Mercury Recording Equipment Company

Reviews

Electronic Musician, October 2006 (Mercury Grand Pre)

Electronic Musician

Mercury Recording Equipment began operations in the year 2000 and quickly became known as a boutique pro-audio manufacturer locked in a love affair with the past. The first products the company released were closely based on designs from classic gear such as the Fairchild 660 compressor, Pultec tube equalizers, and Telefunken/Siemens microphone amplifiers.

Mercury's newest product, the Grand Pre, incorporates the solid-state mic-preamp circuit including the Class A design, discrete components, and original Sowter transformers found in the Calrec PQ15s, a vintage British preamp and EQ console input module. By forgoing the equalizer circuitry, Mercury was able to deliver the Grand Pre at a more affordable price. But this dual-channel blast from the past has plenty left over to get revved up about; the sound will get your motor running on the very first listen.

Mercury Grand Pre
FIG. 1: The Grand Pre's stacked channel-control layout helps you quickly locate the right knob when you need it. DI inputs are conveniently located on the front panel.

START YOUR ENGINES
The rackmountable Grand Pre's gray steel chassis is fronted by a black aluminum control panel with a powder-coated finish. Right away I appreciated that the controls for channel 1 are stacked immediately above the corresponding controls for channel 2, making dual-channel adjustments speed demon fast (see Fig. 1). Each channel sports three rotary gain controls: a switched, coarse-gain adjustment providing 0 to 60 dB of gain in 12 dB steps; a continuously variable fine-gain control that yields up to 8 dB of attenuation or additional boost; and a continuously variable output attenuator. All three controls are fitted with large, easy-grip knobs featuring hash marks that are highly visible at a distance or in low light.

Each channel also features 2-way switches for phantom power (each with a status indicator), phase reversal, and input-source selection (mic or DI), along with a -inch instrument-input jack. A large power switch and power-status indicator finish off the Grand Pre's front panel.

XLR connectors on the preamp's rear panel serve as the transformer-balanced mic input and line output for each channel (see Fig. 2). An IEC power receptacle is provided for the detachable AC cord. The manufacturer says that the Grand Pre's internal power supply uses a toroidal transformer and is regulated (meaning the voltage is maintained at a constant level) for low noise and stable performance. Additionally, Mercury purports that each amplifier channel is locally regulated to reduce crosstalk between channels to below the inherent noise level. That's especially important for stereo-miking applications, as high crosstalk would collapse the width of a stereo image.

Mercury Grand Pre
FIG. 2: The Grand Pre's straightforward rear-panel layout comprises XLR connectors, a fuse holder, and a power receptacle.

An owner's manual was not available when I wrote this review, but anyone who is confused by the Grand Pre's commonplace and spartan control set shouldn't be behind the wheel in the first place. That said, it's always nice to know a preamp's specs (see the table "Grand Pre Specifications").

OFF TO THE RACES
My first test of the Grand Pre was to record a wonderfully balanced Santa Cruz Orchestra Model acoustic guitar, using a spaced pair of B&K 4011 mics. The Grand Pre delivered a great sound overall rich and full without sounding boomy or muddy, and yielding nice high-frequency detail. While adjusting levels on the preamp, I noticed that switching the coarse-gain setting resulted in an audible pop that got louder with each upward adjustment in gain. You'll need to turn down your control-room monitor feed to quell this minor annoyance. On a positive note, thanks presumably to the Grand Pre's roomy 2U chassis, the unit doesn't get hot to the touch like most other Class A equipment does.

I put the pedal to the metal when it was time to overdub rhythm electric guitar blowing through a Roland Micro Cube amplifier, miked from 2 feet away with a Royer R-122 ribbon mic. What a beautiful sound the Grand Pre and Royer combination gave here warm yet uncluttered low mids, crunchy presence, and nicely rounded highs. I also routed a somewhat tinny electric guitar track (recorded with entirely different gear in another studio) through the Grand Pre to see if it could warm it up. The resulting sound exhibited a modest boost in the bass and low-midrange bands that was helpful overall, but approximately the same effect could have been just as easily achieved and more effectively fine-tuned using equalization.

When I plugged a Kramer Pioneer electric bass guitar into the Grand Pre's DI input, the resulting sound wasn't brimming with color and character, but it had a good, solid, well-balanced tone. The smooth midrange band had just enough presence to provide definition without sounding top-heavy or stringy. The bottom end was sufficiently prominent that with a little extra EQ boost, I could get some heavy thunder happening. And the Grand Pre provided plenty of gain for this passive instrument to hit 0 dBfs level on my Apogee Rosetta A/D.

So far, so good, but when I cranked the preamp's coarse gain to the max, cut the fine gain to its minimum setting, and lowered the output control, things got really interesting. This overdrove the preamp, resulting in a bass guitar sound that was positively bursting with colorful overtones dynamite!

I BRAKE FOR SINGERS
I wasn't impressed with the Grand Pre's sound on male lead and background vocals, recorded using an AKG C 12 VR tube condenser in omni mode and an SSL Xlogic 729618X1 compressor. The track was markedly lacking in high-frequency detail and air, resulting in a closed-in sound with very understated consonants. That was quite surprising, considering how detailed the acoustic guitar track recorded with the Grand Pre sounded, not to mention that the C 12 VR in omni mode sounds pretty bright. I can only surmise that the Grand Pre, which lacks controls to alter its input impedance, doesn't load a C 12 VR as favorably as a B&K 4011. In any case, my Millennia HV-3D preamp provided a much more open and detailed sound using the same singer, mic, and compressor.

My final tests involved recording kick and snare drums, using Shure Beta 52 and SM57 mics, respectively. I appreciated having the Grand Pre's fine-gain control to attenuate the snare drum's level slightly below unity so that it wouldn't overload the downstream A/D. The snare drum had a nice, full-bodied tone, but it was the sound of the kick drum that really impressed me. Without any EQ applied, the Grand Pre gave the kick a meaty but tight bottom end married to a snappy upper-midrange beater slap. Although I didn't get a chance to audition the Grand Pre on toms, I bet it would be a great preamp choice for this application, considering the unit's full-bodied upper-bass and low-midrange coloration.

AT THE SPEED OF SOUND
The Mercury Grand Pre delivers on its promise of dishing out the classic British sound of yesteryear. It sounds terrific on electric guitar, bass guitar, and kick drum, and it's useful on other instruments as well. Wherever you're seeking a smooth, full-bodied sound, this preamp would be a good candidate. The Grand Pre's wide-ranging gain capabilities (-8 to +68 dB) make it serviceable for recording anything from loud drums to quiet acoustic instruments.

If the $2,000 retail price tag is a deterrent, then a single-channel version of the Grand Pre dubbed the GP1 is available for $700 less. But if you can afford it, step on the gas and enjoy the ride.

Thanks to veteran session drummer Steven Tate for his assistance in testing the Grand Pre on drums. Michael Cooper provides flat-fee mixing and mastering services for out-of-area clients via Fed Ex delivery. He can be reached at coopermb@bendbroadband.com.

PRODUCT SUMMARY

MERCURY GRAND PRE dual-channel mic preamp     $2,000
FEATURES 4
EASE OF USE 5
AUDIO QUALITY 4
VALUE 4

RATING PRODUCTS FROM 1 TO 5

PROS: Smooth, full-bodied sound. Front-panel jacks for instrument DI. Multiple-stage gain control allows creative overdrive applications. Runs cool.

CONS: Colored sound doesn't provide enough detail for some applications. Changing coarse-gain setting causes an audible pop. A little pricey.

MANUFACTURER
Mercury Recording Equipment www.mercuryrecordingequipment.com

GRAND PRE SPECIFICATIONS
Inputs (2) balanced XLR, (2) balanced ¼" TRS (mic/high-impedance instrument switchable)
Outputs (2) balanced XLR
Gain Range -8 dB—+68 dB
Maximum Output +24 dBu
Frequency Response 20 Hz-20 kHz 0.5 dB
DI Input Impedance 2 MΩ
Dimensions 2U 10" (D)
Weight 17 lbs.