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Advice on adding mic/instr preamps to my studio rack on a budget

Discussion in 'Preamps / Channel Strips' started by quesne, Jun 11, 2015.

  1. quesne

    quesne Active Member

    I have a small semi-portable studio rack system which I use to record my own music as well as band sessions. My gear includes an Art Dual MP preamp box which gives me two decent mic/instr preamps that works well for certain mics and instruments, but I frequently need a few more preamps. Right now, I fall back on my Zoom R16 channel amps, but I'd like a better option. I am on a real tight budget, and I would greatly appreciate some advice.

    A specific choice that I am considering at the moment is to pick up a used Presonus FireStudio Project for about $150 locally -- which would give me 8 more (decent ?) preamps -- or two Alesis Mictube Solos. The guy is asking $100 for both, but I suspect he'll take a little less. I had a FireStudio Project for several years, and I was happy with the preamps. I have no experience with the Alesis Mictube Solo, but I do like the tube drive on the Art Dual MP.

    Any thoughts or comments are appreciated :)
  2. Kurt Foster

    Kurt Foster Distinguished Member

    well first we would need to know how you are getting the pres into the DAW ..... thorugh the Zoom? if so, just stick with that. anything you patch into the Zoom will be going through the pre amps in it. any benefit gained by using a premium pre, will be mitigated by the inputs on the Zoom. there's no inserts or discreet line ins that by pass the pres.

    ok pre's. PreSonus pres imo are no better than any other budget offerings. while they do offer a transformer input, the transformers they use are not really that great. they had Jensen transformers when they were first introduced but for some reason they decided to switch them out for inferior ones. bean counter stuff most likely.

    also i have found the PreSonus pres to lack gain. the ones i reviewed could barely hit 0dB Vu without breaking up. (that's Mackie semi pro level.) when i asked PreSonus about this, they said they thought they "had it right" and told me i was being "insulting". lol. if you want to use ribbons or even a SM7, you'll need to get something with more gain.

    so on a tight budget? well just stick with what you have .... until you are ready to dump $500 + per channel (less in the case of multi channel offerings) you will not get anything that is significantly superior. the ART or Alesis pres are both what they are. choose what you like by features and what sound you like best. it's subjective and you need to use your ears and make you choices based on what you like.

    when you are ready to make the leap into the deep end, i recommend the pres in RMEs interfaces or a single or dual Focusrite ISA pres as a good start. you can't do better for less.

    good luck.
  3. quesne

    quesne Active Member

    Thanks very much Kurt. I appreciate the advice. Just checked out the RMEs and Dual Focusrite ISA on Sweetwater. They are definitely out of my price range at the moment, but I will keep my eyes out for a used one. BTW - I just noticed someone selling two Art Dual MPs and asking $140 for the pair. A little far, but within driving distance. If he gave me a good price, that could be an option.

    The answer to your question regarding my recording setup: I capture tracks using only the Z16. I have no DAW or computer connected to it during the capture process. There are some instruments and/or circumstances where I like the Dual MP tube drive in the signal, but many times I just go through the Z16 mic/instr inputs. One limitation of the Z16 is that it has only 2 channels with phantom power, so in cases where I need 3 or 4 condensers, I use the Dual MP just for phantom power. If I don't want any color, I use the -20 db gain button and/or the input level only.

    Not sure if it makes a difference to your question, but both Dual MP outputs are connected to the Z16 channels via XLR mic cables. I have the option of using the 1/4" jacks within the XLR plugs, but I prefer the balanced signal. In cases where I am using a Dual MP channel in the signal chain, I always keep the Z16 gain pot at zero (i.e. no gain). In cases where I need the gain on the Z16 pre for a mic or instrument, I adjust the Z16 channel pot to get a good signal without distortion or clipping. After recording is done, I pop the SD card out of the Z16 and transfer the wav files over to my laptop . At the moment, I do all my mixing in Reaper.

    This makes me curious about something you said with respect to the Zoom pres. My limited understanding of the Z16 interface has always been that, with the gain pot at zero, the signal passes through without any color or signal modification by the mic pre. You say, however, that "anything you patch into the Zoom will be going through the pre amps in it. any benefit gained by using a premium pre, will be mitigated by the inputs on the Zoom. there's no inserts or discreet line ins that by pass the pres."

    If I understand what you are saying, my entire signal chain is ultimately being "colored" by the mic pres in the Z16, regardless of where the gain pots are set. Is that correct?
  4. Kurt Foster

    Kurt Foster Distinguished Member

  5. DonnyThompson

    DonnyThompson Distinguished Member

    Disagree. I have absolutely no trouble at all using dynamics or ribbons on my VSL1818, (Xmax pres) and I've never had any trouble with distortion, either. I'm not sure which Presonus models you reviewed, and you may be right that there are a few models that don't cut it...but I've had zero issues with the 1818 in regard to either fidelity or headroom.
  6. pcrecord

    pcrecord Don't you want the best recording like I do ? Well-Known Member

    I agree with the others, if you buy a highend preamp and put it through a unit that doesn't bypass the its own preamps or have a clean line in to converter, you will be wasted a part of the quality the preamp offer.
    The firestudio, like the zoom, don't have direct to converter line ins. Of course the presonus may sound better and for the price you could use it until you are ready for the real thing. But when you are ready you'll need to ditch it for an other interface.
    If you think you'll never buy a high-end preamp, go for the presonus, but if you want to expend in the future, save your money for a better interface with good converters.
    Just my opinion of course ;)

    I just got an RME ff800 used and its preamps are a lot better than a brand new focusrite liquid saffire 56 ;)
  7. Kurt Foster

    Kurt Foster Distinguished Member

    this is because you are using the internal converters on your 1818. the pres i reviewed were stand alone (the 8 channel ones). also i am referring to +4Vu, not -20 dbfs and i was using external converters @+4 dB. if you were to attempt to bring the signal out of digital world and do some analog processing with pro gear running at +4 or even +10 (it happens) you would see what i was talking about.
  8. DonnyThompson

    DonnyThompson Distinguished Member

    Well, then that case, I don't know of any entry- level beginner, or all that many mid-level studio guys, either, who would be the least bit concerned about that scenario you've mentioned, Kurt..

    If you are comparing Presonus preamps to Neve's, SSL's or other multi-thousand dollar level gear, then of course there's going to be a difference..

    The OP mentioned using Zoom gear, along with other equipment costing in the neighborhood of $100 or so, and further saying "But I think he'd take a little less"... so, based on what he is saying, I think it's fairly safe to assume that he's not going to be investing in an external Apogee conversion system, using expensive pro console preamps, or routing out to LA2a's, 1176's, or a Dangerous summing system anytime soon. I could be mistaken, of course... but I think it's important to put your statements within a certain context, when saying that certain pieces may not meet a particular standard, or, your own standards, which are perhaps based upon your own current expensive rig.

    I can see where something like the VSL wouldn't interest you in the least - if you are using high dollar preamps and high end conversion... why would it? But, for those who don't have that kind of budget, and need to have something to record, there is absolutely nothing wrong with Presonus, or the budget Focusrite stuff. It's clean, has more than enough gain to run dynamics and ribbons, and its converters are likely just as good - if not maybe even better - than those converters that were considered to be "boutique" less than a decade ago.

    IMHO of course.
  9. Kurt Foster

    Kurt Foster Distinguished Member

    a glace at the PreSonus site shows more focus on the digital side and less hype on the pres. it appears they are moving away from pushing the standard pres and leaning more to the development of their digital products, which is what they excel at imo.

    i have no clue as to what the PreSonus converters are like but i would think they were of the same ilk as MOTU, Alesis or as you mentioned the Focusrite Platinum /Saffire range only because i have not heard different, which i would think we would if they were better. i agree that almost any modern converters will sound better than those of yesteryear.

    i haven't heard the XMAX pres so i can't speak to if they sound as bad as the second generation PreSonus pres i had to review. i'm pretty confident the pres i reviewed had even less gain but i can't find any specs to substantiate this ..... i will say one thing .... they are only one of two or three that i wound up returning based on their performance. i couldn't get enough level from them with my SM7a, without lighting up the peak indicator.

    the PreSonus website shows XMAX pres offer 55 dB of gain which is absolutely insufficient gain for many ribbons without a Cloud Lifter and absolutely not enough for my SM7a.

    almost any mic pre these days in the hands of a competent recordist will do the job. i have made a record that was released on a Major Label with pres in a Macke SR24. making an evaluation based on the experiences of an uber talent such as you Donny, is not indicative of what the average joe will be able to achieve. as is said; your mileage may vary ..... lol.
  10. quesne

    quesne Active Member

    Thank you so much, guys. I greatly appreciate your advice Kurt, Donny and pcrecord. Listening to the friendly disagreements is educational :whistle::sleep: No really, it is :)

    One last small piece of advice please. Following are the three possible deals I am considering. I understand that the quality of these preamps are all pretty much the same, but please give me your opinion/comments on the relative merits of each deal:

    1. Pair of ART Dual MPs (i.e. 2 of them) in good working condition plus an MXL 4000 mic in like-new condition - $200 for everything

    2. Presonus FireStudio Project in very good working condition (I have no FireWire; it would just be for the preamps and phantom power) - $100

    3. Pair of Alesis MicTube Solos (i.e. 2 of them) in like-new condition for $75

    Thanks :)
  11. pcrecord

    pcrecord Don't you want the best recording like I do ? Well-Known Member

    1 : seems like a good deal, well regarded preamps for the price but you need an interface with line ins that don't pass through cheaper preamps.
    2: If you have a PC, firewire cards are inexpensive, if it's a laptop, a express card is a bit pricy..
    3 : I doubt those will sound better than an onboard preamps of a presonus or focusrite interface.

    I find it sad that you were considering the firestudio in the OP while knowing you don't have Firewire...
    Why don't you consider something like this while you take time to put some money down for something better :

  12. DonnyThompson

    DonnyThompson Distinguished Member

    I think this is really important - if for nothing else than thinking ahead, looking into the crystal ball - say for example that you happen to step up to a higher caliber standalone analog pre at some point, (and many of these higher end pre's don't offer any computer connectivity at all), you'll want to have line ins on the device that you are using to get your signal into your DAW, and these line ins would bypass the lower end built in preamps in the i/o capture device, and instead send the signal directly to the converters... You won't want to chance downgrading the signal of a higher quality preamp by then running it through the cheaper preamps on the i/o device.

    Many of the Grace, ADK, Neve, and so many other higher caliber standalone preamps are only preamps, and while some do offer models with digital i/o, many don't have FW or USB connectivity.

    I currently use an ADK AP-1 transformer based pre, with swappable input and output transformers to get different types of textures, but it lacks digital i/o, so, I have to connect it to the line ins of a Presonus VSL1818 in order to convert the signal to digital..
    Presonus converters are pretty decent, and by using the line in's, I can bypass its preamps... which aren't bad, but when I use the ADK, I want the sound of the ADK without any added preamp coloration from a secondary device.

    You could always go with a standalone conversion system as well, but at that point you're getting into quite a bit of money.

    PS... Kurt and I don't disagree about everything. For exmaple, we both agree that '65 Buick Skylarks were awesome cars ( inside joke. ;) )

    IMHO of course.
  13. quesne

    quesne Active Member

    Thanks very much all. I appreciate the advice. A couple of clarifying points, then I will describe a test I did earlier today.

    An astute observation, pcrecord.....the guy has no firewire and yet he is considering a FireStudio Project. Too much raw fish in his diet? Exposure to lead at an early age? On the spectrum? None of the above, fortunately, though I can't promise my wife would agree. Actually, I probably did not explain well enough that my motivation is strictly to augment the mic/DI inventory in my rack for live recording (typically 3 to 8 tracks). My interest in the Presonus FSP was just to have those 8 XMAX pres and phantom power on hand. I was always intending to capture everything through the Z16, and it's not in my budget to consider upgrading (see postscript). I really just want to get the signal capture on the Z16 to be as clean as possible given my limited means.

    So....I did a compare-and-contrast recording this afternoon to put my ears to the test: Does the signal from a condenser (MXL 990) sound better/worse/indifferent when I put it through the Art Dual MP (ADMP) first vs directly into the Z16? You are welcome to listen to the 6 minute mp3 (attached), though I would not want to bore you with my "testing, testing, testing", etc. I would actually be interested to know if you think this was a valid test of the preamps. Here is what I did:

    1. Set up the mic on the ADMP. Balanced XLR output of the ADMP to an XLR channel input on the Z16

    2. Set the input level on the ADMP to 100% (i.e. no attenuation of the source signal)

    3. Recorded the following test segments (vocal only) for the ADMP:
    a. Set the +20 db pad on the ADMP to "normal" and the output (tube gain) just high enough to record some voice at a decent level (it was at about 50%)
    b. Turn the output (tube gain) on the ADMP to 100% to record the noise floor
    c. Switch on the +20 db pad and set the output (tube gain) on the ADMP just high enough to record some voice at a decent level (it was at about 10%)
    d. Turn the output (tube gain) on the ADMP as high as possible to record the noise floor (it was at about 30% before starting to feed back through headphones)

    4. Plug the 990 mic cord XLR directly into the Z16

    5. Recorded the following test segments (vocal only) for the Z16:
    a. Set the channel gain just high enough to record some voice at a decent level (it was at about 85%)
    b. Turn up the channel gain on the Z16 to 100% to listen to the noise floor

    My observations:
    - The gain available on the Z16 pre is very small compared to the ADMP (less than a half, I think)
    - The Z16 pre sound (with no ADMP) is technically clean, but seems to crackle and sizzle a little around the edges. To put it simply, I hear the circuitry in the signal.
    - The ADMP signal is warmer and more natural sounding than the Z16 signal.
    - With the lack of a line-in bypass, both signals are going through the Z16 preamp circuit. But to my ears, the ADMP signal sounds cleaner and more pleasant.
    - Regardless the output level of the ADMP (even when very, very high) I do not hear that same "sizzle" that I do with the Z16 pre

    P.S. - Regarding upgrading my interface: I had a Presonus FSP for a few years and was pretty happy with it. My firewire laptop bailed and a replacement with firewire (or an express card) was too pricey at the time. With that FSP setup, it was sometimes hard to record because I always needed the laptop, and my recordings were slave to the CPU, bus speed and hard drive seek time (drop-out was pretty rampant). At the moment, I find the Z16 to be convenient since I frequently move my rig around, and I do not need a computer to capture the recordings. When I can afford a permanent studio I might consider upgrading. But for the moment, it's a compromise I guess I'm willing to live with :)


    Attached Files:

  14. pcrecord

    pcrecord Don't you want the best recording like I do ? Well-Known Member

    Ah ! That's a surprise out of the hat !! ;)
    The z16 is a well regarded unit, specially for it's outboard mixing possibilities and quality buildt. The only thing that I'd add is some expension possibilities, like direct to converter inputs or ADAT ins...

    I need to say again that going out of a high-end preamp and in console or interface preamp WILL color the sound with that second preamp.
    Also, you are adding a gain staging complexity. To get the best results, the output of your external preamp should go to a line in of the z16, not to the mic input because you are now preamplifying an already preamplified signal. (you know, the output of the MP is line level, ready to record) also you should read the manual to learn if the line ins of the z16 are balance or unbalance and choose a cable accordingly.

    I listened to you samples and the first thing that striked me is that you messed the gain staging further by using the pad switch which better use is when recording high level spl instruments.
    The two nearly valid tests you did are the 1 and 4. I say nearly because you should have used the line input.
    But anyway, my observation is that the z16 is cleaner and may represent what the mic really captures. And the MP is the one that colors the sound with the tube atenuating the HF and adding a bit of warmth. You clearly like the MP better so it's a no brainer, just buy it ! But just keep in mind that the circuitry of the mic input and line input of the z16 are not going directly to converters, therefor, you are not grabing the exact MP sound. If it sounds good to you, it's fine.
    On a last note, that MXL mic is not the top of the line.. You could get a lot better results with the z16 by using another mic. And many will say a different mic would give a bigger difference in the results than changing the pre.
  15. Boswell

    Boswell Moderator Distinguished Member

    I can't really agree with you about the Zoom R16, pc. My experience with it is that is fizzy on the high end, has system noise breakthrough and lacks microphone gain, as Kurt mentioned. Could it be that you are confusing the Zoom product with the A+H Zed-R16? The OP used "R16" in his first post and then switched to writing "Z16" every subsequent time.
    pcrecord likes this.
  16. pcrecord

    pcrecord Don't you want the best recording like I do ? Well-Known Member

    OH ! You're right !! I thought about the Zed ! LOL
    MY GOD, I'M sorry about that !!!

    At least parts of my post is accurate, preamp in a preamp .. line in in TRS..
  17. quesne

    quesne Active Member

    My deepest apologies, pcrecord. I really did create some confusion here, and it's entirely my fault. Boswell is right. I abbreviated it as Z16 without thinking that would be ambiguous.

    Based on the rest of what you say, though, it really does seem that the 2 ADMPs and the MXL 4000 is the best deal for me. For someone at my level (experience-but-amatuer hobbyist), they seem to be economical, workhorse preamps that I can upgrade sometime in the future. Also, the MXL 4000 is a pretty good mic so I do not think I'll be losing out on the deal.

    Thanks for listening and for your comments on my tests. Even though you were thinking of the Zed when you replied, I am going to rerun my tests with balance 1/4" cables to the Zoom just to see if the results I get are any different.
  18. pcrecord

    pcrecord Don't you want the best recording like I do ? Well-Known Member

    This is the most important part, if it's sound fine to you, go for it !! ;)
  19. DonnyThompson

    DonnyThompson Distinguished Member

    Nice catch, Bos. ;)
  20. pcrecord

    pcrecord Don't you want the best recording like I do ? Well-Known Member

    I guess I just had a mind block about the zoom since I'd never consider buying one.. but the zed is another story ;)..
    Thanks Bos !!

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