5 Best Mic Preamps: Signal Stimulus
By Mason Hoberg
Every company says that there product is the best, and even your fellow musicians are going to disagree on what the best piece of gear is for any given rig. So if you’ve had trouble selecting the best mic preamp, you’ve come to the right place. This article is going to help inform you on the product, as well as giving you a free great recommendations that will help aid you in your search.
- What Is A Mic Preamp
- Considerations for Microphone Preamps
- The Top 5 Mic Preamps
What Is A Mic Preamp
Essentially, a microphone preamp is a device that boosts the signal of a microphone. It boosts the signal to the point where it can be captured by different recording devices. This is incredibly helpful if you’re using a direct audio interface, because that way you don’t have to boost the signal in post-production. Some preamps also have other features which can be helpful during the recording process. Things like phantom power (which supplies microphones with power) and zero-latency headphone mix (this allows you to monitor the sound before it hits your audio interface).
An important thing to note about preamps is that while investing in a more expensive can increase the overall quality of your sound it’s not going to transform it. Every component of your recording rig has to work together, so if you buy a expensive preamp alone it doesn’t mean you’re going to be able to pump out professional quality records if the rest of your gear isn’t up to snuff.
Considerations for Microphone Preamps
Ideally, if you can only afford one preamp you should go with a dual preamp model. The reason for this is that it allows you to run two mics through the preamp simultaneously, which gives you a lot more flexibility in what you can record and how you can record it. A good example of this is if you’re a singer-songwriter. Being able to record vocals and guitar simultaneously can remove a lot of effort from the process on your part. This is important to keep in mind, and which is why we suggest opting for dual models if it is in your budget.
Speaking of budget, there’s obviously not going to be a clear-cut answer to the question of how much you should spend on a preamp. A general rule of thumb is that if you want a preamp that is significantly better than those that come bundled with DAWS you’re going to want to spend somewhere in the ballpark of $500. This of course is something that is subject to change, because a year from now there could easily be a preamp that sounds like a $500 product that you can pick up for half of that.
The Top 5 Mic Preamps
As always, our recommendations are selected with widespread applicability in mind. Ideally, everyone reading this should be able to find an option that will work for them. So while we recognize that a more expensive product may generally be the better option, it doesn’t matter how good a preamp is if you can’t afford it. So just keep in mind that the best choice for you may not be the best choice for your neighbor, and vice versa.
Cloud Microphones Cloudlifter CL-1
If there’s one thing Stephen Sank (the founder of Cloud Microphones) knows, it’s microphones. While the company itself was established very recently, its origins date back to some of the earliest records ever made. Harry Olson (who, while not a household name, is arguably the father of modern microphones) crafted the 44 and 77 series of microphones for RCA. Stephen’s father, John Sank, was tasked with improving the design in order to increase the fidelity of sound that could be captured in the studio. And he did just that, inspired by the designs of the 44 and 77 series he launched the BK-11. The BK-11 is the secret weapon for studios all over the world, and some consider it to be the most advanced ribbon microphone in the world.
Stephen Sank continued the family tradition. He actually started learning from his father when he was just 10 years old, where John shared the lessons and trade-secrets that he learned with his time as a part of RCA. The company’s legacy continues to this day, as they’re still producing some of the most advanced microphones in the world. Even better, every product they produce is sourced and produced locally. This pumps money into a wide variety of different businesses located in the company’s native Arizona, which in the age of a global market place is incredibly admirable.
Considering the company’s history, Cloud Microphone’s Cloud Lifter has to be the best preamp available, right? Well, to find that out you’re going to have to keep reading.
The first thing you need to know about this preamp is that it’s a single-channel preamp. This means that you can only boost one mic at a time, which may or may not be a deal breaker depending on what you intend to use this mic for. It will function well for things like recording vocals or a single guitar track, but it does somewhat limit its utility for other applications.
The main design emphasis with the Cloudlifter is noise rejection. It’s built from the ground up to compensate for long cable runs and to cut annoying hum. To help accomplish this it also uses a minimum of electric components, and actually doesn’t use any capacitors or resistors in its design.
Another important thing to note about this preamp is that it comes in a solid-steel case. It’s also designed, assembled, and hand tested in the United States. While the U.S. does not have a monopoly on quality by any means, having a product hand tested in a more developed area (not a cramped shop in China or India) by people who are paid a livable wage for the area can do wonders for a company’s quality control.
While the Cloudlifter does color the sound a bit, it’s meant to work in conjunction with a quality microphone. It’s intended to be a clean addition to your recording rig, so if you don’t have good mics (or if you have an underdeveloped technique) you may not notice much of a difference between this preamp and a similar one.
That being said, the main strength of the Cloudlifter is how well it rejects noise. Hum or static in a recording situation can drive a person crazy. It can transform a humble audio engineer from a sane, well-adjusted professional to Jack Torrance a la The Shining. So if you’re preamp has a bad habit of introducing unwanted artifacts into your sound, or if you find yourself consistently running long cables, this preamp is definitely worth considering.
So if the features of the preamp sound attractive to you, you can rest assured that it’s going to perform as advertised. It’s not going to transform your sound by itself, but in the right situations it can make an appreciable difference.
If you’re on the hunt for a moderately priced microphone preamp that’s great at reducing unwanted noise you definitely can’t go wrong with the Cloudlifter CL-1. The only downside is that it’s only a single channel preamp, so if you require more inputs check out the CL-2.
Behringer Tube Ultragain MIC200
Founded in 1989 by Uli Behringer, Behringer has always been committed to providing affordable musical technology. Though the company is inarguably pervasive, there are many who don’t know its history. A little known fact about Behringer is that the Uli (the company’s founder) has been designing musical equipment since his mid-teens. The first instrument he ever devised was the Behringer UB-1 synthesizer, which is also the first product marketed by the company.
However, it wasn’t until a few years later when Uli was studying sound engineering and classical piano at the Robert Schumann conservatory that his business truly began to take off. Because there was a limited amount of equipment available to students of the conservatory, Uli started designing and using his own. As his fellow students heard the results he was getting they soon also requested equipment from him, which in a short span of time led to Uli having more orders than he could realistically fill on his own. This in turn caused him to establish his own business, where he and his team assembled components from mainland China.
Another interesting thing to note about the company is that unlike their competitors, they don’t just outsource their work to China. The founder of the company himself literally moved to the country, and established one of the largest facilities for musical instruments on the planet.
Given the company’s history for providing affordable, yet flexible technology, the Behringer Tube ULTRAGAIN MIC200 is unsurprisingly a solid investment for some musicians. The most important thing to know about this preamp is that it’s a combination preamp and a modeler. What this means is that while it can function the same as any other mic preamp it can also be used in a few different ways. The most notable of these is as a mini amp head, where you can plug a bass or guitar directly into the box and then route that signal to the p.a. There are actually a lot of similar products on the market, though this is easily one of the cheapest among them. This tends to work better for bass, as a guitar tends to rely on more effects than its lower tuned brethren.
The preamps also works to help EQ the signal before it goes into your recording device. There are a variety of different setting available, such as: Vocal, E-Gtr, Keyboard, Bass, and guitar. Some of the preamps also have a built in limiter, with presets for acoustic guitar, piano, bass, and percussion.
Lastly, this preamp uses a hand-selected 12AX7 vacuum tube. By using a tube the preamp gets a lot of warmth it wouldn’t have without it, though unfortunately because it’s still a largely solid-state device you’re not going to get as drastic of a difference as you would with full tube construction.
The unit is easy to use and does an excellent job of boosting a signal for home recording purposes. While this preamp is going to have subtle effect on your tone, many users do state that the overall warmth slightly improves when it’s used.
However on the downside, this unit is noisy when compared to higher priced preamps. Now, while this is unfortunate it is an issue that can be remedied provided you make sure that all of the outlets used in your home recording studio are properly grounded and that your equipment is relatively isolated from devices that could cause electrical interference.
Another great thing about this preamp is that it comes with a three year warranty, so should you experience any technical issues in this time frame that are a result of poor manufacturing you can either get a refund or a replacement.
The Behringer Tube ULTRAGAIN MIC200 offers a great value to someone who’s just dipping their toe into the pool of home recording.
ART Tube MP Studio Mic Preamp
Not that long ago vacuum tubes were the standard in almost every industry. While most musicians know that tubes powered audio equipment, they actually served a wide variety of purposes. They were the precursor to the bipolar transistor, which has made vacuum tubes largely irrelevant for most purposes. Both devices work to boot an electronic signal, though when used in audio equipment they have a drastically different effect on your tone.
While the tube vs. solid state debate has been waged for a long time (with reasonable opinions on both sides!) the fact of the matter is that both technologies introduce a color into the sound when there’s a high level of output. Solid-state technology introduces dissonant distortion, because the technology introduces non-harmonic frequencies into the end sound. Tube amps also introduce distortion, but the distortion they introduce is harmonic. This means that the introduced frequencies are related to the fundamental tone. This is why many musicians prefer to play tube amplifiers, because when they overdrive there is less inharmonic dissonance added.
Now, the effect of tubes outside of amplifiers have been heavily debated. While the issue has by no means been settled, it does not detract from ART’s Tube MP Studio Mic Preamp.
The first thing prospective buyers of this preamp need to know is that it does utilize vacuum tube construction. The bad part about tubes is that they are a more sensitive technology, and every tube has a shelf life. This means that the amp is going to require more consistent maintenance, and purchasing replacement tubes is going to be a consistent expense with this piece of equipment. Plan on spending at least $12-$15 per 8-12 months. While this isn’t a huge expense, it is pretty inconvenient if you’re on a tight budget.
A great feature of the preamp is the Output Protection Limiter. This helps to smooth out instruments that have an unpredictable dynamic range. This includes most instruments you’d commonly find in a band; like guitar, drums, and bass. This helps to save you from having to buy a dedicated limiter, which is a huge bonus if you’re just getting into recording.
While the tube itself is pretty vulnerable, the remaining components in the preamp are securely stashed inside an all-steel chassis. This makes the unit very rugged, so should you happen to need to travel with the device and/or do on-location recording you shouldn’t have to worry about the preamp surviving the trip.
Besides boosting the gain on mics, preamps also work to color the sound of whatever you’re recording. The ART Tube MP Studio Mic Preamp is described as introducing a lot of warmth and breadth into your tone. Though it should be noted that while it does have a positive impact on your tone it’s not going to transform it. The difference, while positive, is very subtle.
Unfortunately, there isn’t a ton of difference between this preamp and those without tubes. Hybrid technology (a hybrid of tube and solid-state construction) really has not been perfected yet. The solid-state components of most hybrid pieces of equipment bottleneck the tone you get from a good tube, so you’re not getting a true tube sound.
With that being said, for the price this is a great little preamp. It works as intended, and while it doesn’t have a drastic effect on your tone it’s definitely not going to make it worse. It’s also one of the cheaper quality preamps available, so if you’re just looking to boost your signal you’re most likely going to be pretty pleased with the results you get.
The quality of the ART Tube MP Studio Mic Preamp also appears to be really high considering its price point based on the general consensus of reviews it’s gotten both by independent reviewers. There’s no commonly cited reports of any technical issues, though some are not happy with the fact that it doesn’t feature an on/off switch. So in order to turn it off you will have to physically unplug it.
The ART Tube MP Studio Mic Preamp isn’t going to have a drastic effect on your sound, but it will perform well for boosting a signal. It’s also very affordable considering its construction and features.
Focusrite ISA One Classic Single-channel Mic Pre-Amplifier with Independent D.I.
Founded in 1985 by Ruper Neve, Focusrite has quickly become one of the names in home and pro recording. Though recently the company has become a household name because of their affordable home recorders, Focusrite has a long history of producing great audio equipment.
One of the first contracts the company ever received was to build an extension to George Martin’s Air Studio recording console. For those of you who weren’t aware, Sir George Martin is widely considered to be the “Fifth Beatle”. He had an extensive involvement in a ton of the most recognizable Beatle tunes, including both “Yesterday” (which is one of the most recorded tracks ever) to Penny Lane.
Focusrite used the experience they gained working with Martin to launch their own consoles, with the aim to product the highest-quality recording console available. Unfortunately, the company’s early forays into audio technology weren’t incredibly successful. This eventually led to the company’s assets being purchased by Phil Dudderidge who, when he saw the increasing interest in outboard modules such as preamplifiers and EQs, decided to take the company in a new direction.
The new direction of the company is the true genesis of the Focusrite we know today, where the majority of the company’s products are outboard effects available separate from a console. A notable example of the company’s products is the Focusrite ISA One, which combines classic tone with the modern features required by today’s musicians.
The first thing to note about this preamplifier is that it combines both a preamp and a dedicated DI (direct input). This means that the device can act somewhat as an all-in-one solution for (very) basic recordings.
While the ISA One does have a more vintage look, it does not skimp on features in any, way, shape, or form. The preamp features four impedance settings, independent DI controls, and a headphone output with an independent volume control. This makes it a great fit for recording simple tracks, like a singer-songwriter or a small ensemble. Provided you have proper mic placement, a good room, and a good recording software you really don’t need much else to make a good recording with this piece of equipment.
A great part about this preamp is that while it does color the sound (more on this later), it avoids introducing any distortion into the end sound. It’s also great at noise rejection, which for a smaller studio or a home recording set up is incredibly important. Unless you have a lot of cash to throw around it can be really hard to provide power to all of your equipment without introducing any hum.
While sound quality is incredibly subjective, it would be hard for anyone to say that the Focusrite ISA One doesn’t perform well for its intended purposes. It delivers a clear and crisp reproduction of whatever instrument you choose to record, and it does so while managing to avoid becoming sharp or thin. Of course, this is provided that you already have decent mics. While this unit does offer a good sound, it’s not going to work to its full potential if the rest of your equipment isn’t up to snuff.
As far as quality is concerned, this preamp is built to the specifications of a professional piece of equipment. It may not be made from the same components, and it may not have the same features, but the structural integrity is there. There’s not one report from any reputable review that cites any quality concerns with the ISA One, which isn’t surprising given Focusrite’s track record.
The only con of the unit is that it’s a bit on the bigger side, which for some of you may prove to be pretty inconvenient. It may sound petty, but not everyone has a lot of space available in their studio. So if you’re working in cramped quarters, be sure to clear out a substantial space for this unit should you choose to purchase it.
The Focusrite ISA One is a modern day successor to one of the most famous recording devices in the world, and as such it can produce a quality of sound that anyone can be proud of. Even better, considering the features and fidelity of sound it’s an impressive bargain when compared to its competitors.
AMS Neve 1073LB
Founded in 1961 by Rupert Neve, Neve (AMS Neve as it’s now known, following a merger with AMS sometime after the company’s founding) is arguably one of the most venerable producers of audio equipment in the world. In fact, some Neve consoles have been utilized in major studios for more than 30 years. This is incredibly impressive considering the fact that digital recording has been the industry standard for some time, so for an analog console to be used to make hit albums in this day in age speaks very highly of its quality.
The company has been the recipient of a variety of awards due to its place in the industry. In addition to receiving several different Oscar and Emmy awards for its part in producing some of the most notable albums ever, it also won a Technical Grammy Award in 2000.
Considering the company’s history, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that the AMS Neve 1073B is a high-quality piece of equipment. The question is: How does it stand up to its competition?
The Neve 1073 was first sold in the 1970s, and since that time it has enjoyed a position as one of the most revered (and copied) preamp designs in history. The 1073B is an homage to the original design, though it should be noted that the circuitry isn’t exactly the same. The original was a much more substantial piece of equipment, so it would be physically impossible to squeeze that much wiring into a unit the size of the 1073B. A unique feature of this module is that it’s companion the 1073LB EQ contains a separate EQ, which when paired with the 1073B closely replicates the signal path of the original.
This preamp does have a lot of hand workmanship involved in its design. The input and output transformers are handwound and each device is assembled by a person. The design has also been outfitted with modern touches that weren’t present in the original. As opposed to a bulky multi-level gain switch has been replaced with a much simpler one that selects function independently. Think of it like having a light switch as opposed to a variable dimmer.
Not surprising for a module of this quality, the average distortion found in test audio tracks of the module has been found to be below 0.07%. This includes high-gain test samples. High-gain on cheaper modules tends to introduce a variety of unpleasant overtones, which can be incredibly frustrating.
The sound of this unit is well representative of the quality you would expect from the brand. It offers a crystal clear sound quality, and a tonal response with a wealth of breadth. This isn’t a preamp that will let you down during the recording process, making it a good choice for those of you who have invested in other quality pieces of equipment.
As far as quality is concerned, this is a professional level of equipment. There’s a sharp divide between beginner equipment and gear intended for professional level applications. Everything feels better to use, and the hardware in the design is made to withstand the rigors of consistent use. You also get way more options in how to approach your sound, which in itself justifies the increased cost of such equipment.
The only con about this piece of gear is that its price is not justifiable if you haven’t already invested in a few quality mics. No preamp is going to transform your sound, so if you only have cheap mics you’re not likely to get much out of this preamp.
Lastly, AMS Neve offers a comprehensive warranty for whoever purchases their equipment. You do have to register your product with the company in order to benefit from its warranty, though this is par for the course in the industry. The warranty also doesn’t cover unreasonable damage (so it will be covered if you drop it or spill something on it, but not if you take after it with a gold club) or user modification.
In summary, the AMS Neve 1073B offers a great value for the musician who has already invested in high-quality audio equipment. However, if you haven’t you should consider doing so before you purchase this device.