If you're tracking vocals and instruments, there are few aspects of your studio more crucial than your recording front end (preamp, EQ, compressor)—as seasoned engineers well know, the same mic can sound quite different going into a high-end preamp than a stock audio interface.
Unfortunately for many home and project studios, premium recording chains don't come cheap: a boutique preamp, EQ, and compressor combo will often set you back upwards of $3K, and there are certainly high-end options which can bring the price tag drastically higher. As a result, we're always on the lookout for budget-friendly preamps that still offer top-notch sound quality, and that's why we were thrilled to get our hands on one of the first Skulpter 500 series units from renowned developer Elysia.
We've reviewed some of Elysia's software offerings here on DJBooth Pro Audio before, and if you haven't heard of the renowned German developers before, you need to—they make some of the finest software and hardware available anywhere.
While Elysia is legendary for their engineering prowess, they're also well known for premium prices: their flagship Alpha mastering compressor retails for over $10,000. As a result, we were pleasantly surprised to see the Skulpter 500 unit retailing for a seriously affordable $879—a bargain by just about any standard.
So does the Skulpter live up to Elysia's revered reputation despite its budget-friendly price? Not only does Skulpter live up to the Elysia name, it may well be the most affordable and best all-in-one front end for a recording chain we've found to date. In this review we'll take a deep dive into the combo preamp/EQ/compressor unit, examining why every producer and engineer should give this one a serious look.
Setup & First Impressions
Skuplter is a standard single 500 series unit, meaning you'll need a 500 series rack with one free slot to utilize it. If you haven't jumped into the world of 500 series units yet, we'd highly recommend you consider doing so: in most cases, the 500 series format offers a highly compact and affordable way to tap into gear made by the world's best outboard gear manufacturers.
While Skulpter is ostensibly marketed as a single mono preamp, the unit in reality is a full front end for just about any recording setup; in addition to the preamp, you get a "Dual Sound Shaper" (saturation/harmonics with EQ curves), a variable low cut filter, and built-in dynamics control, making this a highly versatile unit for such a tiny form factor.
Getting up and running with Skulpter—like just about any 500 series unit—only took a few minutes. Simply plug the unit into a free slot in your 500 rack, flip on the power, and you're ready to record.
As we'd expect from any hardware bearing the Elysia name, Skulpter feels well-built and substantial. The stepped rotary knobs are large and easy to dial in (something certainly not shared by many 500 series units), and the built-in meter is clear and easy to read in just about any conditions.
While Skulpter offers much more than a simple preamp, that is the headline feature here, so we'll start with a rundown of our experience with the unit in recording vocals and guitars. Skulpter's preamp is absolutely phenomenal, and it's hands down the most impressive, high-end sound I've heard in a unit at this price point or form factor.
For starters, Skulpter's preamp offers an absolutely massive amount of gain. As a result, if you're wondering why there's no line/mic switch on Skulpter's front plate, its because it doesn't need one: unlike most preamps, Skulpter is capable of an enormous range of input gain, nullifying the need to select between mic and line level inputs, as well as the need for a "pad" control.
Describing the sound of preamps is always a subjective exercise, but if I had to sum up the sound of Skulpter in a word, it's pristine. Skulpter provides a more honest, clear representation of the input signal than any other preamp I've tried in this price range, and in many cases, more than other preamps I've tried that cost 3-4x as much. As with any high-end preamp, Skulpter won't make a poor source signal sound like a million dollar record: it will, however, make your mic sound absolutely phenomenal, provided its fed a quality signal.
While Skulpter's preamp sounds pristine and natural in its default mode, that's not to say the unit isn't capable of some serious saturation and sound sculpting. If color is what you're after, Skulpter excels just as easily here thanks to its Dual Sound Shaper, which features two substantially different coloration modes and matching EQ curves. Shape One (enabled by default) is reminiscent of more outright saturation and distortion—think beefy, fat sounds—with a relatively flat frequency response from 20hz to 4-5 kHz, where a gradual high cut filter kicks in. In my testing of Skulpter, Shape One emerged as the go-to setting for synths, instruments, bass, and other sounds in need of some extra 'oomph', easily turning digital synths into leads full of analog sparkle and grit, if pushed hard enough.
Sound Shaper's Shape Two is the ticket if you're after Elysia's take on high-end tube saturation and gentle soft clipping, and in many cases, it's the better choice for vocals. In contrast to Shape One, Shape Two offers a much more pronounced EQ curve, with a substantially high frequency "air" bump at 1 kHz and up. As a result, Shape Two excels on vocals and guitars in need of air and shine, and it exhibits a beautiful saturation character as input levels increase.
If Skulpter only offered its stellar preamp and Sound Shaper modes it would still be a killer value at this price point—but in fact, there's substantially more on offer here. Elysia's compression chops are known in mastering houses the world over—it's Alpha Master compressor is considered by many engineers to be the finest that money can buy—so it's unsurprising that Skulpter's built-in dynamics control is absolutely superb. While Skulpter doesn't offer much in the way of advanced dynamics controls—the ratio is fixed, and neither attack nor release is user-adjustable—it's compression characteristic is highly useful on a broad range of sound sources, from synths to vocals. Driving the input gain does offer some degree of dynamics control, as the compression characteristic of the unit becomes more noticeable and intense with increasing levels.
While it's typically hard to get excited about a preamp's high pass filter, Skulpter does its best in this regard as well; in contrast to many preamps which only offer fixed HPF frequency steps, Skulpter's HPF is variable from 10 hz all the way up to 375 hz, offering substantially more flexibility than many high-end units.
It was truly hard to find a single flaw with Skulpter in our testing—while it would, in theory, be nice to have a bit more control (either analog or digital) over the compression characteristics, I'm not sure this would be technically feasible in this form factor. Overall, Skulpter is a recording front end without flaw, and it's truly an exceptional piece of gear at a highly compelling price point.
If you're in the market for a 500 series preamp—or any preamp for that matter—we'd highly recommend giving Skulpter a try. Skulpter offers the finest and most pristine sound I've heard in this price range by a substantial margin, and it offers heaps of gain and saturation well-suited to guitars, basses, synths, and just about any sound you can throw at it. We've come to expect nothing but hits from Elysia, and Skulpter certainly lives up to their vaunted reputation—highly recommended.
- Gorgeous, high-end sound
- Excels at a wide range of sounds, from pristine to heavily driven
- Compressor is superb
- Phenomenal, natural sounding EQ for vocals
- Unbeatable price and small form factor