A mic preamp is an important part of the signal chain in the studio, determining the overall audio quality of the mix. In this article, we will explore the important concepts revolving the mic preamps, different types of mic preamps, and how to choose the right mic preamp for your unique needs.
- 1 Top 5 Best Mic Preamp: 2016 to 2017
- 2 What Is a Mic Preamp And What Does It Do?
- 3 Types of mic preamps
- 4 How do I choose a mic preamp?
- 5 Best mic preamps for vocals
- 6 Best mic preamps for electric guitars
- 7 Best mic preamps for drums
- 8 Tips on achieving your dream sound
Top 5 Best Mic Preamp: 2016 to 2017
|Grace Design M101|
Best for vocals
|(4.4 / 5)|
|Golden Age Project Pre-73 Preamp MKII|
Best for vocals
|(4.4 / 5)|
|FMR Audio RNP8380|
Best for electric guitar
|(4.0 / 5)|
|Great River ME-1NV Mic Preamp|
Best for electric guitar
|(4.2 / 5)|
|ART Tube Opto 8 Tube Microphone Preamp|
Best for drums
|(4.0 / 5)|
What Is a Mic Preamp And What Does It Do?
A microphone converts acoustic signals (such as the vibration of your vocal chords resulting in the vibration of the air particles) into digital signals that ultimately go along the cables into your Digital Audio Workstation (DAW). However, the original signal obtained is extremely weak. A microphone pre-amplifier (or preamp) is required to raise that signal to a useable level, ready for further processing or for output through speakers or headphones.
A mic preamp does not only raise the signals, it also add dynamics, colors and sometimes harmonic distortion to that signal. It is an essential element in your studio setup if you are striving for a perfect recorded signal before further processing in your DAW.
Types of mic preamps
- Tube mic preamps: Tube mic preamps are known to add the most noticeable harmonic distortion, color and richness to the sound. They add depth to the bass, airiness to the highs, and warmth to the midrange, as a result making your sound bigger and wider
- Transformer-based solid state mic preamps: These preamps add more subtle colors and definition to the sound recorded compared to the tube mic preamps.
- Transformer-less solid state mic preamps: These produce the most transparent, as well as the most “honest” and cleanest signals. These preamps are often used to record acoustic elements and pop vocals, which are preferably clean and relatively free from noise and distortion.
- Hybrid mic preamps: Considered “the best of both worlds” by some, hybrid preamps typically use solid state circuitry in the input, and an output gain control that uses tube circuitry. Some hybrid amps have separate tube and solid state outputs for maximum versatility and tone control.
How do I choose a mic preamp?
Let’s dive into an extremely important question: how do you choose the right mic preamp for YOU?
What type of preamp?
The first factor to consider is the kind of sound you want to achieve, which will decide if you should get a tube preamp, a transformer-based or a transformer-less solid state preamp. If you prefer richer and warmer vocals, for example, a tube or a transformer-based solid state preamp will be ideal. If you use a mic preamp mainly to record drums and you want the sound to be as honestly recorded as possible, a transformer-less solid state preamp might be more suitable.
Some preamps allow you to switch the transformer in and out of the signal path, hence serving like a two-in-one transformer-based and transformer-less solid state mic preamp.
How many inputs and outputs do I need?
Next, pay attention to how many inputs and outputs you will potentially need. You may choose a mic preamp with minimal function (one microphone input and one line level output for recording) or one which offers more choices depending on your recording needs. If you record vocals and guitar or bass, for instance, a hi-Z or high impedance Direct Input will come in useful. This input will come in handy whenever you need to record an electric instrument directly into your audio interface.
Having a mic preamp with multiple outputs will also give you more options over monitoring. For instance, you can have a line output into a pair of headphones so you can monitor the sound quietly, while at the same time running your sound via another line level output into your audio interface, and yet another output to an external compressor or EQ processor.
Do I need all the features?
The most basic features in a mic preamp are mic gain control, phantom power and impedance. Additional features like onboard compressor and EQ strip is also another factor differentiating mic preamps from one another. It will be worth your time to ponder whether you really need these extra features, as they might incur extra cost while your audio interface might already have these functions.
If you are using a condenser microphone, make sure your mic preamp has a switch for phantom power. Your condenser mic will not work properly otherwise. Most mic preamps nowadays come with phantom power, and it can be activated as easily as pressing a switch.
How many channels do I need?
If you need to record multiple tracks at a time, for instance in a band setting, consider getting a mic preamp with multiple channels. If you are recording one track at a time, however, a single channel mic preamp should suffice, for instance if you are a one man band recording one instrument at a time.
How much money should I spend?
Another important factor to consider is, of course, your budget. If you are new to home recording, do note that the mic preamp will most likely not be the only equipment you need to purchase. Set aside budget for your mixer, audio interface, cables, and DAW too. Moreover, in some cases you may want to purchase different mic preamps for different purposes. Keeping in mind the cost of each mic preamp you purchase is therefore essential in planning your studio setup.
Some mic preamps listed in this post are below $300, some below $500, while others are below $1000 to fit your budget sizes.
Best mic preamps for vocals
For vocalist, here are some what we think are the mic preamps you should consider for a better recording of your performance.
Grace Design M101 review
If you are into high quality mic preamps that can give you that incredibly clean and crisp vocals, away from all the background noise and hiss, then the Grace M101 Single Channel mic preamp might just be perfect for you.
One of the best mic preamps under $1000, the Grace M101 has a no-fuss design that calls any vocalist to just plug in and sing. Wire in that mike and experience that exceptionally clear, bright, undistorted sound of your voice. Put it in front of an acoustic guitar, a violin, a harmonica or any other acoustic instrument, and you will find the same loyal, true sound, undisturbed by background noise and unwanted distortion.
Golden Age Project Pre-73 Preamp MKII
Providing a wide dynamic range with minimal background noise, the Golden Age Project Pre-73 adds a sweet and warm character to your signal for the fine classical sound. Delivering warm lows without excessive bass, and clear, crispy highs without harsh distortion, this beauty is definitely exceptional value at an affordable price.
PreSonus Studio Channel
This baby instantly gives your voice that full and warm character with her luscious and rich tube tone. If you want to up the game with some metal ruggedness, this beauty rocks at it too! Her ultra-low noise design makes sure that annoying background noise does not get in your way. The onboard compression, great for fattening up and slightly distorting vocals for the rugged effect, and three-band equalization also provides you with full control over your signal chain. Are you ready to ROCK?
Best mic preamps for electric guitars
In this section, it is all about guitar and how to make them sound really good.
FMR Audio RNP8380 review
One of the best mic preamps under $1000, the RNP8380 keeps your headroom and faithfully retains the true sound of your guitar. No more fuss over those ugly cracks and clips when you turn up the level just about hearing range. You can now enjoy a relatively clean guitar sound coming from a great amp that’s exceptional for its price!
Great River ME-1NV Mic Preamp review
This baby might be a bit costly for a home studio, but she is truly one of the best mic preamps in the market. If the RNP8380 provides the clean sound superior to its price, the ME-1NV provides the sonic depth and richness to your guitar sound that’s unmatched by any other preamp, while never compromising the transparency and loyalty to the original sound. Feed your signal at any level, and the sound coming from the ME-1NV is clean and clear just the same. Definitely one of the most outstanding mic preamps in the market.
Universal Audio SOLO/610 Mic Pre & DI Box review
This compact, no-fuss mic preamp provides the classic warm tube sound in a lean and mean design. Featuring mic and direct inputs, with a versatile Gain and Level control to deliver a range of sound from sparkling clean to subtly colored tones, the SOLO/610 is the best investment for the serious home recording artist.
Chandler Germanium 500 MKII review
If you love old school blues-rock and vintage guitar sounds, then this beauty is perfect for you (think the Beatles). The signature, highly respected germanium transistor-based Drive and Feedback circuits give you incredibly luscious and creamy guitar tones. The unique Feedback channel colors up your signal, giving it definition and character with the right amount of harmonic distortion and frequency response. This germanium beauty truly gives other mic preamps a run for their money and reputation.
Best mic preamps for drums
Drummers, this is the section for you. We pick up some of the best mic preamps that sound really good when paired with the drum recording.
ART Tube Opto 8 Tube Microphone Preamp
With eight Class-A tube preamps on eight channels, the ART Tube Opto 8 is ideal for those who want to capture the full sound of the drum set. Input gain and output level control on each channel gives you freedom to adjust the levels of the different elements in the drum set. This is in my opinion one of the best mic preamps under $500.
Chameleon Labs 7602 MKII review
Providing a whole range of filters and EQ options such as high-pass, low, mid and high frequency equalization, the 7602 MKII is ideal for recording from various parts of your drum sets, from the rumbling kicks to the punchy snares and the shimmering hi-hats. This beauty has enough versatility and gives you enough equalization control to capture the richness and complexity of the different parts of your drum set.
API Audio 3124+ 4-Channel review
The API Audio 3124+ brings out the best in your drum kit and make each of its component shine, from the deep kick drums to the sparkling, shimmering cymbals and hi-hats. This beauty also brings out the industry-respected exceptional sound quality and character you are sure to love. Use the 3124 to record the entire drum set, or use it for selected components and complement it with other mic preamps. Either way, your drum set is in good hands.
Tips on achieving your dream sound
Any true recording expert will tell you there is no single ideal mic preamp for your recording needs. Take your time to experiment with different microphone positions and room acoustics. Even if your mic preamp is superb, you would still need a decent mic and audio interface for your final recording to sound at least decent.
If you aren’t hearing what you want to hear, either change the position of the mic or change the type of mic you’re using. For instance, if the sound you capture seems to be dull and overly filtered, try changing to a condenser mic if you are using a dynamic mic, and if that does not work, get a better mic preamp. If your signals are overwhelming and getting distorted, try using a dynamic mic instead of a condenser mic, or turn down the gain in your mic preamp. If your preamp seems to be making too much noise, try turning down the gain and move the vocalist or instrumentalist closer to the mic.
Getting the perfect sound for your recording takes tremendous patience and effort, mainly involved in trial and error, and extensive experimenting with different microphone techniques and positions. Take your time to explore, take note of what works and what doesn’t and you will eventually get there.