Preamplifiers 101: Variations, History and More

One of the most important tools in music is the preamplifier. Your amp has one. Your recording console probably has one as well. You can also buy them in a standalone variation. Not too familiar with them? Not a problem – keep reading and find out all about the preamplifier!


The Variations of the Preamplifier

Preamplifiers come in three variations; you have your onboard kind that work hand in hand with active pickups (more common, but can be used with passive pickups as well), those built in straight into an amp head or combo amplifier which most of us are familiar with, and finally, your standalone unit, similar in construction to a slightly larger-than-average effects pedal. But no matter where they are located, they are all there to get the same job done. For those of you who don’t know the technical explanation for what exactly a preamplifier is and does, it is essentially an electronic amplifier that prepares a small electrical signal for further processing, i.e., before heading to the main power amplifier or even before the effects pedal chain (as is in the case of onboard preamplifiers used with active pickups). A typical preamp is usually placed close to a signal sensor in order to maximize their ability mitigate the effects of noise and interference along with their main job of finely crafting killer tones.

If that’s a bit confusing, let’s break it down using the more common and original form of the preamp, that is, the one that’s built inside your typical amplifier. If you were to divide an amplifier into segments, you’d have the actual preamp which is in charge of those familiar tone shaping controls such as treble, bass, tone, etc, and then you’d have the power amplifier. The power amplifier is the literal amplifying part of the setup such as the speakers and its related components that are used to deliver the actual sound. Preamps shape the guitar signal while power amps make that signal into sound. Not too hard, right? Back when this was the only form of the preamp, most players did not distinguish the preamp from the power amp and instead saw the two as simply one package – an amplifier.


A Brief History of the Evolution of the Preamp

During the advent of the guitar amplifier, preamps only came with a few controls relegated for clean sounds such as your run of the mill treble, bass and tone settings. As music itself progressed, so did the preamplifier.  As players began to further explore the sounds capable with their amplifiers, such as pushing the preamps farther than the power amps could bear, causing that well known overdrive/distortion effect, more sophisticated preamplifiers were being built. Marshall gave the rock and roll world amplifiers with preamps made specifically towards crafting that loud overdriven sound that conquered much of rock during the ‘60s and ‘70s, but even that wasn’t hard enough by the time heavy metal was in full swing. Although getting a guitar to sound loud wasn’t the issue (as you could always add more cabinets), high gain control was. In came the active pickup system and with that, the onboard preamplifier. The use of an onboard preamp along with active pickups gave players – specifically the hard rock heavy distortion minded players – the ability to work with a boosted signal (thanks to the active pickups) and then have the built in preamp directly shape it before it even leaves the guitar, giving the player a much more concentrated sound that holds up and retains its tone much better than the signal given off by a standard passive pickup, even when used with several effects pedals or high gain settings, as is the norm in metal. Not only that, but onboard preamplifiers can even give passive pickups some of the benefits of active pickups, such as Duncan's BMP-1 preamp as pictured above. Making our way to the ‘90s and we are finally able to fully realize much of the potential of the digital revolution as they are applied to music. One such innovations was the creation of amp modelers which are essentially preampslifiers made specifically to copy the sound of popular amps by digital means (although some come with their own crazy, non-cloned effects).  It should also be noted that most standalone preamp units aren’t strictly amp modelers but similar to effects pedals in that they are made to give you a bit more tone shaping ability and not just sound cloning.


The Final Piece of the Puzzle

Now that we know that a preamplifier is the part of the amplifier responsible for all of those tone shaping knobs as well as a bit of its evolutionary history, it should be said that you are not limited to one in your live setup. In-fact, you can technically use as many as you want – twenty even! It might not do you any good after the third one and would be complete overkill but remember, there’s no wrong way to make music (although that doesn’t mean that you can’t look completely ridiculous while creating it). A common example of this is the use of an onboard preamp inside of the actual guitar along with the preamp already built into the amplifier. You can even go one further by using an amp modeler (still technically speaking, a preamp) along with these two. So to sum it up again, whether it is built onboard inside a guitar or bass as is the case with active pickups, built inside the amp head  or combo amplifier, or even a standalone unit such as an amp modeler, they are all still preamplifiers since they all are made to shape a your signal’s tone.

Alright, now you that you know what exactly a preamplifier is and does, the several variations as well as the added benefits they can each give you, browse around our huge selection of preamplifiers at the best prices guaranteed! So, whether you’re the type of player that can make do with the one built into your amplifier or a hard rocker making use of the benefits of an active pickup system, preamplifiers are an integral part of the quest for that perfect, killer tone and a must for any player ready to paint that masterpiece.

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