You probably know what a microphone preamp is.

But do you know how important it is to your chances of getting a good recording?

First off, let’s make sure you and I are on the same page (in case you’re a little fuzzy as to exactly what a mic preamp does).

A microphone preamp is simply some sort of device that amplifies (makes louder) the microphone signal. Microphones generally have a very low, unusable output. Plugging them into a microphone preamp allows you to bring that level up to a usable (line) level.

Any device that has a microphone input has a mic preamp.

There are two basic types of preamps. Onboard/stock preamps and outboard preamps.

When you’re just starting out, you’re probably using onboard preamps. These are the preamps built into your audio interface. 

As you advance and get better, you might upgrade to an outboard preamp or two. Outboard pre’s come in lots of flavors, and they generally sound better than (and are less noisy than) stock preamps.

Now you may just think that a preamp is just a “volume adder.” That’s only partially true. Yes, the preamp adds volume, but it also imparts its own TONE on the signal.

Just like microphones have their own “sound,” so do mic preamps.

Here’s a quick example:

For my album Out of Indiana, I managed to borrow a really nice tube preamp from a friend to record vocals on one of the songs. (The preamp was a Universal Audio LA610, and the song is “Come Quickly,” if you’re curious.)

I used the same $300 condenser mic I had used on several of the other songs, but the sound of the vocal track on this song was noticeably better.

When I took the album to be mastered, the mastering engineer stopped and said “Wow!” when that song started playing.

I told him I had used a much nicer preamp for the song, and he said, “Yeah, you can totally tell.”

Are the other songs bad? Nope. But using a nicer preamp took that song to a new level of awesome.

Do you need high end preamps to make great recordings? Of course not. But just keep in mind how important the preamp is.

If given the choice to upgrade microphones or preamps, I would lean toward preamps first.

A nice preamp will make ALL your microphones sound better.

To hear that vocal for “Come Quickly” (and to mix the whole album yourself), check out:

Joe Gilder
Home Studio Corner