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500-series gear has made putting together a nice recording front-end quite affordable. If you’ve got your basic vanilla covered and are now looking for some preamplification with a little extra flavor, let me recommend the new Magic Eye mic amp/DI from Fredenstein. Sure, the “blinking” green eye (actually a 6E5C vacuum tube indicating output level) is attention-grabbing and mesmerizing to watch, but the ME really deserves mention due its personality-laden colorful audio.
The ME uses a single discrete OPA2 amplifier for gain (there are no chips to be found in the signal path) and achieves a not-too-bright sound (to these ears, like a lot of Fredenstein products that boast minimal harshness due to “zero negative-feedback designs”). But I think the ME’s character comes from its input and output transformers…the steel-core output transfo, in particular, brings a sort of a vintage vibe to the sonics that subtly defines the ME.
This is especially true with the ME’s Color mode which creates some harmonic content that isn’t quite what you’d call “distortion” (although it actually is). What it sounds like is some extra detail, size and depth, coupled with a bit of mid-range sculpting and you’ve got a sound full of character.
I started trying the ME out (without Color) on some acoustic guitars and vocals. I tried some dynamic mics, some condensers and bass guitar through the ME’s 1/4” DI input, too. With drums, I found the ME immediately to be “hot” and overloading my converters with no gain dialed in (although a whopping +70 dB is available), so the -20 dB pad was used quite a bit.
Even without running the ME hard, a certain texture and color was apparent with all of the above apps; it’s hard to put a finger on it, a certain non-harsh distortion-free iron-transfo kind-of-thing. A thing that works well with modern indie sounds and loud/harsh sources that don’t need additional brashness.
As I got more familiar, I began using the Color circuit and found it hard to turn off. I don’t mind a little non-linear distortion on otherwise clean sources if the result is more “plumply exciting” than “screechy gritty” and that’s what Color delivers. It’s cool on drums, basses, guitars, vox, mono keyboards (how I wish I could’ve tried two for stereo) and even things like shakers. If only this ME had an output level control, so you could drive the input harder into overdrive and then back-off on the final output level, it would be simply the coolest audio paintbrush ever!
Well, I guess you might could do that with another gain stage after the ME like a compressor. But the bottom line is that this ME can bring a whole lot of unusual, chewy, dramatic color to your tracks for only $499 (street) and that is quite a good deal for a unique piece of kit. If you’re into sounds that are either vintage old-school gritty, modern indie dark (and probably reverb-y too), or noisy loud-music that needs a thick and non-fatiguing presentation, then give this Magic Eye a closer look. Just don’t be surprised if it blinks back at you as you approach optimal levels.