D-TAR Solstice

September 1, 2003
0.0000DTARWhen Seymour Duncan and Rick Turner announced they were joining forces to design gear for amplifying acoustic instruments, the odds were good that their new D-TAR company would create some toneful gizmos. One of their first offerings is the Solstice ($335 street), a 2-channel mixer/ stereo preamp designed to blend signals from a variety of acoustic pickups, transducers, and mics, and integrate seamlessly with stage and studio rigs. The Solstice is packed with nifty features, including instrument inputs that welcome both passive and active transducers, sweet-sounding mic preamps, channel and master FX loops, a tuner output and mute switch (which work together to provide silent onstage tuning), a pair of feedback-fighting phase switches, and two channels of guitar-centric, 3-band analog EQ.

To put the Solstice through its paces, I used it to record guitar and resonator tracks with different combinations of magnetic and piezo pickups, run singly and in conjunction with dynamic or condenser mics. In addition to testing the manual’s suggested Solstice-into-mixer configuration, I also took the Solstice’s outs directly into my Macintosh via a USB audio interface, thus bypassing any unnecessary circuitry. In every case, I found that the Solstice let me coax superb tones from my test instruments with minimum fuss.

Zooming In
The Solstice looks cool—its sturdy, cream-colored metal top and “cinnamon rainbow” front panel evokes a ’60s speedboat. Each channel sports two inputs with individual volume knobs. One input is an ultra-high impedance 1/4" jack for instrument pickups, the other is a standard XLR jack for mics. The XLR jacks have tiny buttons to engage 15 volts of phantom power, as well as a 20dB pad. If you plug a TRS stereo cable into either instrument jack, the Solstice automatically assigns each signal to a separate channel. Slick—no Y-cord required.

The twin EQ sections consist of bass, mid, and treble knobs, which offer 12dB of cut or boost at 155Hz, 796Hz, and 10kHz, respectively. A pair of phase switches lets you maintain phase coherency between channels—crucial when amplifying a flat-top with both an onboard pickup and an external mic—or tame feedback from onstage monitors. Each channel has an overload LED to warn you when an input signal gets too hot. Finally, there’s a master mute switch with LED, a mix knob for the master FX loop, and a master-volume control.

The back panel offers three XLR outs (one is a blend of both channels, and the remaining two are individual outs), a 1/4" power-amp out, tuner and mute footswitch jacks (with its blended signal, the tuner out doubles as an aux out), and master FX send and return jacks. A pair of 1/4" TRS channel insertion points provide multiple functions. Depending on whether you patch in a TRS stereo Y-cord or a 1/4" mono
cable, each jack can act as an FX send and return, an aux output, or an aux input.

Thanks to its ten outputs, the Solstice is remarkably flexible. If you’re willing to experiment, you should be able to interface with virtually any combination of mixer, power amp, stage amp, or computer soundcard. Though the manual doesn’t detail all the options, you can suss them out with the handy signal-flow chart.

One concern: The thin wire that connects the Solstice’s 15-volt wall-wart to the back panel is less than stageworthy. If you plan on gigging with the Solstice—which makes total sense, given its potent features—carry a spare power supply.

Hands On
Whether accepting a passive signal from a Gibson Hound Dog Dobro and its excellent Fishman Resonator pickup, or handling a hot, active signal from a Duncan MagMic-equipped Taylor 512-C flat-top, the Solstice provided warm, inviting tones that included plenty of stringy detail and body resonance. Adding an external mic to the equation created sonic nirvana. The Solstice’s mic preamps captured such “airy” details as string squeaks and nail scrapes without a hint of stridency or brittleness. According to D-TAR, the Solstice’s mic pres borrow from circuitry used in ’70s Neve consoles, which may explain why I dug the miked tones so much.

A caveat: If you plan on using a phantom-powered condenser mic with the Solstice, you need to confirm the mic’s voltage requirements. The Solstice delivers a 15-volt feed, which is enough juice to power most onboard mini-mics, but not all studio condensers. For example, my AKG C 2000B sounded fat and sassy through the Solstice, yet without its requisite 48-volt charge, an Alesis GT AM51 delivered a weak, washed-out sound. Of course, this isn’t an issue with dynamic mics—a Shure “Elvis” 55SH Series II and an AKG D-3500 sounded crisp and punchy through the Solstice.

The unit’s EQ sections deserve special mention. With only three knobs per channel, the system is designed for gentle shaping, rather than sonic surgery. That said, the EQ yielded immediate and musical results whenever I touched it. Smoothing the sound of piezo transducers was as simple as backing off the treble slightly and goosing the mids a tad. I would have welcomed a center detent on each knob—with 12dB of cut and boost on a rotary pot, it’s reassuring to know when it’s flat—but otherwise, I found the well-voiced EQ a breeze to use.

Celestial Heights
With its easy-to-grok front panel, flexible I/Os, and sumptuous EQ, the Solstice is an outstanding piece of gear. While there’s no shortage of excellent, single-channel blender preamps (the Fishman Pro-EQ Platinum, PreSonus Acousti-Q, and L.R. Baggs Mixpro come to mind), the stereo Solstice offers twice the features of such boxes for a remarkably affordable price. Because it can accept up to four simultaneous signals, you’ll really appreciate the Solstice if your ax combines an internal mic or soundhole pickup with undersaddle or soundboard transducers. For live or studio applications, the Solstice makes it easy to wring righteous tones from your acoustic, which is why it earns an Editors’ Pick Award.



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