In the past few years as the market for recording gear has moved inexorably towards the home studio owner and hobbyist and allied to manufacturing in the Far East, so the price of formerly hi-end studio gear has tumbled. When we wanted to buy a new Neumann U87 for the studio back in the seventies it was a huge investment and we could have been driving round in much cooler cars instead. Today you can buy a really fantastic sounding, well made studio condenser out of a Chinese factory for a fraction of the cost. Until quite recently it seemed that the only pieces of gear that still commanded big price tags were the mic preamps with a price of one to two thousand pounds being fairly commonplace. That changed about 3 years ago with the release of the Golden Age Pre-73 Neve clone preamp which has become a hugely popular piece of kit bringing real pro audio performance to the home studio at a truly budget price. The secret is quite clearly to take a great design, tweak it for modern components and assembly and have it built in the Far East in numbers that bring the price right down and Warm's WA12 preamp is a perfect example of that model.
Bryce Young the guy behind Warm Audio in Texas has been hand building high-end preamps for pro studios for some years and he saw the opportunity of bringing a great sounding preamp to market at a price that all musicians could afford by having it manufactured in China while maintaining very high spec on all the components. The mic input transformer and the output transformer are both custom made for him by Cinemag in the USA. When you are looking to build something like this there are some components that you simply have to use and the Cinemag transformers must account for a substantial part of the budget. These are the same transformers that you find in The Presonus ADL 600, A-Designs Pacifica, Universal Audio LA-610 and Fink Audio's CS2-FA ($4,000USD piece) so you can see they are a class act. Bryce has had these custom designed and tweaked until he got just what he wanted tone-wise. It's all about design and attention to detail in the overall circuit and all the discrete components have been carefully picked to preserve that big, warm analogue sound, even down to choosing some capacitors and transistors that are more expensive than would be expected.
Infact when you take the lid off the Warm WA12 there's surprisingly little in there compared to say Golden Age's latest version of the Pre-73 but that's the essence of the WA12. It's brilliantly designed and totally focused on one thing: recreating that big fat analogue sound of an old API preamp. The controls are simple and to the point. There's just one rotary gain control which gives you up to 71 db of gain. The more your twist the louder it goes! A row of 5 buttons gives you some extra options with a "proper" Hi-Z 2 Meg Ohm input which means you can put an instrument signal through entire circuit including both Cinemag Transformers and the discrete operational amplifier. It's great for guitars, bass, keyboards and other instruments that have a 1/4″ output jack and a great way to beef up a signal. Next is the 48volt phantom button and then a pad button which puts a 20db pad in for really hot signals. A Polarity button is there for reversing the phase if you have problems and finally, and most interestingly, is a little black button marked Tone. Very simply, this button switches the input impedance from 600 ohms to 150 ohms and changes the tone of both the mic and HI-Z inputs. I've had loads of pieces of kit over the years with a magic colour or tone button and honestly this is the only one where I've not been totally under whelmed. It's just a great option for extra colour and totally in line with the philosophy of the WA12. One knob for volume. One button for tone. No interactive, fiddly three stage front ends. Just a great sound straight away. No messing. Perfect for the home recordist and pro alike.
The Warm Audio WA12 is based on the classic API 312 preamp which is known for its very warm, lush tone and is one of those desert island preamps that engineers rave over. On a recent album session in the studio we had the opportunity to put the WA12 through its paces and in almost all instances it just puts a smile on your face. The only time I was unsure was recording Livvy, the female vocalist in Mostly Autumn, and she has a very strong voice with a lot of energy in the mid range. The WA12 sounded great until she started pushing and then I started to hear a "beating" in the chain which I didn't like. Swapping to another pre cured it instantly so I was initially a little unsure about the WA12. However as the album progressed I got more and more into it and all of Brian's main vocals were done with a Lewitt LCT640 going through the WA12 and one of our old AD compressors. The Lewitt is a very clean, transparent mic which I like but the WA12 really adds a gloss to it. All the electric guitars were done with my favourite ADK TT valve mic through the WA12 and the acoustic guitars were done with one of the new Heil dynamic mics the PR20. The WA12 has tons of gain so even dynamic mics come alive. We used it on perc and even a flute with an old ADK 414 and it sounded great. The Warm WA12 is quite simply, a very good, simple to use preamp with a lovely fat warm sound. You could complain about the lack of any metering on the input side but the WA12 is so simple and intuitive that you can easily set it up by ear.