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Cloudlifter CL-1 Review

Saturday, July 2nd, 2011 | by


Cloudlifter CL-1Last year I reviewed the original Cloudlifter, which I described as an “inline mic pre-preamp” intended to give passive ribbon microphones a 20dB boost of clean gain. The manufacturer, Cloud Microphones from Tucson, AZ, has since updated the design and dropped the price.

I’ve had the good fortune to play with the new single-channel Cloudlifter CL-1 since January. In fact, I used it extensively in my recent podcast microphone shootout, because it let me run my DAW inputs comfortably in the middle of their gain range, leaving plenty of headroom for matching gain across microphones.

Read on for a review of the new Cloudlifter CL-1.

Cloudlifter CL-1 and CL-2Let’s begin with what’s changed:

The original Cloudlifter was a 2-channel device. The new version of that model is now called the CL-2. As noted above, there is a new single-channel version too, called the CL-1.

The CL-1 streets at $150, making it a low-cost tool for adding extra gain to your mic pre’s. The two-channel CL-2 streets for $250, a bit less than the original model ($289).

The new Cloudlifters have updated circuitry; the changes improve noise rejection. We’ll get more into this in the review.

What hasn’t changed:

The Cloudlifter is a patent-pending, fully discrete amplifier circuit, using no resistors or capacitors in the audio path, built into a solid steel case with Neutrik XLR connectors, and is designed, assembled, and tested by hand in the USA.

For this review, I focused on two applications of the device, both using moving-coil dynamic microphones. According to Rodger Cloud, the company is selling a lot of units to broadcast and voiceover artists who use low-output dynamics like the Electro-Voice RE20Electro-Voice RE20. It just so happens that I have one of those here — thanks to this site’s eagle-eared readers, who voted for it in a blind broadcast mic listening survey.

Test #1: How clean is that gain?

One of the findings from my first review is that the Cloudlifter delivers at least 20dB of gain as clean or cleaner than any of my preamps. I retested this conclusion in a new way with the CL-1: I ran one microphone through a splitter into two inputs in my DAW, with the CL-1 inline in just one of those inputs.

In ASCII:

                     CL-1 -> DAW channel 1 (phantom on)
                    /
RE-20 -> Radial JS-2 
                    \ 
                     DAW channel 3 (phantom off)

Radial JS-2, Cloudlifter CL-1My DAW is a Digi 002 Rack with the Black Lion Audio “Signature Series” mod (~$1200). The preamps are hot, and very clean. I wanted to see if the CL-1 could match the performance of the modded preamp.

Prior to recording, I gain-matched the two channels to within 0.1dB. Needless to say, the CL-1 channel needed ~20dB less gain.

Then I recorded a short narration, and fine-tuned the RMS levels of the two tracks to ensure identical levels.

The result? I couldn’t hear any difference. I listened closely in headphones, but couldn’t pick either reliably in a blind test.

But then I wondered if I’d inadvertently recorded the same source on both tracks, e.g. two channels of CL-1, next to each other. The acid test for hearing differences between audio tracks is to invert one of the two and play them back together, in mono. If the two tracks were truly identical, the waveforms (equal in amplitude but opposite in direction) would cancel out completely, resulting in silence.

Fortunately for the veracity of my test, I didn’t hear perfect silence. There is some tiny difference between the CL-1 signal path and the direct-to-DAW signal path. The difference is inaudible at comfortable listening levels, though; it measures at about 45dB lower than the level of either track, solo’d.

In Pro Tools, I zoomed in on a moment of ambient sound, between takes. The image at right (made with the RE-20, despite the track names) shows the waveforms at maximum vertical zoom. The CL-1 track is on top; the DAW preamp track is below. It’s clear the CL-1 isn’t adding any noise. In fact, when I measured the RMS level of the selected audio, the CL-1 track was 0.3dB lower.

So, when Cloud promotes the Cloudlifter as creating “ultra-clean gain,” they mean it!

Test #2: The Cable Run from Hell

Rodger Cloud suggested that the Cloudlifter could be used to improve the sound quality of long cable runs and noisy preamps. Imagine you’re running an old Mackie mixer at a club, and the singer’s SM58 is at the other end of a 100′ snake. Or worse, a 100′ chain of 20′ mic cables. (Don’t gasp. I know you’ve done it too.)

So I strung together two identical chains of cables, basically everything in my cable box that I had pairs of — two 122' runs, a mix of brand-name quad-core cable and no-name stuff that I swear still has beer stains from college on it. I ran them out of the studio, around the next room, past a couple electrical outlets, into the hallway, around a 500-watt fluorescent light fixture, and back into the control room.

And then I plugged them both into a Mackie 1604 VLZ Pro. I maxed the gain on one channel, and adjusted the other one down to compensate for the boost from the Cloudlifter. The signal level coming into Pro Tools (via the 1604’s direct outs, into the 002’s 1/4'' inputs) was within 0.2dB across channels.

Back at the mic end of the cable run, I put the Cloudlifter inline on one cable, and wired both through the JS-2 into a low-output dynamic (hello, Shure SM57SM57!). And then I read a short narration (as is my custom, another fabulous excerpt from Zen and the Art of Mixing.)

mackie_noCL.mp3
mackie_CL.mp3

I’ve heard enough lousy bands in enough lousy nightclubs to expect something dreadful from the pure Mackie channel. Surprisingly, it isn’t that bad. But it is audibly noisier. The Mackie channel has more high-frequency hash, maybe 5dB between 10kHz–20kHz.

Then there’s the tonal difference. The voice on the Cloudlifter track has more weight. The ess sounds don’t bite as much. The Mackie track sounds thin and maybe a bit harsh. In short, the Cloudlifter track sounds better.

I pulled the JS-2 and CL-1 out of the circuit and recorded ambient noise with a single mic, a single 122' cable run, and the Mackie. Then I put the CL-1 back inline, reduced the Mackie’s gain to match the signal level in Pro Tools, and recorded ambient noise again. This is to appease the purists who think the JS-2 or some specific fault in one of the cable runs might have interfered with my test. But I got the same results: the Cloudlifter track had about 0.5dB less noise overall (RMS), most audibly between 10kHz–20kHz. Further, the non-Cloudlifter track had an edgy, gritty quality to it that wasn’t there when I used the CL-1.

(By the way, it is not my intention to disparage the Mackie 1604 in any way. I haven’t kept it around for 10 years because I hate it. On the contrary, if anything I’m more impressed with it because of these tests. )

Test #3: Noise Rejection

If you read my review of the original Cloudlifter, you’ll recall that I was getting some noise from the device when it was at the far end of a long mic cable, next to my DAW. The new CL-1 seems to be immune to this problem — I tried it with Cloud’s beautiful Cloud Microphones JRS-34JRS-34 passive ribbon mic, before and after a 30' run of very questionable cable, and heard no RF noise in either configuration. Problem solved!

Conclusion

There’s a lot to love about the Cloudlifter. It turns phantom power into clean, transparent gain. It gets the best out of long cable runs and noisy preamps. In fact, it turns any preamp into a high-gain “ribbon preamp.”

If you have passive ribbon mics, you need the Cloudlifter. If you have dynamic mics and a noisy preamp, you need the Cloudlifter. If you’re using a dynamic mic with a 16-bit USB mic pre, and you want to maximize your gain staging before bus-powered A-to-D conversion, you need the Cloudlifter. It’s an inexpensive tool that you’ll find more uses for than you might expect.

Where to Buy

Support this site by buying from one of the excellent stores listed at the bottom of the JRS-34 page. (Thank you!)

Disclaimers

No ribbon microphones were harmed during the course of this test. (That’s actually one of the features of the Cloudlifter.)

The CL-1 under review was provided for evaluation. Thanks to Rodger Cloud and David Bryce for the long-term loan. I’m keeping it, by the way. Send me an invoice. :)

Now if you’ll excuse me, I have 250' of mic cable to wrap up.

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Posted in Microphones, Reviews | 23 Comments »




23 Responses to “Cloudlifter CL-1 Review”

  1. Big Dave

    July 3rd, 2011 at 6:16 am

    I am very glad to see they came out with a single channel version. I will be getting one for my SM7b.

  2. tomy

    July 3rd, 2011 at 10:50 am

    Hi George, great review!
    Would you say that this would help with an SM7 And a fasttrack pro?

  3. matthew mcglynn

    July 3rd, 2011 at 10:52 am

    @tomy, the spec for the Fasttrack Pro’s mic pre gain is “>40dB”. If that’s true, it’s not very much. In any case, if you are not getting enough gain out of the SM7, then the CL-1 will absolutely help.

  4. Tomy

    July 3rd, 2011 at 6:37 pm

    Hi Mathew, thanks for that quick reply!
    No, I’m not getting enough gain from the FTP, so I guess I might give the CL-1 a shot.

  5. AJ

    July 6th, 2011 at 1:02 am

    @Tomy The pre’s in fast track pro are generally horrible (i owned one for 3 months). So instead of cloudlifter, i’d suggest looking for a new audio interface, but that’s just my 2 cents :)

  6. malygris13

    July 7th, 2011 at 1:39 pm

    Is there a difference between the initial release of the “CL-1″ and those that came later or are all the same. This is in reference to your comment that “the new Cloudlifters have updated circuitry”, If so how can we tell? Are there serial numbers or….
    Thank you for your time,

    .

  7. matthew mcglynn

    July 8th, 2011 at 8:53 am

    @malygris13, I believe the new RF filtering circuitry appears with the CL-1/CL-2 branding. The first generation were called simply “cloudlifter,” and were all 2-channel devices.

  8. Stephen Sank

    August 4th, 2011 at 8:27 pm

    Regarding the updates I’ve made to the CloudLifter circuitry, I want to add here that, OF COURSE, any owner of an early 2-channel CL unit that is having any RF or other noise issues is quite emphatically encouraged to send the unit/units back to Cloud Microphones or even directly to me(address on my site, stephensank.com) for FREE update to the current circuit configuration. We only ask that you pay shipping to us, and we will pay shipping back to you.
    At this point, we have tested the current CL units in the worst environments & with the most interference-sensitive mics(plastic body Beyer M320 being a great one for that), and I do feel that I’ve made the CL circuit as immune to environmental interference as any low level audio device can be made to be. Even the earliest CloudLifter units do have RF suppression. It just wasn’t “aggressive” enough for the worst case mics & environments. It inevitably takes time to find out just how much worse user conditions can be than what a designer like me originally anticipates.

  9. John

    January 6th, 2012 at 9:24 pm

    I just purchased my second CL-2 and I’d purchase a third but, sorry Stephen, a friend has one and allows me to borrow it.

    I do a lot of on location recording of Classical music in the Chicago area and thanks to the CL-2 I’ve rediscovered the joy of using ribbons for spot mics. Because I want to set up my listening position far from the musicians and stay out of sight during concerts, my typical cable run is 100′ to 150′. The CL-2 handles that length with no trouble at all.

    I’ll also vouch for the RF immunity because downtown Chicago is RFI hell. I frequently work in Fourth Presbyterian Church which is across the street from the 100 story tall Hancock building. Because of the height there are at least twenty radio and TV stations which transmit from atop the building. Total radiated power is around a million watts. How’s that for a source of radio interference? It’s essential in this situation to have the gain stage as close to the mic as possible. Using Beyer M-260 or Royer SF-1 ribbon mics followed by 10′ to 25′ of cable to the CL-2 and then 100′ of cable to a John Hardy M-1 mic pre results in exactly zero radio interference. Considering the megawatt electromagnetic assault coming from across the street the CL-2 performs very well indeed. The mic cables are high quality star quad with Switchcraft connectors.soldered by me. I don’t rust anyone else to make my cables but that’s another story.

    The cost effective CL-2 performs very well even under difficult circumstances. Highly recommended.

  10. John

    January 6th, 2012 at 9:27 pm

    Oops.. that sentence should read, “I don’t trust anyone else to make my cables…”.

    Also forgot to say how much I enjoy this site. Thanks to one and all.

  11. Meiron Egger

    September 26th, 2012 at 12:45 pm

    Hello
    Is it needed if you have a good preamp to?
    I work with Neve 1073 and Telefunken v376. When I use my ribbons or SM57 I just push the gain on the preamp, and it sounds good.

    Do you think I’ll gain something adding the CL to the chain?

    Tnx
    Meiron

  12. matthew mcglynn

    September 26th, 2012 at 2:24 pm

    @Meiron, if you’re happy with the sound you’re getting, then there is no reason to buy any more gear!

    The V376 in particular has a reputation for being very clean and high-gain too. If it were colored like the 1073, then you might find use for the Cloudlifter if you were hearing too much preamp coloration in your ribbon/dynamic tracks. But I think the V376 is a great ribbon/dynamic pre, without the Cloudlifter.

    Of course, the other application for the CL-1 is to use low-output mics with long cable runs. If you have problems with radio interference from long cables to your ribbon mics, then the CL-1 would probably help you.

  13. Rovito

    April 6th, 2013 at 9:52 am

    Am I better off getting a Cloudlifter for $150.00 for my currant SM7b or am I better off buying a newer $200.00 condenser mic for voiceovers? I have had good luck with the SM7b but can’t but help think there are other mics I would like to try. AKG perception 220? Sterling ST55?

  14. matthew mcglynn

    April 6th, 2013 at 3:54 pm

    @Rovito, I think both those condensers would be excellent for picking up mouth sounds, breath noise, and plosives.

    The Cloudlifter will give you the same SM7B sound you get today, with a lower noise floor. If you’ve been successful with the mic, that’s the way I’d go, no question.

    The P220 is a decent mic. It’s basically a Chinese-made U87. Despite AKG’s claims that it was “designed in Austria,” it was actually designed in Germany, by Neumann in about 1986. The capsule is an especially zingy version of the Neumann K67. And while it lacks the extreme peakiness that is common to some inexpensive condensers, it has a much bigger boost at 10kHz than does the SM7B.

    I don’t have any experience with the Sterling mic. But I’d recommend you try it before you buy. It has high sensitivity, but also relatively high self-noise. See if you can borrow one for a trial session in your own studio. The self-noise might be a showstopper.

    You might also look iinto darker-voiced condensers like the Oktava MK-219/MK-319, or the Kel HM-2D.

  15. Rovito

    April 20th, 2013 at 5:01 am

    I ended up Buying the P420 and the ST51. You were spot on about the mouth noise… I will be ordering a Cloud lifter today. Thanks for your input.

  16. Rueben Marley

    May 20th, 2013 at 4:59 am

    I just got my new CL-1 a couple of weeks ago, and I’ve been using it with a SHURE SM57 on some of my voiceover projects.

    It’s been a total game-changer on a nearly-forgotten ’57 that actually turned out to be a very decent VO mic after all.

    To my ears the finished tracks seem to have a bit more color than before, and looking at the waveform on my PC I’m amazed at just how clean that extra gain is too. This was money well spent.

    But here’s what’s really got me excited: Pretty soon I will be picking up my very own KSM313 (been borrowing one from a friend for long-form projects) and I can’t wait to see how it performs with the Cloud! I’ll try to remember posting an update here…

  17. Paulds

    July 14th, 2013 at 6:11 pm

    I notice that my beautiful Bayerdynamic M99 (Im creating online education video blackboard content) without the cloudlifter does accept decent c400 gains albeit with some noise, however the situation then skews because when I connect the Cloudlifter, first I get terrible noise without the PAD depressed…. but then the magic happens when the PAD is depressed and viola! the clarity and purity of the gain is unleashed to astonishing level. I do wonder if that disparity is by design to emphasis the clartity of the gain in the right PAD mode? Because without the cloudlifter the gain noise ISNT THAT BAD. Caveat: Im staying with the cleaner gain offerd by the cloudlifter.

  18. matthew mcglynn

    July 14th, 2013 at 8:19 pm

    @Paulds, I can’t explain why you’re getting noise from your gear as you describe. But the C400’s pad is cutting 20dB of gain, which means the Cloudlifter’s additional 20-25dB is all but wiped out.

    If you swap the M99 for another dynamic, do you have a noise problem?
    If you swap the C400 for another interface, do you have a noise problem?

  19. Artie Norton

    December 5th, 2014 at 7:29 pm

    Hello Matt. I bough my C-1 to use with my SM7b after reading your review, and that pair has been in my vocal chain for the eight or nine songs I’ve written and recorded over the past 8 or so months. I’m just a hobbyist, but my vocal tracks sound so much fuller and present. It’s a fabulous combination. By the way, I bought my SM7b on your recommendation too! Thanks for all you do.

  20. Dan

    December 12th, 2014 at 8:56 pm

    Artie or Matt Might you know If the Cloud lifter when used is anything close to increasing the gain on my mixer when using a sm58 I can get a much richer sound with headphones but I then pick up everthing in the room and no way sing while listening to my monitors I was hoping to get a sm7 and cloud lofter and be able get the rich sound and still get the to monitor through my speakers with great rejection on the sm7 thanks so much Dan

  21. Vincent

    September 12th, 2015 at 10:01 am

    I just purchased an EV RE20 mic and a Mackie 802 vlz4 mixer. I’ll be recording primarily to a Zoom H5. I’ll be doing podcasting and some singing as well. Do I need the Cloudlifter CL-1 in your opinion? From time to time I’ll be employing a mix minus set up for Skype calls too.

  22. Dave

    October 8th, 2015 at 11:01 pm

    I don’t understand the point of the cloudlifter if the level achieved has the same amount of preamp noise on both.

  23. matthew mcglynn

    October 8th, 2015 at 11:11 pm

    @Dave, I’m not sure you read the whole review. The CL creates gain that is as clean as my boutique-modded interface with very hot preamps. Compared to a typical consumer-grade USB interface, the Cloudlifter will be far superior. Also, most preamps get noisier as you turn up the gain. The CL lets you avoid that high-noise region of your preamp fader, but still get a nice strong signal.

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