Mic preamps and DIs all sound the same, right? Nope!
It’s been many years since a genuinely ‘bad’ mic preamp made its way into my studio, and those built into most interfaces do a pretty good job of amplifying what the mic is picking up — so any standalone preamp released today had better do something more than boost a mic signal! Engineers are often drawn to vintage preamps (or modern ones based upon them) specifically because of the character they impart, be that the relatively subtle effect of transformers, discrete opamps or valves in normal use, or the distortion as you start to ‘drive’ them with hotter signals. I find it refreshing when a manufacturer does something more than clone a colourful classic, though, and the Dark Storm, manufactured by US‑based Lightning Boy Audio, ticks that box.
An original Class‑A design that can deliver up to 75dB of gain in total, the Dark Storm features both mic and instrument preamps, and is based around a custom JFET opamp and a number of transformers. The mic input is accessed via an XLR on the rear of the 1U half‑rack case, and the input is balanced using the company’s own LBA‑MCX4 mic input transformer. The instrument input is unbalanced and its connector is a front‑panel quarter‑inch TS jack. Its DI circuit employs a JFET and there are two transformers in the signal path — an LBA‑MC15 and the aforementioned LBA‑MCX4. (If interested you can find the specs of all these transformers on the company’s website).
On the rear are separate ground lift switches for each input. Power comes in on a 2.5mm centre‑positive connector from an external 48V DC 2A adaptor, which terminates in an IEC inlet, for connection to mains AC. The Dark Storm can pass power on to up to seven more units courtesy of a daisy‑chain output, helping to keep the cable mess to a minimum. Each unit’s power circuit creates the ±18V power rails for the audio circuitry, and is internally isolated from any others in the chain.
The main +4dBU 600Ω line output has an XLR connector, and is balanced using one of the company’s chunky Fat Sally range of transformers. But you can also send an unbalanced high‑impedance (145kΩ) signal out, simultaneously, through a quarter‑inch TS jack, with the impedance conversion performed by another of the company’s transformers, this time an LBA‑20SX steel‑core model. You could, for example, use this output for true zero‑latency monitoring of the input signal while passing the balanced feed to your interface/recorder, or to route your mic signal out to a guitar amp or guitar pedals, while recording the balanced output dry. Or, guitarists might want to use the Dark Storm as a preamp and feed the unbalanced output into the power stage of their amp... In short, it’s a nice feature for the experimenters among us, and increases this preamp’s versatility.
There are also five backlit buttons. One (red) switches the device on/off (it’s nice to see this on the front, where users actually want it!). The others are blue, and include the usual polarity invert, 48V phantom power and (58Hz) high‑pass filter switches. Then there’s the intriguingly named Old button. As the name implies, this changes the sonic character somewhat, and with a high‑ and low‑end roll‑off, a slight thickening effect, a change of impedance (from 1.4kΩ to a lowly 150Ω; the DI input remains at 1MΩ), and a chunky level boost, this is almost certainly accomplished using a transformer.
For a box with so few user controls, the Dark Storm offers impressive tonal versatility, and with both the mic and instrument inputs feeding the same circuit, operation is trivially easy. Just turn down the gain, plug in your mic or instrument (switching phantom on if required), set Trim to a roughly 12‑o’clock position and turn up the gain to get the signal to the desired level. From there, you can just back off gain and turn up Trim if you want a cleaner sound, or back off Trim and turn up gain for more character. And in the final stages of the gain knob’s travel, you’re greeted with some real attitude.
So simple, but so addictive. And what character there is on offer here!
So simple, but so addictive. And what character there is on offer here! As part of my review tests, I tracked overdubs for a whole pop/rock song, including using it on a mono drum room mic, and I was blown away by the ease and immediacy with which I could dial in colour to taste. On the ‘clean’ end of the gain control, the sound is not clean exactly, but cleanish, and slightly snappier and more ‘lively’ somehow than many. At the other end, particularly those final three ‘coloured in’ lines, the effect is not subtle. Think overdriven console channel, but a pleasing sort of breakup, without so much of the ‘fizz’ that some preamps exhibit when cranked. If you experiment with the gain structure you can find more nuance too, not least by manipulating the level being fed into the output transformer. And this is all before you throw the Old switch into the equation. This is not something you can easily A/B compare, since the gain change is significant, but it does plenty to shape the tone, and to tame the distortion if you push things that far. A slightly tube‑like quality, if you like, and I also found that, presumably due to the input impedance change, it could be useful for coaxing a different tonality out of my dynamic mics when used on a guitar cab.
The Dark Storm can do relatively subtle things, but this is clearly not its reason for being, and it’s not likely to be your first choice for recording classical flute or piano. For anything else, though, where you want the sound to seem that bit larger than life, it works very well. It has the range to do pleasing things on pretty much anything and, importantly, different things for a range of sources in the same session. From close‑miked, breathy, whisper vocals through my C414 to raunchy rock vox through an SM57. From a thick, rounded DI bass guitar to a distorting electric guitar preamp or a box to breathe new life and dimension into synth parts... You get the idea. Just a few controls can do so much. It’s one of those toys that awakens the creative urge, and encourages you to play and experiment — and when I’m in that mood I find it a whole lot easier to make music!
So much more than ‘just’ a mic preamp, the Dark Storm is as much about colour and character as it is about gain. It practically begs you to play and experiment!