Hamptone HVTP2 by delicateear
This is a top-shelf vacuum tube microphone pre-amplifier that provides a welcome alternative to my solid-state channels. I have found it to be quite versatile: it just works, with everything I have tried it on.
To my ears, the sound captured is natural, cohesive, and musical. Nothing about it is exaggerated. This is useful in that it provides a solid tonal foundation in case I need to apply any EQ or effects later, to sculpt the sounds within the context of the recording. Basically, it takes EQ well, and multiple tracks do not exhibit frequency 'build-up'.
So, why tubes? I like tubes. But tubes are much less forgiving when it comes to audio quality. Bad tube gear sounds REALLY bad. Fortunately, this pre-amp is an example of good, well-designed tube gear.
Compared to solid state, I would say the differences are as follows:
1) The HVTP2 has a full, round presence to the bottom end which gives a palpable yet balanced weight to the material. My solid-state amps that have a 'big low end' sometimes sound a bit peaky or emphasized by comparison... like the 'warmth' is coming from transformer saturation? I don't know, but the bass here sounds full while staying natural. It is a bit dark (which I like) but so far never muddy. I use it even with microphones that already have a big low end - like my RCA 44BX.
2) And yet, there is air! This pre-amp has a lovely, smooth high end without exaggeration or harshness. If you decide to lift it later, with EQ, it keeps sounding great. No hidden crappy noise. This aspect is a great match for condenser microphones that have a propensity for harshness in the high end. It can take the edge off an AKG 414 without sounding muffled.
3) There is subtle, pleasing tube character in the transients. In general it is not something I notice unless the gain is too high (which goes into real tube distortion). I guess I like it best in the clean range, where nothing sounds odd or distorting or out of place... but if you pay close attention you can hear something subtly different in the way the peaks sound. To my ears it is very musical. Hard to describe. Alternatively, I would probably choose a solid state amp for a sound that needs to be super 'crisp' and cutting in the high end.
So far, I have had good luck with all types of microphones: condenser, dynamic, ribbon - from cheap to expensive - and with a fairly wide range of instruments: voice, guitar, strings, woodwinds. I would love to use it's matched channels to record a nice Steinway, or drum overheads - but have not had the opportunity yet!
The DI input is a welcome alternative to plugging 'straight into' my sound card (at the moment an RME UCX)... electric bass sounds more solid, analog synth sounds more 'organic.' That's what I would expect from tubes!
I have come to trust the HVTP2 with anything, so I just use it without thinking. I feel confident that it will sound good in the end.
The pre does not have a lot of features, but then again it doesn't need any. It supplies phantom power, a pad, and a switch for polarity reversal. A high-pass filter or another gain stage would be interesting, but I would hate for them to compromise the signal path.
So, to sum up, I've been looking for a 'real' high-end tube mic pre, and now - I am satisfied.
Here is some more background, if you still feel like reading:
I have been recording a variety of styles of music (indie, jazz, world, experimental, electronic) for decades. In the last 10 years or so, I have been moving toward portability and flexibility while steadily improving tonal possibilities and trying to push upward in recording quality. Toward that end, I have been carefully building up my collection of microphone pre-amps to include examples from some of the archetypal historical categories:
- a pair of pristine, transparent channels
- a Neve 1073 style channel
- an API 312 style channel
So far, so good. It has been really useful to be able to choose pre-amps while recording, according to the instrument, microphone, and musical context.
But then I got to tube channels. This is much more tricky! The real classics, like the Telefunken V72, are unobtainium - - and unlike, for example, the 1073, there is no modern explosion of interesting and affordable clones to choose from.
In fact, it is very difficult to find a high-quality vacuum tube pre-amp for less than, say, USD$2000. I have tried a number of 'mid-grade' tube pre-amps over the years, and I just don't like them. I like the really expensive ones! Tube-tech, Vac Rac, that sort of thing. (As an aside, I did like a unit that Peavey made for a couple of years in the 90's(!): the VMP2 was affordable, but a bit too dark and fuzzy to use indiscriminately...)
So I found myself looking with great interest toward the Hamptone vacuum tube mic pre-amplifier, which has been trumpeted by Tape-Op magazine since around 2002. It is available as a finished product in lunchbox format, or a kit that you build yourself. The kit saves you, let's see... $250 at current prices... I wanted to have the experience of building something high-grade, so I went for the kit. Scott Hampton was very helpful, giving me advice on soldering technique and careful cleaning flux residue. I feel like the resulting unit will last for decades. (Meanwhile, I am quite sure the ones that Scott builds are even better. :-/)
The end result - whether you buy the finished pre-amp, or build it yourself - is a pair of high-end tube channels that are very much in the same category as the best expensive boutique or vintage gear. The quality of components and design is very satisfying. These are currently my favorite channels.