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.