Avalon Design M5 Microphone Pre-Amplifier

Over the past few years the importance of using high-quality microphone pre-amplifiers has moved to the forefront of the recording industry. This trend has most likely been brought on by the realization that this is the one place in the signal path that you can't cut corners. Digital technology has provided us with great gear that can reproduce our recordings with the most amazing and life-like results at a relatively low price. But the old saying- "Garbage in, garbage out"- is still true with digital technology. So, the importance of achieving the highest quality signal before the inevitable A to D conversion is critical.

If you are looking for the highest quality in your microphone pre-amplifier then the Avalon M5 is a great place to start. The M5 has been the mainstay of the Avalon Design's product line for several years. The company has been producing high quality Pre-amplifiers since the late 1980?s. The M5, like most of Avalon's products, is nothing less than spectacular. It's a rugged design and the sexy no-frills approach has made the M5 the Mic preamp to the stars. When people like Celine Dion and Mariah Carey are using the product there is a fairly good chance that it's good. The one thing that Avalon Design has figured out is that if you make a product with the highest of standards, then people will use it.

The one thing I hate is using a product that is designed for one task, but also offers all kinds of unusable extra features. With Avalon, you will rarely find this. The M5 is a microphone pre-amplifier and that's all that it is. No fancy equalization, no frills, just the tools you expect to find, like Gain Control, Phantom Power, Phase Reversal, and a High pass filter. This way, Avalon can ensure that all the circuitry is first class, and they don't cheapen the unit by adding extras that you probably won't use anyway.

To test the M5, I decided that I should use it with a source that I was familiar with. It just so happened that I am in the middle of producing an album for a long-time client, Marc Nadjiwan. I have been working with Marc for about nine years and over this time I have learned every nuance and detail of his voice and guitar playing. When I was using the M5 on Marc's acoustic guitar work, I didn't notice a great difference between it and other high-quality microphone pre-amplifiers. The M5 was very smooth sounding and was everything that I expected from this caliber of mic preamp.

Where I did notice a great improvement over other mic pre-amplifiers was when recording Marc's vocals. Over the years of working together, Marc and I have used several microphone pre-amplifiers ? everything from Mackie to Neve, and this was the first time I felt that we captured the true essence of Marc's voice. For the recording we used the same tools we always use: an AKG 414 through a microphone pre-amplifier and directly to tape (which in this circumstance was a Tascam DA-88). When we first set up, I was taken by surprise; there was a warmth and depth to the vocals that I wasn't used to hearing. The m5 gave us the tone we had been searching for, warm low mids and clean smooth highs with a surprisingly low noise floor. It actually took me several hours to get used to the high-quality sound. In the past, I would spend a great deal of time dialing in this type of sound with EQ and compression; but the M5 gave me all of the robustness I was looking for.

It is obvious that Avalon is marketing their products far above the reach of the average or small studio and their real clients are the very high-end users. The only downside of this product, of course, is the price tag and even that is not a real downside; when you are looking for the best you have to expect a high price tag. For most of us the price tag of $2,795(Canadian) is a bit too much for a single microphone pre-amplifier. On the other hand, I venture to say that if you did purchase an M5 it would be worth every cent and it would bring a whole new dimension to your recording.

Ron Skinner is Co-owner of Big Smoke Audio in Toronto and a freelance recording engineer and producer.

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