For some time I’ve been trying to make sense of this preamps mess, which I find exceptionally boring, and figure out how to teach it here at RecordingReview. It’s a tricky mess for a million reasons, but in this article I’m going to try to add the proper context to this thing so that you younger guy, older guys, whoever can figure out where the hell you stand on preamps.
Hobbyist vs Crazed Hobbyist vs Total Idiot
First off, you’ve got to figure out what your engineering goals are. Are you just wanting to have a little fun making noise? Are you looking to be the flat-out best engineer you can possibly be? Are you looking to put together a pro facility in which you could record tip-top bands? Are you somewhere in the middle.
I think the biggest reason so many people are mislead on this whole preamp thing comes from not understanding a person’s needs. I’ve been struggling for a while in explaining why I’ve acquired some fancy pantsy preamps but then rarely recommend this upgrade to anyone here at RecordingReview.
The Music Always Takes Precedence
#1 I’m of the opinion that a person can definitely make exciting music with gear that is “just okay”. Stock interface preamps fall into this category, for example. Even in a not-so-hi-fi state (which high end pres in no way guarantee), exciting music means the recording IS exciting. This was the motivation for this blog: Preamps Don’t Matter?
I’d prefer to listen to great music with cheapo preamps over stale, boring crap any day of the week. Everyone with a pulse is this way. If they say differently, avoid them like a gay rapists with big guns.
Good New For: Broke and talented people
Bad News For: Skilled engineers recording uninspired noise, anyone untalented
Squeezing That Last Drop
#2 Dumb metaphor time: If cash is no object, you get the lightest gear possible for 10x the price when climbing Everest because too many people have died trying and that last 100 ft is harder than it looks.
Even the best engineers are going to have a hard time with that “last 100ft”….the thing that separates the ultra men from the men without the fancy preamps. Of course, #1 is still applies here.
Good News For: Skilled engineers with deep pockets who want to be ultra-skilled engineers, hobbyists who aren’t attempting to “climb Everest” and therefor don’t need idiot-gadgetry anyway
Bad News For: Broke people climbing Everest
#3 There are a billion places a person can screw up a recording (with or without the high end preamps). Fancy pres don’t bail you out of bad sounding situations….ever!
Good News For: People who’ve really got their shit together……which is basically no one
Bad News For: Anyone trying to make a butt kicking recording
What’s Wrong With Cheapo Pres?
#4 The two main problems with cheapo pres is they sound “blurry”….kinda like a VCR tape where stuff is kind of smudged/smeared or they take on the megaphone effect a bit. How much? Not THAT much, but it’s certainly something no one I know would prefer.
You can clearly hear what I’m talking about in The Interrogator Sessions in Killer Home Recording. Once your ears are acclimated, it doesn’t take much work to hear how the cheapo pres compare to the high end pres. There’s never a time when the cheapo pre would win. The top notch pres always have this “extra excitement” in them while the cheapo pres seem more “sluggish”.
I divide the preamp thing into three categories: cheapo, adequate, and fancy. Once you get passed the cheapo stuff, the adequate pres do the job just fine. They may not add anything interesting, but they don’t murk up anything and they don’t add the megaphone effect. The True Systems pres fall into this category, among others. I thought the pres in the Yamaha MR816 weren’t TOO far from being adequate, but they didn’t quite make it. I’ve rumors that the pres on the RME Fireface 800 may be playing not too far from this ballpark. So when you read reviews about these upper-range interfaces sounding “amazing”, they really just sound “almost adequate” if we take the Total Idiot stance from above.
Adequate preamps do a fine job and could be used on everything without any real issues.
The special pres do a certain something extra. This “extra” thing could be good or bad depending on what you are going for (we’ll get into that) and this is where knowing exactly what each preamp is ideal for comes into play. Certain special pres push you into a corner a little bit.
#5 Not all fancy mic preamps are ideal for use on everything. Big, dark sounding preamps can cause big problem when using them on everything. Too many “big” sources makes mixing a challenge. It’s best to use the big sounding pres sparingly on the bigger stuff and use the tighter pres for everything else.
When I started out with my Vintech 1272 on the very first recording I had ever done (I was told I absolutely NEEDED it!….asshole!) Anyhow, that preamp is more on the bigger/thicker side of the fence. It doesn’t have the hi-fi sparkle that many pres do, but it does have a the Neve-style harmonic in the upper mids. All Neve-type pres have this and it’s a dead giveaway in shootouts. The Vintech does not have the hi-fi Neve thing that the Great River Neve-style pres have. It’s more of a darker sound.
This is not a preamp I would recommend starting with. Even though I do pull it out for certain things some of the time. The Vintech 1272 can be great on vocals that you don’t need to be ultra bright (particularly with an SM7b among others) but want to sound big. The lack of sparkle paints the 1272 into a corner that’s only useful at certain times. It kind of reminds me of when mom puts the special tablecloth on at Christmas. It’s only great once a year.
For what it’s worth, the pres in the Yamaha MR816 don’t have near the sparkle of a Manley TNT solid state channel, Martech, or Great River either, but the more neutral approach to their design makes them more usable across the board. There’s something impractical about certain high end pres as a daily driver. A person would be better off with a new Ford Focus than a 500Hp Hemi Cuda if they only had one car. For a person who only has single-car garage, there are powerhouse BMWs and Mercedes that can do the daily driver thing and can do it with super high performance. This is where the high end sparkly preamps mentioned above come in.
In short, spending big bucks on some random pre is not the solution and could actually get you into a place that is worse than decent interface pres.
Good News For: People with a wide variety of pres who know how and when to use them, People who have a single faster/tighter preamp they use on all overdubs
Bad News For: Guys overdubbing exclusively with one fancy preamp that may not be ideal for across the board use
Hobbyists – If you are a guy just having fun, don’t buy a fancy preamp. If you want your recordings to sound good but have limited time and aren’t going to get upset if your productions don’t blow away the big boy bands, just have fun and don’t let anyone convince you need to make a huge investment.
Crazed Hobbyists – If you do this for fun, but have a few bucks to blow, have a little fun with adequate preamps first. You may not need a big selection and your needs will depend on if you are entirely doing overdubs or if you are recording multiple tracks at once. However, in this world, I recommend preamps on the sparkly side of the fence with tight low mids. You saw a few examples above. The True Systems stuff definitely gets the job done in this realm, but if you want to go all out the solid state Manley TNT channel is my go-to preamp for sparkly stuff. The Great River gear works really well. I definitely wouldn’t go with something not-so-tight in the low mids for my single pre again. Those were some long years!
Total Idiots – If you are going for the top and climbing Everest, I’ll tell you what I’ve done. I just bought a Toft ATB32. It supposedly has okay pres to hold me over when I run out of fancy stuff. I picked up an API 3124, a Wunder PaFour, and a Focusrite ISA 428. I’m keeping my Manley TNT and most likely selling everything I’ve had previously. (I haven’t decided about my Chameleon 7602s yet.)
I expect the API to end up on close mics on drums and probably most things I’m overdubbing. It doesn’t have a super sparkly top end and it’s quite colored. It’ll smooth out shrill stuff. My Manley TNT solid state is definitely sparkly and doesn’t smooth out anything. The X factors here are the PaFour and ISA 428. I’ll have to report back when I’ve put them to the test, but the Wunder should do more of the Neve thing with the extra harmonic in the upper midrange. The ISA should be sparkly like the Manley TNT SS, probably a little less colored, maybe a little faster. I’m speculating.
For what it’s worth, there are only a few qualities that are that important. Why a person needs 22 different models of preamps is beyond me.
- Meaty Transients
- Sparkly preamp with tight low mids (for brighter vocals, acoustic guitars)
- Tamed Upper Mids, Harmonic Content (for most vocals, electric guitars)
You can make it much more complicated if you want to, but I don’t see the reason. I really do think the old view of just using a console worked on most the cds in my collection. I’ve leave the optional hair/atom-splitting up to you. I’ve got noise to make.
The tighter, more focused pres are where it is at for day to day tracking. There are times when you want the bigger, darker, and less-focused sound but the most part I’m not into it. In the tighter/focused category you have all kinds of options to choose from and various attributes that make them more or less ideal.
Here’s a 1992 Chicago Bulls basketball analogy that I think sums it up. Michael Jordan is API. BJ Armstrong is Great River. We are recording my “sparkly” acoustic guitars again. (Work with me, I know this sounds, and is, stupid.) BJ Armstrong is the point guard and so it’s his job to bring the ball up the court. Is it going to really be the end of the world if Michael Jordan has to handle the ball? Probably not. Basically, we get an extra point in the sparkly department by selecting the Great River. We don’t necessarily lose anything with the API. Your girlfriend probably won’t notice and the bass player definitely will not notice.
Then again, when all this stuff aligns and you select the pres that give you what you want at various times (and combine that skill with an equal amount of across-the-board engineering skill) the band will definitely notice.
Broke home recorders don’t have to worry too much unless their aim is absolute robo recordings. A hobbyist will usually have goals that are more modest than the guy engineering the next INSERT BIG BAND’s album. Some hobbyists are dealing with limitations in music, musicians, instruments, room, and engineering ability that hold them back and in any of those situations, the fancy preamp thing is unnecessary.
For the crazed hobbyist, If the wrong pre is used throughout a recording, a person can have their work cut out for them in mixing. Because of this, I highly recommend tighter, more focused pres to be used overall and then, in time, adding a big sounding pre for special situations (vocals, kick, etc).
For the guys going for the absolute echelon of ultra recordings, there are specialized tasks for various pres than can make life a little more fun. Understanding when to use what is part of the skill of a great engineer. While there have certainly been numerous recordings made with a console only, and great music music will always come through, most people agree that there are sound quality benefits to specializing.