with features and with their AIR band included then a rethink is in order.
There are certain actors who could paint a wall and I would watch - I just love what they do. Having both used the Maag EQ4 plug-in and spent some time with Cliff Maag Sr., I can say the same for Maag Audio gear - I just love the sound and the man - so I’m declaring an interest at the start of this review, he also bought me a beer at NAMM so as far as I’m concerned he’s a friend for life!
But friend or not, does the Maag PREQ4 really deliver the goods as a pre-amp?
The Maag PREQ4 comes packed in what seems like a custom designed box that offers it the kind of protection usually given to a computer hard drive, although to be frank the build quality of the Maag hardware is so good I’m guessing they could send them around the world in a Jiffy bag and still have them arrive in one piece. It does beg the question… will it blend? I think not!
The PREQ4 (500 Series) is a one channel microphone pre amplifier with AIR BAND® (shelf boost from 2.5 to 40kHz via VARI AIR™), compatible with the API 500-6B lunchbox® and 500VPR rack systems.
The PREQ4® offers the AIR BAND®, 65dB adjustable gain, phase reverse capability, 70Hz high pass filter, +48V phantom power, and -20dB PAD.
I decided to test the PREQ4 with both voice and acoustic guitar and to use the Shure SM7 as my test microphone - partly because the SM7 requires a serious amount of gain - about 60db. The SM7 is the mic of legends, used by Quincy Jones to record most of Michael Jackson’s vocals on Thriller and the voice of Vincent Price too! Legend or not, finding a pre-amp to make this baby sing has filled the pages of many of forum.
The guitar, a Taylor 414 which I’ve owned for about a decade, it offers a balance of tone that makes recording it easy and to be frank if you put a decent condenser on it then you could put it through a $5 pre-amp and it would sound great.
The voice, mine. Which has a nasal quality that can be difficult to get right when tracking, so there’s no better (or worse) voice to throw at the Maag PREQ4 to see what it can do.
The guitar was the first thing to record - the mic was placed around 12” from the front just at the bottom of the neck, this allowed for me to get a nice warm sound without too much excessive boom from the sound hole. Engaging the hi-pass filter also helped to keep the low end under control, the knee starts @ 160 Hz and is –3 dB @ 70 Hz. I decided to add some AIR too, which may not be as required when using a condenser mic, but with the SM7 it was a welcome addition to the sound, I selected 5Khz with about 4db of boost. The sound was clean and smooth, allowing the guitar to breath without sound too hyped.
Then on to the greatest challenge - my voice. The settings were much the same, the HP filter remained in to deal with any low end but with the AIR Band pushed up to 20Khz to give my nasal voice breath without it honking like duck - I decided to leave compression until the mix.
Seldom am I happy with the sound of my own voice (irrespective of what my wife says!) but the PREQ4 is one of the few pre-amps I’ve used that actually achieved what I hoped for - I think the combination of the quality of the pre-amp coupled with the AIR Band was the winner here for me.
The guitar sound was also pleasing - offering clarity without a harsh top end and enough body to ensure it wasn’t too thin, the HP filter also stopped any boominess giving a nice balanced guitar sound that would be at home in rock, pop or country.
A cursory glance on any 500 series dealer site and you’ll find just shy of one hundred 500 Series Mic Pre Amps, with everything from Neve, BAE and LaChapell tube based units right down to much cheaper brands at a few hundred dollars. Choosing a mic pre is a very personal thing, a lot has to do with what sound you like and what you need it to do.
As I said at the start of this review, I love what Maag Audio do, so this Pre Amp would have had to have been very bad for me not to like it. Unsurprisingly the Maag PREQ4 is very good, both in terms of build and sound. In the short time I’ve spent trying it out I feel sure that this will be a pre-amp I’ll be using most of the time - it makes my voice sound good - that in itself is a minor miracle.
If you are looking to join the world of 500 series or the owner of a 500 series rack with some spare slots, or someone looking for a high quality pre-amp, then the Maag PREQ4 should be on your short list. It’s not the cheapest pre-amp you can buy but neither is it the most expensive by a long shot, but this $849 pre-amp with its complete feature set, as well as their legendary AIR band is a something that’s not leaving this studio anytime soon.
The transparency of the Maag PREQ4 helps me to get a great sound with the minimum of fuss, BUT the AIR Band can then help me add that magic shine. It’s great to have both options in one unit and not many other units offer this. Last time I saw Cliff Maag Sr. he bought the beer - next time the beer is on me!