Preamps: Choosing the right gear for the job

A series of patch bays full of preamp and other audio equipment

So you’ve decided to venture out into the recording world. You’ve picked up a shiny new microphone and chosen an interface and you’re on your way to becoming the next big thing. However, sadly some of your recordings seem to lack depth and substance. You need them to live up to the standards of the mainstream. You need a quality preamp! Let us help you decipher the jargon and find the gear that’s for you.

Choosing the right type of preamp

Within the world of audio recording, there are four distinct preamp types, differentiated by their circuit design. These include Tube, Solid State, Hybrid and Digital.

Tube

The tube component in an analogue tube preamp
The tube component in an analogue tube amp

Often characterised by the ‘warm’ sound they give to a recording, this preamp design will offer a lot of colour. Most notably this includes a deeper and rounder bass tone, open and airy highs and a boost to the presence of the mid-range. As the gain is cranked with a tube pre, gentle second order distortion is applied to the signal which results in the classic tone of this preamp style. Typical applications would include but are not limited to, vocals and bass guitars. Really it’s good for anything you want to thicken up.

 

Solid State

Essentially the opposite of a tube preamp within the analogue world, solid state preamps offer high gain and incredibly transparent signal processing. The use of transistors allows them to be cranked up without generating as much heat and therefore less distortion. With their incredibly clean signal path, solid state preamps lend themselves fantastically to acoustic instruments. You are able to capture the beautiful, natural sound of the violin as close to real life as possible.

Hybrid

As you may have guessed, hybrid preamps are a combination of the previous two. Some utilise a combined signal path with variable tube distortion whilst others offer both tube and solid state separately, allowing you to blend the two to create unique tones. These are not as common in most studios because dedicated equipment makes more sense. However, for the home recording option hybrid preamps can give you the best of both worlds without breaking the bank.

Digital

Often combined with interfaces, digital preamps convert an analogue signal to digital signal whilst imparting their own distinct sound. These are often very clean like solid state preamps however they don’t utilise the nature of physical components. Instead, some offer ‘amp modelling’ allowing you to add the digitally re-created sonic signature of various famous preamps. Whilst these can be very good (and certainly better than the built in pres in most interfaces), they should be taken with a pinch of salt if you are looking for a truly analogue feel.

Other important considerations

Now you’ve decided which preamp type fits your recording needs, you need just need to consider what else you’d like to be able to do. A lot of preamps will include features such as phantom power, phase inversion, HPF, and a pad. If you intend to record using condenser microphones or want to track some high gain electric guitar, these are things to consider. Also, be aware of the inputs/outputs and make sure your interface is geared up to handle them appropriately.

Process buttons on the front of a preamp.
Process buttons on a preamp

TL;DR

A high-quality preamp is just as important (if not more important) than a high-quality microphone. Do the research and find something that will suit your recording needs so that you aren’t underwhelmed by what you achieve. Once you’ve done your tracking, the next big consideration will be EQ. Why not check out our article on the various types of EQ?


Post Images under Creative Commons Attribution License by possan, Karl Baron, & Ernesto Andrade.

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