By Michael Cooper
Tech // reviews
Unconventional Preamp Produces Exquisite Timbres
ost preamps have a distinct sonic signature. The Sonic Farm Creamer Plus has
several, and they’re all gorgeous. The
2-channel tube preamp offers multiple
I/O topologies, filters and impedance controls for coloring
Figure 1: Creamer Plus packs a legion of sound-sculpting controls onto its beautiful front panel.
mic, line and instrument signals in sundry ways.
To preclude phase shift and oscillation that would
soften transients, the single-rackspace Creamer Plus
shuns input-gain pots, using for each channel one EF86
pentode tube as its sole active gain stage. The tradeoff
in this design is that input levels—and tube saturation—
Figure 2: Creamer Plus’ rear panel sports connections for mic inputs and line I/O.
can’t be finely adjusted to the decibel inside the box.
Each of Creamer Plus’ mic inputs is balanced using an oversize, Mu metal-shielded Cinemag transformer that circuit’s cathode with a capacitor, increasing musical nonpassively boosts the signal 20 or 26 dB, depending on a switch linearity and adding roughly 5 dB of gain in triode and 9 dB in
setting. The Class-A EF86 tube can operate in either triode or pentode mode. A large, plastic, chicken-head knob controls a pot
pentode mode, each providing a distinctive sound and additional that attenuates gain driving the output buffer and transformer;
it doesn’t affect tube gain. All told, the Creamer Plus can provide
gain (33 dB for pentode mode and 24 dB for triode).
To preserve its euphonious harmonic distortion (which can up to 74 dB of gain—more than most other preamps.
A line/instrument pushbutton switch alternately selects mic
exceed 1 percent before clipping), the tube stage is followed by a
discrete, high-voltage transistor buffer. A second (discrete) transistor (switch set to out position) and line or instrument input (switch
buffer drives the channel’s output transformer. The preamp’s line in). When you plug an instrument into a channel’s ¼-inch unbalinput feeds a separate 1:1 (unity-gain), Mu metal-shielded trans- anced instrument jack on Creamer Plus’ front panel while the
former (a Cinemag CMLI-15/ 15B), bringing the total number of line/instrument switch is pushed in, the line input is disabled.
Each channel also provides five three-way switches. The
transformers for each channel to three.
Each channel’s output transformer has a nickel-iron alloy core Impedance switch selects one of three different impedances—
on standard units, but you can order a pure nickel or iron trans- modified further if you activate the pad or +6dB switch—for mic
former for both channels or substitute an iron transformer for only input. A Fat switch kicks in shelving-EQ boost below either 400
channel 2. Compared to nickel transformers, iron cores—which or 600 Hz, depending on its position, and an Air switch effects
my review unit sported on both channels—typically produce soft- shelving boost above 2.2 or 7 kHz; the center position for each filer high frequencies reminiscent of vintage timbres. For a cleaner ter switch bypasses its filter. The shelving
but less creamy tone, you can switch the output transformer out of filters have 6dB/octave slopes and use the
tube gain stage. You can adjust their boost
the circuit, substituting a solid-state IC for balancing.
by turning two trim pots—accessed by
When recording an extremely
sibilant, shrill-sounding
tiny holes in the chassis’ top panel—using
singer, try activating Creamer
Each channel of the Creamer Plus (see Fig. 1) features pushbutton a mini-slot or hex screwdriver; maximum
Plus’ Gain Up circuit. Highswitches that activate 48-volt phantom power, pad the mic-input gain is approximately 4.5 dB in triode
frequency detail will be
dramatically softened, tamsignal 15 dB, select transformer or solid-state output balancing, mode and 9 dB in pentode. Another switch
ing fricatives and creating a
choose triode or pentode mode, flip phase (at the output, af- selects 160 Hz, 80 Hz or bypass for a 6dB/
creamy sound.
fecting all inputs) and boost the input signal an extra 6 dB. The octave, passive highpass filter. One more
6dB-boost setting, effected by the mic input’s transformer, also switch attenuates the output of the tube
0, 6 or 12 dB. Attenuating the tube’s output precludes having to
reduces impedance by 75 percent, changing the mic’s tone.
Depressing a Gain Up pushbutton switch bypasses the tube use the output-level pot near the bottom of its range—where its
M I X | D E C E M B E R 2 0 1 3 | mi x o n l i n e. com
action is imprecise—when negotiating hot
signals; that’s especially important for use in
mastering sessions.
When lit, the preamp’s LEDs indicate the
unit is powered up, 48V phantom power is applied, signal is present (green LED) or clipping
the tube (red), and pentode mode is selected.
The power switch is on the front panel.
On the rear panel, each channel sports a
mic and line input and an output by way of
balanced XLR connectors (six connections in
total for the two channels; see Fig. 2).
Maximum output level is 32 dBu. The
frequency response is stated to be 10 Hz to
50 kHz, ±3 dB.
I deliberately recorded tracks using solidstate mics so I could see what Creamer Plus’
glowing tubes added to their sound. A woollysounding male vocalist—recorded using an
AKG TLII condenser in omni mode—sounded incredible in pentode mode with solidstate output. The sound was remarkably
clear and detailed for sounding so extraordinarily lush—this is Creamer Plus’ hallmark.
The Air 1 (2.2kHz) filter setting added sweet
and silvery highs.
The Gain Up circuit smoothly rounded
the sound of my electric guitar, a ’62 Strat
played through a Roland MicroCube amp
miked with a Shure SM57. For this track, I
preferred the subtly thicker-sounding triode
mode over the pentode mode and chose the
creamy-sounding transformer output. The
result sounded wonderfully lush and spotlighted the midrange, discarding any highfrequency glassiness.
I got a wide variety of DI’d electric bass
tones—all superb—using Creamer Plus’ instrument input. Selecting Fat 1 (boost below 400
Hz), Gain Up, pentode mode and solid-state
output produced a burpy growl and thunderous yet tight low end—possibly the best tone
I’ve ever heard using this particular instrument
(a 30-year-old passive Kramer Pioneer).
Even set to the lower-gain triode mode,
Creamer Plus’ tubes overloaded when its
line inputs were fed roughly 24 dB (2 dB below full scale) from my digital mixer’s stereo
bus. Raising the output-level knob past the
3:15 o’clock position disguised clipping indi-
COMPANY: Sonic Farm
PRODUCT: Creamer Plus
PRICE: $2,650 (factory-direct)
PROS: Sounds superb. Highly versatile
and feature-packed. Plenty of gain and
only one-rackspace high.
CONS: Can’t finely adjust input levels. Line
inputs might distort with hot mix-bus levels.
cation by unjustifiably turning the overload
LED’s color from red to green. Sonic Farm explained that cranking the pot when the tube
is clipping makes the tube buffer clip at a lower level, causing the overload LED to falsely
indicate signal is under the clipping threshold. This can cause you to overlook clipping
if you’re not listening intently.
Routing subgrouped drums through
Creamer Plus’ line inputs, the effect was
subtle until I drove the tubes to saturation by
goosing the subgroup’s send level. With the
overload LEDs barely flickering red on some
peaks, Creamer Plus lent wonderful tube
compression to the sound. The drums sounded more aggressive and colorful, and I could
make them much louder in the mix without
snare hits clipping my mix bus. Despite the
added glue, transients remained remarkably
crisp and punchy through the preamp’s solidstate outputs; transformer outputs tended
to round the traps’ transients too much for
my taste. Kick drum sounded a hair more
focused in pentode mode, while triode mode
lent a bit more upper-bass heft to snare hits.
The Fat filters’ corner frequencies were too
high to allow bolstering the kick’s punch
without also blurring the low-midrange.
If you only need a preamp for tracking, consider Creamer Plus’ two-channel sibling, the
more affordable Creamer Standard. Creamer
Standard lacks the Plus’ line inputs, shelving
filters and tube-output attenuator switches.
Chockablock with sound-sculpting features and spawning tones that brim with
saturated color and detail, Creamer Plus is
one of the most musical and versatile tube
preamps available today. If I could buy only
one tube preamp for my studio, Creamer Plus
would be the one. Q
Mix contributing editor Michael Cooper is
the owner of Michael Cooper Recording in
Sisters, Oregon.COMPANY: Sonic Farm
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