The Simply Sound Company SS-1 Microphone Preamp by Arthur Stone
Product: The Simply Sound Co. SS-1 Microphone Preamp
Price: $99.99 but shop around!
Company: The Simply Sound Company is “based out of the rocky mountains of Salt Lake City, Utah...a band of musicians, engineers, and enthusiasts, sharing a love for great music and the desire to make*great products.”
The SS-1: The product reviewed is the SS-1 Microphone Preamp – a simple device that connects (via XLR) between a microphone and preamp and uses the preamp's 48 volt phantom power to boost the mic signal by up to +27dB.
That is useful for adding a bit more oomph to vocals when using passive dynamic mics (e.g. SM57/8) or passive ribbon mics but also for maintaining signal over long cable runs; there's also a further use as a gain boost between passive rack gear or DI's and make-up gain pre's.
Potential applications range from helping a novice find the gain 'sweet-spot' on a budget preamp and improve performances on prosumer equipment by helpful gain-staging. The specs indicate that the SS-1 will also work for professional applications and tests support this.
Specifications: The SS-1 is a neat package, the internal wiring and components safe inside an aluminium alloy case measuring 4” long, 2”wide and 11/2” high. The SS-1's weight of 160 gramme or 51/2 ounces in old money is well-judged for it's role and it slightly anchors the meeting point for the XLR cables resting softly on four rubber feet (as opposed to scratching surfaces and gear). It's cool gear.
Compatible microphones are dynamic, ribbon, tube and battery. The amplifier type is Class A JFET (4x matched) and gain is cited at 27dB@3Kohm. A JFET (junction gate field-effect transistor) is the simplest type of FET (field-effect transistor): a transistor is a semiconductor (controllable conductor of electricity) that can amplify an electrical signal (gain in the SS-1). Links below for further info.
On test: The SS-1 has some promotional clams which we'll put to the test. They say: “Ultra-transparent JFET circuitry protects your tone,” “the SS-1 is noise-free,” “boosts the signal at source for long cable runs,” and “ naturally enhances the sound of any dynamic mic.” Jordan also suggested we test on acoustic guitar as he had obtained great results with the SS-1 and a Shure SM57 dynamic mic.
I started with a typical use: to add gain to the signal coming from a passive (non-phantom powered) dynamic mic - the Shure SM58. Being an inconsistent and non-loud vocalist I always have an issue with gain bunching on budget preamps and this often leads to difficulties monitoring and on the recording; the issue is not so bad with pro-level preamps such as the BAE1073 or Sound Devices 702 although they still need to be pushed – often into colour. In theory the SS-1 would boost the mic signal to the sweet spot on the preamps gain dial – budget and high-end.
I simply connected the SS-1 between the mic and preamp and turned on 48v phantom-power. Using the SM58 on vocals became effortless and I was able to hear the monitor signal and better estimate the recording. It was a big improvement sonically and made tracking more fun.
Acoustic guitar, especially for quieter sections, can also benefit from the SS-1; the signal was in a much sweeter spot on the Focusrite Saffire and worked very well with the 702 too.
Simply Sound Co. say that the SS-1 'enhances' sources and having used it on my guitar and vocal (and mix below) I would agree although it may not enhance every source.
You got the power: The big standout (again) was the need for a stable and accurate phantom-power supply: the Saffire, with it's firewire power supply struggled to feed the SS-1 enough juice to achieve the full +27dB of gain – the Sound Devices 702 achieved +34dB in comparison! In fairness to the Saffire a proper power connection would have improved the phantom; but I suspect many people now rely on firewire and USB to power interfaces, so something to be aware of.
Consistent phantom-power is also a factor for successful long cable runs.
Better monitoring for performers: I started by connecting the SM58 into a Focusrite Saffire Pro24DSP and into Propellerheads Reason; I put on headphones and sang and played a Taylor 414ce and Martin D15 acoustic guitars – every thing sounded good and I was pleased with the representation – clear, bright, and articulate. I added an LA2A, Fairchild, Softube Spring and Vintage 224 Room preset in TSAR1 reverb, some echo, a little Haas delay and an SSL-style channel strip; I was enjoying myself now, everything sounded good and I wasn't straining myself or the equipment to find a healthy balance between monitoring and recording levels.
A real test of a device like the SS-1 is on a mix: there's a lot of tone, dynamics, soundstage and detail that could be affected by an inferior device. I was able to test this as I had 2 SS-1's and also a place in my 2-mix chain: post the DAV passive Mix Amp (which needs preamp gain) and pre the Sound Devices 702 (which provides extra gain and phantom-power for the SS-1).
The tonal effect of the SS-1 was equally obvious on a mix as guitar and vocal: a very slight boost in presence and a helpful small boost at around 100Hz (maybe a dB in each case). It wasn't any worse than the straight 702 pre but acted as an EQ/filter of sorts and I'd be happy to use the SS-1's on a mix if another link in the signal chain was essential (for gain boost). Both channels were well-matched with no phase or image shifts. Listening to the cymbals in particular is quite instructive.
Let's be fair: the SS-1 was up against some tough competition here – the Sound Devices 702, and I think it handled itself remarkably well in comparison!
Audio files:The '702 mix' is RADAR>DAV>702>DAW and the 'SS1 mix' has the SS-1 in-line between the DAV and 702 providing around 34dB of gain. The 'SS1gtrDAW' file is a simple acoustic guitar through a Shure SM58>SS-1>Focusrite Saffire>DAW+fx.
The Charts: The frequency plots visually confirm what I heard on comparing mixes (with/without SS-1): a slight bass bump and a glassy-glossy presence. Some changes in the original source signal (compared to the preamp alone) but not unpleasant or obvious. A neutral, transparent character.
This wasn't a scientific experiment but it is a good indicator of the SS-1's performance characteristics.
Other uses: In addition to helping maintain signal integrity on long cable runs the SS-1 worked well between a passive DI box and preamp; when used with bass the slight bass and presence boosts accentuated desirable aspects of the bass tone and dynamics. I think this might work well for stage keyboard users (re: Gearslutz threads) who have low output into the mixer.
The SS-1 is the simplest and most affordable of a range of 'gain-lifters' available on the market, each with different tonal characteristics or additional features and channels. This review has tested 'with and without' the SS-1 and this has shown a clean, boosted reproduction of the source with some tonal artifacts that can be useful: on vocal, on guitar, on a mix. The Simply Sound Co. promotional claims are tested and accurate. No BS.
I'm a big fan of the 'simple is best' when it comes to gear and the SS-1 exemplifies this; if I need a gain knob or other features then those products are available at extra cost. Same applies to tone e.g. 'lifters' with impedance switching or filters are available but in terms of simple gain/transparency the SS-1 is 5* star at the price.
In conclusion the SS-1 is an affordable device that can extend the capability and usefulness of existing gear by adding relatively clean gain. A useful addition to the studio toolkit and great value given the sound and build quality.
Sound quality: 5/5 Not totally transparent; the SS-1 has some slight character that may or may not work on everything but will work with many sources (particularly less sibilant sources) and sweeten lows and bring out presence. The presence region does have a slightly glassy character which, although attractive IMO, might not work on everything but I didn't find any source that sounded harsh or brittle.
Features: 5/5 None needed at the price; less things to break or go wrong. Single purpose tool. Adds functionality to spare pre's and underpowered mics. Useful for long cable runs.
Ease of use: 5/5 Plug in and go. Less gain available when used with compromised phantom power.
Bang-for-buck: 5/5 The SS-1 is great value and built to last.
Credits and references:
SS-1 Microphone Preamp ⋆ The Simply Sound Co.
JFET - Wikipedia
Confucius fresco: By Anonymous Chinese painter of the Western Han period - Du Guodong (17 October 2007). "Frescos found in a tomb in Shandong Province." Xinhua News, citing the Shanghai Daily. Accessed 10 October 2016.For further information, see China.org.cn (17 October 2007). "2,000-year-old tomb frescos discovered." Accessed 10 October 2016., Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/inde...curid=52179081
Confucius print: By 仇英 - http://www.chinatimes.com/realtimene...7001774-260405, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/inde...curid=61343601
All other photos by permission of the Simply Sound Co. and Arthur Stone
A big 'Thank you' to Voxengo for the fantastic SPAN analyser used for the review.