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BIZZARE AUDIO - MINT JULEP REVIEW: AN INTERVIEW WITH MATT ALLISON AND PETER CORNELL Matt: Thanks for the questions. Peter and I did our best to answer them. pan60: Any opening comments? Peter: I absolutely love and value the exchange of information and opinions on quality internet forums. Being able to expose products in this way is really special to me. Matt: Um... what he said.... pan60: LOL.  Tell me, how did you get in the industry? Matt: Well, my start was actually on the other side of the glass being a performing musician/singer/songwriter -- having released 4 records of my own and spent years on the road touring them. I have always recorded/mixed/produced my music either in part or in full. I started out with a 4 track and moved up to digital hard disk recorders, like the old Roland VS series before jumping into 'DAW land'. A couple of my records were nominated for various awards and musicians started to ask me to produce and engineer their records. So, I switched places with my touring musician counterpart and became an engineer. About 3-4 years ago, I met Peter on an on-line electronics forum which I stumbled upon after reading an article in Tape Op by David Royer. Over time I progressed and began building pre amps, starting with the precursor to what is now the Mint Julep. pan60: Matt, so cool that you have a history in the recording and performing world. I always think that helps, or at least, adds something to the mix, no pun. Peter: I Started when I was 13 years old. I was listening to Yes and ELP, trying to persuade my father that I really needed a steaming A100 and Leslie, when I came across the PE Minisonic. This was a simple 2 oscillator DIY synth in a British electronics mag. I literally started building projects the following week. I went on to study electronic engineering and played in Top 40 bands for a few years before getting into the recording studio business. That naturally led to studio electronic projects and have been doing the same for the last 22 years, now. pan60: Peter, I sometimes envy those that are gifted in electronics, I wish I was more savvy in that area. At what age, or point in your life, did you know this would be your career? Matt: As long as I can remember, really.  I knew I was going to be involved in music and recording. My folks were supportive, but had me study something to 'fall back on,' so, I ended up getting a diploma in graphic design, which has aided me in the aesthetics of my design work. Peter: I always wanted to play in bands from my teenage years, and electronics seemed acceptable to my parents as a career. After serving out my band apprenticeship, the studio world was immensely appealing. I knew that this was where I wanted to be. It is the right split of the creative and technical vocations that I needed to be involved in. I spent 3 years as a Pro Tools product specialist, but the lack of creative direction drove me back behind a console!   pan60: What made you want to be in sales? Matt: The money and the women... Hah hah. Seriously, I think it was a natural progression. After a few years I started getting requests to service/rack old units from the likes of  Neve, Telefunken, etc. I started sourcing components direct from manufacturers from all over the world. Before I knew it, Ashton Audio, the business was born. It has been a blessing to be able to have some of my rack jobs and custom solutions grace studios around the world and kind of nice to know I'll leave some kind of audio legacy behind. pan60: The money and the women... Hah hah.  No argument : )~ Matt: Peter and I joined forces with the Bizzar line. Peter took on the role of circuit designer, while I handled the cosmetic work and parts, such as sourcing/supply. Peter: After doing a lot of studio recording, I realized that a great deal of the gear I was using could be improved. So, I delved into recording electronics and started modifying and experimenting on the gear I found around me. This led to my own designs, which I really liked using. I started selling to local studio guys through word of mouth advertising. I still do take on the odd commission, but have been moving toward the 500 series format for my projects. The lunch box format offers an ideal way to get into manufacturing without having to do a large amount of physical cabinet development. Being in South Africa, this solves a number of problems that arise when selling rack mount units internationally, like transport costs, international accreditation, metalwork issues, etc.   pan60: A plus for all the 500 format freaks such as myself : )~    What made you want to get into gear engineering, design, and/or manufacturing? Matt: Well, the gear engineering was easy. I was flat broke and couldn't afford to have my gear repaired and learned to DIY it all. I started reading books, the internet, frequently lurked on the on-line forums like Group DIY and slowly pieced it together where things started to make sense and my gear started to 'miraculously' work again. pan60: Sometimes, it seems, being broke can drive us all in directions we might not have otherwise taken. Necessity rules. What are your hobbies? Peter: Theatre, movies, sports, building my modular synth, which at the moment, is about 20 modules in a cardboard box!  I will eventually get around to building the cabinet. I just have not found the right pieces of exotic wood, yet. pan60: I never got into synths, but I have always admired them. Matt: Watching paint dry, but only that quick dry stuff as I lose concentration with the longer drying variants.... um where were we again? Taking long walks in the park, horseback riding, picnics... Hah hah. I tend to kick back and read or watch DVD's with my wife who is into criminal investigation type series like CSI, Law and Order, Bones, Criminal Minds and NCIS. Kind of disturbing I guess,  but at least I don't have to sit through soap operas or dramas! pan60: LOL - I love all those shows: )~ Matt: While building/repairing gear and making records is technically my job, I still consider it a hobby as it generally never really feels like work. pan60: It's so great when you can love your job so much, that it is your hobby. Do your hobbies, in any way, lead you to where you are, or have any bearing in any way? Matt: I think my incessant reading and passion for understanding how things tick helped somewhat. I have this uncanny ability to retain information, much of which has no bearing on my vocation, but has earned me nicknames like 'The Internet' and 'The Mad Scientist', depending on who you talk to. pan60: Be careful not to get too much info in your head, sometimes it can get crowded up there. : )~ What was the drive to create this pre? Matt: Well, Peter and I had spoken about working on a project in the past and I contacted him back in July '07 with the idea to design a cost effective monolithic preamp design that was 'colorless,' something the 500 series format was/is missing. Peter: I had been developing and selling the Mint Julep's sister, the Green Pre, locally as a custom pre for about 5 years and had sold about a hundred channels in that time. pan60: Did you see an opening in the market or was this something you felt you needed? Matt: Well, both really. I saw an opening for a high gain, non transformer coupled design akin to Amek, SSL, GML and DAV offerings, but in the 500 series format and at a cheaper price point than existing offerings. Peter: Both. I use the Green Pre daily in my studio gig, but realized that all the 500 series modules are quite esoteric and/or expensive. I thought I could rework the Green Pre into a $400+ offering, which should be a good seller. pan60: Who came up with the idea? Matt: Conceptually, I did. But, the design was all Peter. As mentioned, he designed the Green Pre a few years ago that shared a similar topology to the old Amek Mozart console. He continued to rework and refine it by adding additional features. We then adapted it and further refined it into what is now the 'Mint Julep.' Peter: Matt did. Then he sat back and I put in the hard yards..... Actually, I find PCB and component design quite relaxing and fun. pan60: Was there a price target? Matt: Well, we both decided it was a sub $500 mic pre, aiming for $450 retail direct from us. We want to even better than, and are HOPING to, be able to get the first run to market at $400. This is no easy feat considering the component count, quality and the fact we assemble and test all the boards ourselves. pan60: That will be a great price point, one that will help get more users into the 500 format club. :)~ Tell me about the choice of components? Matt: Well, from the get go, I was a stickler for using the best we could find, RE electrolytic caps.  It made no sense to compromise by saying 'well, we will use X brand in the signal path, but use a cheap Y for power, etc.' But, we also needed to pick ones we could get quantities of, so we ended up with the Rubycon YXF range. They are long life, high temps with low ESR. For poly decoupling caps, we have gone with WIMA range MKS-4's. We are using 1% 1/4W metal film resistors throughout as well.  The illuminated push button switches are made by Wellbuying in China, who OEMs for other suppliers. Going direct saves us a bit on costs. I believe Andrew, at Purple Audio, is using the same supplier. The gain switch was a topic of much conversation. Many boutique audio companies are using the cheaper Chinese made Alpha 'Lorlin' clones and we were tempted to follow suit but ended up going with a mil spec U.S.-made switch by Grayhill, which should hopefully outlive many of our customers, the way gear USED to. Peter: I have done a lot of experimentation with various kinds of capacitors, and have found the caps I like come up time and time again. Wimas & Rubicons work really well in the signal path, but there are some others creeping in, as well, that I like. A Nichicon might end up in the final model as well. pan60: Let me say, I think there is a nice place in the market for this type of pre. I  have been hoping someone would do this. Also, why the rotary switch? Matt: Thanks Pan, we certainly hope so.  Rotary switches that use individual resistors per gain 'step' are just better quality, as well as recall. pan60: Switches get a thumbs up from me, I just do not care for the detent pots. But in most cases I like potentiometers, just me. Matt: Yes, this switch allows accurate recall of settings, and is far more accurate than a log/anti log pot could/or would ever be. We tried substituting it with a pot in an earlier prototype but the LOG curve just didn't feel right. Also, this way, there is no chance of developing that dreaded 'crackling/noisy' pot syndrome, we as engineers have become accustomed to over the years. Peter: Again, after a lot of experimentation, we went back to the switched gain setup. Precise 6dB steps work very well in this pre. We put in the best switch we could find without breaking the bank, and have been happy with the results. pan60: Give me some specs, current draw, gain, noise, all the nitty gritty stuff. :)~ Matt: I'll let Peter give you all the details there. Peter: The unit draws 60mA of current, and has 6 - 66 dB of gain in 6dB steps. When I last measured the noise it was down at -105dB on our old Lindos system, which was battling to get down that low. We find it is exceptionally quiet in operation. Distortion was below the 0.01% range, again giving the Lindos a hard time. Maximum output level is 26v peak to peak which equates to +28dB. The freq response is 4hZ - 240kHz (-3dB points) with 30dB of gain. pan60: Nice!  Do you plan on sticking with the guidelines from the API VPR Alliance? Matt: From day 1 we have been working to the guidelines that Gordon (API's MD) made available to us through the API Alliance and are fully compliant on paper. Once the first commercial unit comes off the run it will go in for formal testing. My thoughts on it are that it is their form factor, and many studios already have API racks in situ, we want to make sure we cater for that. pan60: I am very glad to hear this. I hope more manufacturers decide to hold to the VPR Alliance guidelines.  It is just best for the end user and the manufacturer in the end. As I understand, I have a prototype, and the only changes will be the double side board and a different knob? Matt: Yes, and better metalwork! We have had endless trouble sourcing the metalwork. pan60: Sadly, I think that is an issue a lot of boutique manufacturers face. Matt: One company in particular has given us a LONG runaround and when we FINALLY got them back, everything was reversed... enough to make you tear your hair out! But yes, the boards will most probably be DS, the graphics/layouts will remain the same and sturdy spun aluminum will adorn the front panel. Peter: I have used those knobs on my customer units for awhile and I really like them. I was not sure how it would work on this unit, but I do now like the results. Lots of character, Mr Big Nose.... again, it is a premium item, but worth the money. The unit you have is home sprayed! That is why the paint has chipped a little.  I have no baking facilities at home. Well, none the wife would be happy with me abusing anyway.  :)~ I build all my prototypes at home, so I stick with single-sided boards as far as possible. However, in a premium product like this, we wanted to give it as long a lifespan as possible, hence the double-sided connector. pan60: I would like to share some photos of this, I assume this is okay, but as it is a prototype I want to ask first? Matt: Sure! We have put in the disclaimer about the metalwork, so as long as the end user knows that it will LOOK a lot better once we get the final metalwork and it will be silk screened not Lazertran. pan60: I think we should include (whatever you have for a finished product), as a final photo as well. Just a note here, although I do love to see the double sided contacts on the boards, I  have seen some very top-of-the-line pres that do only the single sided contact. I would have no objection to this, personally. Matt: We are of 2 minds, here. MANY manufacturers,old and new, use single sided boards. They are easier to service and cheaper to build, though the benefit of DS boards is that they mechanically and electronically make better contact, but are not as easy to fix in the field without the right tools and traces. They can lift or break if care is not taken. pan60: No argument here, I like seeing the double sided boards. Peter: The new board will also give me chance to get rid of some of the links in the layout. Much neater and professional. Pan60: Matt, so cool that you have a history in the recording and performing world. I always think that helps, or at least adds something to the mix, no pun. Peter, I wish I was more savvy with electronics, I am only dangerous. Would you care to enlighten folks as to the advantages and/or disadvantages to non- transformer coupled pres? Peter: Transformerless pres are generally less coloured in their sound, as you said. Transformers, by their inherent design, create extra harmonics - seems logical when the audio signal gets transformed into a magnetic field, is picked up by a coil and becomes an audio signal again. Lots of opportunity for audio alteration. So, for a cleaner signal, a transformerless preamp will generally be a better choice, though some transformer coupled preamps are pristine sounding. Matt: There is a reason. The saying goes 'the sound is in the iron.'  The audio alteration that Peter speaks of can be caused by a number of factors, one of which is the core material itself, be it nickel, steel or a blend. Each will hysteresis/saturate differently, each adding a subtle or not so subtle coloration, which is superimposed onto the source material.... for better or worse. pan60: Why would someone choose to go with one over the other, or why would an engineer possibly want both? Peter: I think an engineer could have both for a larger sonic palette, it really is up to the man behind the console (DAW?) and his ears. pan60: I know we are talking color verses transparency, and to many, it is a personal choice. It's a given, I am a absolute transformer freak, I love-'em, but I want to make sure people do not somehow think just because there are no transformers, it is in no way a sign of poor quality, as many seem to think. Peter: I think George Massenberg would argue that transformerless pres are better than any other... Transformerless pres have received bad press often because they are budget units and shortcuts are taken by the manufacturers. There are some superb designs like the Amek 2500 series and SSL 9000 series mic pres, which are ignored as specialist preamps because they are built into consoles. But they would stand up against any competition. Matt: George who? Hah hah. A great transformerless pre can be made to sound as good as a transformered one and many great minds like George Massenburg and Fred Forssell are creating them today. It all comes down to design and implementation. pan60: Also, can you touch on how different mics may react in non transformer pres (as a whole), verses transformer coupled, as well as the output side?  I hear a bigger difference in microphone reaction then in non transformer couple pres. I assume this is how they are loading the pre? Peter: A lot of mics have transformers built into them! Even the lowly SM57 and 58 have a bit of iron in them. So I feel that the reason for the transformerless pre being more sensitive to different mics is the omission of the "double" transformer at the very start of the chain. I have found something similar, but it was very subtle, in my opinion. pan60: Matt, Peter, what would be the best application (in your minds), for this pre to be? Peter: Our preamp is really versatile. Owing to the accuracy of the sound and dynamics it possesses, it works well with a lot of sources. I have sold a number of 8 channel boxes as "drum packs," had great results on acoustics, sax and piano. I am a post prod engineer doing TV and cinema work and I use it on voice overs every day. Mic selection is important though, it does not like overly bright mics as it tends to emphasize the top end. Matt: The pre has an amazing transient response and headroom and like Peter, I have found it a jack of all trades.  I love it on brass/woodwinds and acoustic guitars where you are looking for an open/natural sound and have had a pair on drum overheads. pan60: Anything else you guys want to cover?  I want to make sure people know this, a pre does not have to have transformers to be a great pre. That was the reason for the questions on the topic. Matt: Covering anything else, hmm not sure.  I think we covered most/all the bases in our extensive chat/interview.   I guess I have one question... what do YOU think of the Pre, LOL. pan60: Okay, okay, to my thoughts.  : )~ Okay, I say this way too much, but it is what it is-- The 1, 2, 3, rules for gear.   1. Customer Service.  How does a company treat it's customers?   When I need service, I do not want to jump through hoops to get it!  So many companies today seem to have forgotten about the customer being the source of their job.  So Matt, Peter, how will BIZZAR AUDIO be handling this? Matt: With regards to service, customers come first and we will endeavor to offer the best service/support we can to clients. pan60: I can only rely on an honest reply as I have had no dealing with BIZZAR AUDIO. But, I can say, they have been very easy to contact, a pleasure to work with, and a very, very likable and responsive pair.  :)~ 2. Build quality. I just do not like, nor do I do, junk! Junk is a waste of my time and I have absolutely no interest in evaluating gear with poor construction and components. The BIZZAR AUDIO MINT JULEP pre I have, is very very nice!  I do have a prototype and as in the review there will be a couple of things like the metal, paint, and boards that will be upgraded for production.  Having stated that, I would have no issues with the single sided board, but I am glad to see them make that jump to the double sided. The MINT JULEP lacks transformers (as discussed).  Remember don't let anyone fool you, lacking a transformer in no way has anything to do with quality.  This pre is made with very nice components. 3. How does the gear sound?  (And notice, this is last, as always  : )~ The way I see it, if I can't get service, I just don't care how it sounds. If it is junk, then I just cannot depend on it, and do not care. So, service, quality, magic, mojo, and sound quality!!! I really, really, like this pre and plan to add one to my rack: )~  I think the market has been looking for a pre in this style, and I am glad to see it is here! The MINT JULEP has seen use on an electric guitar, acoustic, drums, a tambourine, and vocals, using several dynamic, and condenser mics from my locker.  My standard and trusty RE-15 ruled with this pre! The RE-15, this pre, and a Ludwig acrolite snare was amazing.  I was able to get a very cool, dark, smooth sound (a darker snare sound really trips me),  and this set-up did just that. The pre preformed excellent on everything.  Once again, I feel that this pre was made for the dynamic mics and I am a dynamic mic junky : )~  I used a few BLUE mics, and my trusted BLUE BLUEBERRY on vocals was very sweet and clear. It was airy with no edge. This pre also worked nicely with a couple of my ribbons, on acoustic guitar. So Matt, what brand of op-amps are you using, and if someone wanted something a bit more transparent would that be available? Matt: The brand of op-amps, are all TI (Texas Instruments).  The stock model is the NE5532, a 'classic.' While not as fast as some of todays 'modern' amps, it still sounds great.  We will be offering a 'modern' Burr Brown option as well, for a little extra. The Burr Brown has a brighter/airier top end response, and a tight bottom.  I find it more 'clinical' and not as 'fuzzy' (in a good way!) as the NE5532. pan60: LOL, not sure I would use the term fuzzy, but that does get the point across, and makes a clear separation.  For the record, fuzzy is not my term, I would say more of a sound I was accustom to, : )~ with a kiss of MOJO. Matt: Hah hah, yeah! Mojo would be a better description. There is this 'warmth' in the mids with the NE5532 that is missing with the Burr Brown, so I called it 'fuzzy' as it it gives you that 'warm & fuzzy' feeling of yesteryear. Pan60: It is difficult to describe a tone or vibe. Although I feel this is a clean and somewhat transparent pre, it has a nice (as I mentioned before) kiss of MOJO. But, I can live with warmth & fuzzy feeling of yesteryear.  : )~ So, what did I not like?  I hate this part : (~  Nothing really bad at all : )~ I did not find the pre to be bad with condensers, having a HI Frequency bump, but some cheaper condensers (the ones that have an edgier upper edginess we all hate), were not as well liked in that the edginess was very well heard.  This can easily be overcome with a bit of EQ if you have a few of these type mics (as I do, and I am sure I am not alone). I did not see it as an issue at all. The only complaint I would have is the ladder switch.  These are great quality, and I think I will probably fall in the minority, but I would prefer a good quality potentiometer, that's just me.  I can never find a balance with these switches. I always seem to need more or less.  I need what falls into the in-between spots.  Not a real issue, as the mic relationship to the source can be adjusted to overcome this. If you are looking to ease into the 500 format on a budget, this pre will rock.  This, the MINT JULEP, is going to help a lot of guys and gals step-up to the plate, and take the 500 format plunge. A great pre at a great price point. If you are looking for a fast, clear, clean pre, the MINT JULEP will hit the spot! First chance you get, you need to give this pre a try!!!!! Okay any last few comments, Peter, Matt? Peter: Hi there, Pan. Matt sent me your review of the MJ. I have been moving house this weekend, so it was a really nice end to a crappy couple of days. I agree with your comments, especially those regarding using it with cheaper, eastern mics. I have found upgrading caps in these mics generally tempers the edge on the sound, otherwise they are great tools!  Variety is the spice of recording. Regarding the rotary switch, 6dB steps can be a bit much, but as a large number of engineers use a compressor as the next step in the recording chain, we saw it as a smaller, rather than a larger, evil.  A 24 step rotary with 3dB steps would have been the business, but would have added 50% to the cost. I have not used many dynamics with this unit. I'll have to break out a couple of them and experiment a bit. Thanks again and keep well. -- Peter pan60: I hate moving, Peter, I do not envy you at all with that job : )~ Maybe I will recap a couple of my cheaper mics and see how they do.  
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