Preamp Observation: advantages to clean, advantages to color

Discussion in 'Preamps / Channel Strips' started by DonnyThompson, Feb 15, 2017.

  1. DonnyThompson

    DonnyThompson Distinguished Member

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    I've used many preamps over the years that I've been recording and mixing, and while there are certainly still parts to the craft that I'm still learning - things I'm not sure of but pick-up on, as time passes and technology advances - and I have made a particular observation ... about preamps.

    The observation is that there is no such thing as an end-all/be-all preamp that will suit every possible scenario.

    I've worked with very nice ( and very pricey) preamps, that have offered beautiful character and color - for certain songs, and I've used pres that are far more transparent that absolutely have their own place as well.

    I've worked with Neve 1073's, SSL G Series, MCI, API ( along with others), and those preamps all have a particular individual character to them that can make things really sparkle and shine, or pop out in a mix. These all offer a particular character that can sound incredible - for certain things.

    I've worked with both tube and transformer-based preamps... these too have their own character that can be great - for certain things. The ADK AP-1, the Focusrite ISA, and other similar stand-alone tube and XFO-based preamps can be awesome - for certain things.

    I've also worked with "cleaner" circuits - Millennia, Grace ( just recently in fact), Presonus, and other pres that are known more for their transparency than they are for any real noticeable "character". Their character is that they don't have any, or very little. These too can be incredible, and often perfect choices - for certain things.


    ( side note to @Kurt Foster: I agree with your position that there really is no truly transparent preamp, that anything with circuitry is going to impart something to the signal, to a lesser or greater extent, and for better or worse. I will also concede that microphones differ in this regard and can greatly affect the tone as well ;) )

    Two days ago, I was tracking a lead vocal to a song I wrote, and I was using an AKG 414 (a P48 series, circa 1981, instead of my usual 414 EB, as I had loaned it to a good friend for a few days), and running it through an ADK AP1 pre - which I've really grown to love - using a Lundhal 1538 XFO on the input ( this is the same XFO that Rupert Neve used in the now-famous Focusrite ISA Studio Console, and which has been used in many mic preamps since) and, I was using a John Hardy 990c on the output stage.

    Normally, this is a great gain chain - for my voice. While I have used various combinations in the AP, I seem to always gravitate back to the Lundhal/Hardy combo, because I love the way it sounds.

    It took me less than 30 seconds of listening to playback to realize that this particular gain-chain wasn't going to work for this song. I then borrowed a buddy's Focusrite ISA One, and recorded a track with it. While it was nice, and had a great vibe, it still wasn't what I was after for this song.
    I eventually nailed down that I was after a more "modern" vibe on the vocal... and in the end, the gain-chain that worked the best was the Presonus 1818VSL. It was clean, crisp, bright, modern sounding ... and it gave me exactly what I was looking for - for this song.

    The summary to this, is that IMO, there is no such thing as an end-all/be-all mic preamp, (just as there is no end-all/be-all mic).

    It's not my intention to start a debate or argument about whether or not "transparent" or "color" is better or worse. My opinion is that both have their place(s). It's all about what sound you are after at the time, which will end up working the best in the mix... or, context. ;)

    These are just observations that I've made over time.

    Thoughts?
     
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  2. pcrecord

    pcrecord Quality recording seeker ! Distinguished Member

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    Many won't ever come close to understand half of this. The sound of the preamp used is very important even if subtle.
    Choosing one accordingly to the vibe of the song is the best way to choose. Even if a preamp makes a voice sound better, it doesn't meen it works in the song. The sound must imbricate well in what the song already has.

    In regard of this, I think this is why having a selection of preamps is better than having 16 of the same one.
    Many will envy you Donny! Being able to recognise what a song needs and having the courage of acting on it, isn't givin to every recordists. It takes a good knowledge of our gear and instinct !

    My preamp count goes like this
    2x UA LA-610, UA 4-710, 8x Focusrite ISA, 4x RME FF800.
    I do have just what it takes to track a live band and it sounds very good.
    Nonetheless, from time to time, I think about changing one of my LA-610 for a ISA 430 or a millennia channel strip.
    My other option is to get at least one good external comp to use with one of the ISA preamps.
    The only thing breaking me is the money. If I get enough project this year, I'll make a move ;)
     
  3. Boswell

    Boswell Moderator Distinguished Member

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    Great post, Donny, with a topic that is very rarely dealt with in an objective fashion. It's a welcome contrast to some other audio forums where you get folks raving about their particular pre-amp, usually in order to justify what they have spent their money on.

    Choosing the right pre-amp for a particular occasion is a multi-dimensional problem. You start with the voice, the material, the other performers on the track, and the room. After those, there are the technical aspects: the microphone, the pre-amp, the converter (if separate).

    It's where experience comes in. What did you use last time for a similar sound source? Did it work out well? What can you learn from the previous recording sessions to apply to this one?

    A few years ago I recorded a female vocalist who wanted an old-fashioned sound. That was the limit of the specification. A soon as I heard the character of her voice, I was convinced that I should use a ribbon mic (Beyer M500) on her, but the next question was which pre-amp to use to go with it. I tried my API 3124+, and it sounded too gooey. I tried a DAV BG1, and it fizzed with the ribbon. I tried what was then the new Audient Mico, but it was a little clinical. I tried a few others, but ended up with my Neumann V476Bs that I had just finished racking up. She was impressed.

    Getting that sort of reaction from a performer is worth all the experiment and attention to detail. Note that all these pre-amps that I rejected are excellent units and sound great with the right mics on the right sources.
     
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  4. Kurt Foster

    Kurt Foster Distinguished Member

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    sometimes i wonder if we all get too distracted by all the choices we have. i can't imagine the fabs sitting around trying different mics and pres. and that was Abbey Road, one of the best studios in the world then and now. what they had is what they used. so much depends on how gear is used but the main thing for me has always been what was being recorded and why it was being recorded.
     
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  5. audiokid

    audiokid Chris Staff

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    @DonnyThompson Right about now... Although I do not disagree or agree, I'm simply wondering what converters you've used in all these preamps? If they were PreSonus ADC... those are okay but they are sonically harsher yielding a smaller resulting capture in comparison to other ADC on the market. They will not give you the best representation of the chain or any products for that matter.

    I ask this because (imho and personal experiences) the better converters, the less I am distracted > overall happier with whatever I use. (y) The capture sounds like the source and the music and performance is real"er" .

    Good Preamps sound smaller with less than excellent conversion. Good converters sound less than excellent with less than excellent preamps. And no microphone I've used, sounds like it could without either of the other excellent counterparts. Its all intertwined and very influenced by the ADC which is most peoples weakest link.

    I expect majority will most likely disagree about how important good converters are but to my ears, they are no different to how brand new 456 tape sounds on a perfectly tuned Tape Machine. They are the very most important part of my recording chain, yet just as important as the preamps. Its a package deal.

    I ran a beautiful array of mics through a Millennia pre amp into a FF800 ADC. I was happy but still not completely blown away.
    I did it again through a few other converters and I instantly heard what I expected which was an instant smile and relief. But, I still never arrived at the ultimate smile for vocals until I included a leveling amp as well.

    That being said. I agree with the others and also second the compliment that you are a professional with good hearing and instinct. Not everyone knows what they want or hears the cause and effect of other counterparts either.

    (Edit) Generally speaking out to the world. :) My focus is very different to the mass I suppose. I personally think we are being distracted by the weak link and the too many choices of mid level stuff.
    I'd be perfectly happy with one top level (preamp or console) "flavour " into a superior ADC path apposed to having 50 flavours of preamps and microphones going though compromised ADC.
     
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  6. pcrecord

    pcrecord Quality recording seeker ! Distinguished Member

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    I once recorded bands with only a soundcraft mixer and cheap converters. When it sounds bad, it's a lot more distracting ;)
     
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  7. audiokid

    audiokid Chris Staff

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    Just saw this Kurt. I couldn't agree more.
     
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  8. audiokid

    audiokid Chris Staff

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    To add because you have me thinking...

    I believe this is 100% related to "gluing".

    My analogy... We un-glue music (in a bad way) through modern DAW methods... This is the negative effect that happens through piecing music together (including too many preamps of different flavours). Its all related to un-glued music and the performance.
    Then we go to all this trouble to "re-glue" it all back together again by investing is all these extra toys.

    I've evolved my hybrid mixing to now avoid most of the analog gear I thought was necessary (well I kind of knew this before hand but had to find out anyway) to a simple analog pass through a "great sounding" converter.
    To avoid the SR conversion "bounce" as you know I capture the AD pass into a second uncoupled DAW = presto!
    This also glues better as opposed to bouncing down.

    Monitoring the capture on the second DAW allows those who use outboard monitoring (like the Dangerous ST) to hear and process this gluing easier, which also help avoid the G.A.S and much unnecessary sonic degradation and confusion/ guessing.
     
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  9. DonnyThompson

    DonnyThompson Distinguished Member

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    Actually, at the time, there wasn't all that much choice for them to make. Telefunken U47's, Neumanns. maybe an AKG C12 here or there, but their preamp gain-chain didn't really change much... they were using EMI's consoles, which early on were tube... it worked for them ( and it did sound good) but it's not like they really had a whole slew of mics and pre's to choose from.

    I dunno, I could be wrong... but knowing their leaning towards experimenting with different musical and sonic textures, I'd wager that if they did have the multitude of choices that we have today, that they would probably spend plenty of time trying them.
    They - and Sir George and the AR engineers were a pretty experimental group, even to the extent of having to wait until after-hours to be able to mic a kick drum up-close, because if one of the bosses had walked in during the day and had seen that, somebody was gonna get reamed out, maybe even fired.

    They had no problems using brass bands, Moog snyths, Mellotrons, entire orchestras for a random chromatic climax that lasted less than 20 seconds ( A Day In The Life), working with long tape loops ( Mr. Kite), and even experimenting with a mic that was placed in a sealed bottle and then submerged in water for Yellow Submarine... I think it's pretty safe to say that they'd have probably basked in all the choices we have today, especially after they'd stopped touring and decided to just work in the studio.
    I could be wrong, but I don't think I am. We'd have to ask someone like Geoff Emerick about that...

    I'm sure you're right, but my observations go back to long before digital was the standard.
     
  10. DonnyThompson

    DonnyThompson Distinguished Member

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    Here's another observation, Chris - and if I'm wrong, I'll be glad to eat my words... and wash your car for a year... I'll even cheer for the Edmonton Oilers for a season if you want. ;)

    I think that these days, by and large, you are after an "honest" sound, an organic sound. You like to put the listener in a natural-sounding space, that sounds as if they are right there, listening to a live band, or a piano player, or a bluegrass trio, (or whatever).

    Your posts have reflected this often, that you are seeking honesty to your recordings and mixes, that you like things "natural". I think Marco ( @pcrecord ) tends to lean this way as well.... AND THERE'S NOT A THING WRONG WITH THAT.
    There is absolutely a particular talent and a skill to capturing performances that way, of putting the listener right there. And you ( and Marco) are really really good at it. And you're not alone, either... hardly. If you listen to any James Taylor stuff from the past 15-20 years, there is a beautiful natural and organic vibe to the sound of his records. The same with Adel ( at least from what I've heard from her)... but it's not an integrity that is used just for acoustic or other organic instrumentation stuff.
    I think that bands like The Spin Doctors, Disturbed, and even The Stones tend to sound best when they are captured that way. I think that the Traveling Wilbury's also leaned this way as well.

    But... there are often times where I'm after a super-natural sonic vibe, of putting the listener into a space that isn't "natural" or organic...

    Albums like DSOTM, Pepper, The Wall, Alan Parson's various recordings...( I've heard some modern stuff like this too... I heard a piece no too long ago, I think the song is called "Chandelier" (?))
    These are sonic tapestries that really aren't "natural" at all, and there are times I like to mix this way, and sometimes, even to produce this way.

    There are also artists who go both ways - Tom Petty can put out some straight ahead, no frills rock and roll ( I Need To Know, Here Comes My Girl) but he can also occasionally dabble into the supernatural as well ( Don't Come Around Here No More).

    Again, I think it's all about context. Maybe I'm working on a mix that is very organic, and I'll only use one slight reverb to put it all into the same space - but that doesn't mean that there aren't times where I might have a couple different verbs happening, or a delay/echo, or instrumentation that is obviously synthetic.

    Again, I'm not disagreeing with you or calling your methods into question, "natural" and "organic" are great. And there's no doubt that there is a particular skill set to doing it right.

    ....But there are those times when supernatural is fun too. ;)

    IMHO of course.
     
  11. audiokid

    audiokid Chris Staff

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    No, not at all. I'm after big and full. You get that by having a great front end and excellent ADC to start with.
    If you ever used an LA2A, you'd know that is the last thing that is clean and natural. UA gear is far from clean.
     
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  12. DonnyThompson

    DonnyThompson Distinguished Member

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    Then I stand corrected.

    On that note, I'd love to hear what you are doing these days. It's been awhile. :)
     
  13. audiokid

    audiokid Chris Staff

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    I'm planning to play guitar in Europe for someone. :) After that, not sure but hopefully it involves money so I can buy more UA gear lol!

    Thanks for asking.
     
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  14. DonnyThompson

    DonnyThompson Distinguished Member

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    I think it's cool that you are playing again.
    It's about time. ;)
     
  15. audiokid

    audiokid Chris Staff

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    Thanks. I have little interest in performing but its all expenses paid to see some of the world for someone I really like and hope goes further in this business. I have no interest in continuing after the tour is over but who knows where it leads.
    I've had my fill of touring. I'd much rather be in a studio making music or fishing and hiking up in the mountains. :love: I'm actually hoping they find someone else.

    Seriously though, you keep thinking I am into clean music. I'm very much into Blues and Rock, actually listen and like a lot of the same music you do as well. Rock is really my thing but I also like remixing too. I don't box myself in any direction.
    My posts are always reflecting how bigger bass and space is achieved with less stuff. You are confusing my workflow over and over. My gear choices consist of Pultecs with valves, LA2A and 1176's through my all time favourite preamp, the M-2b (which is also a valve pre) . Good converters are everything to me. My preferred sound is far from clean. And my favourite mics are both values too. Thats a a lot of valve. When you have good converters and something like the M-2b, the amount of valves and trannys in the chain still sound big and open.

    I track acoustic music occasionally and when I do that, I usually just keep it simple and go straight from the mic to SS preamps. Maybe this is where you get me confused, don't know?

    That being said, I'm not a trying to convince anyone. I could change direction tomorrow lol. I'm just a simple guitarist who happens to have some nice gear and fun talking about it all. I actually like going against the grain and even proving the half of what we all do is all BS lol! I'm getting too old to buy into all this stuff.
    I often think, once people are all doing the same thing, its time to look at other ways.
     
  16. DonnyThompson

    DonnyThompson Distinguished Member

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    I wasn't implying in this post that your sound was "clean". I was implying that your preference for sound was "organic", and "natural". There can be really edgy sonics, dirty textures, and still be "natural".

    You've said it yourself many times in the past, that you like to capture and place the listener in a situation that is natural, and conducive to the natural performance style, and for blues and rock, that style is very organic. It's a live feel. You've mentioned dialing in a space on your Bricasti, and applying that to the whole mix, as opposed to using different types of time-related processing in the same mix.
    You've also said that you don't care for "stacked vocals", and that there are times where you have actually degraded the sound of hi-res samples to match the sound of those live instruments that are more oriented towards an organic and "edgier" sound.
    If I've inferred that you like "clean", that wasn't what I meant. I meant that you like ( or at least you did like at one point) as straight-of-a-line capture as possible, using your Millennia and good converters.

    And you did go through a phase sometime back where you said you preferred "transparent capture". This was around the time where you stated that you liked to capture through a transformer-less and tube-less pre, that high voltage rails gave you the "big" sound you liked, and that you discovered that you didn't need much of the gear that you had spent your career accumulating, because you could accomplish completely ITB what used to require analog gear... If your views on that have changed, then that's cool.

    I never said you didn't like to dirty things up. ;)
     
  17. DonnyThompson

    DonnyThompson Distinguished Member

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    I'm not trying to be argumentative pal, or put you on the spot... it's just that you've changed your tac in your workflow a few times over the past couple years, and sometimes it's hard to keep track of what you are doing and thinking.
    Then again, we're artists... so it's our eccentric license to change our minds at a moment's notice without providing an explanation. LOL
    I certainly didn't mean to offend you. ;)
     
  18. audiokid

    audiokid Chris Staff

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    Nope, not taking any of what you say as argumentative. I've not changed my workflow in at least a decade. What I have changed is a few different comverters and summing boxes. You are just unaware of why I choose transparent summing boxes and clean converters.
    I've been using the M-2b and UA gear for years. I talk about tranformerless sections so the tranny sections in consoles don't box you in or restrict the other sections of my chain.

    In all seriousness, I've noticed you not understanding the Dangerous summing workflow more than once. Confusing transformerless consoles as being clean.
    It has nothing to do with clean. The concept is about how to get the cleanest path for counterpart to excel.
     
  19. audiokid

    audiokid Chris Staff

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    To share a bit on this more, Donny, Dangerous and SPL summing consoles are mastering quality which have everything to do with being unnoticed if you want. This means a clean path but... the inserts are there to add all sorts of character if you choose. The sound quality of "transformers and valve gear" used with big rail "transformeless consoles" is superb. Its also instant switching from total vibe to classical pristine at a switch. You can hear everything so much easier with these consoles, they are extremely versatile.

    NOTE, the M-2b is not a traditional Millennia preamp either ;). It may well be one of the world most amazing preamps ever made. Its far from what a SS or transformerless pre sounds like. Its huge and full of energy. Plugging into one is an experience I cannot describe any other way .. silk over high definition video combined with a tube glow full and life.
     
  20. audiokid

    audiokid Chris Staff

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    Regarding stacking character gear, yes, you are correct when mixing OTB. My workflow is very very different between tracking, mixing and mastering. But, in a two DAW system, I have all the gear available at any given moment so depending on what that involves, I may or may not use something, stack it..
    (EDIT) Vocals, I pretty much always use the same chain for years now which is UA comps and often valve mics and (I'm not saying you should like this) but my transformerless pre kills when combined with character hardware..

    When mixing OTB... I prefer not stacking particular transformer based products together when the goal is to preserve the transients.
    I have found this to be similar when Mastering OTB as well. In fact, I don't even use gear anymore for mixing or mastering OTB. The Bricasti is about the only thing I want now .

    Tracking, all rules and whatever I do for mixing it tossed out the door. This is where you are getting confused. Or me not confirming this each post. You guys for the most part here are tracking and very few if any are doing the hybrid gig so it can get confusing when I am talking about all the aspects of this, how it goes from character to clean in stages.

    I noticed members who are recordists not catching my comments a few years back so I started adding, the caveat... mixing. so it was clear I was talking about hybrid mixing apposed to tracking.

    Make sense now?

    To be honest, I have stopped talking about it all because hybrid summing and mixing is too damn confusing and brutal explaining it over and over. Discussing the entire workflow is best left for people already doing it. A wordsmith I am not.
     

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