Do Mic Preamps Matter?

I've never been shy about sharing some of the incredibly embarrassing ways that I've learned audio. I know I went through the school of hard knocks and in some ways that sucks, in other ways I learned and got more practical experience than others. It also gave me 2 really important traits:

  • The ability to make the most of any gear
  • A true appreciation for quality equipment and results

I've talked in the past about not even knowing what an audio interface was (mind you I was really young and there wasn't all the free help and advice there is today), then eventually finding differing degrees of quality within the interfaces. Then finding out that I liked the sound coming off my Allen and Heath mixer more than just going directly into my interface. And that got me wondering. But things really changed when a friend of mine spoke some wisdom into me while he was asking me what preamp I was using to record certain things. I had never given preamps much thought. To me, they were just a means to get enough gain to run a microphone.

That was it, that was all I really cared about them. But as we talked, I began to question my understanding and my beliefs about preamps. What if there was more to it than that? What if the preamp really was the missing link I had been searching for to get my sound to that "professional" level I'd been dreaming of. Let me tell you, there's no magic cure for bad sound. Quality gear can only take you so far, you need proper technique to take you the rest of the way. That said, proper technique can't get you there alone either. I know that's not a popular opinion right now, there are a lot of people touting "get this sound with base level equipment." And they have great points about improving your sound prior to spending a ton on equipment. But look in the background of those videos...they're not using average "home studio gear," and there's a reason for it. You can get better sound with proper technique AND quality gear.

I was never really happy with the sound I was getting off my Focusrite Saffire Pro 40 interface. I knew it was a good interface, but I felt like I should be able to get better sound out of it. So I started buying different mics. It helped a bit, but I still wasn't satisfied. I knew there was still room for improvement. So when my buddy was talking to me about preamps, I did some research. I listened to a lot of audio samples. I was absolutely shocked at what I was hearing. More clarity, definition, better color/character to the sound. But even still I wasn't convinced it was the fix I was looking for. Nonetheless, I saved up some bucks and bit the bullet. I ordered a 500 series rack and a Rupert Neve 511. Mind you, I had already be bypassing my interfaces preamps by using my Allen & Heath mixer for some time. And things were sounding good. I was getting rave reviews from my clients. I was landing voice jobs with it and getting fantastic feedback on sound quality. The music was sounding good. It was fine....but I knew it could be better. And, like many artists, I'm a perfectionist. After using the 511, I was sold!

My recordings finally had that body, that vibe, that color, that breath, that texture, that...however you want to describe it. They popped! Things no longer had that "cheap plastic" feel to them. I hope you get what I mean by that. There's just a pro edge that was lacking before, even with my mixer. I've since filled that 500 series rack with different flavors to add more color and depth to the mix. Neve is a known sound and one that is heavily sought after, that's why it was my first. But that sound isn't what everyone is always looking for. And dare I say, it's not the best sound for every occasion.

Checkout the video above and hear for yourself the difference between some of these nicer, and somewhat budget friendly preamps make. I think you'll be shocked how the same microphone can sound so different just by changing the preamp. And that's the point, preamps really DO change the sound of you're recordings. If you're not happy with the sound of your recordings, but you know you like the mic and you're using the best techniques you can; perhaps it's time to branch out and start trying some different preamps.

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