Music is your passion. From a young age, you’ve been taking lessons, spending hour after hour practicing until your arms ache, your fingers bleed, and you’re not sure you can think in words anymore… it’s all a series of notes in your brain.
And now, all of that hard work has actually paid off. Finally, you’ve got all the resources and footprints in place, and you can set up your home studio at last!
It’s time to start laying down those tracks so you can wow the world with your musical prowess, and the talent that started out with just a teeny tiny bud of a desire to play, all those years ago.
Is A Mic Preamp A Must-Have?
As you’re planning everything out, you might be thinking about what you absolutely must have in your studio.
One of the items on that list really ought to be a microphone preamplifier. But what do they do? And better yet – how do you figure out which one you ought to bring home?
How do you determine what the best mic preamp is?
Here’s a handy guide to some of the best preamps we’ve found on the market, and how this technology can improve your studio sound and recordings.
In This Article
- The Best Booster: Cloudlifter CL-1
- Best Under $100: ART TubeMPSTV3
- Best for Mobile Devices: iRig Microphone Preamp
- Best on a Budget: Behringer Tube Ultragain MIC100
- Runner Up: Grace Design m101
- Top Pick: Avalon VT-737sp
What Does a Mic Preamp Do?
A “preamp” refers to one of two things: either the internal preamp circuit within an amplifying device (like a microphone), or a dedicated external device that does the same thing. There are two types of mic preamps: onboard (built in panel) and outboard (dedicated external).
Your mic is a powerful tool, but microphone signals are generally way below operating level, which means you need to add a preamp for external gain in order to raise the signal and avoid harmonic distortion.
Typical Gains Are Too Low For Quality Audio
A vocal gain is typically 30-60 dB, while instruments like the acoustic guitar or bass might only require 20-30dB of gain. You may think your sound is loud enough, but consider this: your standard home studio kit has a standard nominal level of +4dBu, while electronic instruments have an output around -10 dBv.
So, in order for your one-of-a-kind, super unique sound to be heard, you’ll need a preamp. While many audio interfaces have built-in preamps, and this may be good enough for most users to get started, you’ll want to improve your technology with a dedicated preamp to get that serious sound on your marketable recordings.
What Are the Benefits of a Preamp?
In addition to making sure you can be heard, with clean, crisp sound, preamps also offer a lot of additional benefits to the overall quality of your sound.
- A mic preamp can offer better sound quality.
- An external preamp allows more gain.
- You’ll experience lower studio noise.
- You’ll gain a richer sound character.
When a preamp is not used, it’s possible that users will find their sound quality changing as the gains increase, especially with a lower output microphone. If you’re just starting out, it’s likely that you won’t have the best microphone on the market, and sound above 40-50 dB might start sounding a little blurry.
That’s probably not going to help you sell your single and get you that gold record, so it’s time to clean things up with preamps.
Increased Gain Helps To Lower Noise
A preamp will be capable of giving you more gain, and best of all, with lower noise. If you use low output, ribbon mics, or need to record quieter voices and instruments, you’re going to want to eliminate any internal and external noise.
And as it turns out, an outboard preamp is less noisy than an internal preamp.
Tube Preamps Have An Awesome Vintage Sound
The ‘sound character’ is probably something you’ve already heard about.
A lot of musicians love the unique vintage sound you can get from external preamps. While each type of mic is known for its distinctive “voice,” preamps are actually very similar.
Some even include controls such as phase reverse, low cut, and pad switches.
Some Preamp Sounds Are Actually ‘Signature’ All On Their Own
In fact, you might have heard of some performers using preamps for live shows, to capture that signature sound.
For those who are just starting to perform live and in the studio, know this: A road preamp is going to be one more piece of equipment you’re going to have to explain to your roadies and sound crew, so you might want to hold off until you hit the arenas, and invest in a preamp for the road.
But in the studio, a mic preamp is actually an essential.
How Do I Choose the Best Preamp for My Music?
Unfortunately, there’s no such thing as a universal preamp. Not only are there different styles of preamps, but each one will function a bit differently.
Some are best at capturing spoken performances, such as podcasts and livestreams, while other preamps are fantastic when paired with musical instruments.
Consider Your Budget
First, you’ll want to check your bank account.
Much as Bill and Ted argued over whether Eddie Van Halen would make the Wyld Stallyns, or whether having a clutch band would attract Eddie Van Halen, you may be mulling over the same type of puzzle.
If you buy the fantastic equipment, then your recordings will be phenomenal. But if you haven’t sold the albums, then how can you afford the equipment?
Therefore, beginning professionals ought to pay attention to price point. In this post, we’ll take a look at mic preamps from a variety of price ranges, so you can decide on the very best option for your wallet.
Consider The Number Of Channels
Next, consider how many channels you’ll need. While most mic preamps include one channel, meaning you can use one microphone at a time, you can find preamps with eight or more channels.
So, ask yourself: will you use more than one mic at a time? Depending on how many instruments and voices you’ll have harmonizing at a time, 2-4 channels might be a good investment to start.
Alternately, you might need multiple preamps for more than one mic.
What Type Of Preamp Should You Invest In?
Then there’s the type of preamp. The most popular types of preamps are tube, solid state, or hybrid. Vacuum tubes are typically associated with harmonious sounds, while solid-state preamps have a very clean type of sound, which many feel has a “digital” feel.
Hybrids offer both of these benefits, but they often have a higher price tag.
Consider What You Are Trying To Interface With
Inputs and outputs are also important.
Having a preamp on hand doesn’t help if it can’t communicate with your mic and other equipment.
Make sure you add the preamp into your overall map of equipment, so you know exactly what you need to make sure it works.
What Are the Best Preamps on the Market?
Glad you asked.
We’ve taken the opportunity to review many of the mic preamps currently available to musicians of every level, and compiled what we consider the “Best of the Best.”
We’ve broken this down by category so you can compare the proverbial “apples to apples” when it comes to some of the more readily available preamps on the market today.
The Best Booster: Cloud Microphones Cloudlifter CL-1 Mic Activator
Ok, ok, so it’s not exactly a preamp… but it does the same job.
Plus, with a price tag of $149.00, the Cloudlifter CL-1 is a great bargain for starter recording studios. The Cloud is great for dynamic and ribbon mics, which may need that boost for the right level of gains. One of the most popular features of the Cloud is that many musicians actually use this booster for many, many years without issue, making it a solid investment!
Cloudlifter CL-1 Key Features:
- 1 channel capacity
- Can use Phantom power to provide an additional +25dB to passive mics without Phantom power impacting the mic
- Can be used with a variety of mics in both live and studio settings
The Best Under $100: ART TubeMPSTV3 Variable Valve Voicing Tube Mic Preamp With Limiter
The ART TubeMPSTV3 is another highly reliable product with a reputation for going the distance.
One of the key features of the ART pro preamp is its flexibility. Whether you’re singing, playing, podcasting, live broadcasting, or streaming live from the studio, this mic preamp is capable of improving your sound.
ART TubeMPSTV3 Key Features:
- 1 channel capacity
- Built-in analog volume unit meter
- V3 (Variable Valve Voicing) with selectable Output Protection Limiter
- Gain totals of up to 70dB
- Tube-style preamp contains a 12AX7A dual triode tube
- XLR inputs and outputs
- 1/4″ High impedance instrument input and 1/4″ line level output
- Gain of +/- 20dB can be controlled via switch
The Best for Mobile Devices: Multimedia iRig Microphone Preamp
Coming in with a very reasonable price tag of $39.99, this analog preamp is designed specifically for your mobile devices.
For a little guy with a very specific job, it manages to compare in sound quality to some of the devoted studio preamps. It connects with a standard headphone jack, so the question of inputs and outputs is easily addressed. It even works with the new airbud to jack converters, so it has a universal capability with devices.
This preamp works specifically with a condenser mic, and can be a lifesaver when used in conjunction with audio and video apps on your phone, tablet, or digital camera, giving you the ability to create studio quality sound just about anywhere.
iRig Microphone Preamp Key Features:
- XLR microphone input
- Adjustable gain slider-style button on the side of the preamp
- Monitor real-time audio recording with supported device apps
- 1/8″ headphone output jack
- +48v Phantom power requires use with professional condenser mic
- 15.75″ cord allows device and preamp flexibility on location
- Powered by a 9V battery, so there’s no drain on the device
- Battery provides 30 hours of power, or 10 hours with phantom power on
The Best on a Budget: Behringer Tube Ultragain MIC100
The Behringer Tube MIC100 is an amazingly versatile preamp with pretty amazing sound capabilities. When you compare the cost of this preamp to a vintage 1960’s model, you’re paying just a fraction of the price… for a sound that rivals the older, more seasoned preamps.
The secret is the 12AX7 tube with UTC technology, which creates a warm, vintage tube character with low-noise operation.
This tube preamp can add a lot of warmth, depth, and character to your recordings, suiting voice as well as a variety of instruments. At $58.99, this preamp has a retro sci-fi appearance with large knob controls, and the ability to create clean recordings for all sources.
Behringer Tube Ultragain MIC100 Key Features:
- Flexible, high-quality gains suitable for all mic, instrument and line-level sources.
- Can be used with studio-grade condenser mics to improve overall sound quality
- Versatile enough to be used with studio and live performances, as well as hard disk recording
- Tube styling includes 12AX7 vacuum tube with UTC technology, resulting in rich, warm sound with minimal mic noise
- Can be used as Direct Input (DI) box for premium balanced sound
- Avoid output distortion with output limiter
But what about the big dogs? What type of preamp should you buy if you’re really making an investment in your sound? This category of preamps highlights some of the best of the best on the market.
The Runner Up: Grace Design m101 Single Channel Microphone Preamplifier
Again, this category is for the preamps that are best for the recording studio, and may be wish list items for the foreseeable future.
The Grace Design preamp is currently priced at $765.00, but it offers premium sound. While it’s true that you could buy a handful of the preamps in the previous category for the price of this single-channel preamp, there’s a reason the Grace has perfect ratings.
Grace Design m101 Key Features:
- 1 channel capable
- 12-position rotary gain switch, gold plated
- Standard ribbon mic mode now included
- Relay bypass of phantom power decoupling capacitors results in increased input impedance and +48 lockout
- 10-75 dB gain range
- Reduced Radio Frequency Interference (RFI) with built-in suppression
- Includes three output connectors: XLR balanced, 1/4″ TRS balanced, and 1/4″ TS unbalanced
- Sealed gold contact relay for high impedance input
- Built in, universal linear power supply
- 75Hz 12dB/octave high pass filter
Top Pick: Avalon VT-737sp Class A Mono Tube Channel Strip
One look at this preamp, and it’s easy to tell the difference between it and the others listed above. It doesn’t even seem to compare. First, you’ll notice that it has a lot of controls.
The Avalon 737sp preamp offers three inputs: a high performance mic input transformer with +48v phantom selection, an instrument DI high source input jack located on the front panel, and a balanced line input discrete high-level Class A rating. As a Class A preamp, this unit has two cascaded, dual vacuum tube triodes, which limit negative feedback.
This preamp offers premium gain control, as well as controls for a clean mic sound. It’s also highly praised for the quality of its warm sound, due to the tube construction.
Avalon VT-737sp Key Features:
- 1 channel capability
- Sound is achieved through a combination of tube preamplifiers, opto-compressor, sweep equalizer, output level and VU metering in a 2U space
- Three input selections:
- The VT-737SP input includes a higher-performance microphone input transformer with +48v phantom selection.
- Direct Input high source input for instruments
- Balanced line input, discrete high-level Class A.
- The four tubes preamps are configured as single ended anode coupled followers.
- Passive-variable high-pass filter and hard-wire relay bypass within the input signal conditioning.
- Frequency response -3dB: 1Hz to 200kHz line in-out
- Gain range: Mic: Transformer balanced 850/2500 ohm, 0dB to +58dB Instrument: Unbalanced 1 meg ohm, 0dB to +30dB Line: Balanced Class A 20k ohms, -27dB to 28dB
- Maximum input level: Mic: 26dB@25Hz, +30dB@1kHz balanced XLR Instrument +30dB unbalanced front panel jack socket Line +36dB balanced XLR
- Max Output level: +30dB balanced 600 ohms, DC coupled, discrete Class A
While we can definitively say what we think the the penultimate preamp amongst all of the preamps on the market is, there are still a lot of wildcard factors at play. First, there’s your mic. If you have a low-quality mic, not even the most exclusive luxury preamp in the world can save you.
You’ll also want to make sure your studio or recording space is set up correctly, from an audio standpoint. You don’t want your preamp rattling against walls or shelving, and you definitely don’t need your mic picking up on your neighbors arguing… unless that’s the kind of recording you’re hoping to sell!
You May Need More Than One Preamp
You may need multiple preamps, if you’ll have more than one mic at a time, which is typical of most studios.
While preamps are great at magnifying sound, most of the models we’ve rated today only offer one channel. Bear this in mind when making your ultimate selection.
Pay Close Attention To The Features!
Preamps also offer a significant variety of functions and capabilities.
Compare the budget preamp to the Avalon, and you’ll see a huge difference in the number of features. Before selecting preamps, consider how much control you want (or need) to create your ideal sound.
There are plenty of preamps on the market, but as we’ve discovered today, not each preamp is created equally.
As you research preamps, bear in mind all the functionality you need, and how this model will fit into your budget, your studio, and your future plans.
But at the end of the day, the most important thing is to make your choice, order your preamp, and get back to doing what you do best… creating awesome audio and vocals for your projects!
That’s what it’s all about! That is, by far, the most important part of all of this!
So keep on creating!
We’ll see you on the next one.