Sonic Farm Creamer Plus
REVIEW
Sonic Farm
Creamer Plus
V
‘Oh no, not another preamp,’ we hear the doubters sigh. But this is not just
another preamp and it works in unusual ways as JON THORNTON discovers.
ancouver-based Sonic Farm is completely
upfront about its design intentions — it’s
not about creating vintage sound-a-likes
or replicas of ‘classic’ outboard. Sonic Farm
completely eschews the school of thinking that the
best preamps are those that offer all the tonal variety
of a straight-wire with gain. No, the mission here is
about preamps being part of the creative process of
designing with sound and colour, it seems, is very
much on the menu.
This approach was born not, as you might expect,
in the back woods of British Columbia but on the
Adriatic coast of former Yugoslavia. It was here that
Sonic Farm founders Zoran Todorovic and Boris Drazic
met as gigging musicians in 1966. After both studying
electrical engineering they set up their own studio
in the early 80s, featuring a home-grown recording
console. Civil war drove them out of the country,
ultimately leading to them separately relocating to
America and Canada. Sonic Farm Pro Audio was born
when they reunited in Vancouver in 2009.
The Creamer Plus is the flagship of the current
product range and at face value is simply a 2-channel
microphone preamplifier with additional line level and
instrument inputs. Dig a little deeper and you realise
that it’s nowhere near as bland as that description.
In part this is due to a healthy eclecticism regarding
component choice and circuit design — there’s clearly
no dogmatic view about valves, transformers or solid
state approaches. Instead it’s very much about what
works in terms of sound character and as result the
Creamer Plus is something of a hybrid.
Transformers are obviously favoured at one level
and oversized Cinemag transformers feature on the
microphone and line inputs, which are located on the
rear panel on XLR sockets. A ¼-inch jack on the front
panel gives a high impedance instrument input that is
presented directly to the main valve-based gain stage.
Each channel is built around an EF86 pentode valve
although a front panel pushbutton can strap this to
work in a triode arrangement that gives less gain but a
subtly different tonal character. At this stage it’s worth
pointing out a slightly unusual approach with the
Creamer’s design. Although there’s a front panel pot for
each channel with a prominent vintage style pointer
knob, this isn’t the channel gain control in the usual
sense. Instead this is effectively an attenuator between
the valve gain stage and the output stage, and has no
effect on the preamp’s gain. Instead, the total gain is
derived from a series of fixed stages in the signal path.
The input transformer (mic input) delivers the
initial gain step of 20dB, and a pushbutton on
the front panel can increase this by 6dB with a
corresponding reduction in input impedance. The valve
stage normally operates at a fixed gain of 24dB (triode
mode) or 33dB (pentode mode). A ‘Gain Up’ button on
22
the front panel modifies this by bypassing the cathode
and adding just under 5dB (triode mode) or about
9dB (pentode mode) of additional gain. The decision
to fix this, the only active gain stage, is in an effort to
reduce the amount of negative feedback employed —
again with the overall tonal effect in mind rather than
something that measures
empirically as ‘good’.
The Creamer ‘Plus’
supplied for review here also
allows that additional boost
to be somewhat frequency
selective by bypassing
the cathode via inductors
and capacitors — courtesy
of two toggle switches
labelled Fat and Air. These
allow a degree of LF and
HF shelving boost, with a
choice of turnover frequency for each (400 or 600Hz
for Fat, 2.2kHz or 7kHz for Air). By default, engaging
these will apply shelving boost to the same degree as
the flat Gain Up mode — although trim pots accessible
through the top of the unit can be used to tame the
boost amount for each if desired.
Each channel also has pushbuttons for the usual
functions of phantom power, polarity reverse, input
pad (-15dB pre-transformer) and line/mic input
selection. There’s also a three-position toggle switch
for a high-pass filter (Off/160Hz/80Hz at 6dB/octave).
Metering is served in a rudimentary but reasonably
effective manner by a single bi-coloured LED, which
lights green for signal present and red for signal
clipping at the valve stage. And then there are two
additional and slightly more unusual controls.
The first is a pushbutton that can select one of two
possible output stages for that channel — options
here are either solid state or transformer. If that wasn’t
choice enough, customers can also specify either a
nickel/iron alloy or 100% iron-cored transformer. And
in the (preproduction) model reviewed, another toggle
switch allows the output transformer to deliver another
6dB of gain by changing taps — although in practice it
seemed to deliver a lot more than this. Sonic Farm tells
me that this will be changed in production versions
and this switch will instead act as an additional
attenuator (-6dB or -12dB) between the valve stage
and the output level control pot — effectively giving
better resolution to the action of this pot with very hot
signals.
Even without the additional gain on the output
transformer, the total gain available with all these
stages is a healthy 68dB in pentode mode — so
there’s no sense that the Creamer will struggle even
with low sensitivity mics. In use, it takes a little getting
used to as you do have to think quite hard about
resolution all of those stages and keep track of gain structure
carefully, but this approach does positively encourage
experimentation. And there are a lot of permutations
available.
First impressions with a C414 plugged into the mic
input and set up on acoustic guitar are that it’s never
going to sound like a Millennia or similar design but
there’s no surprise there. What is surprising though
is that, on the triode setting at least, it sounds very
open indeed. Yes, there’s a hint of low end colouration,
particularly with the transformer output option selected
but you wouldn’t label it as dark. Slightly edgy
sounding is the best description — it adds a subtle bite
to strummed and picked guitar while never sounding
too hard — and it actually complements the 414 nicely.
Switching tube modes to pentode, as well as
delivering more gain, sounds a little more ‘tubelike’ — everything is driving that little bit harder
with the resulting increase in harmonic distortion.
Again though, the overall sound is one that is subtle
and musical and doesn’t sound like distortion for
distortion’s sake.
The same is true of the Fat and Air settings. Given
the amount of boost they apply with the factory default
trims, you might expect them to be
somewhat overwhelming but they
are actually quite subtle in their effect,
and the Air switch on the highest
setting really works well with male
vocals. In fact, none of the individual
options available to tweak the overall
sound are extreme — in isolation
they mostly result in very subtle tonal
changes. The power here is in putting
them together in different ways.
And in essence, that’s what makes
the Creamer so likeable despite its
eccentricities. What Sonic Farm has produced isn’t
just another microphone preamp. Instead, it’s like a
constructor set for creating your own, personal chunk
of gain to match any situation. n
PROS
CONS
EXTRAS
Flexible, customisable sound with many
permutations; very useable tone controls;
sounds equally good with mic, line and
instrument level sources.
Fixed gain stages take a little getting used
too; metering a little rudimentary; there may
be too many options for some!
Sonic Farm’s Creamliner is a stereo line signal
conditioner, aimed at improving the sound
of digital stereo buses by running the signal
through a pentode, and, if selected, also the
output transformer. The result is said to be
a warmer and ‘glued’ stereo image, with an
improvement in high-end smoothness.
Silkworm is a 500-series solid state
microphone and instrument preamp. It
uses a fully discrete, low distortion servo
controlled gain stage and a transformer
on input and output. A full DC signal
path ensures phase shift-free operation.
Additionally, the output can be switched
to a solid state balanced line driver,
bypassing the transformer, for a more
open sound.
Contact
SONIC FARM, CANADA
Web: www.sonicfarm.com
October 2013
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