Cloud Microphones Cloudlifter Zi Vari-Z Instrument DI and Mic Activator
Walking the show floor of Summer NAMM in Nashville, one cant help but be struck by the magnitude of new pro audio products and instruments. Vendors ready to convince you that they are offering the next big thing. The holly grail of sound. The wheel, completely reinvented. That is the thing that struck me most when my meanderings brought me in front of the Cloud Microphones booth. No one was trying to convince me of anything? I must admit, that only made me more curious! Several small shiny blue boxes were displayed along the front table. I recognized them as direct boxes (DI Boxes) but there was one on the end that was different. It had a big silver metal knob dead center flanked by slide selector switches. I had to ask! Even if it meant leaving behind my pride and sounding like a greenhorn. A tall gentleman with a full goatee who I later learned was Scott Haughey, Director of Marketing for Cloud Microphones, was happy to explain. Over the next 20 minute, Scott detailed the concept of the Cloudlifter Zi and I started to think that maybe I was looking at something new, real, and actually serves a need that until now, had not been properly addressed in the industry. Scott introduced me to Rodger Cloud (Yep… the company was named after him though I was tempted to ask if it was the other way around). We spoke a bit more about the company, his vision, and the great response he has received on the Zi. I was curious if the product could live up to its hype. Rodger provided a unit for Back Stage Indie Report to put through the paces in our test studio. Below is what we discovered about the company, the Zi specs, and most importantly, our impression of this new pro audio product.
A place In The Sun
Made in Tucson Arizona, Cloud’s continued commitment to high quality, USA made, sustainable, and environmentally friendly manufacturing, has created new jobs and economic growth throughout the supply chain. Cloud’s products are made regionally from start to finish, benefiting dozens of small businesses in the process. From metal fabrication in Tucson, SMT circuit board manufacturing and assembly on the Navajo Nation, powder-coating and finishes in Phoenix, to final assembly and testing at Cloud Microphones HQ in Tucson AZ.
Along Time Ago In A Far Off Galaxy…
Cloud Microphones started as, just as the name implies, a microphone company. But not your run-of-the-mill, “let’s make the same imported studio condenser mic but in a shinier package kind of microphone company.
No, they wanted to bring the rich and clear sound of the ribbon mic back from the bottom shelf of the Mic Locker. What better way to do that then to capture what made these classic ribbons legendary in the first place.
“The story began with RCA* when Harry F. Olson developed the 44 and 77 series of ribbon microphones. Jon R. Sank succeeded Mr. Olson and was challenged by RCA to improve upon Harry’s best microphones. He did just that with the BK11, a direct descendant of the 44 series. It has been an industry secret for many years among top engineers, that the BK-11 is the most advanced ribbon microphone in the world.
Beginning at just 10 years old, Stephen Sank studied with his father and began building upon lessons learned from the original RCA laboratory. Jon Sank shared more than 50 years of skill and innovation with his son Stephen before passing away in 1998.
Today, Stephen continues the Sank family tradition of developing quality hand crafted ribbon microphones in collaboration with Cloud Microphones. The Cloud JRS-34 takes the next step in the legendary BK-11 and 44 series of ribbon microphones.” – Blue Microphones
No Preamp Is An Island
Most decent preamps do a fine job of creating a gain boost, tone, and hopefully, pleasing transients. However the mic and/or line signal usually are to low to let these preamps work in their optimal range. When the preamp has to compensate for low input levels, the output suffers. That is where the Blue Microphones Cloudlifters come in to play. By gain boosting cleanly with discreat circuitry between the source and the preamp, you get the best level signal to the board or the amp. Rodger puts it like this, ” The Zi provides up to +25dB of ultra-clean gain for XLR microphones and lo-z sources and up to +15dB for 1/4” instruments and other hi-z sources, via the Neutrik combination dual-input connector and Hi-Z to Lo-Z CineMag instrument transformer. The Cloudlifter Zi maximizes the instrument or microphone’s signal strength and clarity and lowers the noise floor and amount of gain required from the preamp. The premium CineMag transformer, encased in MU metal for optimal shielding, brings out the natural beauty and character of your instrument, while lowering the impedance to mate perfectly with the Cloudlifter’s patented Vari-Z interface and phantom-powered gain circuit. By allowing your preamps to operate in a more comfortable gain range, the natural frequency response of the microphone or instrument remains intact and the self-noise of the preamp is drastically reduced.“
How Do They Get That Great Tone?
The magic to the massive tone control is that the Zi has a continuously variable impedance control (The silver knob from the first paragraph) and CineMag instrument transformer before the gain staging. Not only does the knob adjust the impedance (ohms) but it is also controlling the high-pass filtering at the same time. The combination of moving the impedance with the high-pass filter is the trick they created. Genius! Don’t tell Rodger I said that or he may start charging what they are actually worth! Right now they are $379 MSRP.
Pass me the box cutter
The gear fairy paid us a visit last night. The Cloudlifter Zi showed up on the doorstep of the Back Stage Indie Report studio.
Using The Impedance & High Pass Filter Combo In Real Life?
Ok… so… At this point, your brain probably went to the same place mine did (minus the random cartoons and that Sponge Bob “ditty” that I still havent seemed to shake off), what is this thing gunna sound like and how is it going to perform when it’s out of it’s nice package and plugged into the signal path? FIrst, acoustic guitar. We noticed an immediate warming just by the gain staging alone. The preamp was noticably in its sweet spot. Using the impedance knob we were able to roll off the “boominess” so we could keep the mic closer towards the body opening to capture the low mids. A simple HPF was not giving us the same result and negatively impacted the character of the mic. This would be very useful for live performances as well because of this control over dynamic mics. We plugged in the Les Paul then the Strat with the 1/4″ DI jack. neither normally difficult to control boominess so why would we want a Zi in this line? The answer was self eveident. By bringing the line level up one step of gain, we were able to take great advantage of the intrinsic harmonics of our preamps, with both our Universal Audio and our Neve VR. Also, by turning the “Z” knob, we can dial in pleasing tone characteristics we would never be able to achieve with EQ alone. We know cause we tried to duplicate it with EQ and it just wasn’t going to happen. Again, the magic is in the algorithm that correlates the HPF adjustment with the impedance adjustment. As any studio rat will tell you, more important than what you hear with the Zi, is what you DONT hear! The Zi was transparent where it was supposed to be transparent. It added no “noise” to the signal that was perceptible by ear or meter. No unpleasant artifacts or unpleasant harmonics.
Whats To Be “Gained”?
Well… everything and anything can be gained. It’s all in the switch. The Zi has a three-position gain switch providing for minimum gain, more gain, or maximum gain depending on your needs and desires. In the “MAX” position, microphones can be gained +25db and +15db from the instrument jack. Usually you will find this setting best serves most needs. The middle and minimum gain settings work great on those things that naturally have a higher gain (active pickups for example) or when you want to push your preamp hard for a desired tonal or color effect. Be aware that we noticed the American made Cinemag transformer naturally reduces gain. This is not unique to the Zi, it happens with Direct Box transformers going through the instrument jack. The Cloudlifter Zi then increases the signal again in the amplification circuit.
We pushed the Cloudlifter Zi hard through the paces to verify the claims made by Cloud Microphones. On every challenge the Zi rose to the occasion. The tonal and color possibilities are infinite from the Zi but also the clean gain increases allow your other gear to work in their optimum space. Back Stage Indie Report gives the Cloud Microphones Cloudlifter Zi our highest rating of a “Must Have” gear.
Specs Provided by Cloud Microphones…
Cloud Microphones bring their popular Cloudlifter Mic Activator technology to guitar players, bass players, keyboard players and more with the introduction of the Cloudlifter Zi Vari-Z Instrument DI and Mic Activator. In addition to giving instrument players control over their tone and gain staging from the very front of their signal chain, the new CL-Zi retains all of the original Cloudlifter-Z features for adding clean gain to dynamic and ribbon microphones.
The Cloudlifter Zi uses phantom power from any preamp to solve an array of common issues with instruments and microphones, providing up to +25dB of ultra-clean gain for XLR microphones and Lo-z sources and up to 12dB for 1/4″ instruments and Hi-z sources, via the Neutrik combination dual input connector and Hi-z to Lo-z Cinemag instrument transformer.
The CL-Zi’s variable impedance “Z” knob and high-pass filter work in tandem to create massive tone control in a unique way through the manipulation of impedance loading. This is a great way to customize your tone before the gain stage of your signal path – just turn the “Z” knob until it sounds right!
The CL-Zi has a three-position gain switch allowing for minimum gain, more gain, or the maximum gain available (up to approx. +25db for microphones or 12dB for instruments), This allows users to access clean gain and a lower noise floor for many studio or stage applications, from an electric guitar player that uses amp modeling or an acoustic guitar player performing live to singers with dynamic microphones to increase gain before feedback on stage.
- Fully sweep-able variable impedance loading from 150ohms to 15kohms
- High-Pass filter frequency variable from below 20hz to over 4khz
- Three gain settings yield up to +25dB, 12dB, or 6dB with mics and up to +12dB, 6dB, or 3dB with instruments
- Compatible with 1/4″ Hi-z instrument inputs and XLR Lo-z microphones
- Hi-z input of >1Mohm primary impedance prior to secondary loading via the Cloudlifter’s Vari-Z interface
- Improves microphone gain before feedback ratio in live & public address applications
- Easy to use self-contained design requires only phantom power
- Compatible with dynamic, ribbon, tube, battery, or power supply driven microphones
- Uses patented Class A, discrete JFET circuitry and patented Vari-Z user interface
- Rugged, road-ready, and portable for studio, stage, and broadcasting
- Free lifetime limited warranty for parts and labor with product registration
- Manufactured and fabricated responsibly in the USA