Recording Reviews: Cloud Microphones Cloudlifter Zi Instrument DI and Mic Activator
Cloud Microphones Cloudlifter Zi Instrument DI and Mic Activator
A variable impedance Mic Activator to DI for...
by Phil O'Keefe
A few years back, Cloud Microphones released the Cloudlifter CL-Z, a phantom powered variable impedance "mic activator" that made a considerable impression on me (click here to check out my full review of the Cloudlifter Z). Why? Because it not only provides a healthy gain boost to low output dynamic moving coil and passive ribbon microphones while lowering the noise floor of your recordings, but because it also allows the user to adjust the impedance load, and thereby make subtle (or drastic) adjustments to the sound. Fast forward to today, and the new Cloud Microphones Cloudlifter Zi. While similar to the previous Cloudlifter Z, it has some exciting new features that make it an even more flexible recording tool. Like what? Let's dig in and find out.
- The Cloudlifter Zi is a very versatile box with multiple uses. Part mic preamp, part direct box, part variable impedance tone-shaping device, it brings a lot of capabilities to any studio.
- The circuitry in the Cloudlifter Zi itself is powered by phantom power, but it doesn't pass any phantom power on to any connected microphone, keeping your ribbon mics safe from potential damage.
- With up to 25 dB of clean, quiet gain available for microphones connected to the XLR input, the Cloud Microphones Cloudlifter Zi is a great way to give your low output ribbon and moving coil dynamic mics the boost they need, allowing them to be used with mic preamps that might otherwise lack sufficient clean gain for optimal use with those mics.
- Don't overlook the importance of that extra "clean gain" - while some inexpensive mic preamps might just barely give you enough gain to work with your low-output dynamic and ribbon mics, it's often only at the extreme limits of their gain range, where they frequently sound noisier than when used at lower gain settings. With a Cloudlifter in front of the preamp, you'll have a much hotter (up to 25dB) signal from the source to work with, and will be able to run your preamps at more modest (and quieter) settings.
- The Cloudlifter Zi has all the same mic-related features and capabilities as the Cloudlifter Z, which I reviewed previously. Be sure to check out the Cloudlifter Z review for more details, usage tips and audio examples.
- The Cloudlifter Zi goes beyond the Cloudlifter Z by adding some seriously cool active direct box capabilities. You can use it as a regular active direct box, with up to 15 dB of gain available on the 1/4" high impedance input.
- There is also a new recessed ground lift switch that lifts the audio ground from the Cloudlifter's chassis. You'll find it next to the Cloudlifter Zi's XLR output jack.
- But that's not all. The same type of variable impedance adjustments that you can apply to microphones using the large "Z" knob is also available on the direct input, giving you a level of tonal control that other direct boxes simply can not match.
- A CineMag transformer is used to convert the high impedance input source to low impedance so that it can be adjusted using the same variable impedance circuit the Cloudlifter Zi uses to process microphones - so don't let the markings on the housing throw you - the impedance marked on the top is correct for both microphones and the post-transformer direct input signal.
- The Cloudlifter Zi is built into the same heavy-duty all-metal housing as the Cloudlifter Z. It measures 5.25" W x 3.25" D x 2.25" H, including the rubber feet and knobs.
- In addition to rubber feet for tabletop or floor use, on the bottom you'll also find a padded bracket for mounting the unit to a mic stand with the included velcro strap.
- Other than the new combination XLR mic / 1/4" high impedance input jack and ground lift switch, the only other things that are different on the Cloudlifter Zi compared to the original Cloudlifter Z are the switches. Where the original used toggle switches, the new model uses lower-profile slide switches, which are less likely to accidentally break.
- The high pass filter switch works in conjunction with the variable impedance Z knob to adjust the rolloff frequency just as it does on the Cloudlifter Z, with the same 70Hz - 4kHz range.
- The original More / Max gain switch has been replaced with a three position Min / More / Max switch, giving you a choice of three different gain settings instead of the original two. The amount of gain depends on whether you're using it with an instrument or mic, with 25dB, 12dB and 6dB (max / more / min.) available when using the Cloudlifter Zi with microphones, and 15dB, 6dB or 3dB of gain when using it with instruments.
- There's no 1/4" instrument thru jack for simultaneously connecting your instrument to an amplifier or other secondary signal path while running direct like you'll find on most direct boxes.
- You can not use it as a DI box and a Mic Activator simultaneously - it's single-channel, so you can only use it for one or the other at any given time. You'll want to pick up two, three, or maybe even four of these very useful boxes - that way, you can use one as a bass DI while using another on your guitar mic or as a guitar DI, and the other two for stereo recording your drum overheads using your ribbon mics.
I didn't think it was possible but Cloud Microphones took a box that I consider to be an essential studio tool and made it even more indispensable. They even improved the switches and gave the user an additional gain setting too, which are nice refinements, but they're not the Big News. The Cloudlifter Zi retains all of the tonal flexibility and features that impressed me so much on the original Cloudlifter Z while adding the ability to do the same variable impedance manipulation for bass, guitar, keyboards, or any other instrument that you want to record direct. The only real omission is the lack of a thru jack so you can feed your amp and go direct at the same time.
Still, it's a very powerful studio tool. It's a box you'll find yourself reaching for regularly, whether you're using it with a ribbon or low output dynamic moving coil mic to goose the levels and dial in just the right timbral balance, or as a direct box for recording instruments. No matter how you use it, you'll appreciate how quietly it does its job, the improved fidelity, and the amount of timbral flexibility it brings to the task. I said it before and I'll say it again - if you use ribbon mics, you may not know it yet, but you want this box! Scratch that - if you use ribbon mics or record direct, you need this box! Yeah, it's really that good - I highly recommend it. -HC-
Want to discuss the Cloudlifter Zi or have questions or comments about this review? Then head over to this thread in the Studio Trenches forum right here on Harmony Central and join the discussion!
Cloud Microphones Cloudlifter Zi Microphone Activator and DI ($449.00 MSRP, $379.00 "street")
Cloud Microphone's product web page
You can purchase the Cloud Microphones Cloudlifter Zi from:
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.