Black Lion Audio B12A MkII Microphone Preamp
By Phil O'Keefe | (edited)
BLA updates their take on the classic 312 style microphone preamp
There are a few legendary preamp designs in the world of recording, and one of the most respected is the original 312A mic preamp. Developed by API in the late 1960s, it has been a popular choice among recording engineers for decades. Based in Chicago, Black Lion Audio is a relative newcomer to the world of pro audio, but they have built up a solid reputation for the quality of their equipment upgrade mods; taking your existing gear from other manufacturers and modifying it for improved sonic performance. However, mods are not the full extent of their business; Black Lion Audio is also well known for some of their own products that they produce from the ground up. Today we'll be taking a close look at an upgraded version of one them. The original Black Lion Audio B12A microphone preamp has received some noteworthy improvements and a new moniker, and is now called the B12A Mk II. Let's see what it's all about, and how it differs from its predecessor.
What You Need To Know
- The B12A MkII is housed in a half-rack sized enclosure and measures 9.5" W x 6.5" D x 1.75" H. Discounting the packaging, it weighs in at 3.2 pounds. Visually it looks very similar to its predecessor, with a brushed metal housing and understated yet classy looking graphics. Legibility of the black control labeling is quite good, even in relatively low-light studio situations.
- Power is supplied via an included Triad 24VAC 450mA wall wart power supply.
- The front panel is very straightforward, but provides you with everything you really need from a microphone preamp including a front panel-mounted power on/off toggle switch with LED power on indicator, and pushbutton switches for 48V phantom power, phase (polarity) invert, and a 10dB pad. A second LED indicator illuminates when the phantom power is engaged. A rotary control allows you to set the amount of gain, with up to 70dB available, which is a significant increase from the previous version of the B12A, which topped out at about 50dB of maximum gain.
- Rounding out the front panel is a 1/4" TS (passive / unbalanced) high impedance input for plugging in your bass or guitar when recording direct. A pushbutton switch on the front panel selects between the main and DI inputs.
- The rear panel is simplicity itself, with a XLR input with a 200 ohm input impedance and a 1/4" balanced output jack, a ground lug, and a receptacle for the power adapter plug. Unfortunately there is no XLR output, but 1/4" TRS to XLR cables are readily available, and the 1/4" output is more likely to be compatible with the types of home and project studios that this preamp is primarily targeted at.
- A warning notice on the rear panel cautions you not to open up the unit, and it's particularly important not to access the interior from the rear since the jacks are mounted to the rear panel and also soldered to the PCB inside; you risk damaging the unit if you open it incorrectly. There are no user servicable parts, switches or settings inside. To satisfy your curiosity and simultaneously help keep your warranty intact, I've included a couple of "gutshot" photos.
- Under the hood there's a high-quality CM-1153 input transformer from CineMag to go along with an Edcor 600 ohm line matching output transformer. CineMag is one of the most respected transformer manufacturers in the business, and the inclusion of the CM-1153 represents a significant investment in parts cost, but one that is fully justified by the sonic improvement it provides.
- The noise performance of the B12A MkII has been significantly improved compared to the earlier version, with the MkII featuring a -120dB EIN rating.
- The build quality of the B12A MkII is also quite good, with primarily surface mount components being utilized for both reliability and cost savings in manufacture.
- The brushed metal finish on the half rack enclosure looks quite nice, but it does tend to show fingerprints very easily, although it's easy to clean them off with a microfiber cloth.
- There is no metering on the B12A MkII, and no overload indicators. Dialing it up is purely a auditory task, with no visual warnings or references to guide you. To be fair, if you have difficulties dialing in this preamp you're going to be in a very small minority. Still, a basic LED level meter would be a nice addition for the MkIII version.
- There is no high pass filter included, but then again, there aren't any on my original API 3124+ either.
When it comes to microphone preamp "flavors" there's no doubt that many engineers - including myself - consider the classic 312A type mic preamp to be one of the tastiest options out there, and Black Lion Audio's B12A Mk II is one of the best ways to get into a 312A style preamp at a reasonable price. In side by side comparisons with my own API 3124+ the Black Lion Audio B12A MkII performed admirably, with near identical amounts of gain and very similar overall sonic characteristics and excellence. The sound of a 312-type preamp should be fast, punchy and paradoxically, transparent yet aggressive, and all of that applies to the B12A MkII. It doesn't have the same amount of "beef" in the lows as a 1272 or 1073 type preamp does, so it might not be the ideal choice if you're looking to "warm something up", but it's a terrific sound nonetheless, with oodles of magic happening in the midrange and a more open sounding top than those preamp types.
The B12A MkII is a great choice for use on the right vocalist when paired with a good mic, but it really shines on drums and other fast transient-rich instruments. For rock electric guitars, once you've tried one, you may never want to go back to using anything else. Acoustic guitar is another instrument that this preamp shines on. It also functions well as a direct input for your high impedance sources, and while I generally find the sound of 312-style preamps more amenable and complimentary to guitar when going direct than bass, it's certainly usable as a bass DI. Compared to its predecessor the improvements are significant, with an upgraded input transformer, lowered noise levels and considerably more gain available. The price has increased somewhat, but is still more than reasonable for the level of quality you get. If you have nothing available to you but the preamps in your audio interface or mixer and want to increase the sonic choices and level of sonic quality at your disposal, the BLA B12A MkII would be an excellent choice for expanding your preamp collection. Even if you already have some other nice preamps you'll find plenty of uses for it too. Affordable, well built, and with excellent sonics, it's bound to be an exceptionally popular choice that is sure to show up not only in budget-minded home and project studios, but in the racks of professional engineers and studios too.
Black Lion Audio BL12A Mk II microphone preamplifier ($549.00 MSRP, available direct from Black Lion Audio)
Black Lion Audio's product web page
Black Lion Audio B12A MkII manual, complete with full specifications (PDF file)
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Phil O'Keefe is a multi-instrumentalist, recording engineer / producer and the Senior Editor of Harmony Central. He has engineered, produced and performed on countless recording sessions in a diverse range of styles, with artists such as Alien Ant Farm, Jules Day, Voodoo Glow Skulls, John McGill, Michael Knott and Alexa's Wish. He is a former featured monthly columnist for EQ magazine, and his articles and product reviews have also appeared in Keyboard, Electronic Musician and Guitar Player magazines.
Edited by Phil O'Keefe