What Does A Cloudlifter Do (And Do You Need One?)

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  • Cloudlifters and in-line preamps are becoming increasingly popular
  • Is it a preamp, a booster, or an activator?
  • We answer all your burning questions about the Cloudlifter
  • Check out our guide to the best Cloudlifter alternatives here.

Image: Sweetwater.com

So, What Exactly Is A Cloudlifter/Mic Activator?

A Cloudlifter is a microphone booster or activator made by Cloud Microphones.

It’s a plug ‘n play unit with an inline format to boost the gain of non-phantom-powered microphones.  It is placed between a low-output dynamic, ribbon, or tube microphone and the mixing console to add 20-25dB of clean, transparent gain.

For example, the Royer R-10 ribbon mic has a sensitivity of 2.0mV/Pa. Its big brother, the R-121, is rated at 3.9mV/Pa. Pit that against a condenser like the MXL 990 (a budget workhorse) that has a sensitivity rating of 15mV/Pa. That’s some serious deficit.

You might be wondering why I’m discussing passive ribbon mics in a post about Cloudlifters. Well, this wayward trivia alludes to the fact that Stephen Sank designed the Cloudlifter to put passive ribbon mics back on the map.

Cloud Microphones Cloudlifter CL-1 Mic Activator
$149.00

Place the Cloudlifter in your signal chain, hit it with phantom power and your dynamic mics will shine like never before!

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09/23/2021 02:05 pm GMT

Passive ribbon mics are notorious for having a low output. They need some form of preamp gain to pump them up to a usable signal level. This became the clarion call for the mic activators like Cloudlifter and the alternatives that followed suit.

That is, of course, before podcasters jumped onto the bandwagon. After all, it just so happens that the sensitivity rating of Shure SM7B is 1.12mV at open voltage.

Whether you are contemplating purchasing a Cloud Microphones Cloudlifter or still deciding if you actually need one in the first place, this post has everything you need to know.

How Does A Cloudlifter/Mic Activator Work?

Dynamic and ribbon microphones output mic-level signals, which is a clever way of saying that they are grossly lacking in gain. A CL-1, or any mic activator, can be placed between the mic and mixing console to boost such a microphone’s output.

Armed with active FETs and/or bi-polar junction transistors (BJTs), mic activators act as an extension of the preamp on an interface/mixer and draw phantom power from it. Based on the preamp’s input impedance, they provide a gain boost ranging from 20 to 27dB.

Driving that preamp would raise the noise floor, especially in the last 20% as you approach maximum gain. But adding a Cloudlifter to the chain gives you better gain-staging without raising the noise floor too much. We are talking clean, transparent gain that has made these devices so popular.

There are primarily three types of Cloudlifters: the single-channel CL-1, dual-channel CL-2, and single-channel CL-Z featuring switches for variable impedance and HPF.

Cloud Microphones CL-2 Cloudlifter + 2 XLR Cables
$249.99

The perfect solution to any situation in which you need to cleanly boost a microphone signal before the preamp.

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09/24/2021 02:45 am GMT

Is The Cloudlifter a Preamp?

Technically, a Cloudlifter is not a preamp.

It is usually referred to as a mic booster, mic activator, inline preamp, or a ‘pre-preamp’. It performs the same volume boosting function that a preamp does, but it achieves this by drawing power from a preamp – specifically phantom power.

If your preamps don’t provide phantom power, you can still get an external phantom power supply for your Cloudlifter device.

How to use a Cloudlifter CL-1?

The Cloudlifter is the epitome of a plug-and-play unit.

Simply plug your mic into the Cloudlifter, then plug the Cloudlifter into your mixer, preamp, or interface. However, you will need 48V phantom power either supplied by your mixer / preamp or externally with a separate phantom power supply box. Other than that, there are no drivers or updates required – this isn’t digital gear.

So, to recap, the signal path is as easy as:

Mic -> Cloudlifter -> Interface  -> Gain town!

connecting a mic activator to soundcard

When To Use a Cloud Microphones Cloudlifter

1. Podcasting Setups With Low-Output Mics

Most beginners or hobbyists need a dynamic mic. They have to contend with a less-than-ideal recording environment i.e. a room that isn’t acoustically treated or soundproof. Condenser mics are much more sensitive to the sound of a room and so are best used in treated environments. A dynamic mic combined with a Cloudlifter CL-1 is the most economical way to get going.

It’s common to see a Cloudlifter paired with a Shure SM7B dynamic microphone. These microphones are incredibly popular with podcasters because they provide a classic “broadcast quality” sound to any voice. Without a Cloudlifter device, the signal from the SM7B would be too noisy.

So, just like that, the Cloudlifter became a darling of the podcasting industry.

2. Consumer Grade Audio Interfaces

Interface preamps (the affordable ones) pale in comparison to a high-quality independent mic-pre. Technically, you can boost the input gain of your interface all you want. But realistically, anything past 60-70% will introduce noise and icky audio artifacts.

The buzz/hiss may vary, but in general it is an unpleasant experience, especially for those who listen in on headphones or earphones. So you’re left with a few choices:

  1. Get a kick-ass audio interface
  2. Get a kick-ass preamp
  3. Get a mic activator

The Cloudlifter is the most wallet-friendly option to add 25dB of gain to a low-output mic. Now, based on your usage and future plans, it can be either a permanent or temporary solution. Either way, it will bring the quality up to par for recording and you can move on with your podcast.

(If your mic is noisy or buzzing, all is not lost. Make sure you read Why Is My Microphone Buzzing? (11 Common Causes) before you throw in the towel!)

3. Recording Studios

Audio engineers use a mic activator when the occasion calls for it. The obvious reason is that these devices are useful to boost a low-output mic for recording brass (tuba, saxophone), quiet string instruments (classical guitar, ukulele), percussion (shakers, cabassa), and vocals.

Recording studios often use long cables to allow for flexible positioning of artists. The problem with long cables is that they are more prone to noise and interference. So even with studio-quality preamps, there will still be too much noise in the signal. Once again, a Cloudlifter can really help bring the noise floor down to a professional standard.

4. Mismatched Gear

Before it was hijacked by other causes, the primary role of a Cloudlifter-like device was to solve the issues of people with mismatched gear. For example, you might have a vintage mic and mixer that don’t play well together in terms of signal gain. A Cloudlifter can make these two pieces of gear more compatible.

In an ideal world, you should either get a high-performance interface or a powerful preamp. If neither option is financially viable or worthwhile, a Cloudlifter can be an interim solution for recording high-quality audio until you are ready to upgrade.

5. As An Alternative to Dedicated Ribbon Preamps

Even with ribbon mics, the underlying issue is the same as above. However, users also need to worry about impedance matching. If you are serious and/or affluent you can invest in a single channel strip with a studio-grade preamp, but they come with a hefty price tag.

Again, a Cloudlifter can be a cheaper alternative to a dedicated preamp, at least in the short run. We will discuss this in a later section of the post.

6. Portability

Portability is important for on-location audio and live sound setups. One solution to this problem is to use a high-quality external microphone preamp, and send the louder, line-level audio to your recorder.

There are dedicated mic preamps, for both studio and field recording, that can provide sufficient gain for even the lowest-output microphones. However, these tend to be expensive.

Also, adding an extra device to the recording chain might not be practical, especially for field recordings. It leads to one more box to carry with its own powering requirements, which adds more bulk and wiring that can be avoided with a mic activator.

Check out the official video CL-1 video from Cloud Microphones to know more:

Cloudlifter and Passive Ribbon Mics

One would think low-sensitivity tube and ribbon mics are a relic from the past. But vintage is always chic and this is especially true when it comes to music production. Singer-songwriters in particular gush over the mid-range warmth of such mics.

The problem is, unbeknownst to novices, that ribbon mic users need to contend with noise level and gain issues while recording. There are two possible remedial measures to boost the signal without raising the noise floor: a) Cloudlifters (or other inline preamps) or b) dedicated ribbon mic preamps.

As I said, “affordable” mic preamps won’t provide acceptable results. You need a high-end preamp or something with a “ribbon mic mode” like the Millenia HV-35P. They sound pristine, and even at 80dB of gain you’ll have ample headroom with little noise.

The problem is they aren’t very affordable, but Cloudlifters certainly are. Plus, it’s safe to use ribbon mics with a Cloudlifter, even sensitive vintage mics. While using phantom power with ribbon mics is a big no-no (it can destroy them), a Cloudlifter won’t pass on the phantom-power to the mic input.

The boost varies between 20-25 dB because the precise amount is contingent on the output impedance of the mic feeding the Cloudlifter. Since Stephan Sank designed the Cloudlifter for ribbon mics, the input impedance is also optimized for them.

In fact, many users prefer them because they are believed to cause desirable changes to the mic response. While I cannot confirm this, I know it from good authority that a Cloudlifter raises the HF cutoff of ribbon mics. It makes them sound brighter, or so say the jazz cats I hang out with.

Does The Shure SM7B Require A Cloudlifter?

Shure’s SM7B (full review here) is a low output dynamic microphone that needs some form of signal boost unless you are recording a particularly loud instrument. This can come from a Cloudlifter, a high-end audio interface, a single channel strip, or a studio-grade preamp.

A Cloudlifter is the most economical way to add clean gain and improve the sound quality.

Shure SM7B Cardioid Dynamic Microphone
$399.00

The SM7B dynamic microphone has a smooth, flat, wide-range frequency response appropriate for music and speech in all professional audio applications.

Why We Love It:
  • Dynamic versatility
  • Brilliantly built
  • Built to list
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09/24/2021 02:05 am GMT

Most podcasters want a simple setup for the lowest price. Plus, they have no use for premium audio interfaces or rack channel strips. In these cases, a modest interface like a Focusrite Scarlet 2i2, an SM7B (or two), and a CL-1 or CL-2 is all your need to get the show running.

I’ll presume that this question is coming from a podcasting point of view. The SM7B is a staple in most podcasting setups. You’ll often hear that the SM7B does fine without a mic booster, but in my experience it is tremendously gain hungry and needs some legwork to get a decent signal level.

(You can also check out my review of the Shure SM7B for more info on this classic mic.)

Do You Need Phantom Power for Cloudlifters?

Cloudlifters can only operate using 48v phatom power and have no features to use an adapter or batteries. It can be powered by a mixer, mic preamp, audio interface, or external phantom power unit. It is safe to use with dynamic and ribbon microphones as it won’t pass the phatom power to the mic.

Cloud Microphones Cloudlifter CL-1 Mic Activator
$149.00

Place the Cloudlifter in your signal chain, hit it with phantom power and your dynamic mics will shine like never before!

Check Price On Amazon Check Price On Sweetwater
09/23/2021 02:05 pm GMT

Can You Use a Cloudlifter With Condenser Mics?

Condensers, or capacitor microphones, don’t need a gain boost unless there is something terribly lacking with your preamp. You can use Cloudlifters in the chain but it will only use the phantom power from the preamp to power itself and won’t pass on anything to the condenser mic.

For this reason, I would not recommend using a Cloudlifter with a condenser mic.

What Cloudlifter Alternatives Are There?

Cloudlifters have become an industry standard when it comes to adding clean gain to low-output mics. While its popularity is well deserved, there are other alternatives such as the Triton Audio FetHead and more feature-laden units like the Radial McBoost.

I’ve actually done a whole article on this topic, where I review several substitutes and detail the pros and cons of each. Check out Best Cloudlifter Alternatives (Fethead vs Dynamite vs Durham vs McBoost) next!