There are three common questions folks ask us when considering a direct box:
1. Do I really need a DI box?
The answer is ‘it depends’. A DI box, also called a direct box, is primarily used to allow you to run a long cable from an instrument such as an electric guitar or bass guitar without adding noise or losing signal quality. High impedance signals tend to be much more prone to noise and keeping cable lengths under 8 meters (25 ft) is recommended. A DI box converts the unbalanced high impedance signal output of an instrument to a balanced low impedance mic-level signal. This enables the signal to travel distances of 100 meters (300 feet) without adding appreciable noise. The output of a DI box is mic level – thus the balanced output signal is treated just like a microphone. When playing live, the mixing console is usually positioned in the house (front of house or FOH position) which is often 50 to 100 meters away. Most instruments such as bass guitar, acoustic guitar and keyboards are connected to a DI box and mixed at FOH. For the sound engineer, capturing the direct sound of the instrument separately from being processed by the artist on stage usually makes it easier to amplify the signal as it can be optimized for the room.
In the studio, recording from a separate room (isolation booth) enables the engineer to capture a direct sound from the instrument using a direct box in addition to adding a mic in front of the amplifier to capture the tone generated by the amp. When recording in the control room, you may or may not need a DI box, depending on the tone you are looking for. Most mixer inputs have a ‘one size fits all’ type of instrument input that may not flatter your particular instrument. A good DI box is optimized to interface with your mixing desk or recording system by presenting the instrument with the right input impedance and converting it to a balanced signal ideal for the console or interface. This can take the edge off the instrument for a smoother, more natural sound. Using a good DI box in the studio also allows for a clean recording of the instrument signal which can then be later played back for Reamping.
2. What kind of DI box should I get?
This is like asking what kind of microphone should I buy. There are basically two types of direct boxes — an active direct box and a passive direct box. But, just as there are all kinds of microphones for all types of applications, there are different kinds, or configurations, of direct boxes for different applications. Just as you could use a dynamic microphone like a Shure SM58 to capture the sound of just about anything, you could buy a Radial JDI passive direct box and be pretty much set. But sometimes, using a condenser mic can give you the extra reach to capture more sparkle from an acoustic guitar or more detail from a voice when recording. In this case, an active DI box like the Radial J48 is the best choice. Like dynamic microphones, a passive direct box tends to be able to handle more signal level without distortion, while a condenser mic – like an active DI box – generally produces a wider frequency response while being more sensitive. And just as most studios and live stages are equipped with a selection of dynamic and condenser mics, both passive and active DI boxes are often used side by side. The choice usually comes down to personal preference.
A simple rule of thumb:
- If the source is active, use a passive DI box
- If the source is passive, use an active DI box
So if you have an old Fender Precision bass with magnetic pickups, an active direct box will probably work best as the buffer will generate plenty of signal for the PA system while reducing the load on the instrument. If on the other hand, you have a new, high-output active bass with a 9-volt battery inside, you can turn up your volume with confidence knowing that your passive Radial ProDI passive direct box will easily handle the signal without distortion.
Over the years, industry standards for direct boxes have become commonplace. For instance, most engineers prefer to run an acoustic guitar through an active DI like the Radial J48 as it is noted that there is some ‘air’ or openness that can found when pairing an acoustic with an active DI box. On noise-plagued AC powered devices like keyboards, electronic drums, DJ mixers and other active sources, most engineers will prefer to use a passive DI box like the Radial ProD2 or JDI Stereo. This is because a passive direct box typically handles more level without distortion and is also very efficient in eliminating hum and buzz caused by ground loops.
3. How much should I spend on a DI box?
We recommend the 5:1 rule, where if you spend $1000 on an instrument, you should probably invest $200 in a direct box. So if your guitar is worth $500, spending $100 on a direct box is probably the right ratio. A comparable example would be to think if you were to spend $2000 on a great guitar, would you only play through a $30 guitar amp? Probably not.
An active DI box is a unity gain preamp. Preamps can cost anywhere from $30 to $10,000. And just like guitars, basses, keyboards and studio preamps – direct boxes come in all shapes, sizes and quality levels based on your expectations. There is no shortcut to quality. Radial DIs are used on the world’s top stages and in the best studios because they are designed to deliver the utmost quality day in and day out. We are confident that once you listen to the difference, you will come to appreciate the benefits.
Radial DI boxes come with a 3-year transferable warranty which means that if you decide to sell your Radial DI within the warranty period, the warranty will still be good for the next owner. And because Radial DIs are in demand, they tend to have a much higher resale value.
As described above there are no hard fast rules. It comes down to taste and application.
Comparing passive DIs for instruments
When comparing passive DI boxes, begin by considering the instrument or audio source, the number of channels required for a particular setup and the feature set. You will find that most passive DIs share features such as an input pad and a ground lift. All Radial DIs have built-in filters to reduce parasitic noise caused by magnetic fields and radio frequency waves.
The primary difference between the various models is the type of transformer that is employed. We spend hours listening to various transformers to find the best one for a given application and price point. For instance, the industry-standard Radial JDI employs a USA-made nickel core transformer with dual Faraday shields and a MuMETAL® external can. MuMETAL® provides upwards to 10,000 times greater shielding than aluminum. This combined with the steel outer shell protects the sensitive high impedance signal from outside magnetic fields from power transformers that can pollute the signal. The JDI, JDI Stereo, JD6 and Duplex have exceptionally linear frequency response from 10Hz to 40kHz. The ProDI employs a custom-made Eclipse transformer manufactured to our specifications for a more economical option to the Jensen and is also equipped with a MuMETAL® shield. The ProDI, ProD2, ProD8 share the same Eclipse transformer which is linear from 20Hz to 18.5kHz and works extremely well for live touring. The Stage-Bug SB-2 employs a copper shielded Eclipse transformer which delivers great performance from 40Hz to 18kHz; the Stage-Bug DI’s compact size makes it ideal for weekend club dates and jamming with friends.
While the industry standard Radial JDI and JDI Stereo are primarily intended for use with instruments such as bass, acoustic guitar and keyboards, the two-channel Radial Duplex adds greater connectivity for AV applications where you may need to connect to CD players, video machines, or any device with consumer-type output connections. The same follows with respect when looking at the Radial Pro series. If you are using the DI in a live situation and the PA system is band-limited up to 18kHz, you may find that the ProDI will work perfectly well. If on the other hand, you are recording in the studio you may want to capture the very highest harmonics, the JDI would be a better choice. The Radial JDI is used by Tony Levin, and The Who while the Pro series DIs like the ProD8 are used by U2, Rush, and the Rolling Stones.
Comparing active DIs for instruments
Radial produces a number of active DI boxes to address various requirements. Selecting some, such as the J33 for a turntable, is easy… while choosing between others can be confusing. This section aims to simplify the process by bringing various active DI boxes together for comparison.
For the most part, active DI boxes are employed on low-output, passive instruments. Like condenser microphones, active DIs tend to have more reach over passive, transformer-based counterparts due to the sensitivity of the input. But as with all amplifiers (an active DI box is in fact an amplifier of sorts) these can distort if the input exceeds the available headroom. More headroom can be achieved by increasing the size, or power generated, by the supply. For instance, a DI box like the JDV employs a 15 volt, 500 milliamp power supply that has incredible headroom, but it needs to be locally powered. This may not be convenient on a live stage. Thus the reason most live engineers prefer to use an active DI box that derives its power from the 48 volt phantom power generated by the mixing console. Phantom power typically generates 48 volts, but only offers 5 to 10 milliamps of current. Innovative powering schemes such as the one employed inside the Radial J48 elevate the headroom to an acceptable level. This enables most instruments to be connected without fear of distortion and is likely the reason the J48 is used on the biggest stages by the biggest acts around the globe.
The J48 and Pro48 are primarily designed for live stages. These employ similar audio signal paths and derive their power from 48V phantom. The Pro48 is basically a trimmed down version that eliminates the stereo to mono merge function, polarity flip, and high pass filter while reducing the size. This enables us to reduce the price to make it more affordable.
The JDV is primarily designed for studio. The over-sized power supply and class-A circuit delivers tremendous dynamic range, and because of the unique zero-feedback design, it produces a very open sound. This has made it a favourite with artists like Marcus Miller and Victor Wooten who are known for their incredibly dynamic playing. Drag control load correction further advances the tone – allowing the artist to optimize the sound of the circuit by properly matching the instrument’s load. The JDV is all about purity.
The Firefly is a tube direct box designed to introduce character by driving the signal through the 12AX7 tube and Eclipse transformer. This adds warmth and depth that people often characterize as ‘vintage sounding’. The tube circuit necessitates a special high output power supply to provide sufficient voltage to the heater (tube filament). The Firefly also enjoys extra features such as Drag control, a fully variable high pass filter to eliminate resonance, dual selectable inputs and remote controllable mute function.
Selecting the right DI box for Acoustics and Peizo Instruments
Most string players tend to use a piezo pickup that mounts directly on the bridge of a violin, viola or upright bass. Although piezo manufacturers rarely publish the optimal impedance for their device, piezo transducers sound fuller, warmer and less peaky when they are connected to a very high input impedance. So if you are looking to produce the most natural sound of the instrument, a high input impedance in the range of 5 to 10 meg ohms is ideal. Radial offers several products that meet this criteria.
The difference between these four products comes down to controls and features. For example, the StageBug SB4 is very basic with an input and two buffered outputs to feed the stage amp and the PA system. The PZ-DI takes this up a step by providing a variable low cut filter for precise low frequency control. The AC-Driver adds simple EQ controls while the PZ-Pro gives you a second channel for another instrument plus an effects loop and power booster for soloing.
Comparing DI boxes for laptop computers and other devices
Today, the use of computers is omnipresent in the audio world. Computers are used to create sound files to back up the band’s performance, to play back videos and for walk-in and walk-out music during a concert. The problem with computers is that they are often the cause of buzz and hum in audio systems.
Radial produces a variety of solutions for computers, sound cards and consumer music players. These are broken down into two groups, one being passive, the other active. Many stage techs prefer passive DIs like the ProAv2 as they do not require power and the transformer isolation benefits by eliminating stray DC currents which in turn can cause hum and buzz on the audio line. Active DIs benefit by enabling the electronic designer to add features such as buffers for additional gain and blocking capacitors which can filter out noise without affecting the audio signal path.
|Connection type||USB Digital||Wireless Bluetooth 5.0||USB Digital||Dante|
|Max signal handling||Digital Source||Digital Source||Digital Source||Digital Source|
|Frequency response||20Hz ~ 20kHz||20Hz ~ 20kHz||20Hz ~ 20kHz||20Hz ~ 20kHz|
|Input connectors||USB Type 2||Bluetooth||USB Type 2, 3.5||3.5 RCA, ¼”|
|Output connectors||(2) XLR, 3.5||(2) XLR, 3.5||(2) XLR||(2) RCA, (2) XLR|
The direct box is a device that has been around for nearly 50 years, but only recently have folks begun to really pay attention to how they work or which type will do the best job for a given task. At Radial we pride ourselves in making a wide variety of DI boxes to suit every budget and application.