Welcome to Day 5 of 31 Days to Better Recordings.

HSC31DaysLogo_400.jpgOn Day 3 we talked about getting to know one good microphone, but what about a preamp for that mic?

What is a microphone preamp?

A preamp is simply an amplifier that boosts the level of a microphone’s signal to a usable level. Microphones and guitars put out a very quiet signal. Without some sort of amplification, these signals are virtually unusable.

If you’ve ever tried to plug a microphone into a line input on a mixer, you know what I’m talking about. There’s little-to-no signal there. That’s why a microphone always needs to be plugged into a preamp before anything else. (See Intro to Preamps.)

So…what’s the deal with preamps?

Preamps can have a huge impact on the sound of the microphone. A really nice, $3,000 microphone won’t sound very good through a $30 preamp. Conversely, an $80 microphone can sound much better through a nice preamp versus a cheap one.

Preamps come in lots of flavors. Some of them sound very clean, some add a lot of color and harmonic distortion to the signal.

If you’re a beginner, I would suggest simply using the built-in preamps that come with your audio interface. For example, my 003 has four built-in preamps. They’re not amazing preamps, but they are of sufficient quality to produce good recordings.

If you’ve been using the stock preamps for a while, and you feel like you’ve “outgrown” them, then it may be time to venture into the world of standalone preamps. Standalone pre’s, for the most part, are built with better components than the ones that are included with an audio interface.

They tend to have less noise and greater amount of gain (amplification). A lot of them have extra goodies, too, like EQ and compression, which allow you to further sculpt the sound before it gets recorded.

When you’re using an external preamp, you want to run the output of the preamp into a line input on your audio interface. Running it into a mic input is unnecessary, since the signal has already been amplified, and it will likely result in distortion.

The “One” Rule

As I mentioned with microphones, stick to just one preamp until you master it, then move on to the next.

Really commit to learning how to use the gear that you own before you go dropping your hard-earned cash on another shiny toy.

For most home studio folks, one or two preamps may be all you ever need. I currently have two external preamps, a Focusrite Trakmaster Pro and a Presonus Eureka.

Obviously, if you’re tracking full bands or a drum kit, you’ll need more preamps. However, most home studio owners I know use only one or two mics at a time. If you think about it, if you use one preamp on every track in your song, upgrading that one preamp can have a dramatic effect on the overall quality of your recordings.

Day 5 Challenge

Do you have an external preamp? If so, tell us what it is and what you like about it. If not, tell us what you like/dislike about the “stock” preamps that you’re using now. Leave a comment below.

  • nachoga

    Hello, Joe. I’m thinking to buy a good preamp at reasonable price. What do you think about the Presonus Studio Channel? The tube included is anything useful or the tipical look-we-have-a-tube-so-this-is-like-vintage-stuff?
    Thank you.

    • http://www.homestudiocorner.com Joe Gilder

      I’ve not used it myself, but I’m sure it’s pretty solid. It won’t be as clean as my Eureka, but certainly usable AND versatile.

  • Pingback: ART ProChannel II Channel Strip (Standard) — The Home Recording Studio Store

  • J k macharia

    That was very educative.Thanks.But i just thought am a bit crazy.I have never used pre amps.I am only four months in audio production and have not yet done any successiful song. I dont record instruments.I make my beats with FL Studio.Now the question is,do i need pre amps in recording vocals? I use a C3 omni mic which takes the signal to a small beringher mixer,then straight to an M-audio delta 1010 sound card. I really need advice. Okay, i would be very gratefull if you offered all the info you have on recording and mixing vocals.Thanks.

    • http://www.homestudiocorner.com Joe Gilder

      The Behringer has preamps. Anything that’s a microphone input IS a preamp.

      For everything I know about recording vocals, you can check out this class here:

      http://www.UnderstandingRecording.com/Vocals

  • WILLIAM JONES

    I use an ART Pro Channel and I recently got a hold of a Presonus Studio Channel. Both of them give you some nice options.

  • http://www.bignamestudios.com Jon

    I have a Presonus TubePre that I have ahd for four years or so. It sonds like a tube preamp I guess, but not great for Hip Hop vocals. Not sure yet for other vocals. I’d like to try a shootout with my 003 preamps for my acoustic music.

  • Todd R

    Joe, considering a preamp specifically for voice recording. Looking at the Focusrite ISA One. There is a analogue and a new digital version available. Is it worth the extra $300 to get the digital with the conversion card or is the analogue going straight into a M-Audio Fast Track Ultra just fine. Can’t decide if the digital is worth the extra. Any thoughts?

    • http://www.homestudiocorner.com Joe Gilder

      Eh…I’d just get the analog version. You can always upgrade to the digital card, but the M-Audio converters should be just fine.

      • Raul

        I think the Isa one comes standard with the digital out (just bought one) – I really like it, it would not color your sound (unless you drive the trim hard) very clean

        Raul

  • abel mendoza

    for now im using the one built in my duet and im happy with it.

  • Richard Harrison

    I use the Focusrite Trackmaster pro and the Art Voice Channel which i like alot.But also have plug-ins inside of my roland vs-2480, which are modeled after
    1.Focusrite Red 7
    2.Neve 1073
    3.Manley DMMPD 313
    4.Avalon VT-737
    5.Avalon AD 2022
    6.Millenia HV-3
    7.Summit Audio TPA-200a
    8.Cranesong Flamingo
    9.HHTube

    • http://www.homestudiocorner.com Joe Gilder

      Keep in mind, though, that these models are more effects than anything. Using a Focusrite Red 7 effect is MUCH different than using an actual Focusrite Red 7.

      • Richard Harrison

        I guess you’re right joe.Would be nice to have the real thing.

  • George Russell

    Hi Joe!I am currently using a Behringer sx2442 board with a Presonus MP20 preamp picked up at a pawn shop for a steal.It was my first stand alone pre.I was amazed at the performance and quickly caught on to the need for a preamp.I plan on trying to upgrade to some thing a little more cleaner.I hear that the FMR-RNP is a great buy what do you think?Thank You so much for your sharing of info on the art of recording.You will be in the thanks shout out section of our CD’s.
    George Ripp Russell
    RipprockProductionsLLC

  • http://www.mydigitalpathos.com Julian

    While I don’t have anything fancy, I’ve got 3 preamp options: pres built-into my interface, Digimax 96k outboard, and one ART Pro Channel tube preamp. So far I like the sound I get just going into the Digimax 96k & I’m mainly working off those pres for now. I have used the ART a couple of times, but I’m pretty much skipping my interface pres entirely. They sound ok, but compared to the Digimax they don’t seem as quiet or crisp.

  • Joe R.

    I have been using the Steinberg MR816csx wich is Awesome! The Pre-Amps sound really good to me.

    I just started using the TC Helicon VoiceLive 2
    This connects to my DAW via USB
    The Pre-Amp is really clean. I love the results! I think this device will be with me for years to come… It blows my mind every time I use it!

  • http://www.bmius.org Mark Hewitt

    Ok – here is my setup… I have the DIGI002 that comes with 4 stock preamps. However, I upgraded to a PreSonus DigiMax LT which enables me to use light pipeline so I now have 8 preamps. Also, I have one Eureka that I love. The Digimax has only a gain knob so it has a pretty simple interface. Also, I have 4 Rode NTK’s which have there own power supply so I don’t need to use the 48v on my preamps.

  • Francisco Arbolay

    Im currently do not own any external preamp. Im using a Mbox 2 and un pretty happy with the sound that I get from vocals using the built in pre amps. This is an unexplored area for me because most of the time Im working on midi and like I said, I like how the Mbox sound so far. This is a very interesting topic for me and I will be looking forward to understand more about pre amps and stuff.

  • Raul

    Hello Everyone…
    I need some advise…currently producing an album for my wife and I have a decent setup. After reading this article about preamps, I am going to buy one like today! So, could you recommend something that works well with a female vocal, bass guitar, ac guitars? I really want a tube pre and I have a budget at around $750 – This is my current setup:
    MacPro 4-Cores
    Focusrite Saffire Pro 24 DSP
    Studio Projects CS5
    I am using REAPER as my DAW (I luv it and it was only $40 dls)
    Thanks, and thank you Joe for an awesome site….Raul

    • Raul

      I ended up buying a Focusrite ISA digital!

  • http://www.rockxx.de Jens

    Hey you guys out there!
    Today my microphone (Rode NT1a) has arrived, and now I can finally check it out in detail. It is fantastic! Even the onboard preamps of my Line 6 KB37 now can be tested and I’ve found some good first settings. But what really shocked me was: First my singing is terrible! Second: I can hear the bad acoustics of my room. This means I have to take care for appropriate acoustic treatment as soon as possible.

  • Arjun Ramesh

    As of right now, I do not have any external preamps. I use a ProjectMix I/O and the 8 stock mic pres that come with it have been sufficient enough for me. They are pretty clean and really have sounded great for what projects I have done. Although, I am looking to eventually expand my rig, I have been considering Focusrite OctoPre with ADAT out into the ProjectMix I/O to up the number of inputs into Pro Tools and Logic.

  • Simo

    Yes, I do use external preamps: a little Presonus TubePre that was my first one, cheap but sufficient quality, then I upgraded to a Trackmaster Pro, but I didn’t like it so much on vocals even if I still use it for some instruments. My go-to preamp for vocals and acoustic guitar is an SPL Goldmike 9844, very clean preamp with great detail and a cool circuit called “Flair” that can add harmonics to the signal and bring vocals very “in face”. It’s going to be my first choice for a long time…

  • http://www.myspace.com/truemusician Letzter Geist

    i use the pre’s in my tascam us1641 while i track drums. they sounds alright to me. but for vox and guitar miking i use one of the xenyx pre’s on my behringer 1222fx with a insert out into one of the line in’s on my tascam interface. not amazing, but i think they work better for vox and have better gain control.

  • http://silverlakestudio.com Travis Whitmore

    I’m currently just using my Profire 2626 interface with built in preamps. Because I mainly track drums, I’m really considering investing in some good preamps. I’ve heard really good things about the Daking Audio stuff, especially for drums.

  • http://www.internetdrumtracks.com Scott W

    I started with tracking drums so I bought an 003 rack + with 8 preamps. About a year later I found a great deal on a used ISA 428 with the digital card. I couldn’t be happier with it. I use the ISA for kick, snare and overheads. I’ve also tracked acoustic guitar, vocals and used the DI inputs for bass. I also use the word clock from the ISA. Looks like Focusrite just had a change to this model. If anyone is looking for something like this I will be the first to tell you that it is a great unit.

  • babydufus

    as a forward, i do mostly electric guitars, bass and vox.
    i started out with the presonus blue tube and i liked what it did over the stock m-audio pres that were the card i had at the time. it did make all my mics sound better/fuller. i sold it and moved into a brick which i also liked but it didn’t have enough gain for the m-160 that i wanted. i sold it and bought the daking one which i LOVE. i then wanted a different flavor so i sold some other stuff and bought a great river 500 series after A/B it with an api 512. the great river is easily my favorite pre now. i love it’s “color” and what the gain can help bring out. the daking to me seems to add less color and seems “faster” (don’t know if this is the right word.) my guess is that it would also be great on percussion (i’ve used it for tambourine, which i found extremely challenging to record.) i’d love to see this site do something with that.
    i would recommend that anyone without an external pre try one. i found that the presonus blue tube was a great pre for me when i had a tight budget. sometimes i wished i’d kept it. they can even be found time to time at a steal on e-bay.

  • Preshan

    I use an ART Tube MP Studio V3. It just gives me another option when tracking to my Mbox pres. I really like the tube flavour it adds to acoustic guitar and vocals, but when I want to keep things clean, the Mbox is good. The V3 setting on the ART is quite usable and makes it a bit more versatile.

    Eventually I’d like a nice high voltage tube preamp, and one good solid state pre.

  • http://notyet Paul Munafo

    The pre-amps in the MR816 are good. Clean, quiet they do what they need to do. They have a nice channel strip with variable preset comp and eq settings. I can usually find a comination that will do the trick nicely with a little tweek. Nice if you are in a hurry. But i am still looking for that WOW, and I can’t spend $2500

  • http://www.dixipledeca.com Deca

    the ones on my emu 1616m already do a great job.

    • antonio

      i have a emu too, but how much do u really like them? Do they really sound clean to u.

  • Everett Meloy

    The only preamps I have are in my audio interface. I am enjoying this session and reading all the replays, there is so much to mull over. Thank to all.

  • Cush

    I use the preamps on my M-Audio 2626, and they serve their purpose pretty well. The don’t sound amazing but they don’t add any unwanted noise to the tracks. One thing about them tho is that I really wish i had more gain on them. When I’m recording acoustics, or softer vocals it sometimes struggles to keep a strong signal. Same thing with overheads on a quiet drummer.

  • Matt

    Currently, I use an Allen&Heath MixWizard board and feel that the preamps do their job just fine. Before this board, I had a Behringer board. At that time, I augmented that board with an Aphex 107 tube preamp because I needed two more inputs to accommodate recording live drums, bass guitar and guitars.
    Honestly, with my ears, the preamps in my Allen&Heath sound pretty much the same as the Aphex 107 other than that the Aphex 107 seems to have more of a presence between 2K and 5K.
    I guess I don’t really “hear” differences in preamps the way some magazine reviewers do unless they truly color the sound in a dramatic way. Some times when I read reviews on preamps, it almost sounds like they are describing wine…. “airy top end, with a robust bass, and smooth, creamy mids…” To my ears, they either sound good or they sound bad…. the ones I’m using now sound pretty good as far as I can tell.

  • http://blog.jeddr.com Jeddr

    I currently have 2 external préamps in my setup and basically they cover most of my needs. The stock préamps of my interface are good enough to expand my track count, but besides recording drums, 2 préamps mostly do the trick.

    The first préamp I have is a JOEMEEK VC1Qcs, which sounds really nice on kickdrums (and I do use the compressor while tracking!) and raw male vocals.

    The second préamp is a GAP (golden age project) Pré73 that has a lot of gain for my ribbon mics. It is a very versatile préamp that can sound smooth or almost distorted. My favourite!

  • Greg

    When you do decide to buy a preamp, if you can, rent two or three, use them for a while, and then decide which one you prefer.

    I did this (rented Great River, API, and Daking pres) and decided on two Great River units, which I used on everything and learned inside and out, then I added an API unit and did the same.

  • Marc Lapointe

    I use a Presonus Blue Tube on the guitars only and direct into the DIGI002 for vocals (RT2A). When I tried the pre-amp on the vocal mic did not reallly sound as good as I would have expected. Got hissing; however on the DIGI002 – no issues at all. Would love to upgrade but trying to avoid GAS… Marc

  • Wayne Johnson

    I use a M-Audio 1814 and 410 as my interfaces. I have all of my 8 inputs routed through a patchbay. I have a carvin SM162 mixer with 8 channels and fantom power to record 8 at once for drums or multiple inst. recording. I mainly use my Bellari RP220 dual tube mike pre for a warmer sound for mikes or guitars. I have the older version before they were bought out by Rolls. Each channel has a volume and a gain so you can get them to a stage of breaking up for a really nice warm and pretty uncolored tone. Really nice tone for recrding guitar and bass. Excellent for vocals when pushing the gain up for warmer tones.The RP220 has plenty of gain with very low noise and can be found on Ebay for around $125.00 I highly recommend these pres considering the price of what is available today.

  • Will

    I don’t have an external preamp, so I use the built in ones in my M-Audio 1814 firewire interface. As far as I can tell they sound fine! Maybe in a while when I have better ears I might branch out…

  • http://www.facebook.com/jonrohlandmusic Jon Rohland

    I have one of the older (read: not the “Pro” model like Joe has) Focusrite Trakmaster channel strips (preamp/comp/eq). I honestly haven’t used it in awhile as I’ve been running with a more portable setup and just using my M-Audio Fast Track Pro interface and preamps. That workflow has worked pretty well lately, and as a result, like I mentioned in my comment on the inventory post, I’ve considered selling the Focusrite… but I likely wouldn’t get much for it and I plan on doing some A/B tests to see if I can really hear a difference.

  • christopher [chrisw92]

    I’m new to external preamps, I didn’t even think about them until I came to this website.

    I also don’t believe I need one at this current time, if I got one it would only be a cheap thing and I don’t think a £100-£150 preamp would be that much better than ones already in my mixer.

  • http://www.google.com/profiles/coppinger7 Randy Coppinger

    Yeah, the P Solo really holds it’s own against some heavy hitters. For those interested, here’s my voice on an M-Audio Sputnik with 6 pre-amps, including the P Solo >>
    http://soundcloud.com/audio-superfreak/m-audio-sputnik-on-6-preamps-male-speaking-voice

    • christopher [chrisw92]

      cool, nice shootout.

      In that instance I think the best was between the Joe Meek MQ3 and the Focusrite Red 8. I’m not sure if I like the clarity of the MQ3 or the, how can I explain… range of the Red 8.

  • http://audiogeekzine.com ~Jon~

    Woohoo I’ve got this one covered.
    My P-Solo is a preamp I won’t need to upgrade. Thinking of getting another though.
    This hardly makes me want more different colored preamps though. Shadow Hills, Pre73, API, There are so many other options, but at least I’ve got the super transparent path covered.

  • Mike

    Joe,
    we really appreciate all the hard work you do to put this page together as a cool resource. I’m using the True Systems P Solo
    mic pre. Been Using it for about a year, i’m a big fan of clean pres, and this one is pretty clean, very easy to operate, and sounds great. Keep up the good work
    Thanks Mike

  • Frank Adrian

    I’m currently using a dbx 376 channel strip as my preamp. Frankly, it’s a new acquisition and I’m still getting used to it. It’s main use right now is on vocals to provide a bit of tube warmth and (very) minimal input limiting and it seems to work fine (at least to my relatively beginning level) for that. I still use plug-ins for major EQ and compression operations. For other recording, it’s hard to beat the preamps in my Mackie Onyx 400F, which I’m using for my I/O interface – very clean sound and very easy to set levels.

  • http://vincentoreilly.bandcamp.com/ Vinnie

    The Preamps in my Duet are really quite nice. I am definitely looking into getting some nice outboard Preamps/channel strips for a ‘more finished’ sound on the way in, but if I was forced to only use the Duet preamps I can’t say I’d complain.

    If only I could afford those API Lunchbox preamps…ooh mama. *drools*

  • mark b

    i usually use the stock pres on the Lexicon Lambda. not having much experience with various pres i really couldn’t tell you if they are better than some or not. i do have a behringer rack unit with 2 pres, but i don’t use it for recording unless i need to track drums then it all gets mixed to stereo before it goes to disk so i really don’t know how good or bad they sound. might be a fun experiment but i think i’ll pass on that for now and just keep recording.

  • http://www.google.com/profiles/coppinger7 Randy Coppinger

    Another approach to learning might be a “Just Two Rule”. Owning more than one flavor of pre-amp (or mic) helps you hear the differences and compare/contrast how you like to use them. I agree that a person should always make the most of whatever gear s/he has, but sometimes an option makes the strengths and weakness of each individual sonic tool more apparent.

  • rick

    Of course this is one of those things that I am constantly researching, as I am always on the hunt for the nicest vocal chain I can afford to put together.

    But, I really need to mess with my internal pres a lot more (ProFire 610) before looking at getting something new.

    I have wondered about the FMR Audio RNP, but I am also looking for how to make my “sterile” vocals sound a bit more “warm.” I think I need to tweak the sound a bit more to achieve that. I tried singing away from the mic and that seemed to help a ton, but also added a lot more room noise (hence my “a ha” moment when I realized how crucial acoustic treatment really is).

  • http://www.reverbnation.com/pill mgjr73

    I don’t have an external preamp. I have a Line 6 UX2 and use the POD Farm software preamps. There’s a few to choose from. Like Joe said, I’ll try to learn how to use them and be familiar and milk them before considering going external. Or I might just find that I like it so much and stick with it.

  • http://www.larrycouch.com Larry Couch

    I’ve only used the mic preamps that are in my Alesis Multimix mixer. I’ve recorded live onto my iPod with this thing and they don’t sound bad at all. I have a Line6 Podx3. It has a bunch of modeled preamps, but I know I’ll be sitting there for hours trying to figure out which one is good and which isn’t. I’ll possibly use that some day if I want an effected sound (rotating speaker, bullhorn, etc.).

  • Bob Sorace

    I’m using a Behringer MIC 200 Tube Ultra gain, It does warm up the signl but I need to use the -20db pad all of the time because it’s noisey. I use it to record vocals and guitar direct from my Korg Pandora. I’ve heard that changing the tube to a better one will solve the noise problem, but I just haven’t gotten around to it. It works for now, and the pre’s in my Fast Track Ultra are ok, but I’d really like to upgrade to a PreSonus Studio Channel or Eureka.

    • George Russell

      For Bob Sorace switch to RCA or Mullard 12AX7’s.They are quiet tubes for Behringer equiptment.Enjoy!!

  • http://www.rockxx.de Jens

    I use the mic preamps of my Line6 KB 37 audio interface. The KB 37 gives me six different modelled mic-preamps. Plenty enough, I think ;-)
    I have tested a couple of them with the POD Farm for creating nice guitar-recordings. Sounds all very nice. Tomorrow my ordered mic will arrived so I can test the preamps with the Rode NT1a.

  • http://thehoneyants.co.uk John

    I use a TL Audio 5051 channel strip and my word do I love it. Picked it up second hand for £200 and it has transformed my recordings. Lately I’ve been recording with a little bit of compression on and I’m getting even warmer, richer sounds than before. Plus, it looks the part and makes me feel very pleased knowing I’ve got a proper slice of analogue sitting in my signal path.

    Couldn’t agree more about sticking with what you own and learning to get the best out of it.

  • Scott

    First off, grats on the son Joe.

    Ok, I do not currently use an external preamp. I currently using the stock preamp on my Firebox. I am not a big fan of them, although they are very clean. Unfortunately, I can not afford a new preamp at this time and it is not a primary concern of mine. So I will use what I have and not let a lack of one stop me from recording some new music.