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Do microphone preamps really matter?

Discussion in 'Preamps / Channel Strips' started by godchuanz, Aug 8, 2012.

  1. godchuanz

    godchuanz Active Member


    I've been researching on microphone preamps quite a bit, and wondering whether upgrading to dedicated outboard preamps would really help the sound quality. It can be quite a heavy investment, so I'd like to be really sure before taking the plunge.

    I have seen people swear by certain designer preamps with magical adjectives. I have also heard some people say the difference between a budget-but-properly-constructed preamp (e.g. those included on the typical audio interfaces) and an expensive one is really minimal and almost insignificant.

    My question to all you professionals and recording engineers is this: would a designer brand preamp really benefit the recorded quality? Of course, I am comparing it with the standard budget built-in preamps that comes with, say, a Presonus FP10.

    Please help!
  2. TheJackAttack

    TheJackAttack Distinguished Member

    Quality preamps make a huge difference in the quality of the tracking. Even a dynamic mic can benefit by better analog amplification. ADC matters too but once one passes a certain level of ADC it is the analog stages that provide the most bang for the buck. Cheap preamps can even make a U87 sound like crap.
  3. hueseph

    hueseph Well-Known Member

    The quality of a preamp compounds in a mix. It may be subtle on one track but over the course of several tracks it starts to become more prominent. There are some good budget preamps. The Golden Age Projects Pre 73 is a good example of a great sounding sub $500 preamp. It has a great way of softening the harshness that you can get in the high frequencies. Designed after a Neve 1073. You likely won't find another preamp this good at this price.
  4. MadMax

    MadMax Well-Known Member

    That's like asking if a VW bug is as good riding a vehicle as a Rolls Royce Silvercloud...

    If all you're driving is 3 blocks on a daily commute, then it probably doesn't matter... but if you're driving several miles a day, then it probably does.

    The quality of a mic pre, as previously stated, is additive. As you add more tracks, things like noise becomes much more important to minimize.

    The equality of frequency gain is the end goal. You don't want low frequencies gained differently than mids or highs... That comes at a cost, and what seperates bad, mediocre, good and great quality mic pre's.

    When you add in using quality components with quality gain in mind, you also need to take into account the reliability of a mic pre... e.g. using good hardware in addition to quality components in a quality design... e.g. Good $*^t ain't cheap, and cheap $*^t ain't always good.
  5. bouldersound

    bouldersound Real guitars are for old people. Well-Known Member

    Preamps certainly make a difference, the biggest one after the source, the mic and the room. More expensive doesn't automatically mean better, but in general it's pretty much the case. And sometimes objectively better (frequency response, THD, S/N) doesn't translate to better in a given context. Some mics are particularly sensitive to how they are terminated. Preamps with variable input impedance offer a way to alter the sound of a given mic.

    Interesting anecdote. I've been using Audio-Technica 4050 large diaphragm mics for years. They're pretty good but get a bit brittle and bring out the worst of less-than-stellar acoustic instruments, so I hadn't been using them much lately. On a whim I tried one through a UA Solo 610 tube preamp. It was a world of difference. The Solo 610 just softens all the hard edges of the 4050 making it much more forgiving. Now I am trying the combo on anything I can.
  6. BobRogers

    BobRogers Well-Known Member

    As said above. The short answer is,"yes." The long answer is that it depends on the job. The big thing that high end preamps offer is more head room. They can amplify a large dynamic range - including fast transients - very well. You can be lazy and crank them wherever you want and they will still sound good. Cheap preamps have a much smaller sweet spot. If you have a compressed source - electric guitar through a driven tube amp or a synth - you can find the sweet spot on a cheap pre and the difference between that and an expensive pre will be VERY subtle. Drums - vocals - quality will tell in more obvious ways.

    Now, with that said, your Presonus preamps DO have a sweet spot. You can make them sound very good on a lot of sources if you work at it. I'm not a big fan of "climbing the ladder" and buying a slightly better Pre with a slightly bigger sweet spot (but still hard to find when you are learning.) I'm in favor of saving your pennies until you can put out $6-700 per channel for something like API or the various Neve clones.

    Another big point. There is no way anyone can scientifically quantify the size of the difference between $50 per channel and $700 per channel preamps. (I can't even describe it much better than I did above.) And there is no way I can decide for you if the difference is "worth it." It's a matter of personal soul searching. Why are you doing this? What are your goals?
  7. Davedog

    Davedog Distinguished Member

    Nothing. Not mic, pre, room, robotic guitar tuners, or magic dust will improve a poor performance and lack of attention to detail at tracking. Preamps are tools the same as a guitar, bass, keyboard, Sousaphone, banjo, pipe wrench, etcetcetc....Better tools work 'better' in most cases. In ALL cases your skills as a recordist will ultimately determine the outcome of a project.

    So in answering your question.....a better tool will make your job easier. Will you benefit from this increase??... only you will be able to determine that.
  8. hueseph

    hueseph Well-Known Member

    I had a listen to Chuan's link. Pitchfeather. The songs are quite good and his recording and mixing chops seem equally good.
  9. godchuanz

    godchuanz Active Member

    hueseph, many thanks for listening! Really appreciate it. :)

    Would you consider spending on a $500 preamp an upgrade from the standard Presonus ones? I'm also considering going for a preamp like the Grace Design M101, if it would bring the sound quality to the next level.
  10. MadMax

    MadMax Well-Known Member

    As did I... and pretty much agree.

    To expand a tad on brother Dog's point...

    Better quality tools just make the work/workflow easier, more efficient, and the more you work with better tools, the better you become at producing a final product that actually represents craftsmanship... and ultimately a work of art.

    One thing that was suggested to me early on in my career, was to keep in mind that we have two ears, and that generally translates to stereo... so, why buy one of anything when buying two of anything leaves you the ability to deal with each of our ears?

    That's not to say that just buying one pre is a waste of time, but I would caution you to at least seriously consider only doing that with things like microphones and other items that are rarely used in pairs.

    Pairs of anything just makes much more sense in the long run.
  11. godchuanz

    godchuanz Active Member

    MadMax, thanks for the great advice!

    Quite embarrassing that I really hadn't thought about the stereo-pair concept until you brought it up. I'll probably have to double the budget now...
  12. bouldersound

    bouldersound Real guitars are for old people. Well-Known Member

    I find a pan knob connected to a paired signal path going to a pair of speakers adequate for my two ears 98% of the time. But stereo recording (as contrasted to stereo mixing) was my entry into the world of pro audio so I definitely appreciate it.

    I can vouch for the M101. The word it generally makes me think of is "silky".
  13. Kurt Foster

    Kurt Foster Distinguished Member

    The Presounus pres are real ok. As mentioned a narrow sweet spot and a bit lacking on gain but they absolutly sound better than a cheap pre in a porta studio or budget mixer. At least they are transformer balanced. You could do worse. The older ones with the Jensen transformers sounded quite a bit better than the newer ones. You might check with Jim Williams to see if you can upgrade the transformers. That would be a much better use of your money perhaps?

    Think about borrowing / renting different pres if you can for a day or two and see if you can tell the difference between them and the Presounus pres you already have. Then decide if you really need them before you break the bank purchasing some esoteric pieces whos differences you or your listeners will likely never hear.

    Imo, DAW programs, shoddy conversion, poor musicianship and arranging matter much more than mic pres. Don't put the cart before the horse and go spending money you don't need to.
  14. audiokid

    audiokid Staff

    can't agree more. and a plus 2 on mic pre's. In fact, back in the day when all we had was a nice console, who needed 10 different micpre added to the already fine console? I still don't get what most of our members go on about with all their micpre's. I have quite a few but IMO, I put way more value on my converters and processing system. However, the ones I have are pretty nice and I wouldn't want to loose them either. I think we benefit from a few flavours and it is the flavours that make everything easier to mix. Too much of the same thing creates difficulty and makes a boring sound. When everything is digital, it to me, is what confuses us all and gets us searching for ways to fix the boring sound. So, why I am investing in hybrid summing gear, not oodles of micpre's. I want to open it up on the 2-bus, But, maybe I am just on a hybrid honeymoon soon to join in with the majority. Who knows... I am aging and hearing things I never noticed 20 years ago in music today which is, zzzzzzzzzzz in all the vox tracks in pop music and too clean a wall of sound that to me is the ITB plague.
  15. Kurt Foster

    Kurt Foster Distinguished Member

    The word is that some of the newer DAW programs like PT 10 and Presonus Studio One are finally getting past the problem of headroom in the mix bus. Russ Long did two reviews on the newest versions of these DAW's in the latest PAR in which he said he thinks there's going to be a lot of used high end summing box's on the market pretty soon. Good news for everyone I suspect.

    I myself have always been a mic pre freak and I suppose I always will be. But the question now days is how much does any one person need? If you are recording a record for a Jack White, Tom Petty or Alison Krause type then some serious pres would be in order. If you are self recording to post something on a music site somewhere it's doubtful you really need that $1000 a channel pre. Plus, these things are getting harder and harder to re sell without taking a major loss. High end gear used to be an investment and retaining it's value or in some cases even appreciating but not any more. It's tough to sell anything for more than 4 or 5 Hundred bucks. No one has any money to spare these days. All the more reason not to go crazy spending money on toys you really don't need.
  16. audiokid

    audiokid Staff

    Interesting comments on Studio One. I own a 24.4.2 StudioLive and love it. I haven't used Studio One yet, been hooked on Sequoia but see Presonus as a serious leader coming around the corner for their new DAW software. The SL is incredible value.

    While all you guys are selling off your gear, I am investing in analog hardware. In the last year I've invested in over a hundred grand it it. And I'm not slowing down. Analog is for the new studios and all this digital plug-in crap is for the consumers. But its not preamps I'm buying into... At least for tracking that is.
  17. TheJackAttack

    TheJackAttack Distinguished Member

    I don't think any DAW with at least a 32 bit float on the mix bus has had headroom problem at all. PT was famous for crappy math but it could be worked around. The rest-Sequoia, Audition, Reaper, Cubase et alia-didn't really have that issue for years. They all have weak and strong points but mix math wasn't necessarily theirs. I would agree that Presonus preamps are solid middle quality and are not a detriment to most folks that learn their leanings. The same goes for Mackie Onyx preamps and some of the Focusrite (non-stand alone) stuff. I do think better analog stages are to a point more important than the ADC given a minimum quality of ADC.
  18. bouldersound

    bouldersound Real guitars are for old people. Well-Known Member

    Thanks, John, for saying what I was thinking. Lots of DAWs have had 32 bit floating point math for years. It's nothing new except to Pro Tools users. I've never had any headroom issues that weren't my own fault. And I've found that converters, though they do vary, generally have less effect on the sound than the mic and preamp.
  19. audiokid

    audiokid Staff

    I should apologize for using crap, I really need to tame that down. What I mean to say is "over rated plug-ins". And my reference to "New" is, different than the common sound of a DAW studio.
    I seriously think the entire digital realm is way over rated and a lot of everything software based is wishful thinking for an industry so fragmented which cannot survive making real gear or real acoustic music alone anymore. So, its created a big user-base feeding a lot of promises and dilution to the DAW world and new generation. We/ they want to believe in these hard times so we support it and its becoming the norm.

    From my understanding, a lot of users ( majority) engaging in recording these days are using far less than what I consider good converters. Many are using converters with poor headroom and tonal quality yet think a new preamp is going to help what? So, when they ask these preamp questions, its hard for me to even think about pre-amps. Glad you guys are happy with what you are using but you all have better than poor.
    The subtle differences I hear in higher quality converters however, make a lot of everything sound bigger and sweeter to my ears, thus make me happy with the preamps I already have. But, I do agree they are as important as you all say, but only after you have your AD DA and room in order.

    As far as the 32 bit float point, Its going to take a lot more to convince me that this is the magic number to great sounding digital music. After that, 64bit will be the new 32bit... Somedays I just hate computers. But I do love the editing and automation capabilities.
  20. Kurt Foster

    Kurt Foster Distinguished Member

    The largest drawback I see to using plugs in place of hardware is often when updates come along for our DAWs or for that matter when we are forced to update our computers plug ins can become obsolete or unstable whereas my Lexicon PCM 60 / 70 / 80 and Eventide H3000 D/SE and all my outboard compressors are still completely usable.

    The upside to using plugs is the ability to create mucho - instances. I love the ability to open multiple Distressors or LA2a's. I mean how many times have you said to yourself "Gee, I wish I had just one more "Fatso"?

    The sword cuts two ways. It's all good!

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