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Monday, December 22, 2008

Presonus Eureka

Eureka! Presonus gets it mostly right with its recording channel

I've owned PreSonus gear in the past, specifically the DigiMax eight-channel pre, and I wasn't a big fan of that unit. Most notably, my opinion of the unit's performance on low-output dynamic microphones was especially poor. So, when my dealer encouraged me to take a listen to the new PreSonus Eureka, I already had a negative disposition for PreSonus preamps. Still, I'm always up for playing with a new toy so I said I'd give it a shot.

The box itself is a channel-strip type arrangement with a microphone preamp and direct input section followed by a compressor and EQ. The compressor and EQ are order switchable and both have a bypass mode. There is a master output control to provide 10 db more or less gain before output and an analog meter in the center of the unit providing output level monitoring, including the ability to monitor the compressor’s gain reduction.

The preamp section features several standard controls including high-pass filter, phase invert, 48v phantom power and a 20 db input pad. There are also less commonly seen features including adjustable impedance and "saturation" controls.

Tunable impedance seems to be a hot topic in preamp design lately, but in my tests using an SM57, Sennheiser 441 and Earthworks TC30K, I always picked the 2500 ohm setting, the highest offered by the Eureka. The 600 ohm setting was interesting on snare drum with the SM57, making the sound thicker and more strained.

The other non-obvious control on the preamp is the saturation feature. The documentation behind this knob indicates a current depletion technique designed to control the generation of second order harmonics adding a "pleasing analog tape or tube like distortion." It adds something for sure, but I'm not sure if I'd call it pleasing. I would liken the sound to a fog or haze in the signal, as if someone were screaming into a telephone handset from across the world. Each time I tried adding even subtle amounts of color I preferred the sound of the saturation control fully off.

OK, so I don't like the sound of the Eureka preamp's special features, but what about the preamp itself? This little preamp is really great! Again and again I was impressed with the very useable quality coming out of the unit. For my own edification, I compared the Eureka to a Millennia Media HV3D. First, I tried the Eureka on a 10-inch popcorn snare drum with an Earthworks TC30k microphone. To my ears, there was very little difference in sound between the Millennia Media HV3D and the PreSonus. This was especially surprising given the notoriously hot output of Earthworks microphones and the transformer coupling of the PreSonus versus the transformerless Millennia. Both preamps delivered great, focused sounds ready for tape.

Second was the same source using a SM57. For this test, I was surprised at the difference in the Eureka vs. the Millennia. Admittedly, I used two different SM57s so I could cut both takes at once, so much of the difference may be difference between microphones. That said, the Millennia seems to have a good mid-range thing going on and seemed a bit more punchy, but there's clearly a lot more high frequency information plus a certain “spread” to the sound coming out of the Eureka. For a Pop record there's no question I would have chosen the PreSonus over the Millennia

Next up was a Fender Precision Bass using the direct input on the Eureka. For this comparison, I also plugged the bass into the wonderful Millennia STT-1 direct in. While I still preferred the openness and richness of tone from the Millennia, the PreSonus is a great sound with plenty of punch. I also felt this was the one place where the saturation control might be useful if one likes a dense, thick bass sound with lots of mids instead of an open, clear one.

Finally, the last test was voice. I had Dave Dye, lead singer for Submarinehead, sing a bit from a new comedy song a cappella and tried both the Millennia HV3D and the PreSonus out side-by-side. Dave is very fond of the sound of the Sennheiser 441 for vocals (as am I), and this microphone can be challenging for preamps because of its very low output. In this test, both the HV3D and PreSonus were set at their highest gain settings possible, with the Master Out on the PreSonus also maxed out.

The sound from both preamps was open and clear. To my ears, the PreSonus was a slight bit harsher on the sibilant sounds, and in general had a bit of crunch on the top. There was no doubt, however, the Eureka sounds great and performed admirably at this application. To me, vocal handling separates great preamps from the mediocre ones, and the Eureka was just dandy on Dave’s voice.

One thing I noticed is the very, very low noise floor of the PreSonus. Usually ultra-low noise performance like this is reserved for "money" preamps like the Millennia. Even at max gain (in the neighborhood of 65db), the PreSonus was whisper quiet -- only very slightly noisier than the HV3D. This is a huge improvement from my experience with the DigiMax, and a welcome one. I would not hesitate to reach for the Eureka for quiet, sensitive sources and low output microphones.

During a mixdown session, I also found the compressor useful. I got great sounds using the line-in on snare drum with shades of tight and squashed to punchy and resonant. The Eureka was also good on vocals, though it left me wanting a bit more squash as the compressor tops out at a max ratio of 10:1. The sound is reasonably uncolored, and I was impressed at how easy it was to get a good sound without excessive pumping and breathing, even when squeezing sounds heavily. I would not hesitate to put the PreSonus on snare drum for tracking or mixing.

The EQ was by far my least favorite. For starters, the parametric EQ is arranged such that the Gain, Q and center knobs are in different positions on each band! Yes, they are in the same order, but because PreSonus arranges them in a "three triangles" pattern with the center triangle inverted, they are in different positions vertically band-to-band. This awkward arrangement plus the very small print on the front panel was an endless point of frustration using the device.

Beyond the ergonomics, the sound of the EQ was less than stellar. It reminded me a bit of a Mackie console -- very forward in the mids, a crunchy top and a boomy bottom. The Q control just won't get wide enough for smooth, wide boosts or cuts. I also felt the EQ, at notch settings, starved too much punch from the sound.

The Bottom Line: The PreSonus Eureka features a good pre, solid compressor but not so good EQ. Still, the good outweighs the bad and the unit sells at a reasonable price. When you take into consideration the Eureka's street price, one can do little else than applaud PreSonus for a job well done.

--Jim Dugger


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