By Craig Anderton
Preamps—just like mics, speakers, and record company lawyers—are shrouded in mystery. They provide that all-importrant link between a mechanical transducer, such as a mic or guitar pickup, and the circuitry that follows it, such as a mixer or computer audio interface.
It used to be that the idea of buying expensive mic preamps for a home studio was outlandish. But as the cost of recording has nose-dived, more disposable income has been freed up for devices like monitor speakers, mics, preamps, and other accessories. Furthermore, with many "owner-operator" studios where instruments are recorded one at a time, you only need one good quality preamp. If you need to mic a drum set, well, you can always uses the good preamp on part of the kit and the ones in your mixer for the other tracks.
There are a lot of preamps on the market, from cheapo tube preamps to audiophile devices that costs thousands of dollars and sound like electronic silk. Although differences among preamps have narrowed over the years as the components used to make them have become more consistent, people get very passionate about their preamps because there are still distinct, subtle differences among the various types that even those without golden ears can hear. However, as with most "golden ear" topics, there's a lot of mythology surrounding preamps—some of it true, some of it half-true, and some of it flat out wrong. Let's sort out fact from the fiction.
The bottom line on preamps is simple: You can't really go too much by other people's advice, unless you're recording the same type of material using the same gear. Subtle differences among devices might sway you toward one or the other. In any event, though, try out as many preamps as you can. At some point, you'll find the one that sounds best to your ears.
Craig Anderton is Editor in Chief of Harmony Central and Executive Editor of Electronic Musician magazine. He has played on, mixed, or produced over 20 major label releases (as well as mastered over a hundred tracks for various musicians), and written over a thousand articles for magazines like Guitar Player, Keyboard, Sound on Sound (UK), and Sound + Recording (Germany). He has also lectured on technology and the arts in 38 states, 10 countries, and three languages.
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