My last write up answered some basic questions about preamps in general, but the real problems arise when it's time to purchase one. In the myriad of outboard pres, audio interfaces, mixing consoles and channel strips - all boasting of premium preamps, the dilemma of which to buy is a common one. Really, a lot of people want to know if higher priced preamps sound significantly better than lower priced ones.
In October 2012, the Sound On Sound magazine came up with a brilliant experiment to investigate this and I had the liberty of time to participate in the test. The results were stunning!
In summary, using a device called a Disklavier (by Yamaha), they played back the same midi performance of a piano through different high end and budget preamps and also recorded it. Stay with me here, the same recording was made using 3 different microphones (valve, ribbon and capacitor) and here's where it gets interesting. The recordings were uploaded on the SOS website and each preamp was labelled differently using alphabets with no key or way to know the preamp represented by any given alphabet. People were now asked to select their favourite and guess which preamp produced the different recordings, the results say it all.
The following preamps were put to test.
Art Pro MPA II - $300
AMS Neve 1073LB - $995
API 3124 - $3000
Mackie 1402 VLZ Pro - $400
SSL X logic VHD Pre - $1800
GP Electronics PML2000E
Maselec MMX-4XR - $4000
Prism Sound Orpheus - $4000
My Own Results
In general, the difference between the preamps were quite subtle and sometimes almost indistinguishable. Wow, that's a long word! For some recordings I had to listen critically more than once to place a finger on its unique characteristics.
Rounding up all, I'd say:
- The Art Pro was the best sounding to me, clean, dynamic and transparent
- The Neve and SSL gave the recording subtle character and colour. A thick sound.
- The API is a clean Preamp, crisp highs.
- The Maselec sounded a bit nasal to me, noticeable presence at 1 to 2khz
- The mackie did well too, in some recordings I thought it was one of the more expensive pres with distinct colour and crisp highs.
- The Prism and GP Electronics were okay too.
In heated Q and A session with my imaginary friend, the discourse went thus:
Separate outboard pres or inbuilt (follow come)?
Get both If you can. The reason is, the manufacturers of inbuilt pres that ship with your interface or mixer will most likely want to play safe by making their preamps as clean and transparent as possible to satisfy a wide range of customers. The trade off might be character of sound in terms of color and grit. So I'd say have both outboard and follow come if u can.
How much should I spend on a preamp?
If you're on a tight budget and also have other things to buy like monitor speakers, microphone and so on, the preamp from your audio interface/mixer is most likely good enough to get u great recordings. Be content with that. But if you have some cash to spare or already have a preamp, by all means go all out but remember, the preamp is just one step to a great recording.
Are the expensive ones better sounding than the affordables?
Damn, how do I answer that? There are some great sounding budget pres that when compared with the big boys without bias like the good people at SOS showed us, perform just as well. The Art Pro and the Mackie clearly showed that.
How significant is the role of a preamp to a great recording?
At the input stage of a recording setup, preamping is the first signal sculpting process. However, other factors like recording environment and technique, microphone choice and musicians performance noticeably help shape the recorded sound to taste.
For example, a recording done in a small sized booth with the singer close to the mic will have a lot of bass and low mid frequencies compared to one done in a fairly large room with the singer not so close to the mic.
So how significant is the preamp stage?
To a large extent, it's still garbage in - garbage out; thankfully digital signal processing can perform wonders even to a poor recording, now just imagine what It can do to a great one?
Is all the hype credible?
A quality preamp will bring out the best in a microphone, reproducing all the subtle nuances of the performance at a sufficient level and strength. Some perform this task better than others and they are worth getting.
Chidi 'Yung Tite' Nnadi