What To Look For in a Preamp

Ah, Wednesdays; too much into the week to feel like a Monday but not close enough to the weekend to feel like a Friday. Well, hopefully everyone out there isn’t sweating up a storm during this homestretch of summer but anyways, how about we talk some more pro audio?

In yesterday’s article, we brought our readers an introduction to the world of preamps and channel strips. For those of you who haven’t caught it yet, hit the link and check it out. We discussed how a preamp is anything that fiddles with a signal before sending it out for further processing or amplification.  With such an ambiguous job, they come in many forms, the most well-known of which being in the form of an amp head but can really be installed anywhere such an inside the amp (combo amplifier) or even inside a guitar (when coupled with active pickups). A channel strip on the other hand is pretty much a rackmount box with one complete full-featured console channel stuffed inside. This usually includes compressors, EQing, gates and of course, a preamp. Anyways, now that we know a bit more about preamps and channel strips along with certain situations where one might be preferred over the other, we can move on with some tips on how to find the perfect preamp that will best fit your needs among the hundreds of different makes and models.


The Problem with Pricing

Let me expand on that a bit; there’s nothing wrong with the pricing per se – especially when you consider that before channel strips, you needed a complete million dollar studio console for the same quality processing tools – it’s just that figuring out what will work best for you on pricing alone won’t give you the whole story. Sure, you can make a safe bet that $1000 preamp will more than likely outperform a $300 one but again, this doesn’t mean that inexpensive preamps don’t serve a purpose. In order to make a wise choice on what will work best for you, let’s take a look of some of the things that affect pricing.

In simple terms, the reason a preamp or a channel strip will cost more than others is very similar to any other high end piece of equipment; better parts, better construction, more features and most importantly, brand! Well, maybe not the most important but you can bet that once a product’s reputation shoots sky high, the price is sure to follow suit.  But putting brand recognition and popularity aside, let’s take a look at what goes into making a high end preamp.


Looking at the Factors

In order to make a high quality preamp, it essentially requires expensive parts and tough wiring techniques. Also, there are some manufacturers out there who strongly believe that the best quality preamps are the ones that take advantage of transformers, the only problem is that a good quality transformer is very expensive – so much so that certain companies simply custom make them themselves to avoid extra costs. The reason that transformers are so expensive is that they have to work meticulously and efficient in order to produce pin point power supply levels and signal grounding – two obligatory requirements if high fidelity audio is your aim.

Another big part in a preamp's pricing has to do with wiring. Ever notice how some computer cables are gold plated and usually cost more? Printer cables are commonly sold this way. Anyways, yes, gold costs more, but companies aren’t just adding the precious metal on their products to make them look nice. Gold is by far the best conductor of electricity known to man and when used in wiring, is capable of improving speed and overall performance. In high end preamps, you might see gold-plated connectors and seals as well as gold-contact precision relays for switching in the audio path – all of which spells good performance but with a higher price tag. Even if you take gold out of the equation, the way in which the wiring itself is done will have a pretty big impact on cost, especially if it’s done by hand which might be needed with some of the more precise wiring systems out there.

Without getting too deep into it, the best design for anything dealing with signals is to use the most direct wiring setup possible in order to minimize degradation. You’ve probably heard of how having very long signal chains or too many effects pedals will cause noise – same principle! In the case of preamps, the most direct form is called point-to-point wiring which benefits from eliminating  the need for circuit boards, further simplifying a signal’s path. The easier and shorter the path is, the more pristine the signal will be when at its end point! Yes, point-to-point is truly a great thing for a manufacturer to add to a preamp – as long as they’re willing to accept the added labor costs from the hand-wiring techniques involved.

And finally, the basic quality of all of the other components used, whether its vacuum tubes, transistors, resistors, capacitors, inductors, connectors, and even the solder used for the connections will have an impact on the final result. But anyways, now that we know why certain preamps might cost more than others, let’s move on to what to look for when buying your own.


Things to Think About

Really, when it comes down to it, most people make most of their buying choices based on their budget,  and while preamps can run the gamut from anywhere between $60 and $6,000 (rough estimate), it may turn out that what works best for your own situation might end up being somewhere closer to $500. Don’t forget that different preamps from different manufacturers will yield a different sound, much like different guitars or mics. If you have the opportunity, test a few of them out and listen to what sounds best for you. It’s not uncommon for a professional producer to have a $500 preamp lying next to his $5,000 one simply because the less expensive one might have the sound he needs for a particular application. Just as I mentioned earlier in the problem with pricing, the cost of a preamp isn’t the “be all end all” as far as the best choice for you is concerned. Think about what price range that works for you and shop around because after all, you never know what you might find. Alright, now that we have the money issues out of the way, the next thing (and possibly single most important thing) you should think about is what you will be using a preamp for.

Vocals: If all you are looking to do is record vocals for your own enjoyment and just really need something that can get the job done, a low priced preamp is serviceable enough to work. If you are looking to do something that requires a bit more thought, such as recording a demo, you probably want something that works really well with vocals. If that’s the case, getting a dedicated mic preamp is your best bet but the downside is that you will need a different preamp for instruments – not that they won’t work or are incompatible or anything like that – they just aren’t generally optimized for anything else besides vocals. And finally, if money is no object and you simply want the best preamp for vocals that cash can buy, consider looking at transformer-less tube preamps which are outstanding for vocals. Also, don’t forget that your mic preamp is only as good as the mic you use it with and make sure you are aware of a preamp’s impedance (as it relates to your mic’s), phantom power capabilities, gain, etc.

Instruments: When it comes to electric guitars, a lot of producers tend to prefer the natural coloration of mic to amp instead of going through a DI box (which is a type of preamp) which tends to sound flat in comparison. Although this is true, there’s no reason why you can’t use both amp to mic and a preamp as part of your electric guitar track. You might find that you prefer the sound of the two used together instead of sticking to one. I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again; don’t be afraid to experiment with different setups, you never know what you might end up with! Also, you might not have a work area that allows for recording amp to mic. By using an instrument preamp – at least one with a few more features than a simple DI box – you can add some of that natural amplifier grit. A lot of instrument preamps have dial-in settings that can add some of that natural amp flair when needed. Acoustic guitars can also benefit from the use of a good preamp to add a bit of coloration but if you’re looking to capture the “true” sound of the instrument, you can go solid state as if doesn’t have the slight distortion associated with tube preamps.


Other Things to Think About

A channel strip is a comparatively inexpensive way to get the tools of a

full fledged console. Check out a few of our channel strips right here! 

And finally, one other important thing to think about in terms of preamps is channels. If you are simply using a preamp for vocals and instruments, you can probably get away with using a single channel (over and over), but if you are looking to record something that requires multiple mics or channels – drums easily come to mind – consider getting a multi-channel preamp. Even if you already own a studio mixer with plenty of channels, dedicated preamps for the most part are made with higher quality components that can add a bit more variety to your studio mixer (unless you already forgot that mixing and matching different preamps and mixers yield different sounds, hence, more variety). Also, you might need to record a few vocalists at once with each using their own mic. By using a multi-channel preamp, you can make sure that none of the individual voices stand out too much by having all the singers work off of the same equipment and settings – just so long as they use the same mic as well.

Also, there’s always those channel strips we talked about yesterday, complete (most of the time) with compressors, gates, EQing and of course, a preamp!


And don't forget, we here at PAL carry the best equipment at the best pricess GUARANTEED so why not take some time and check out the links below!


Single Channel Preamps

Multi-Channel Preamps

Instrument Preamps

Channel Strips

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