Cool Tool Spotlight: Cloudlifter Zi

Have you ever found yourself as a musician or engineer where your instrument or microphone was delivering an undesirably low signal? And maybe, at the same time, there’s an unacceptable noise or hum? Yeah. It’s a frustrating buzzkill (literally) trying to deal with situations like this. Everything stops until you solve it; or find an acceptable compromise. Been there, right? It’s the dark cloud of sound engineering. You sound and music geeks can now rejoice! Cloud Microphones has taken this problem as a personal challenge by creating and introducing their Cloudlifter Zi, an instrument DI and microphone activator as a handy, easy to understand and operate solution. An update to it’s predecessor Cloudlifter Z, think of it as a two-in-one component—an instrument DI and a mic activator. Basically, it cleans up your instrument’s source signal while increasing its volume before it reaches your amp, preamp or console.

Cloudlifter Zi Technical Specifications

The Cloudlifter Zi provides up to +25dB of ultra-clean gain for XLR microphones and lo-z sources and up to +15dB for 1/4” instruments and other hi-z sources, via the Neutrik combination dual-input connector and Hi-Z to Lo-Z CineMag instrument transformer. So what does this do? The Cloudlifter Zi maximizes the instrument or microphone’s signal strength and clarity and lowers the noise floor and amount of gain required from the preamp. The premium CineMag transformer, encased in MuMETAL for optimal shielding, brings out the natural beauty and character of your instrument, while lowering the impedance to mate perfectly with the Cloudlifter’s patented Vari-Z interface and phantom-powered gain circuit. By allowing your preamps to operate in a more comfortable gain range, the natural frequency response of the microphone or instrument remains intact and the self-noise of the preamp is drastically reduced.

Vari Z Interface = Massive Tone Control

The Cloudlifter Zi has continuously variable input impedance and continuously variable high-pass filtering that works in tandem to create massive tone control in a uniquely beautiful way that can only be accomplished through manipulation of impedance. Having input-Z control that sweeps from 150 ohms to 15k ohms allows you to creatively load the microphone’s output, or the low impedance output of the CineMag instrument transformer, prior to the Zi’s ultra-clean gain stage. This allows you to shape and contour your tone, whether you are using a microphone or going direct with an instrument.

Variable High-Pass Filtering = Proximity Effect Control

The continuously variable high-pass filtering (HPF) works in conjunction with the impedance value which allows for even greater tonal shaping. When engaged, the frequency cutoff is affected by the impedance setting. This allows for a -6dB per octave sweep-able frequency reduction from approximately 20hz to 4khz, just by turning the “Z” knob. This can be especially useful for reducing the proximity effect of a ribbon or dynamic microphone, or for easily eliminating low-frequency boom from acoustic, and shaping tonal characteristics from electric instruments such as bass, guitar and keyboards. Getting the desired result using the HPF is incredibly easy and intuitive; just turn the “Z” knob until it sounds right!

Variable Gain

The Zi has a three-position gain switch allowing for minimum gain, more gain, or maximum gain available. Most of the time the MAX position (up to approx. +25db for microphones or +15dB for instruments) will be used, however, the middle gain setting (up to 12dB for mics or 6dB for instruments) and the minimum gain setting (up to +6dB for mics and 3dB for instruments) may be useful in situations where the source does not require as much gain, or where more of the preamp’s color from additional gain is desired. It is notable that the Hi-Z to Lo-Z CineMag transformer initially reduces the level of the instrument, as it would with any DI transformer, but then increases once the signal is fed into the Cloudlifter’s amplification circuit. This usually results in a net gain with instruments up to 15dB, depending on the instrument and preamp combination. This accounts for the net gain with an instrument being a bit less than what you can expect to see with a microphone, in terms of total decibels of gain.

So, I Took the Cloudlifter Zi For a Spin

Now that we understand technically what it allows, let’s talk a bit about how it pans out in practical applications. As you may have heard both studio sessions and live performances offer a variety of technical challenges to overcome. [See Making Music’s article on engineering challenges. ] In my first outing with the Cloudlifter Zi, I mic’d a Telecaster running through a Riviera amplifier with a ribbon microphone placed about 15 inches from the cone. I placed the Cloudlifter Zi between the mic and the input to my console. While auditioning different tones and mic placement variations, I also auditioned the different settings on the Cloudlifter Zi—flipping switches and sweeping the dial—and comparing all this to what happens when I take it out of the chain, altogether. The difference can be significant. The amp didn’t need so much of a boost, so I set the Db switch to its minimum setting and swept through the dial until I found the most desirable combination of cleaner signal and groovy tone. By the time the signal hit my console it was already in ideal condition, ensuring that there will be very little to fix at mix time.

I also ran the same scenario, except that I moved the Cloudlifter Zi to operate as a conventional DI in between the telecaster and the amp. Noticeable improvements to the signal condition—and my ability to control it—were obvious in both cases. In the end, our preference went to the former scenario of placing the Cloudlifter Zi between the mic and the console input (but we still have both in case we change our minds, of course).

Then, believe it or not, the bass player showed up [Can’t resist a bass player joke]. On this occasion we chose to run the bass signal directly into the board, sans amp. We put the Cloudlifter Zi between the bass—which is passive and producing a low (35—40Db-ish) signal—and the console. Once we popped the Cloudlifter Zi into the chain as a DI… boom! The bass became a contender, bouncing big in the mix at around 50-60Db before it hit the pre.

In another session, I used the Cloudlifter Zi in it’s mic activator role while arranging and building a one-man choir via overdubbing the parts, myself. I found this device incredibly useful in this application because of its ability to adapt to the artist (in this case, me, the singer). As a singer, I tend to sing more powerfully/louder to hit high notes than I do in the lower part of my range. And also, I use air and power in different amounts and combinations when creating different techniques and approaches at the mic. You know… sometimes a slow-moving, soft, legato coo… sometimes the loud, belting howl of an urgent soulman rock singer. In either of these scenarios (and the approaches in between) I was able to make adjustments with the Cloudlifter Zi that addressed the differences in each appraoch. For instance, I used the MAX Db setting when singing soft and breathy. In kind, I utilized the MIN Db setting when I was hollering in James Brown mode. All the while I did all the same parts, same technique without the device, for comparison.

Once again, utilizing the Cloudlifter Zi offered the prevailing solution for obtaining the most desirable result. I found that the noise levels were much, MUCH lower against the maximized signal quality. Artistically speaking, the vocals treated with the Cloudlifter Zi resulted in a brighter, richer more resonant ring and vibe than without. And, significantly so. I feel like the Cloudlifter-handled process is a rounder, tighter, more 3-dimensional, more robust sound (definitely more fun to listen to), while offering more control at mix. Absolutely delighted. I am so happy with this, I will certainly let this component live, pretty much, as a resident in the signal chain between my mic and pre-amp or console. It buffs up my sound, notches-up my “pro”… and helps relieve a few headaches while we’re at it. Cool! More time for music and less time fooling around with the knobs, searching. And, at a street price of about $379, it qualifies as a great value and would serve well in every musician or engineer’s signal chain.

Chuck Schiele is an award-winning musician, producer, editorialist, artist, activist and music fan. He still plays every day.

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