Earthworks Audio 1021 by VoiceShow
What led to the purchase of my Earthworks 1021 ZDT was a realization: I don't actually know what any of my microphones sound like apart from whatever flavor is added to the signal by the preamp I am using. And, all preamps have a flavor, right?
But wouldn't it be nice to know what the mic sounds like with absolutely no contribution from anything else in the chain? So, I set out in search of the cleanest, most transparent preamp I could get my hands on. My journey led me to the Earthworks 1021, and its "Zero Distortion Technology". They call it "wire with gain", which is both a clever and appropriate way to describe what this preamp is all about.
So, what do my mics (I have an all-Gefell locker at the moment) sound like all by themselves? Remarkably different than I have ever heard them before. I feel like this is an entirely different mic locker, and it's full of mics I like better than mine. I have to believe that what I’m hearing is much more of the mic itself since this is the goal for the 1021, and since this is something that Earthworks clearly knows how to do. It is certainly not the standard harmonically-distorted and transient-suppressed “vintage vibe” that so many equate to a “great” mic chain; unless of course that is an inherent quality of the mic itself.
The Earthworks 1021 will make a better producer out of you by giving you a baseline reference point for each microphone from which you can add whatever flavor or color works in the context of what you're producing; which may, in fact, be no flavor at all. This is a new option you never had before.
It will always be impossible to know what the sound of "zero color" is in a preamp, but if you know anything about Earthworks, you know that absolute accuracy has been the focus of their products from the beginning. This preamp appears to be the culmination of their experience brought together in one of the more crucial pieces of any high-end audio chain. The control set is stripped to the bare minimum, another indication that Earthworks is serious about their “wire with gain” focus.
Clarity and transparency are often perceived by jaded ears as "sterile", "boring", and "lifeless". I won't get into that debate, but I can't imagine that anyone would refer to the sound emanating from this preamp with those words. To my ears, it sounds positively alive. The sound jumps out of the speakers at you, instead of oozing out with the sticky goodness of distorted color.
My only complaint is a personal quibble: I wanted any new pre that I purchased to come in a standard rack mount format. Let's just say I'm invested in that form-factor, as I'm sure many others are. Alas, the 1021 comes only as a desktop piece. I’m fairly certain this pre will be used mostly in professional recording studios where standard rackmounts are the norm, but Earthworks is certainly not alone here in offering their single-channel pres in a desktop format only.
It also seems to me that, after using a preamp that had built-in headphone monitoring, it would be a real bonus for preamps at this price point to include that feature. It's a huge convenience for self-contained or portable vocal booths (places where I think this pre will be used a lot) to be able to monitor through the pre. When this feature is present—as with the Focusrite ISA One—it is used constantly. I’m actually surprised more upper-tier preamps are not outfitted with this feature.
On the plus side, the 1021 is a solidly built unit, and every switch and knob has the feel of something that will still be around after the universe ends.
In this age of digital modelling in post, it occurs to me that the most coveted "character" would be no character; just accurate and transparent sound. Just as so many producers are shying away from committing to effects in the tracking stage, why commit to color in your mic pre either. After all, anything can be done to the signal after tracking; more so if the signal is simply pure and clean to begin with. This still leaves a lot of room for mic selection; more perhaps. And nobody is better at pure and clean the Earthworks.
If I'm right, and producers are moving in this direction more than is apparent by the chatter in the studio world, Earthworks has caught the next wave, instead of climbing aboard the already crowded old “vintage” bandwagon that is noticeably sagging under the weight. For now, my search for “transparent” is over, and I have to believe it will be quite some time before any other preamp maker steals Earthworks Clean Crown.