Saturday, June 30, 2007

Millennia STT-1, TD-1 & Crest CA-9

The Big Guns

My "big rig" live setup typically includes the Millennia TD-1 (top), the Millennia STT-1 (rack @ top) and a Crest CA-9 poweramp (rack @ bottom). This is a heavy setup to cart around, but is worth it's weight in headroom and TONE. Although I do have a number of all-tube setups, I do find that that this rig with the Millennia preamps in pure solid state mode really delivers an accurate reproduction and the slammin' punch of my Wal and Dingwall basses. Here are the details:

The Millennia STT-1 "Origin" preamp

What does the New York Philharmonic Orchestra have in common with Skywalker Ranch, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, Pete Townsend, Joe Satriani just to name a few? When it came to no-compromise state-of-the-art preamplifiers they turned to Millennia Media. Millennia has a convincing client list that includes hundreds of orchestras, opera companies, recording studios, film scoring stages, studios and well-known performing musicians, and if you have used their products this would come as no surprise.

What initally piqued my interest was a review from Bass Player Magazine's Terry Buddingh who described the Origin STT-1 as “Unbelievably transparent in solid-state mode, most invisible-sounding preamp I've heard. Imagine a psychic connection between your bass and your power amp”. Of course i
t is certainly worth mentioning that the tube stages are similarly amazing.

The Origin is an extremely attractive proposition, and the sleek, sexy front panel with Selco VU meter and myriad glowing lights merely hint at the powerful capabilities beneath the exterior. In terms of structure, “Twin Topology” refers to the ability to choose between either pure class-A triode tubes or pure class-A discrete J-FETs. The Origin is organized into a “processing chain” that offers tube, solid-state and audio transformer (or transformerless) options to be selected for most of the various preamp stages. The entire path from input through to output is entirely class-A and only the highest-quality components have been used throughout to ensure the integrity of the audio path.

An input selector allows the choice of mic, line or instrument (1/4") inputs. Beyond the initial tube input buffer, SS or tube gain amplifier stages are selected. The selected gain amp drives direct utility outputs and the dynamics stage (EQ, compressor/ limiter/de-esser). Each gain amplifier has it's own level controls and switches are available to select polarity, phantom power (for the mic input) and the audio transformer which may be used either with tube, solid-state or standalone selections. The MIT-01 audio transformer is the first ever offered by Millennia Media and was designed entirely in-house. When used with high-level inputs like electric bass it was designed to impart a "larger than life" colourful personality and enhance the ability to cut through a mix.

The EQ stage of the Origin is a four band parametric EQ, offering individually selectable Low Frequency, Low Mids, High Mids and High Frequency bands. Each band has a frequency select switch, a boost/cut control and a parametric Q control. Shelving is also selectable for LF and HF bands at 6db per octave, while LM and HM have a 10x range button for maximum flexibility. The ability to switch each individual frequency band in or out and isolate it in order to compare to a flat setting is extremely valuable for finding or fine-tuning your sound, or simply for adjusting to the acoustics of a particular room.

The dynamics stage of the Origin includes the compressor, limiter and de-esser. Controls are available for threshold (sensitivity), attack time, release time and ratio. A switch is available to flip the dynamics section from post-EQ to pre-EQ, and the meter can be switched into gain reduction mode in order to see how the original signal is being compressed. The de-esser may not be practical for an electric bass but it's available should the need arise to tame microphone sibilance. The opto-resistive compressor in the Origin is, to sum up in a word, superlative. It’s important to note that the dynamics stage and EQ are combined such that both are run in the same mode: either tube or SS.

Outputs offered include an XLR main out with a "dynamics link" for combining two Origins for a stereo signal, unbalanced XLR and 1/4" TS phone outputs which are post preamp/EQ/dynamics section, and the previously mentioned direct out which is driven by the selected gain section. STT-1 DI outputs are driven at line level. Input and output ground lift/isolation is not offered, however an earth ground lift strap is included.

The Origin is an astounding professional-grade microphone preamplifier; well-designed, flexible and armed with a plethora of features. It is extremely well-suited for use with electric bass. Just one aspect alone, the flexibility to switch individual stages in or out of the signal path, allows the performer to hear the impact of each choice and how it combines with other selections. This makes it well worth the price of admission. Sonically it can offer as much or as little colouration as desired. Combining various tube options with the transformer creates huge and wonderful vintage tones, while going purely solid-state it can be clean, hi-fi or totally invisible and transparent.

The Origin was not designed specifically for use as a bass preamplifier, and some of the usual bassplayer-friendly features are not present. There are no footswitch capabilities offered nor is there an effects loop. This is presumably to maintain the purity of the signal chain, although as many of the functions are relay-switched it might have been possible to design footswitch capabilities in for certain operations. Also, the initial tube and solid-state channels are an "either-or" proposition and cannot be “mixed” as with some preamps. The lack of a Mic level DI might mean that Millenia's other preamp, the TD-1, could be a more practical choice for many bassplayers. Since it’s arrival the Origin STT-1 has become one of the essential ingredients in my personal sonic formula.

The Millennia TD-1 preamp / DI
Most bass players have, at one time or another, found the need for a DI unit to connect their bass either to the mixing board for studio recording or to the PA for live performance. The Millennia TD-1 fulfills this need and more. As a preamp it offers Twin Topology similar to the Origin, but at a more affordable price point. There's other magic at work here too. The input buffer on the TD-1 is switchable between tube and solid-state and there is a microphone-level DI output. Neither of these features are present on the Origin, which makes this a perfect compliment.

The TD-1 has been billed primarily for use with guitar, due to the re-amp features and Strat/Les Paul guitar emulations. Bass players may simply ignore these features as they do not detract from the sound in any way, but should note that there are rumours of upcoming Jazz and Precision bass emulations.

Since acquiring the TD-1 I've come to the realization that I would not consider plugging in one of my basses without it. It is truly a "swiss army knife" in live and studio settings, offering the same invisible-sounding psychic connection as the Origin. Unless a compressor and fully-parametric EQ are required the TD-1 is truly an ultimate DI and an excellent bass preamp in one small package.

Crest CA-9 poweramp
I used to ascribe to the theory that all solid-state poweramps were the same; the old theory of a poweramp being nothing more than "straight wire with gain" and that similarly-powered amps could not be distinguished by the human ear. When amps are compensated to identical levels, controlled double blind testing proves this theory in a reproducible way. I participated in several double blind listening experiments at the National Research Council under the watchful eye of Dr. Floyd Toole many years ago.

The CA-9 just dashes any and all such notions and theories. For bass instrument amplification nothing comes close to sounding as good as the Crest Audio Ca-9 to my ear, excepting perhaps the Crown Macrotech. There's much to be said for massive iron transformers and large capacitors, at least when it comes to delivering the huge transients of an electric bass at low frequencies.

The CA-9 puts out a hefty 2 kilowatts of power bridged into a 4 ohm cabinet. There are many other high-powered solid-state amps out there, but I have found that the Crest CA-9 is the true locomotive of pure bass tone and power. Personal thanks to Tom Bowlus for encouraging me to reevaluate these.