One of the coolest things about owning a studio is having access to a vast spectrum of interesting kit. There are big-ticket items like mixing consoles, mics, and outboard compressors, but legions of less-glamorous gadgets are required to make the recording process work. For a long while, one such gadget has been the Cloudlifter CL-1 from boutique mic builders Cloud Microphones. The dead-simple CL-1 does one thing exceptionally well: It uses phantom power to add up to 25dB of clean gain to a mic’s signal. Many iconic microphones, like the Shure SM-7B and most ribbon mics, sound great but have severely low output, requiring the connected mic preamp to provide 50dB or more of gain for a workable recording level. Unless you have exceptionally clean mic preamps with a ton of gain on tap, this huge boost substantially raises the signal chain’s noise floor. By transparently adding 25dB of gain to a quiet mic’s output, the Cloudlifter doesn’t push the preamp into its upper limits, resulting in a quieter and often more high-fidelity signal. The CL-1 is of limited use to us bass players—but now with the Zi, Cloud has introduced a clever product that’s a unique addition to our corner of the gear world. It offers the same functionality as the CL-1, but adds an instrument input and a cool dual-purpose variable-impedance/high-pass filter knob to further tailor tone.
The Zi is nicely constructed, with a rugged-feeling steel case. All the components are top-shelf, including the Neutrik combo jack and CineMag input transformer. The surface-mount PCB reveals the JFET circuitry that provides gain, and everything is orderly and well engineered. Boxes like this get thrown around a lot, and the Zi’s durable feel seems up to the task.
While it may look the part, the Zi isn’t exactly a DI. Traditionally, a DI converts a bass’ high-impedance, instrument-level signal to a low-impedance, mic-level signal appropriate for recording. The Zi adds a bit of gain to an instrument-level signal, which is itself typically a bit higher than mic level. It’s no big deal in practice, as almost every preamp will deal with the slightly higher output, but it’s worth mentioning. More important versus traditional DIs, the Zi lacks a “through” output. The through jack on a DI allows a player to utilize the DI for feeding a PA or recording preamp while also providing signal to an amp. It’s a vital component of a DI, especially for live use.
While the Zi is a bit left-of-center compared to most DIs, it also offers a few features that make it well worth attention. First, its variable impedance can alter the frequency response of a passive bass, adding a new dimension of tone-sculpting to the typical signal chain. Also, its built-in variable highpass filter can clean up the muddy low end that can plague some instruments in a dense mix, and it’s easily switched off if you want to retain your full-range output. Most interestingly, since the Zi retains the clean-gain feature that made the CL-1 an indispensable tool for recording engineers, any two-timing bass player/recording engineer would easily find a range of uses for it in their studio.
Pros Beautifully constructed in the U.S.; flexible tool for bass players and recording engineers alike; variable impedance and highpass filter offer interesting dimensions for tone shaping
Cons No through output
Bottom Line The Zi is a great-sounding, slightly eccentric DI that’s especially useful for bass players who also moonlight as recording engineers.
Input impedance 1MΩ (instrument input)
Power 48 volts via phantom power
Made in U.S.A.