A review of the Nordstrand StarLifter Bass Preamp/DI…
Carey Nordstrand is one of the bass world’s most prolific modern-day characters, and chances are, you’ve come across his work, knowingly or not. After years of running an amazingly creative lutherie business out of his Southern California shop, where he handcrafted incredible exotic and traditional basses of extraordinary quality, Nordstrand launched a line of pickups and onboard electronics, which have become an industry benchmark for tone and innovation.
Several years back, Nordstrand partnered with Ibanez to put his famed Big Single and Big Split pickups in a number of their higher-end basses, effectively bringing boutique high-end bass pickups to the masses. Nordstrand has since all but phased out the bass building (not entirely true, if you’ve followed him on social media, you’ve probably seen his very limited runs of P basses, and his affordable and uber-cool Acinonyx series of retro-inspired short scale basses) to focus on the pickup game, and his line of traditional and unique pickup options is ever-expanding with creative and unique products.
A couple of years ago I started seeing effect pedals bearing the name “Rocket Surgeon Effect Pedal Laboratory” emanating from Carey’s shop, and was instantly curious, given the quality of everything that Carey puts his name on.
Following some cool overdrive/distortion/fuzz pedals and their Ice Caves reverb, the newest offering from Nordstrand/Rocket Surgeon is the StarLifter Preamp/DI. As Bass Musician Magazine has recently profiled the specs and details of the StarLifter, I’ll cut to the chase. The thing sounds good. Real good. I would expect no less from an outboard preamp bearing the swoopy ‘N’ logo, but plugging my basses into the StarLifter was immensely gratifying. It seems to work equally well with active and passive basses and imparted powerful tone shaping capability while retaining transparency, which is a lot easier said than done. The build quality is exquisite, with smooth feeling knobs and switches, and a very hefty and rugged chassis sporting some cool graphics.
I tried the StarLifter with a range of instruments, including 5-string passive P and J basses, an active Sadowsky 5-string, and my custom active 6 string, and with each bass, I was able to easily dial up fantastic tones that complemented the instruments’ inherent voicings. The StarLifter has an input impedance selector to optimize the unit’s input signal for different instruments, (for example, magnetic pickup output vs higher impedance piezo pickup output). It also has a 10 dB pad for the input, to reign in hotter signals.
There are a couple of noteworthy things about the StarLifter, besides its wonderful aesthetic, build quality and tone.
First, the volume knob works whether the pre is engaged or not, so even with the preamp bypassed, you have to set your level with the volume knob. The only downside is that it’s hard to tell where “actual” unity gain is, without the reference point of a passed through signal. Not a biggie, it didn’t slow me down much at all, but I thought it was worth mentioning, as it is different from other preamp boxes, where the signal is routed straight through when bypassed.
Also, let me give a serious shout out to the midrange control on the StarLifter.
I’ve messed around with a LOT of “sweepable mid” setups, where you have control over the boost/cut as well as the frequency center, also known as a ‘semi-parametric’ EQ control. Some seem to be more usable than others, depending on how the EQ is designed and the transparency of the circuit. The StarLifter’s sweepable mid control was sublime. It functioned exactly as I would have wanted it to: elegant and smooth yet powerful. I was very quickly able to dial up a perfect low mid bump, upper mid-cut and everything in between to craft my tone to my liking. The mid control ranges between 150 Hz to 2.8 KHz, which offers a very wide window of control. Boosting the EQ bands revealed just how quiet the unit is, adding almost no noise to the signal, muy bueno.
But probably the most magical and unique feature of the StarLifter is its 3-way Contour switch, offering Vintage and Modern EQ profiles in addition to its Flat setting.
I found these to be pretty spot on, and used them quite a bit, depending on the instrument. My passive 5 string jazz seemed to really like the Modern setting for killer 70’s J bass tone, while my P bass was almost perfectly voiced with the Vintage setting. Further fine-tuning for the presets was easy with the units EQ, resulting in a range of fantastic and usable sounds.
The StarLifter’s fully featured DI offers everything you’d want from a pro DI, including a 20dB pad, pre EQ/post EQ switch, and a ground lift. The DI signal sounded fantastic into my home recording DAW, due in part to the units architecture, and in part to the high quality componentry found in the StarLifter, like Burr Brown op amps.
And lest we overlook some bling bling, the StarLifter’s vibey pinstripe lighting is undoubtably cool. With the unit engaged, the edges glow green. Hit the mute switch and they turn red. Serious pedalboard atmosphere/coolness upgrade.
Another factor that’s worth mentioning is the power requirements of the StarLifter.
Included is a 15v AC adaptor, delivering 300mA. I am a diehard Voodoo Labs PP2+ user, and its outputs are not compatible with the StarLifter’s power needs, so plan on using a different power supply or the included AC adaptor.
All in all, the StarLifter is simple and highly effective.
There is something to be said for a preamp that is as simple as it can be while still providing the necessary features and options that pro players need. As many online users have attested, the StarLifter kinda just nails it, giving players straightforward and easy control over their sound, and doing with style and grace. Having gone on a bit of a pedalboard preamp journey myself as of late, I’m hard-pressed to not put the StarLifter at the top of the game, particularly in its price bracket. With a retail price of $349, it packs a lot of bang for the buck and is pretty tough to beat.
If you’re in the market for a pedal preamp for your axe, the StarLifter needs to be on your shortlist. For more info on the Nordstrand StarLifter Bass Preamp/DI, visit Nordstrand’s website.