Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Review: PreSonus TubePre

Since I often see discussion on the model of preamp I use primarily for electric bass, among other applications, I thought I would share some thoughts reviewing the unit, it's versatility, it's application, and correcting some misunderstandings. Also at each section heading is my rating on a 5 point scale.

A Great Value - 4/5
Our topic of review & discussion today is the PreSonus TUBEPre. At typical retail prices it used to be 2 years ago you could purchase this gem for about $100 (All currency reference USD). Now they are running around $130 and even higher. Still it's a great buy!

What It Is/Is Not - 4/5
If you're looking for a pristine clean to creamy sound and all points in between with lots of punch, and on a budget, this may be the mic preamp/DI for you. I've been successful getting great sounds through it for recording and live applications for: bass preamp/DI, vocals, acoustic guitar preamp, electric guitar preamp/DI, miked djembe, cymbals, and trumpet.

If you are a person that's look for lots of onboard EQ options, this is not the unit for you. I've known of more than one person that has purchased this unit to run in front of their bass amp in order to fatten up the sound. That it will fatten up the sound, but you probably don't want it in front of your bass amp's preamp, because the signal will be too hot by the time you turn up the TUBEPre enough to take advantage it. My suggestion is to bypass your bass amp's built-in preamp, instead using an effects return to run straight into the power amp. The problem that creates is in most bass amps you probably just bypassed the amp's EQ section as well. You probably are still able to use the bass amp's built-in DI for a controllable level signal to front of house, though this may vary depending upon your bass amp's design.

Features - 4/5
The features contained on the TUBEPre are great, but there are a few more included in some similarly priced competitors. Still, those included are very helpful. If you need a straight-forward mic or instrument pre, this may be a good unit to consider. For help in fitting in a mix, it has phase reversal. There's a signal pad for the balanced microphone input. (Note: The pad doesn't work on the 1/4" unbalanced input.) An 80 Hz filter is included to taper off unwanted boom for vocals, room noise, or other things picked up by sensitive condenser microphones. Also the unit can supply phantom power for condenser mics, or phantom powered devices, stompboxes, etc, in front of the TUBEPre in your signal chain. Finally, the ability to blend tube drive and pristine solid state preamplification is wonderful.

A few helpful additions to this unit, that some competitors have, would be an effects loop, the ability to switch the wonderful backlit analog VU meter to observe both input and output levels, and perhaps a USB audio out for easy recording direct into PC.

Also of note, this preamp, along with its competitors, has a wall-wart for a power supply, supposedly to eliminate the possibility of noise. For the price range, that's not unusual. Where the TUBEPre excels is that there is a matching format EQ, compressor, and headphone amp, all of which can be mounted for studio use in a 1/3U width vertical mini rack, or there's the option of mounting them side by side in a 3-wide configuration using a single rack space mounting adapter.

Reliability - 2/5
I'm on unit number 2 of these now. The first one began crackling, but was silent again after a tube swap. Sadly it died with no other complaints just before the warranty ran out. Unit number two has been working great for 13 & 1/2 months. I even experimented with a few different tubes of the same model for the differences in sound quality, drive saturation, and amount of punch.

Three days ago during a rambunctious song I was playing bass through the TUBEPre when the signal quickly tapered to inaudible. I stopped the band only to find a look of horror on the face of my drummer, spurred by the fact that the other half of the rhythm section/band leader was no longer playing, and she was inhaling the acrid smell of electronic smoke. The band finished the last song without my bass. Later that day, the preamp was operational again with the change of a tube...but tubes don't smoke, so there's something else at play here. I expect unit number two's days are numbered.

Customer Service - 0/5
Sadly the retailer that I purchased the original TUBEPre from is no longer around, so I couldn't return the first unit. I contacted PreSonus via their form on their website about the issue, and sent an email, but never received a response. I won't bother contacting PreSonus about this one. When it dies, I'll probably ditch it, and sell my dirt box for a preamp that does both, and includes some of the features the competitors include. I can only hope they will be as punchy as this one and more reliable.

Overall Evaluation - 2.8
These preamps were great while they lasted. They didn't hold up nearly as well as a similar plastic device with shunned brand name I used for 6 years before them though. I loved the sound quality. I hated the reliability. I'm moving on. If you're in a pinch for a great sound now and don't have a lot of scratch, consider the PreSonus TUBEPre. Just realize a year or two down the road you may be replacing it. Then again, don't forget to check out the competition, or just save your money for a more robust unit when your budget allows such a purchase.

12/22/09 Update:
This thing is crackling... It's on it's way out. I've chosen the A.R.T. TPS II to be the successor.


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