As we settle into the age of COVID-19, it goes without saying that the lives of musicians have shifted. Many of us continue to create and generate output during these uncertain times. Through live streaming, home recording, and podcasting, we adapt to the situation in front of us. For me this meant pivoting my focus towards recording at home and overcoming some technical barriers along the way. I typically outsource recording and mixing services from local studios. But adapting to our "new normal" and staying socially distant, I found this to be an opportunity for learning. I've always strived to get "pro sounding" recordings in my bedroom and this was my chance to take things to the next level in my recordings. But this didn't come without some troubleshooting along the way.
To begin let me tell you about my go-to recording setup and gear list. On most sources such as guitar, piano, and percussion, I use a small diaphragm condenser microphone by sE Electronics called the sE8. This mic runs into my Heritage Audio mic pre (HA-73) and finally hits my Focusrite interface (Scarlett 18i20). I use Rattlesnake Cable Co. XLR cables throughout my entire chain. I also use Rattlesnake instrument cables if I'm going D.I. with a synth, bass, or guitar. The low capacitance of these cables make for clean, clear recordings.
This signal path is the meat and potatoes of most of my home recordings. But now I was in need of a microphone setup that would be ideal for recording vocals without completely draining my bank account. At first I was contemplating purchasing a large diaphragm condenser mic. After browsing my options and taking inventory of the gear I already had, I thought I would revisit an old friend: The Shure SM58. The 58 is a rugged workhorse on the stage and occasionally used in my studio as a scratch vocal mic or even a talkback mic. But I hadn't given much thought to the SM58 as a practical means of getting a "professional" vocal sound. As someone who is inundated with music gear, I often look at a price tag of a piece of equipment and equate it to the value of the tool itself. When in reality the $2,000 condenser microphone isn't always the best choice on a particular voice. Occasionally the $100 mic packed away in your closet is actually the ideal microphone for your vocal. But enough speculation, it was time to put this theory to the test!
Upon getting levels and dialing in a sound, I could already tell things weren't working in my favor. My mic pre (the HA-73) is a particularly colorful preamp modeled after the old 1073 Neve pres. Because of this I was experiencing a lot of noise at the level that I needed for my voice. This was an issue even after experimenting with various gain staging and when engaging/bypassing the loz impedance switch on the unit. I couldn't seem to get any usable sounds. The SM58 is a dynamic microphone and has a relatively quiet output. As a result I had to dial up the gain which pushes the input transformer on the pre and brought horrendous hiss into my signal as the noise floor was raised. I often seek out saturated tones with the HA-73 and with phantom powered condenser mics this is no problem. But this quiet microphone was not cutting it for me!
Feeling frustrated and defeated, I decided to do some more research and began troubleshooting. I came across a product called the CL-1 Cloudlifter by Cloud Microphones. I've seen this little guy around the internet for awhile now on various podcasts as well as in home and professional studios. The royal blue enclosure of the CL-1 is hard to miss, yet I never truly understood it's purpose until further investigation. The company claims the CL-1 "converts phantom power into as much as +25db of clean, clear gain into your passive microphones." I often see the Cloudlifter paired with a notoriously quiet dynamic mic called the SM7B. I thought I would bite the bullet and give the product a shot with my old SM58 to see if it might solve my gain staging issue.
Once the CL-1 arrived, I opened the box and I was delighted by the robust and VERY simple design. In my studio I like to color code my mic cables and instrument cables to keep things tidy. I thought this to be a perfect opportunity to use two more Rattlesnake XLR cables to match the Cloudlifter. Rattlesnake Cable Co. now offers XLRs as short as 3 feet (as a standard offering) with an option for color weave, so of course I went with blue. Additionally, you can create a custom XLR build request to get specific lengths for your needs.
One cable 4 feet in length (from the mic to the CL-1) and another 10' XLR (running from the CL-1 to my mic pre.) One feature of the Cloudlifter that I hadn't heard anyone talk about is the rubber feet and strap slot underneath the enclosure. This makes it so you can strap the unit directly to your mic stand or boom with the velcro strap provided. As suggested in the literature included in the box, I simply plugged the 58 into the CL-1 and powered on my HA-73 with the phantom power engaged and the gain turned all the way down. While monitoring through my headphones I simply sang into the mic and dialed up the gain and was amazed! I'm a fan of products that do one thing and do it well and the Cloudlifter does just that. Clean and clear signal without driving the noise floor through the roof. With this new setup I can allow the Cloudlifter to do the heavy lifting. It can drive the gain to my mic pre without overloading the transformers of the pre itself. This allows me to get those saturated tones I often desire without completely obliterating the signal.
The CL-1 delivers exactly what Cloud Microphones claims it does. By converting 48V of phantom power into clean gain, this product pulls the most out of your mics, particularly those with lower outputs. For around $150 USD, the cloudlifter can convert your $100 mic into something worth having on a record. I now have my sights set on the infamous studio and broadcast mic (the Shure SM7B). The SM7B is the big sibling to the SM58 and I'm eager to hear the results when this very quiet, transformerless mic is paired with the CL-1. Another pairing that I'm excited to try is the very affordable Fathead ribbon mic by Cascade Microphones. The phantom power from your interface or mic pre won't pass through the Cloudlifter. You can rest easy that it won't damage your delicate ribbon microphones, while maximising the potential of your microphone.