SOUND ON SOUND APRIL 2007
Little Labs specialise in building those apparently boring little gadgets that are essential to make a studio function properly, and a very good job they make of them too! Apparently, this latest offering is a collaboration with US company Mercenary Audio. It aims to allow signals from an electric guitar fitted with passive pickups to be sent over long distances without degradation. A typical application for a device of this type is when the player is in the control room and the amplifier is some distance away in a live room. Conventional cables lose more top end the longer they are, and longer lengths are also more prone to interference problems. Little Labs have solved this by building an active transistor buffer into the jack-plug end of the included cable, which is powered via a couple of batteries in the DI box-sized output unit. The included cable is no longer than a normal guitar lead, but it can easily be extended from its XLR end using standard mic cables, up to a maximum of around 100 feet. The jack goes into the guitar, the XLR end goes into the output box, and from there you can take two separate jack feeds (with switchable ground lift on one), to feed a guitar amplifier and one other destination simultaneously.
At the heart of the system is a single-transistor, unity-gain buffer circuit, which I assume is basically an emitter-follower designed to present a high-impedance input and low-impedance output. This is mounted inside the quarter-inch jack at the end of the included cable and is designed to load the instrument pickup correctly, in order to produce a natural frequency response regardless of cable length. What isn't specified is whether the capacitive load of a typical guitar cable has been emulated; many guitar pickups are designed to sound at their best running into a cable of known capacitance, and removing this load may move the resonant peak of the pickups themselves. Subjectively, though, I have no problem with the sound.
At the other end of the cable is the cast aluminium base unit, which would normally be located close to the guitar amplifier, and connected to it by means of a short, unbalanced jack cable. This unit contains the receiver-end circuitry, which is made from very high-quality parts. The active buffer is powered by two 9V batteries that, in normal use, should last over one year providing you unplug the cable when not in use. The idea is that the signal presented to the amplifier will appear as though it came directly from the guitar, so that the tonality won't be adversely changed, as it might be if you used (for example) a generic DI box. There are warnings that the buffer in the cable could be damaged by static electricity (in which case a replacement is available at a sensible cost) but, providing you handle the cable sensibly, I can't see this being a serious problem. My one minor gripe is that you have to find an Allen key to remove the bottom of the box when you need to change the batteries. Crosshead screws might have been more user-friendly here.
I tested the STD system in place of a very ordinary 20-foot guitar cable and noticed a subjective improvement in the tonality, which seemed to retain a little more body and warmth. The level of noise picked up by the guitar seemed lower, and the playing feel was also a hint springier, which suggests that the responsiveness of the instrument had been improved slightly by the change in loading. These differences were fairly subtle, but were repeatable and very real. Extending the XLR cable didn't produce any audible change to the sound, which is what you'd expect by buffering right at the guitar's output, and having a second output with a ground lift means that you can feed a guitar amplifier and a DI box connected to a recording system at the same time without having to worry about ground-loop hum.
At £112 including VAT, the STD sells for around the same price as a good overdrive pedal, which is good value for such a professional piece of equipment. It makes a worthwhile addition to any studio where you need to separate the guitar and amplifier by more than around 20 feet. It also doubles as a signal splitter, so I can see a lot of studio applications for a box like this. It may not look exciting but it does exactly what it claims to and is highly recommended. There are lots of DI and buffering tools around, but this is the best I've tried to date. Paul White