Back when I first started building my studio out, it was most certainly your average "home studio." I now pride myself on my, somewhat, slogan - "A studio built into a home, not a home studio." The phrase home studio has developed a bit of a bad rap over the years. Let's be honest, the quality of equipment coming out for the home studio market is getting better and better. But it wasn't always good. And still today, having amazing sounding gear won't help if you don't know how to use it properly. In fact, great quality gear will make bad recordings sound even worse because they won't hide any of the problems, they'll make every single one shine.
Now I've been running my Focusrite Safire Pro 40 for a while, and it's a pretty good interface. 8 channels with multiple outs, multiple headphone outs, an assortment of routing options and so on. But it's lacking in something pretty important. Good preamps. Don't get me wrong, they're not bad preamps, but they just don't have the "professional" flavor to them. That, and they're fairly weak. I honestly can't find how much gain they offer, but I can tell you, it's not much. And not enough to satisfy large diaphragm dynamics like the Shure SM7b or basically any Ribbon microphone.
Weak preamps cause problems. A good rule of thumb is that you should never push a preamp past 75% of the gain. Once you go past there, you'll start hearing the electrical noise. It's better to turn up the volume before it hits the mic.
I've since upgraded to other preamps that are more powerful and give a rather lovely characteristic, to my ears at least. I have Fredenstein, LaChapell, and Neve that I mainly use. But these aren't cheap and are, frankly, a bit more than you'll see in your above average home studio. Most people either don't have the money, won't spend the money, or don't think it makes a big difference. Let me tell you, I struggled for years trying to get my recordings to have that "polished, professional sound." It wasn't until I was talking with one of my mentors, now friend, when he asked me what preamp I was using. I said "I didn't think that made much of a noticeable difference, so I've put my money where everyone says you'll notice it." Boy was I wrong! Now don't get me wrong, I love that I have some decent mics in my cabinet, but pre's are what take your recordings from "that's nice" to "WOW!" With good mics and good technique, or course.
Here's what I tell people to do when they don't have the moolah to start getting into the pre game. And to be perfectly honest, my buddy Mark from Placid Audio suggested this topic. Thanks Mark, the readers thank you too, I'm sure. ;)
The first form of voice over that was done in my studio was an audiobook. And the author came in to record her voice. This was before I had started ordering preamps, so I was in that boat. I had everything tested, and I was loud enough...ish to record with my SM7b. She, however, was not. I had her project like she was reading to a class. I balanced the mic distance from her mouth and changed the angle to try to minimize the mouth noises, I did everything I could physically do. But she was too quiet. Luckily, I had picked up a nifty new toy to try recording guitars and things with dynamic mics. So I figured, why not give it a try?!
I plugged the SM7b into this little box, plugged that box into my interface, and turned on the phantom power. BAM! Headroom! I was able to turn the gain back to about half way on my Focusrite interface, giving me clean audio that she was loud enough to use. This little box, was a Cloudlifter by Cloud Microphones.
A Cloudlifter gives you up to an additional 25dB of clean gain, just from plugging it in with phantom power. Even with some of my preamps that I use today, I still use Cloudlifters to give me a little more nudge for certain mics, especially ribbons. These Cloudlifters are great! If you need more gain, bam more gain and less hiss from the electronics. But there's another added bonus use for these, and that's what this post is really more about. And that's clarity.
Cheap preamps sound cheap. Like I mentioned before, a good preamp can take your recording from 'meh' to *jaw drop. That might seem a touch extreme, but I jaw dropped when I was finally able to get that "pro" sound I had always chased, and It was simply by using a better pre. But what if you don't have the cash to get a good solid pre? That's where the Cloudlifter comes in handy. While it's not a pre, nor a replacement for a pre, it can help you have less of your cheap pre's character.
Preamps have transistors, or even tubes, in them, and pushing those transistors is what gives a lot of the color of the pre. Color being an industry term for character, or the extra sound it gives the audio. Cheap preamps have cheap transistors. Cheap transistors sound cheap. Like putting a budget exhaust on your car and expecting it to roar. It just doesn't sound right. But even cheap exhausts tend to sound pretty good when you don't really push it. Same concept here. The less gain you have to use to push your pre to give, the less of the character, or color, your pre will impart on your recording.
If you have tested different mics, tried all the mic placements you can imagine, and it still sounds "cheap;" I'd suggest putting a Cloudlifter between your mic and your interface. This will give you more of the character of that microphone and less of the preamp.
Trust me, you can do more to alter and shape the sound of a microphone after it's recorded than you can a pre. If it sounds cheap to you, and you're struggling to get that cheap sound to go away, try this.
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