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Mic Preamp in the $300 range

Discussion in 'Preamps & Processing' started by youngdahl, Aug 10, 2003.

  1. youngdahl

    youngdahl Guest


    This is my first post here. Looks like a great resource!

    Anyway, I'm wondering if there might be a preamp in the $300 ballpark that might improve my setup. Currently I'm using my Mackie 1604-VLZ (not a "pro").

    Those "low voltage" (?) tube preamps like the ART TubeMP often get a bad rap because they don't run their tube with a high enough plate voltage (as I understand it). Is that just as a comparison to the high-end tube preamps? Would they be any improvement over the Mackie input stage? I've seen some reasonable reviews of the ProSonus Blue Tube unit, even though it seems to also run its tubes at a low voltage.

    I've seen Sam Ash selling a Roland MMP-2 (2-channel mic-modeling preamp) unit for $129. From what they said Roland is discontinuing the unit, and they bought the entire remaining stock and are "blowing it out". It seems the unit was originally listing for $700 and selling for around $500, and I've seen prices like $360 recently on the web. It has a lot of features over a mic-pre (4 band parametric EQ, compression, mic modeling, and even preamp modeling(?)). Seems tempting at $129, but are the preamps in it any good (in comparison to my Mackie's)?

    I guess I'm hoping for some noticable improvement in my recordings. I'm not sure exactly what is improved by getting a dedicated preamp, but it seems to be a well regarded upgrade. Is it a better S/N ratio, or superior frequency response, or what?

    Given the preamps in the $300 range, would there be a substantial additional improvement to save a bit more and get, say, an RNP (or something else) for $500 or so?

    So, I'd be eager to engage in any discussions about this topic, and I'd appreciate any specific suggestions you may have about what sort of preamp I should be considering.

    Just in case it matters, I have a Windows XP based DAW running SONAR XP with a Dakota interface and their Tango24 AD/DA converters. I've got my Mackie 1604 (as mentioned), and a pair of HR824s. I've got a pair of the Octava MK-319s, and just picked up a Marshal MXL 2003, plus a couple of SM57s and a '58. I've got a Lexicon MPX-500, an Aphex 108 compressor (2-channel), plus whatever plug-in effects come with Sonar and Sound Forge.

    I'll probably be recording vocal/guitar/bass/drums mostly, along with some acoustic piano, but may (and have in the past) record strings or other orchestral instruments occasionally. I guess I could categorize most of what I do as kind of a "classic rock" sort of vein (although I'd put a lot of current music in that category as well), rather than say heavy metal or rap (not that theres anything wrong with that ;-)

    Just for perspective, would you think a $300 microphone (or even stretching to $500) would make a more significant improvement to my setup instead of a preamp in that price range?

    Greg Youngdahl
  2. adamasd

    adamasd Guest

    Stay away from those low end tube compressors and modeling pres and stuff like that, they are not worth the money. I would look into JoeMeek stuff, they have really great gear and its easy on the budget if you can keep away from their tube stuff. I used their VC3Q as a tube pre for quite awhile, used it more as a pre then a compressor actualy, but it worked great for both. They should have something in the $300 range. Their stuff is well built and just sounds great, especialy their comrpessors.

  3. Luke

    Luke Guest

    Check out the Studio Projects VTB-1, it has been getting good reviews.You can find a review at Prosoundweb.com. Go to recpit, then click on Harvey Gerst.
    Good luck.
  4. AudioGaff

    AudioGaff Distinguished Member

    Feb 23, 2001
    Silicon Valley
    I second the Joe Meek for those on the budget. I obtained a new VC1Qcs in a trade for some work thinking I would just use the compressor but I ended up really liking the whole box. The mic pre is clean and quiet, the comp has that great old school flavor and eq is way more useable that you'd expect on a box like this. The exciter is not up to the BBE or Aphex, but it can be useful when really spanking the compressor hard to give back some bite. I see these used in the $400 range. I would expect the smaller, cheaper Meek units to be about as good with less features.
  5. mjones4th

    mjones4th Active Member

    Aug 15, 2003

    Do you want clean or character? IMO with the DAW age amongst us, clean is my preference in pres. You can always add a simulated tube later in the mix (although the purists here would disagree), but you can't take it out of your pre if it doesn't work for you.

    So in the clean camp, two of the best (not personal experience here, but from reading reviews and participating in discussions here) contenders are the Grace 101 and the RNP.

  6. youngdahl

    youngdahl Guest

    Hi all,

    Thanks for all the replies!

    Mitzelplick asked about clean/character? I guess for now the best answer I can have would be "different than my Mackie 1604 VLZ (not Pro) pres". So I guess that would mean "character"? I gather that the Mackies are more known for "clean". I'm assuming this won't be the last pre I buy, but I guess that for the long run what I buy now might help leverage me to buy more toward the "top of the line" type stuff in the future.

    The Mackies have the reputation of having good preamps, and so far my experience has been also good. I can make pretty nice recordings through the Mackie mixer. But my opinion is also based on my inexperience. I used to think I was doing pretty good with an SM58 through a Peavey mixer and onto a Teac 3340s. So, mic pres seem to be a place in my rig where there might be a chance for some significant improvement, but perhaps a $300 pre won't make all that much difference?

    I'm guessing I've got "clean" covered with the Mackie? Or can I do much cleaner with a unit that is a single pre (or maybe a pair) in that $300 range. If not, then maybe "character" is the answer, assuming I can get something that at least hangs with my other equipment (if not better) in that range. Perhaps a used Joe Meek could be a good option for me in the "character" category, as suggested above.

    On the other hand, would I have a more significant improvement by spending the $300 on another microphone to add to my 2 Octava MK-319s and 1 Marshall MXL 2003 (plus an SM58 and 2 SM57s)? Those are pretty much $150 microphones, perhaps one from the $300 range running through the Mackie pres would be a more effective enhancement to my setup? If so, what would be a good choice there?

    Thanks again,
  7. AudioGaff

    AudioGaff Distinguished Member

    Feb 23, 2001
    Silicon Valley
    $300 don't get you much. The Meek doesn't have real character in the pre, the character comes if you get a Meek with the compressor and eq. $300 won't get you much in a better mic than what you already have. You might just as well save up to the $1000 level and get something real good with or without character. Lots of people go cheap because they can and because they can have more items quicker. Don't be like those other people...
  8. youngdahl

    youngdahl Guest

    OK, so let me see if I can sum up a bit, let me know if I'm oversimplifying...

    First - a $300 mic won't be all that much better than my current $150 mics, and I probably won't get significantly better until the $1000 ballpark?

    Second - preamps in the $300 range aren't really much better than what comes in the Mackie 1604 VLZ (despite the fact that you only get 1 or 2 channels in the preamp, and the Mackie has 16 plus all the other mixer stuff). Actually that sounds like a significant market opportunity for someone!

    LVassen mentions the VTB-1, but I gather others (or at least AudioGaff) might not agree that improves over the Mackie. Perhaps it falls into the category of the "starved plate" designs similar to the ART line. There seem to be a couple of PreSonus items that I had been considering. The BlueTube is a 2 channel unit with preamps only listing at $200. They also have the DigiTube which is a single channel preamp with three bands of semi-parametric EQ (no width) at $299 (saw it at Sam Ash for $249). I read some review that said that despite being a "starved plate" design, these (or I guess particularly the BlueTube was being reviewed) sounded better than other units using that design. I wasn't sure exactly how "un-biased" the reviewer might have been though.

    So, all of these are really not much better than my Mackie? Perhaps they are good for someone who has no mixer (or a cheap one) or is just running into a sound card or something?

    Unless I am able to book some work into my studio, the path to $1000 available is a ways off. I'm basically a hobbiest and I can put some money away each month towards upgrading my hobby, but any money I can earn with it can go back 100% into equipment. So, what about opening up to say $500? I guess in this context I'm thinking of that FMR Audio RNP. Two channels of preamp only (perhaps soon after getting an RNC to go with it?). Could that provide an improvement over the Mackie pres? The Joe Meek stuff begins to fall into this category as well, at least maybe used pieces. Is there anything else I ought to consider here?

    As a bit of a side issue, I read somewhere that if one is recording at 24-bits that perhaps one can dispense with compression, at least while tracking (if one wants to compress for effect, then do it after the track has been recorded without compression). Is that really a viable approach? If so then perhaps compression as a feature in a preamp (or added on as with an RNC added to an RNP) isn't so important. Of course, if the sound of the compressor itself (as AudioGaff suggested that the character of the Joe Meek stuff was in the compressor and EQ rather than the pre itself), and your DAW plugins (assuming thats how you'd compress and EQ once the track was recorded) didn't give you the character you want, then maybe thats not really a valid approach. Comments?

    Thanks for the discussion!
    Greg Youngdahl
  9. coplinger

    coplinger Guest

    I would recommend the m-audio dmp3. I think you can pick them up for about $150. I have no Mackie to compare it to, but I've heard others say it's a noticable improvement. This would leave you some cash to buy another mic too. Maybe a SP B3?
  10. Davedog

    Davedog Distinguished Member

    Dec 10, 2001
    Pacific NW
    You're experiencing the very situation that all of us face when choosing to go down the recording gear dillema road...."Can i get a better sound with the addition of semi-pro gear to my mostly semi-pro set-up?"...Its an affliction that the marketeers of the manufacturing concerns of recording equipment have recognized for some time now.....

    My suggestion is to experiment liberally with the mics and gear you already have.Learn new mic placements, try tweeking tones at the sources..ie, guitar amps,bass amps,drum tunings..
    With what you already have, you should be able to make very very decent recordings.Clean and clear at least.I would avoid using the eq on your Mackie for recording if you can...simply use it as a monitoring matrix from your DAW...if you absolutely must spend your $300, then a mic is your best bet...I would look at getting a very nice dynamic to add to your collection...a Beyer,Sennheiser or the like...An MD421 will last you forever and is so very very good on so many things...A used can be found for your budget ..another is the Beyer M160 ribbon mic...Very high in quality sound and once again good on so many things...
    Spend the time trying new things and using your gear and your signal chains to work for you.Technique makes up for a lack of gear anytime and you have enough stuff to learn techniques that will serve you for years to come.
  11. chessparov

    chessparov Active Member

    Dec 16, 2001
    Orange County, CA
    The VTB-1 can be run totally solid state without
    any "tube blend".

    You can get one, and also check out a classic dynamic (or ribbon), like Dave said, staying under $500 in the process.

  12. danfor-2

    danfor-2 Guest


    Only reasons to compress while tracking would be practical ones, like preventing clipping of the tape/computer. The main reason why you should avoid it is because all processing to tape is destructive - non regrettable.

    Very experienced engineers sometimes compress to tape since they know the sound they want and would fit into the mix. If you got that really sweet compressor whose sound/character you cannot live without - apply on tracking, but if your software plugs sound just as good I suggest you save the compression for the mixing.

    Regarding your investment, I would put some greens in a single channel preamp (unless you do a lot of sensitive stereo miking where you would need two identical good preamps) without bells & whistles to get maximum quality from your bucks.
    Since all your one-channel overdubs will pass through it you´ll want a good one.

    Good luck!
  13. white swan

    white swan Guest

    You are at a level where almost any significant purchase will upgrade your product, but it may be hard to find much that is significant at $300.

    One possibility might be a small diaphragm condenser or two - something you seem to be lacking.

    With all the acoustic recording you are doing, you should also consider evaluating your room acoustics as a possible area to upgrade.

    Not as sexy as gear, of course!
  14. mjones4th

    mjones4th Active Member

    Aug 15, 2003

    I am also looking to upgrade my recording path. From the suggestions I have gathered, I feel the need to start with the room. I'm gonna build a mic booth since I mostly record vocals.

    Next: Mic
    Next: Mic Pre and Quality cables:
    Next: A/D Converter, and maybe a clock generator
    Next: Soundcard

    Character Pre's generate harmonics and distortion. In the good ones, these added elements sound fantastic. In the not so good ones, they may get annoying after twenty or so songs.

    Clean Pre's capture the sound as-is, adding and subtracting very little. These expose the quality of your room and mic. The mackie tends toward this camp.

    You're not going to find any high quality eight channel pre at an affordable price. Just think about it, if one quality pre will cost you $500, how much are eight? (minus seven boxes, power supplies, etc. of course)

    And as suggested, I'd recommend you stay away fron external compressors, unless you're experienced and know what you want. 24-bit recording leaves plenty of headroom to escape from the quantization effect while capturing appropriate levels.

    The RNP is a good choice, I have an RNC and it is the epitome of affordable quality. But be forewarned, I have messed up a lot of otherwise good takes by not knowing what I was doing with it.

    I've also heard good things about the Studio projects mic lineup. Or, if you have a bit of DIY in you, you can try a mojave mic kit(mojaveaudio.com)

    "Technique makes up for a lack of gear anytime and you have enough stuff to learn techniques that will serve you for years to come."

    I cannot agree enough with this. My quality has jumped several fold in the two years since I was a newbie, using the same equipment!

    You know, your name is very familiar to me. Maybe from the jv80 or ASR-X mailing groups?
  15. Richard Monroe

    Richard Monroe Active Member

    Jun 24, 2003
    Framingham, Mass.
    Home Page:
    I agree, you need a pre. I am also fond of Joemeek and DMP-3, they complement each other well. One sleeper is DBX386, now down to $300 or less. Its A-D conversion is rather good. The tewb front end, (which is not a starved plate design) is fairly useless for most critical recording.
    I think the DMP-3 is a no-brainer, and it is better than the pres in a non-pro Mackie. That gives you another $150 to spend on- a pair of Oktava MC012's. Then you get a useable 2 channel pre and a pair of small diaphragms. Even with an Avalon in the rack, I find uses for the DMP-3, for a talkback amp, and a miniature remote setup. The little Oktavas also spend some time up in some big-time studios.
    What's important at your level is to get some different types of tools, so you can begin learning how to use them, but to also buy stuff that will still be useful, or at least, resellable, when you invest more money in top flight gear.-Richie
  16. bgavin

    bgavin Guest

    How about a Rane MS-1b? It is much less than $300, has Burr-Brown circuitry, and is a damn site improved over the Mackie pre's.

    Link to Rane MS-1b preamp
  17. blogg1

    blogg1 Guest

    As I understand it the mixer you are using has pretty decent preamps in its pricerange. You already got a clean sound, maby not that really crisp sound you want but a ok clean/neutral sound, am I right?
    In your case I would suggest that you take a look at your other setup. Mabye you need better cables or a better mic. If I were you I would put my money on a used mic, 300$ might not buy you a great preamp but it will most certanly buy you a great used mic.
  18. nocaster

    nocaster Guest

    I've read nothing but good things about the M-Audio DMP3 (US$200 new).

  19. tripnek

    tripnek Active Member

    Jun 9, 2003
    Do yourself a favor and skip the "pro-sumer" level mic pres. Plenty of descent demo's have been made with the Wackie mixers. You just need to use what you have to it's fullest.

    And there are a few Pro quality Mic pres out there that don't cost an arm and a leg. I have a Sytek (4 channel) and a Sebatron (2 channel). You wont get them for $300, but they are well worth the wait. The Syteks are really clean and transparent while the Sebatron can go from somewhat transparent to very colored. The Sytek goes for $800 and the Seb goes for araound $900-950. If you don't need a lot of channels, I'd suggest the Sebatron. You can also pick up more expensive (not necessarily better) pre's used. I got a Langevin Dual w/EQ on eBay for $800.
  20. Kurt Foster

    Kurt Foster Distinguished Member

    Jul 2, 2002
    77 Sunset Lane.
    I have struggled for years now to come up with an answer to the original qiestion. By Jove! I think you've got it! Very eloquent. Qualifies as "best answer on the BB". Kurt

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