Using a pad – If you hear distortion, check your gain settings to make sure you aren’t overdriving your AD converter before using a pad. Always use the pad on your preamp before a pad on your microphone. Using a pad at the wrong stage can degrade your overall sound quality.
Mic Pre Amp Buyers Guide
What is a Pre Amp?
A microphone preamp is a device used in the field of sound engineering. It can be utilized in environments such as recording studios or home studios, during shows and concerts to mix live output, in the TV, radio and news broadcasting fields or by musicians who want to boost and clarify their sound.
The first amplifier was invented in 1909 by Lee de Forest and as you might expect, consisted of tube technology. The even though tube technology was replaced for the most part by transistor-based amps in the late 60’s many people still seek that classic tube and valve sound today. This is no different when it comes to preamplification.
Due to the inherently weak signal transmitted by most microphones, it is very difficult it extracts a high-quality sound good enough to be mixed by a desk (click for studio furniture) or console. This is obviously a major issue when vocals, drums and a whole host of other instruments are projected via microphone.
Microphone preamps solve this problem. They do so by preparing the signal of the mic in a certain way that allows it to be processed by sound engineering equipment. This is achieved by boosting the signal and also by clarifying the sound, projecting individual layers of the output to ensure they can be heard as part of the overall mix and by reducing unwanted noise, hiss, and hum.
The preamp unit itself will have a vast array of functions that allow the user to boost and manipulate the sound as they see fit. Obviously, depending on the quality of the product the level of functionality available will vary.
A typical preamp will consist of functions such as gain boost, this can be used to increase the signal level of the mic up to a certain db level depending on the model in use. There are also features such as the ability to cut certain types of unwanted noise and manipulate sound to avoid ‘clipping’, which is when an amplifier tries to deliver an output beyond its capacity, resulting in sound ‘dropping out’.
Another common function of a preamp is what is known as Phantom Power. This is usually associated with condenser microphones and is the process of an XLR cable being the conduit for power, usually between 12 and 48v. Therefore you have a single audio cable that is used to send not just audio back and forth but also power.
Why and when do you need a Microphone PreAmp?
Many new to the world of sound engineering or music tech often question the necessity of a preamp, wondering if this is yet another item they have to spend money on or if it is possible for them to do without.
The truth is that for anyone looking to produce a professional, high-quality sound capable of being anywhere near commercial viability there is no way around it. A good preamp is essential and should be a salient part of your recording studio, home studio or mixing setup.
There are myriad reasons why you need a microphone preamp. However the most important is that which we have touched on above. To have a sound which is up to recording standards, to add a professional touch for musicians or for any type of live performance sound to meet the levels of quality that is now expected of the industry, a preamp is an essential investment.
They are always needed when mixing and recording (click here for the best mics for home recording). Think of a recording studio scenario where vocals, drums or acoustic guitars are being used. These will be recorded via mics and therefore a preamp will be needed to prepare and boost the signal to recording quality. To record your acoustic guitar you can use a mic for guitar amps – see the guide.
When mixing live sound a good unit is vital. The sound engineer of the venue, artist or band will utilize a preamps functionality to fine tune the audio on a continuous basis to ensure a well-balanced sound and a good show. Good LED displays are a useful function of these units during live mixing especially as it gives a great visual indicator of output levels.
What are the different types of Microphone PreAmps?
There many different types of preamps, some are defined by their specific purpose while others are defined by technological reasons or by the way they can affect audio output. Of these main types they can be divided into tube preamps, solid-state preamps, hybrid preamps, digital preamps, and a few others type that we will touch on.
Tube preamps utilize what is known as vacuum tubes, or valves in the UK. These are an older technology that was first used in the original amps and preamps. Yet they are still highly sought after due to the raw, analog warmth they bring to a sound.
Due to the ‘old school’ technology of these units, they add a unique, fat sound to your output. It is for this reason that they are still so popular. Sound engineers or musicians searching for that particular coloring of their sound would almost definitely turn to a tube preamp.
Solid state microphone preamps can be thought of as the next stage in the technological development of this field. Instead of tubes, they utilize transistors which are much more effective at producing high levels of gain. They also operate better under high gain conditions than tubes do as they add only minimal distortion.
Hybrid microphone preamps are, as you might expect, a combination of both tube and solid state models. The best elements of each of these units are implemented into a single product known and hybrids.
The 2 best elements are of course the warm and robust sound generating capabilities from tubes and the high-performance gain levels from solid-state units. This is achieved by the implementation of solid state circuitry and tube output gain control.
Digital microphone preamps are again the next natural stage in the evolution of products within this field. These have 2 main functions. The first is obviously that of a preamp, boosting microphone signal, clarifying and preparing for processing at the mixing desk or console. The second, however, is interesting. Digital preamps can also be used as digital interfaces, effectively converting an analog signal into a digital signal.
The other main type of preamps is those for use with instruments. We are only touching on microphone preamps here, however, instrument-based models are a whole other category with their own features and quirks.
What is a channel strip on a Mic Preamp?
A channel strip can be a single unit or made up of multiple units within a mixing desk or console. However in regards to microphone preamps specifically a channel strip is a preamp with additional integrated features and circuitry. These can be incredibly powerful and are an important tool in studio recording and live to mix.
Although variations are available a typical channel strip is an outboard microphone preamp with the addition of a built-in compressor and EQ. The purpose of these units and what makes them so powerful is that they are essentially everything you will require for signal processing condensed into a single product.
The most commonly employ solid state or hybrid technology and were born out of convenience more than anything. Sound engineers did not want to waste studio time connecting together and configuring multiple units. Combined into a single box channel strips offer maximum power (read the study on the power supply), functionality and simplicity. This versatility and ability to manipulate your output so robustly from a single product means that when mixing the user can begin to mold their sound before it reaches the final recording end of the studio setup. You can find out more about preamps in this study.
How do you determine which Microphone PreAmp is best?
By reading the reviews above you should already have begun to get an idea what kind of preamp you would prefer depending on your specific requirements. It could be to achieve a certain sound, therefore, you would focus more on either a tube of solid-state model. Or it could be that you need a powerful and versatile unit with wide-ranging functionality to be an integral part of your studio setup. In the case, you would be looking more at individual models and their associated features.
When warm and robust sounds are needed a tube preamp will be exactly what you need. However, if something with a more modern and varied sound solid state or hybrid units should be your best area of focus.
The other main factor in choosing the best microphone preamp for you will, of course, be your available budget. Once you have ascertained your exact requirements and therefore the type of unit you need the next step is to look at what models are available in your price range. In our reviews above we covered multiple units which are excellent value for money. It is important not to rush this stage to ensure you get the absolute best value for money that you possibly can.
In essence, determining which unit is best for you is a simple process. First, you must realize exactly what you are trying to achieve from the preamp, then understand which types of the unit will be required to do so. Upon doing this you then compare your available budget to what models on the market are a viable purchase for you.
Top Pick – Focusrite OctoPre Preamplifier
FocusRite is an excellent company who originally made their name producing high-end preamps for the professional end of the market. However in the years since they have altered their approach and now have an outstanding offering of equipment which is both technologically brilliant yet highly affordable. It goes without saying that some sacrifices have to be made in quality when targeting a slightly lower area of the market however this is minimal. FocusRite is well known in the industry for creating wonderful preamps at respectable prices.
The Octopre units have been a mainstay of the FocusRite range for many, many years. However, they have recently been given an impressive overhaul to include more numerous and impressive features.
As the name suggests this unit sports 8 inputs and the quality of the preamps is of the same high standard that we have come to expect from FocusRite. The initial 2 inputs are located on the front of the unit, with the remainder located at the back along with 8 additional analog outputs. On the rear of the unit, you will also find a digital ADAT connection which is an upgrade from previous models.
-10db pads on every channel add to its already top class gain range. Also, it is worth noting that the LED display on these units is excellent and extremely accurate making mixing simple and precise.
Overall there really isn’t anything we can say that we do not like about this unit. It is powerful, versatile, highly functional and has a level of professionalism and quality that is hard to find in other models. An easy choice for our best and the top pick.
Premium Choice – Grace Design M101
The M101 is undoubtedly one of the cleanest microphone preamps ever produced. Grace is a US company based out of Colorado and was a huge part of the industrial revolution that saw individual sound engineers start doing it for themselves. The high quality and professionalism of the M101 combined with its affordability saw a huge increase in independent recording studios and home studios.
The M101 is all about balance and clarity of output, it gives you a high-end signal processing ability for a very average market price. Now to be clear it will not give you an extravagant and unique edge to your sound. This is a premium and professional product designed to bring out the true sound of your microphones, making them fit for studio recording.
One thing that is notable when it comes to Grace as a brand is that they have the best and most loyal customers. This is invariably due to their extremely high standard of preamps. Often you will find that consumers who own the most recent model of the M101 have owned several of the previous versions also.
If you are after a professional unit capable of adding ultimate clarity and transparency to your sound then look no further than the M101. This would be perfect for home studios and big budget recording studios alike. With this product, you will only hear the mic, not the preamp and that is the highest level quality you can ask for.
Best Value – Cloud Microphones CL-1
The CL-1 is the best when it comes to no-frills, ‘get the job done’ microphone preamps. They are exceptional value for money and are the ideal purchase for anyone looking to make their money go as far as possible. This will give you high quality, professional, crystal clear sound, yet it is also capable of giving you huge amounts of gain.
This can work perfectly as a general, all-round preamp without issue. However if it has one specialist area it would be for sounds on the quieter end of the scale, think acoustic guitars and softer vocal parts. This is due to its ability to really project sound and add lots of gain while retaining transparency of output and adding distinction and emphasis to each layer of the overall finished product.
Cloud really is a great company with a rich history and best known for producing some of the industry’s best preamps. Their microphones are industry mainstays and the circuitry in this preamp is designed to work seamlessly with them (click here to read the design study). Overall this is an extremely high standard of microphone preamp from a great company and all for an incredibly affordable price.
When it comes to microphone preamps this in an area and product category where your current situation and also your end goals are of paramount importance. The type of sound you are looking to achieve and also your specific requirements must be considered, along with reading many different reviews and perspectives.
Do you need a unit for a home studio? Are you a sound engineer working in a large, big budget recording studio? Are you a sound engineer who mixes sound for live shows and concerts? These are all questions that must be asked when choosing the best microphone preamp for you.