Preamps (Part One)

Posted by SHM Pro Audio on

Preamp / Pre (short for preamplifier)

Preamps are a big deal! I had to establish that first seeing that a lot of audio heads are firm believers that a great recording starts with a good preamp; this in turn has resulted in the success of some audio interfaces or mixer consoles over others. Some companies like Behringer even go as far as using preamp designs from other manufacturers more renowned for making quality preamps on their own devices, like the X32 line that features Midas preamps.

So how much should one spend to get a good preamp? Do “follow come” preamplifiers that ship with audio interfaces and mixers fare well when compared to separate single unit pres or channel strips? Is a $4000 preamp significantly better than the cheaper ones? Can a preamp help a bad performance made in poor acoustic conditions sound better? Are preamps just over hyped?

This two-part write up is designed to give you a more accurate understanding of preamps so as to help you make a more informed buy. This first part tries to enlighten readers more on the functionalities and use of preamps while the second part will consider things like budget and comparisons of different preamp models.

So heres a Q and A session between myself and I.

What does a preamp do? 

A preamp basically amplifies low level signals from either a microphone or an instrument (too low to be of any use) to a higher one (line level) usable by most audio equipment.

What's so special about that?

Well, depending on build and circuitry, this process can shape the tone of the signal to give different flavours. 

Vanilla or Chocolate? 

More like transparent or coloured, thin or thick, warm or crisp, clean or edgy.

In English please? 

Transparent: A faithful reproduction of the recorded sound, closest to how our ears hear them naturally.

Coloured: The preamp gives the recording a distinct tone usually pleasing to the ears.

Thin: Lacking body, not a full sound.

Thick: Punchy and together. 

Warm: Having considerable presence in the low and mid frequencies. 

Crisp: Clear and sizzling high frequencies.

Warm and Crisp: Yes, this is also a possibility.

Clean: Lacking distortion and harmonics. 

Edgy: Replete with harmonics and slight distortion. 

Wow, cool! 

Yeah I know 

So what's wrong with the preamps on my audio interface?

Probably nothing, a lot of modern sound cards ship with great sounding pres; good enough to get you a pretty decent recording.

It's all a matter of preference, I have a separate tube preamp because the one on my Motu Microbook II interface can sound a little 'too clean' for my liking sometimes. So when I want some dirt and character on my recordings, I switch to the tube, else my in-built Motu preamps are just fine.

Are there bad preamps? 

I guess so, but what you should really look out for in a preamp is noise, especially at high gain levels. Also, some preamps have a better dynamic range than others.


"Follow come" preamps or outboard preamps?

How much should I spend on a preamp? 

Are the expensive ones better sounding than the affordables? 

How significant is the role of a preamp to a great recording?

Is all the hype credible? 

My next post will deal with these questions.


Written by:

Chidi "Yung Tite" Nnadi

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