Clean‑gain ‘booster’ preamps are popular accessories for ribbon and moving‑coil dynamic mics — but what if that gain were deliberately made more characterful?
There’s been a big resurgence in the popularity of high‑quality passive ribbon and moving‑coil dynamic microphones in recent years, both for music production and dialogue applications such as podcasting and YouTube videos. Consequently, we’ve also seen more inline booster preamps becoming available. These devices, such as Cloud Microphones’ Cloudlifter and the Triton Audio FETHead, are usually intended to give low‑output passive mics a helping hand by way of applying a fixed‑level but low‑noise boost before that signal reaches the main mic preamp. They typically draw power from the +48V phantom supply on the main preamp.
To a large extent, Tierra Audio’s new Flavours preamps perform just the same task. They require +48V phantom power from a mic preamp to operate but don’t pass it through to the attached mic (so as not to risk damaging sensitive or valuable vintage passive mics), and they apply a boost to the signal. But in one significant respect, they’re very different...
Each of the seven devices in this range has been designed to ‘flavour’ the signal in a different way, and their names are all plays on a culinary theme. The options range from the subtle enhancement yet pretty clean gain of Salt through to full‑on distortion courtesy of Chilli and Truffle, with a handful of gentler tone‑shaping options (Mint, Vanilla and Cocoa) filling out the ‘menu’ along the way. Tierra explain that the basic concept is to combine the provision of the extra gain that low‑level dynamic mics often need with the option of adding a sonic ‘flavour’ to the clean‑sounding preamps of a desk or audio interface — rather in the way that you might sometimes opt to use different boutique mic preamps for their character.
Physically, the Flavours are rugged, compact devices, about half the size of a typical DI box, and they have no user controls; there’s just an XLR on one end for the mic input and another at the other end for the output to your mic preamp. Inside, they’re all completely different designs (rather than being a case of pairing the same booster with different ‘saturation’ circuitry), so as well as stamping a different sonic footprint on the signal they also apply different amounts of gain. The maximum boosts range from 23dB, which is fairly conventional for an inline preamp, to a whopping 53dB. (Note that the precise gain figure for each box depends on the impedance of the attached microphone.)
When the Flavours first arrived at my studio — Tierra kindly sent their whole range to test and audition — I happened to be in the middle of a drum recording session, and thought I’d throw a couple straight into action. But with the above considerations of gain and power in mind, I found that before I could really get to grips with them I first had to spend a little time contemplating how best to implement them into my studio setup.
Using them initially on some more low‑risk ‘character’ mics seemed like a fun way to start, but the only such mic option I had available which didn’t require phantom power became far too hot, level‑wise, for the main mic preamp when plugged into one of the Flavours. I have an Audient mixing console and various outboard preamp options here, but none of those are able to supply +48V phantom power when they’re set to receive line‑level input sources (which would be an obvious way to accommodate the higher level). So with those preamps I had to use an attenuator to use the Flavours on anything loud, such as drums. With my little RME Babyface audio interface, however, I encountered no such problem: the preamps in this (and various other interfaces) can provide +48V while padding the mic amps down to accept line‑level signals.
Once I’d got over these initial teething issues, though, I ended up having a lot of fun while trying out the different boxes on various sources. They definitely offer something different and useful in a variety of recording situations. As well as dropping them in on a few real recording sessions I conducted some more controlled tests, in which I auditioned each of the Flavours on the same four sources: a voice recording, an acoustic guitar and a couple of different drums. In the next section of this review, then, I’ll give you a little explanation of how I got on with the ‘main courses’ before offering you some more general thoughts on the range as a whole towards the end.
The Main Course
SALT (£129$150, up to +39dB): First up, we have Salt, which is intended as the cleanest option. Similar to a conventional ‘booster’ device, its main purpose is to provide extra gain (as much as +39dB, which is rather more than most such devices) to passive ribbon or low‑output moving‑coil dynamic mics like the Shure SM7. Unlike some other Flavours, there’s no expensive input transformer in this design and that’s reflected in the lower asking price. While it’s the least obviously ‘flavoured’, it can nonetheless add some subtle enhancement.
For the drum recording tests, I had a close kick drum microphone (Audio Technica ATM25) and one channel of a Royer SF‑12 ribbon acting as a mono overhead, about 1m (just over a yard) above the snare. On both mics Salt provided a helpful extra dose of clean‑sounding gain, without there being any noticeable side‑effects. Specifically, when paired with a Shure SM7 on my voice recording, the first unit I was sent introduced some unwanted hiss, but when I raised this with Tierra they said they were aware of a few faulty units from an early production run, and sent a replacement which worked without problem. I should point out that, even with the faulty one, there were no such issues when used on the acoustic guitar with one channel of my Royer SF‑12 — and on that particular source, I also noticed a slight flattering of the sound; it conveyed just a touch more clarity and presence than when using the main preamp on its own.
PEPPER (£139$150, up to +36dB): Pepper imparts a more obvious character. Providing up to +36dB of gain this time, Tierra describe it as having a “defined sound, with a pinch of compression and fast transients — a sibling of the Chilli flavour [of which more below] but less spicy”. Suggested applications include live sound, and particularly rock and other heavy styles, where those characteristics are more likely to come in handy.
In my tests, Pepper’s low‑frequency roll‑off from 100Hz was clearly audible and this meant it worked well on the acoustic guitar, voice and drum overhead test recordings. The same characteristic made it less helpful on the kick drum, of course, and it wouldn’t be the right choice for anything where you need good low‑end extension.
Pepper definitely added a little something around 3‑5 kHz, leaving my snare drum feeling slightly compressed in a pleasing way; that bit more exciting. While I’d never describe my own voice as ‘exciting’, I did find that using Pepper to capture it through a Shure SM7 delivered a nicely flattering sound. As with Salt, the first review unit was noisy with this particular mic. Apparently it was the same issue, and again a replacement worked fine; I experienced no noise problems with any other Flavours.
TRUFFLE (£139$225, up to +39dB): Tierra describe Truffle as their most “daring and exclusive sound”. It incorporates a Lundahl input transformer, a design decision which contributes to the higher price. Like Salt, it applies up to +39dB of gain but it’s intended much more as an ‘effect’ than as a conventional booster.
In my tests, Truffle’s high‑frequency roll‑off (at 12kHz) was clearly audible, and I liked how that gave my spoken voice a more upfront, ‘radio ready’ sound. On the drum recordings, it delivered some heavy distortion, especially on the kick mic, with the 1‑3 kHz range in particular ‘coming alive’ in a very characterful way. Truffle is certainly not a subtle option, then. But if you think of it more like a guitar stompbox it starts to make sense, and I found that when I used it in conjunction with an input attenuator I could control the amount of distortion pretty well. Used in that way it can be surprisingly versatile and I wonder whether perhaps such a facility could be built into this box in the future?
CHILLI (£209$260, up to +53dB): Chilli is another more extreme‑sounding option, and Tierra describe it as having a “sharp, crispy sound, that can produce hard‑sounding dynamics”. Featuring a Lundahl input transformer, Chilli provides up to +53dB of gain. That amount of gain is getting into standalone mic preamp territory and, while it’s generally fine when working with quiet sources, the fact that you have no control over the figure limits it; frequently, I had to plug in my 25dB passive attenuator so as not to overload the next stage in my recording chain.
Excessive levels aside, Chilli provides some really appealing character, delivering a hard, distorted sound on close drum mics generally, and adding a nice crisp bite to my snare drum in a ribbon overhead. On the quieter sources, which didn’t drive things into such obvious distortion, it was surprisingly subtle, though, adding a touch more presence to my voice and giving an acoustic guitar a slightly compressed feel, seeming to ‘round off’ the transients. There’s clearly something good going on, and I wonder if incorporating a pad into a Chilli Mk2, to make it more versatile, might be a good move for Tierra?
MINT (£219$235, up to +27dB): Mint was, for me, the option that really showcased the overall Flavours concept best, and in real‑world recording sessions this was definitely the one I tended to reach for most often. It offers a sensible amount of gain, includes both a Lundahl input transformer and applies a useful EQ curve that can often help you capture more mix‑ready sounds — it’s a gentle low‑frequency roll‑off, starting around 300‑400 Hz, which I found was perfect for counteracting the proximity effect bass boost you encounter when using a ribbon mic to close‑mic a guitar cab or an acoustic guitar. It could prove to be a great companion for something like a Coles 4038 ribbon mic, enabling you to make use of it on a wider range of sources without much further processing.
Other than on the kick drum, Mint worked very well in my more structured tests too. With a drum overhead mic, it added presence whilst also cleaning out space for close mics to provide the weight in the kick and snare. As I’d observed on the recording sessions, it enabled me to get a ribbon mic in much closer to the acoustic guitar without there being an excessive build‑up in the low end.
In short, if you have a decent clean mic preamp, Mint offers a cost‑effective way of augmenting your input chain. It could see plenty of use in any studio, whilst also being a very handy, compact device that you can take on location recording sessions.
VANILLA (£209$260, up to +27dB): Working our way into the dessert menu, Vanilla features both low‑ and high‑pass filtering at 100Hz and 10kHz, respectively, whilst providing up to 27dB of gain boost, which seems a sensible amount. Featuring a Lundahl input transformer again, Tierra describe this option as having a “creamy and controlled sound” and it certainly seemed to add a nice sense of clarity to my voice, the low‑pass filter combining nicely with a subtle sweetening of the midrange. I missed a little bit of the top end of my acoustic guitar, but it worked well when combined with a ribbon mic above my snare. Vanilla proved to be a great companion for my Beyerdynamic M160 ribbon mic, when using it to close‑mic a guitar cabinet; it shaped the sound beautifully, whilst adding just a touch more excitement.
COCOA (£233$305, up to +48dB): Finally, then, we come to Cocoa, which is another on the ‘effect’ end of the Flavour spectrum, its most immediately audible characteristic being a high‑frequency roll‑off that begins just above 2kHz. Tierra chose a Carnhill input Transformer for this model, which pushes the price up slightly again — it’s a component you often find in high‑quality characterful mic preamps that cost significantly more than this.
At the risk of sounding like a stuck record, I’m slightly bemused at why so much gain boost is required — this one delivers up to 48dB, depending on the mic’s output impedance — and while it’s no doubt a consequence of the circuit used to deliver this particular colour, it feels like building in an attenuator would make it much more versatile.
Cocoa does impose plenty of character, though! On a kick drum, the high‑frequency roll‑off and transformer combined to create a lovely, ‘vintage thud’ and it should be great generally at taming any source which has excessive top‑end, or which would benefit from thick, characterful lows. It was too much on my own voice and on acoustic guitar, but I can see plenty of uses — both creative ones and more practical ones, wherever the top end will benefit from a little HF smoothing — for Cocoa.
In real‑world recording sessions, Mint was definitely the one I tended to reach for most often.
Although it took me a little while to warm to the whole Flavours concept, I ended up feeling that these colourful little boxes do a great job of changing the personality of a sound, and I can see lots of creative potential for using them in the studio, on location or in a live‑sound setting.
I’ve mentioned a few practical niggles and you should bear them in mind if you’re considering investing in a Flavour or two. Also, while it was great having them all to play with, note that some of the Flavours do a very specific thing that’s more dramatic than you’d expect from a ‘normal’ preamp, so it’s important you choose the right one. Of course, most prospective purchasers probably won’t have a means of comparing them before they buy, and to help inform that choice I’ve prepared some audio examples (https://sosm.ag/tierra-audio-flavours).
Download this ZIP file of hi-res WAV audio examples: tierraaudioflavours.zip
I mentioned above that the output levels from some of the Flavours were just too hot to make them of practical use with my professional studio gear and, while I do have devices like inline pads to hand, I think it would be better if Tierra were to consider incorporating a basic 15‑20 dB pad into these preamps; the extra switch might bump the cost up a touch, but it would solve most of the practical issues I faced. Depending on where that pad was placed, it could also mean much more flexibility in terms of how much character the more colourful options add to loud sources such as drums or guitars; you’re unlikely to need 40‑50 dB of extra gain on them, after all, but you may well appreciate the sonic signature. And regarding the (solved!) noise issue with a couple of the early‑batch review units used with my SM7, Tierra were very responsive — if you encounter any such issues I’m sure that they’d be very happy to help.
I believe the core idea of the Flavours range is to provide sonic options to musicians and recordists who don’t own or perhaps cannot afford the luxury of having a range of boutique mic preamps: a way, for example, to sweeten your interface‑based recording chain with a high‑quality input transformer normally found in more expensive studio outboard. They can do just that and, despite my quibbles about practicality, it’s relatively cheap and easy to acquire a passive attenuator or external phantom supply that would address them.
The most important ‘takeaway’ from this review, really, is that all of the options sound great in their own way when used on certain sources. They do indeed change the Flavour of your audio, in what might be a creative or more practically helpful way. It’s all in the taste, and a dash of the right Flavour could well prove to be an inspiring addition to any setup.
- Salt and Pepper are good options to consider if in the market for a booster preamp that adds a little ‘something’.
- Mint and Vanilla, in particular, provide creative possibilities but can also perform some useful technical functions.
- Cocoa, Chilli and Truffle provide large gain boosts and bags of character and are surprisingly versatile if paired with an input attenuator.
- Excessive fixed boost limits some models’ applications.
- Two models are noisy with some mics (Tierra say this is being addressed).
The Flavours double as compact booster preamps and character boxes, offering a range of high‑quality sonic options from clean gain to full‑on distortion and saturation.
From £129 each including VAT, as detailed in the main review text.
Universal Distribution +44 (0)845 555 1123
From $150 each, as detailed in the main review text.
M1 Distribution +1 248 556 4615.