Hey everybody, Avi here. I freaking LOVE preamps, don’t you? Back in the early 2000’s, when I’d just started recording music in a professional way, I was using the onboard preamps on my RME Fireface 400 interface. It was nice, until I started using REAL preamps. And this is what we are talking about in this post.
I’m not going to get too technical here, just share my own personal experience with these sweet devices. If you need more technical details, look at the links under every preamp section. Enjoy.
A preamp, in simple words, is an amplifier for a microphone. The microphone output is called “Mic Level”, and it is considered to be a very low level signal. The microphone voltage range is between -60dbv to -40dbv. It is, of course, a very low voltage level, and you have to amplify it in order to get it up to “Line level” (-10dbv). Most audio devices are accepting “Line level” signals. This is the most basic and first reason to use a preamp.
This is the second reason for using a preamp. When you are using a condenser microphone that needs a phantom power to work, a preamp is the device that sends this power over to the microphone. A phantom power is not needed when connecting a dynamic microphone. In most cases, if you send a phantom power to a dynamic microphone, nothing will happen unless you’re using a ribbon microphone, I don’t recommend that.
Different preamps have different “colors”. Much like microphones, you can choose your preamp according to the signal you’re about to record. For example, certain preamps will sound better on acoustic guitars, while others will be great for vocals.
Most audio interfaces today have at least one microphone preamp. Are they good enough?
They are good enough, without a doubt. For most purposes, and especially for home recording, when you don’t have to meet the highest industry standard. Also, most people would not be able to tell what kind of preamp you used. Especially under all these different processes.
However, after using this simple onboard, transparent, and characterless preamp, you will start to have dreams about those nicer sounding preamps. This is where you would want to see our list.
Those are built for much higher demands and possess all kinds of sonic qualities. Preamps are divided by classes and different technologies.
For these preamps, the amplification is done with Tubes. These will have more emphasis on the low end frequencies, and also tend to have softer highs. These will work great on vocals, electric guitars, amps, basses, and basically every instrument that you want to sound warmer, rounder, and with softer high frequencies.
These are built with different electronic components like transistors, resistors, and capacitors. Transistor based preamps are more fast and punchy sounding. They are very good for recording instruments and vocals, with emphasis on the midrange and higher frequencies.
For example, acoustic guitars, aggressive guitar amps, drums, vocals with more sharp and aggressive characteristics, and practically every source that you would want to have “that” character.
It is very similar to discrete preamps, but is made with small chips planted on a board. Naturally, it will put out a more clean sound with a low noise floor. A lot of audio interfaces are using this technology, but in most cases, it’s not considered to be high end.
It doesn’t matter what preamp you’re using. It’s highly recommended to use high quality mic cables for the microphone and from the preamp output signal going to the audio interface. It makes a big difference, trust me.
This is a list of preamps that I liked using in the past and that I’m still using today. Price is not a factor for now, only personal taste. This list includes only products by known companies and which you can get in stores. I’ve used amazing preamps before that were built by private individuals that no one knows and that you can’t get in the store, but this I will leave to another post.
Golden Age Pre 73 MKIII
I first started with the first version of the Pre 73 in 2011. This was the first class A preamp that brought that expensive sound to the home recording producers. It had the Neve 73 style circuit; all discrete components and no IC at all. With 80db of input gain and a great output control knob, I could get all the colors I wanted. Everybody had this preamp, so I had to try it and see If I fall for the hype. I did. It was really amazing for it’s price. It had one significant drawback: high noise floor. It was a noisy preamp, no doubt. After piling some tracks on top of each other, you can definitely hear this noise. It was nice for loud rock productions, but when I needed a cleaner signal, this preamp was not the one to use. After that, came the MKII, and the noise was gone. It was amazing on almost every source. The only thing I didn’t record with it was strumming acoustic guitars. With the MKIII, they made it even better and added more features such as:
This preamp has one of the best instrument input I have ever used. I absolutely love how it sounds on direct bass guitar. I also had a few songs where I didn’t even record an amp, just my clean G&L Custom straight to the instrument input and to logic with a little EQ and compression, and that’s it, sounds amazing. This pre does everything with remarkable results.
Universal Audio Solo 610
This preamp is so much fun! I love it’s design; it looks like a piece of console taken from a Russian submarine from the 40’s. It is based on the original Putnam 610 console, which had a classic tube sound and was used in a lot of studios by a lot of famous artists. This preamp is equipped with a 12AX7 tube and a 12AT7 tube. Even though it has a very simple design, and very few controls, it is very easy to achieve a wide range of beautiful tones and colors with it. By using a low input gain setting, you can get a clean and almost transparent tone. As you increase the input gain and drive the tube, you add more beautiful and sweet sounding harmonic distortion to your source.
Vocals I’ve recorded with it came out very smooth and creamy, if I’m allowed to use these terms. It sounds relatively soft and very musical. I loved it on male vocals, electric guitars, bass, brasses, and pretty much any source in general. What about acoustic guitars, you ask? It’s pretty much the same as the Pre 73, I like it very much on finger picking acoustic guitar. It has a warm sound; full, and overall, very rich sound. I wish I had a whole console of these pre’s…
I also recommend trying the Universal Audio 710 Twin-Finity preamp which has a discrete circuit in addition to the classic tube one, and you can mix between them with a mix knob. It also offers a lot of colors, features, and flexibility.
This beautiful beast came in an API Lunchbox. This preamp is a classic with origins back in the 60’s and 70’s. When I first started using this preamp, I was already using a bunch of other great preamps, so it was kinda hard to sweep me off my feet. But the API 512c brought a new era of sound to my recordings. Vocals sounded more punchy and clear in the midrange section, but still with a lot of low end body and high end precision. The 512c has a tendency to push every single detail to the front of the mix so it is perfect for pop vocals, rock, and any punchy sounding source.
It is great on electric guitars, bass, vocals, of course, and I also really like it on acoustic guitars. They sound clean, bright, and shiny, exactly how I like my acoustic guitars to sound. The 512c brings an old and classic flavor to the table. It is built exactly like the original ones, designed by Soul Walker. It is very musical and flexible. You can hear and see it in big production studios and in home recording studios as well. It is hand-assembled, very reliable, and built for years of hard work in the studio. I only wish it came with an output control and an independent box, but other than that, it is just perfect.
OK, honestly, I didn’t expect this preamp to surprise me and sound that good, but it does! It is like everything that I ran through just came alive. It has a slightly compressed character; a little boost in the lows and highs, and every source that is going through it comes out a little processed. I usually don’t like a processed sound out of something that should give me a raw output, but in this case it is just magic! This unit sounds very special, and I use it anytime I need something to have a special place in a mix, or to cut through some production layers in a natural way. This one is also a 500 series, which I also liked to have in a half rack unit size. I’m a sucker for independent units, I admit it.
I first heard this preamp back in 2013. The Chandler Little Devil offers a lot of flexibility and tons of character to work with. I really like it on female vocals. It gives the ladies a brilliant shine and great breathy voice that throws me straight to Mariah Carey’s sound from the 90’s, but it might be just my own personal thing.
In the feature section, it is like all the others, but with the Little Devil, they add a little bright switch, which I like very much. It adds that cool boost in the highs, which gives a little air to the overall signal.
There is something very special that happens with the feedback knob, I won’t try to explain it here, because I don’t want to get it wrong, but I strongly recommend to read about it in the company’s website.
This is a pricy one, but who thinks about money when you’re falling in love! The 737 is a big unit and, usually, I get scared when I work with big machines, after being used to working with small units. This one has a lot of knobs and lights and meters and weird symbols… it’s not for me, I’m a simple dude! These were my first thoughts about this preamp. But, then I relaxed and gave it a listen. First, I need to say that this is not only a preamp, by definition, because it also has a compressor section and an EQ section. So, practically, it is a whole “Channel Strip”. I have a soft spot for real outboard compressors, so this was the first thing I started with.
The 737’s opto-compressor is really special. It resembles the classic LA2A compressor. It’s not the most aggressive compressor, which I like, and it has a cool behavior while it’s riding the peaks of an acoustic guitar or slap bass. The EQ is also on the sweet side. It’s highs are pretty soft, and it is quite easy to get a great, processed vocal right out of the box. Usually, I don’t recommend recording post process, because then you’re stuck with it. But if you’re experienced enough, and you know exactly what you’re after, it can help you achieve these very high end results. I know not everybody can afford this channel strip, and not everybody needs it, but if you, somehow, find it for a good price in second hand, snatch it, because it sounds beautiful, and you’re gonna love it! For sure.