Bass players are easily divided into many sonic camps, each of which can be associated with a huge variety of gear. But, if distilled down to two basic groups, I think there are the players who seek transparency in their signal chain and those who use their signal chain as an integral facet of their tone. The Grace m103 is designed for the former. The channel-strip (so-called because it mimics a single channel “strip” on a recording console preamp) is engineered for high fidelity and precision EQ and compression. While it’s not a bass-specific preamp, the m103’s high-impedance unbalanced instrument input makes it an excellent candidate for a high-end live rig or a sweet front end in a studio, and since its based on Grace’s highly lauded m101 preamp, it deserves close attention.
Like most channel strips, the m103 combines gain, EQ, and compression with a host of signal routing options and inputs and outputs for a big variety of sources. As it’s not designed for bass specifically, it has a few mic-oriented features that will likely be irrelevant to many bassists. Regardless, should your career take you into production, it’s good to know that you’ve got a preamp that accommodates condenser, ribbon, and dynamic mics with a healthy amount of thoughtful control.
The m103 initially looks intimidating, but its densely packed front panel is intuitively laid out. The bass HI-Z (high-impedance) input is at the far left, immediately followed by a rotary switch offering a huge amount of gain. From there, skipping the mic-relevant switches, comes a straightforward EQ layout, similar to that found on the typical bass head. The right-hand side is dedicated to the m103’s versatile optical compressor with its accompanying LED VU meters to indicate gain reduction. The compressor offers full control over all parameters, including threshold, attack, release, and ratio. Finally, there’s an output- level-controlling TRIM knob, useful for makeup gain with compression or for subtle volume adjustments.
The Grace’s rear panel is blessed with an extensive array of outputs, with balanced and unbalanced q" and XLR outputs for both the full-strip signal and the preamp-only signal. Should you choose to run an XLR from the MIC PRE OUT, the m103 essentially functions as an active DI with control over gain.
The m103’s interior construction and components are undoubtedly high end. The surface-mount circuit boards are beautifully laid out and the switchmode power supply is well isolated from the audio path. Precise-tolerance metal film resistors are used throughout, and sealed, gold contact relays are used for all the signal switching. In short, the m103 is a beautiful piece of engineering.
The m103 is clean, precise, and effective. Its transient response and faithfulness to my bass’s output (as compared to a highend DI) was phenomenal. The EQ operated without fault, and it’s cool being able to switch between shelving and notch filters on the low and high ends of the spectrum, as well as having cut-off frequency control for all bands. The fully parametric midrange was particularly effective, as having adjustment over Q (the range of the effected frequencies) offers a lot of precision of the crucial character-defining middle range. Given the broad frequency response and clarity of the front end and EQ, I expected the compressor to be similarly voiced. Were that true, it’d be a bit of a drag, as compression can add a lot of mojo to a bass in the right context, provided the circuit has a little funk to it. Happily, the m103 does. It is precise and flexible, as a high-end channel strip’s compressor should be, but it also added a subtle amount of juice and color to my tone, especially at subtle ratio settings.
The m103 held up extremely well in both live and studio settings. Coupled with an equally hi-fi preamp, it’d make a killing rig for players who dig versatility and precision. As a studio tool, it could prove indispensible, and its onerackspace size makes it easy to integrate into a small home studio for doing overdubs and other bass-typical home projects. It’s expensive, but it sounds, looks, and feels like it. This is high-end gear that delivers on that overused adjective.
Input impedance (Hi-Z) 2.5Mø
EQ LO, ±12dB @ 20Hz–750Hz; MID, ±12dB @ 500Hz–4kHz (variable Q); HI, ±12dB @ 20Hz–750Hz
Weight 4.5 lbs
Pros Excellent construction; pristine sound