The Best Mic Preamp for Vocals and Instruments

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Written By Tanya

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Yes, but it’s got Class-X Goober pres in it so it must be the best mic preamp! Marketing is not your friend. These mixing interfaces, channel strips, and recording interfaces offer you many recording channels, several preamplifiers and compressors. Maybe an equalizer and A/D or D/A converters. All for a few hundred dollars.

How good could any of these components be? This is where the expression “Jack of All Trades, Master of None” was born.

This is what you should see. It doesn’t really matter if your recording vocals or instruments in a studio with the most sensitive microphone in the world, in an ideal acoustic environment. The signal will not be heard unless it is passed through a preamp.

It’s like listening to and analysing a world-class mix on small speakers with a 128kbps MP3 file… it doesn’t make sense, and you’re not unlocking its full potential.

You’re now ready to purchase a preamp dedicated for your vocals, or any other signal that’s passing through your signal path. You have identified the weak link in the recording chain.

Preamplifiers are, in my opinion the most important but also the least valued piece of gear in a studio. It doesn’t feel very sexy. However, it’s also because most people aren’t sure what they do.

Let’s get clear. We will take a look at all the top products in each price range.

We’ll be covering some common questions and talking about some physical form factor options, before getting into the actual pre’s. Just in case someone is new to the topic or you forget something in your research. We’ll keep it quick.

Questions about the Best Mic Preamps

We will discuss the basics of a preamp, its functions, how to use it, and which types are available. You don’t have to know everything, so scroll down to the buyer’s guide.

This post assumes that you are familiar with how to set-up a studio, and the signal path (mic then preamp …).).

What exactly is a PREAMPLIFIER? And WHY does my MIC need one?

I weep every time someone records a microphone without using a preamp. This is primarily because I did it too. Unlike electronic instruments like a keyboard or guitar that produces it’s own line-level (or instrument-level) signal, a microphone produces a mic-level signal by “> Mic-level can be 50dB to 80dB less than line-level.

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Recording a mic-level signal will be difficult because it is extremely quiet. You’ll need to increase the volume to get good results. The mic will be exposed to all noises, including the hum of electricity and unwanted transients. Preamps are used to boost the mic signal, but not the other trash that you don’t need.

Some preamps are better than others. This is where the price comes into play. You have to pay for the research and development.

DIFFERENT PREAMPS IMPACT MY RECORDINGS DIFFERENTLY?

They all have a positive impact on your recording quality. You will need to choose the flavor that you prefer.

Many studios have multiple preamps that they can pair with different microphones to record certain instruments and vocal styles. Let me simplify the matter while I explain.

There are two kinds of flavors.

  • Coloration
  • Transparent

Transparent preamps can be invisible to the ear. They boost the signal and preserve the original microphone flavor, which could be bright, dark, or neutral.

Preamps with colored preamps can add coloration to your recording. This is to say, it will give you a unique sound. This is generally just different levels or “warmth” than harmonic distortion.

WHAT DO YOU THINK ABOUT COLORATION AND TRANSPARENCY?

Harmonic distortion can be a very appealing type of saturation, especially for vocals. However, it can also be used in the mixing stage, so a transparent preamp might be just what you need if you don’t have one. You have many options. A lack of saturation refers to the color.

This saturation is due to the two types preamps, which are separated by circuit design.

  • Tube Preamps
  • Solid-State Preamps with Transformers

Your signal will be enhanced by preamplifiers that have tubes. The vacuum tubes (pictured above) contain gas that is separated by a space.

Tube mics and preamps can be modified by changing out the tubes to suit different styles. Solid-State designs have no moving parts or gas. Transparent styles (pictured to the left) have no transformers. Transparent ones can be applied different colors depending on which transformer is used.

WHAT ABOUT PHANTOM POWER & DIRECT IJECTION?

For example, condensers with tubes and microphones require power sources of 12 to 48 volts. This power is sent back to the mic via the same XLR cable as the preamplifier. However, some models will use their own power boxes or even a battery.

You can toggle phantom power on almost every preamp, even low-end 4-channel mixers. It is important to be aware of this, but you don’t need to worry about it. It is a standard that has been established.

Direct injection (or DI) is a line level input that bypasses the amplifier part of the circuitry and still allows you color your signal. This is great for synthesizers and bass guitars.

WHAT’S UP w/ 500 SERIES AND LUNCHBOXES

All this mixing and recording is just one type of signal processing that is used in tons many industries. Although the 500 Series style isn’t new, it is just recently becoming more popular in the recording and music industry. Let me give you the pros and cons of this option so that you can make a decision about whether or not you want to pursue it.

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API 500-6B Six Slot lunchbox

The pros: First, you need to purchase a Lunchbox. This is a rectangular container with multiple vertical slots. You can choose from small, lightweight ones or larger ones that can rackmount.

These lunchboxes provide power for the 500 series units that you purchase. Lunchboxes are expensive. A decent lunchbox with enough slots will cost you between $500 and $1,000. In case you were curious, the 500-format units can be plugged and thrown in any lunchbox manufacturer. It all works in the same way.

You can overcome this hurdle and all 500 series units will be much more affordable than their counterparts. They are also smaller and more affordable because of the lunchbox that handles the power, their small chassis, and the fact that they all work on one channel.

You’re basically paying less for parts and electronics. Cool thing about this format is that you can have compressors and EQ’s as well as all the other electronics. You can create your channel strips by mixing and matching, or you can fill the channel with tons of pre’s.

Cons. The downsides to this are that you will need to purchase pairs of preamps depending on the type of recording you do. They are also smaller, making it easier to print information on the knobs. This forces the manufacturers to pack more knobs into a smaller area.

These aren’t big deals. It’s all about personal taste. Horizontal rack units are what I love. To be able to afford more expensive preamplifiers, I will eventually make a lunchbox.

Another thing to note is that not all lunchboxes can use standard XLR or male-to-male TRS cable cables. Some lunchboxes offer both DB-25 and XLR, such as the API lunchbox.

Consider the number of slots that you are buying in relation to the overall box width. You don’t need to exceed the standard 19-inch width if you plan to rackmount it. Rack ears are an inexpensive option for lunchboxes that have a width of this or less.

A heads-up, I would save my headache and buy one with XLR and TRS inputs. An internal power supply is essential if you plan to transport it. If I were going to rack it I would not care about the external supply. It’s just another “wall wart”, style box, and not just a power cable that comes out the back. You can add another slot to an internal power one, making it up to 8 instead.

Things to consider first

You’re probably already on the hunt for the best mic preamp, but there are still many things to consider before you make a purchase. These are the three main considerations:

  1. Color
  2. Form Factor
  3. Channel Choices

As we have already discussed, color is important. Next, consider the form factor. The form factor refers the design of the preamp’s box. There are three choices:

  • Desktop
  • Rackmount
  • 500 Series

This decision can be made by simply deciding how many pieces you will collect over the years. You might consider buying preamps, compressors and EQ’s to set up a patchbay, as well as a classic rackmount style. Or a 500 Series style that can fit into a 500 Series lunchbox chassis.

You can also mount them on racks or carry them around as a lunchbox. A desktop style is best if you only work with one type of signal path or vocals at a time. It can be rackmounted as well as carried around like a lunchbox.

You don’t have to choose between a horizontal rackmount or 500 series unit if you exclude desktop designs. Most preamps will be available in both formats by most respectable companies. Be aware that most 500 series preamps are mono channel. Talking about number of channels…

You will also need to decide how many pre-amplification channels you require. The most popular choices are single channel for mono recordings such as vocals, dual channel (for stereo recordings such as acoustic guitars or pianos), or a channel strip that has as many as 4-8 preamps.

A WORD ABOUT CHANNEL STRIPS

There are two types of channel strips. One is a row preamplifiers which take XLR inputs from the mic cable and output the signal back using a 1/4″ patch cord. This can be used to record entire bands or even a complete drum set.

This is a very cost-effective option, but it puts you back in the “Jack all trades master of none” category. Although you can find preamp channel strips that look great, they are not as durable as the dual channel options.

You don’t need to have a lot of channels, but you might want to buy at least one or two channels. Then you can track drums and other forward instruments with cheaper preamps. Once you are able to grow your library, you can purchase more channels. Listeners will benefit more from hearing flawless vocals than hearing “less than average everything.”

You will also see the channel strips that cover your entire signal path. These will have a preamplifier, which feeds directly to an equalizer and then to a compressor or another variation. These are some of the best available, and we’ll list a few.

These should not be considered a compromise in quality, as long as they are the ones that have been mentioned. These are the only ones I am referring to that did not sacrifice any components in order to be competitive on price.

The Best Mic Preamps

Let’s get started! These will be broken down by the typical budget ranges. We’ll start with the lowest and move up to the top-tier, where quality matters most.

Note: Every image and text link takes you to Amazon.com, where you can read additional reviews, view technical details, see additional product sizes and options, and make your order.

Best Preamps Under $200

Cheap means anything below $200. Although there will be cheaper options, I won’t recommend you go to the bottom because they are likely to be worse than your pre-interface. Do not buy something that you will never want to upgrade again.

This is what I call the “consumer-level.” This will get you started and sounding great, better than anyone else using mixers or the most expensive audio interfaces.

PRESONUS BLUETUBE V2

The PreSonus BlueTube is first. This preamp is an entry-level desktop unit that can record either mono or stereo signals. This preamp is not only good quality, but also offers many options to help you get started in the worlds of pre-amplification.

It has two XMAX prechannels that run through 12AX7 vacuum tubes to a solid-state gainstage. You can use the Tube Drive knob to increase the saturation without affecting the gain. You can record a transparent signal and get a very colored feeling of warmth.

The VU meters look great and are yellow-lit. The VU meters also have 80 Hz high pass filters to keep low-end noise out and a -20dB pad that allows you to control the input levels before you increase the output gain.

It is not bad and it can be stored at 1/2-unit size, if you need to place it on a rackmount shelf.

CHECK PRICE AT AMAZON Tube Drive Knob: The Magic…

DBX 286S

DBX is a veteran in signal processing and the DBX286s shows that. This channel strip gives you access to their preamplifiers as well as their popular compression. While I don’t care much about the gate or enhancer, they are great to have for live performances.

That stuff is what I deal with in the mix. The onboard de-esser is something I appreciate. It eliminates the sibilance that can spike up on vocals and string scrapes on guitar.

A compressor is a great addition to any recording equipment. To avoid accidental clipping or distortion, I record with live compression. However, it is a very small amount. This channel strip will allow you to do the same thing without needing to purchase additional equipment.

This model is single-channel and solid-state, so it will be a good fit for most people. This unit is rackmount. If you don’t have a rack to mount it, you can place it on your desk. However, I recommend using the fuzzy sticker pads to attach to the bottom of your desk so that you don’t scratch your desk.

CHECK PRICE AT AMAZON

Preamp Plus a Whole Channel Strip

ART TPS II

ART has seen a lot of preamps appear on these “best-of” lists. Their newest ARTTM TPS II takes all their old models slots. The 2-channel path is housed in a rackmount chassis.

Both preamps have tubes whose color can be adjusted with the V3 Variable Vave Voicing drive knob. Although there are preset settings for different instruments and genres, you can adjust it to suit your needs.

This front plate design impresses me. Presentation is an important part of the battle. ART doesn’t leave you hanging there.

CHECK PRICE AT AMAZON The V3 Drive Knob is sweet…

Best Mic Preamp under $500

You can get more expensive studio equipment and better recordings by moving up to the “under 500” category. This price range allows you to access emulation equipment that replicates the classic and top-quality options.

This is what I call the “prosumer-level.” If you can mix well and create a good acoustic environment, you’ll be able to achieve professional quality.

BLACK LION AUDIO B173

We’re now talking. Black Lion Audio’s HTML173 pre-amp is a single-channel, half-rack unit that mimics the Neve 1073 flavor (which we’ll discuss below!). At a fraction the cost.

It is solid-state with a transformer, which is how it achieves the color. The gain knob is stepped. This means that it clicks from setting the setting to the next setting, rather than being a smooth knob (stepped knobs are less likely to wear out or have loud spots). Your high impedance, direct injection input is also available.

These are a great choice. It is modeled after one of the most popular preamplifiers.

CHECK PRICE AT AMAZON Great Neve Clone with Colored Neves at a fraction of the price

WARM AUDIO WA12

The Warm Acoustic WA12 color description is warm. Warm Audio is a relatively new company that rose quickly to the top of the list among professionals and home recording studio enthusiasts. Although it is a desktop chassis, this can be easily converted to rack with rack ears. There is also a 500 Series version.

It has everything you would expect from a high-quality preamp, including a D.I. It features input, gain padding and phase polarity conversion. The solid-state version includes transformers which bring it close to the Melcor 1731 sound, even at this price.

Everybody who gets to play with one of these loves it.

CHECK PRICE AT AMAZON

Supreme warmth in a box

FOCUSRITE ISA ONE

Focusrite could not be excluded from this list. The Focusrite IS One is their most classic preamplifier. Focusrite is a pre-amplifier supplier to many interface and mixer companies. Their true talent is shown by the ISA One.

They made a strange chassis design that I can forgive. It looks great and is very portable. The transformer-based, but largely transparent, chassis is available with four settings.

You can use inserts to bounce the signal out to an EQ, compressor or just flow it out. It also has a direct injector input. This one also has a dedicated output for headphones. The box also includes an optional converter that converts analog to digital.

These were almost $15,000 back in 1985. These are still a great resource. Even if your channel is only for voiceovers, podcasting, and vocals, it’s worth considering.

CHECK PRICE AT AMAZON The Portable Single Channel Legend…

Best Mic Preamp under $1000

These three are magnificent, without a doubt. Now we are moving beyond the “consumer”, “prosumer” and “professional” levels to the “professional level.” You should know what you are doing and how you intend to learn if you buy one of these.

These are the best professional records you can make. Nobody would be surprised. This is the lowest-level of the high-end.

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FMR AUDIO PREAMP REALLY NICE

The FMR audio Really Nice Preamp is amazing. It’s commonly known as “the RNP” or simply “the RNP”. I own one, paired with their compressor (the RNNC). They look better and can fit in the Funklogic rack tray. They create a great channel strip when they are together.

You might find yourself looking at it and thinking, “But it’s ugly.” FMR believes that this is their philosophy. FMR decided to forgo laser engraving metal rack plates in favor of solid plastic. This allows them to offer two higher quality pre’s. Funklogic offers rack trays that can be used with all types of FMR gear.

As you can see from my recommendations on this site, I use my RNP all the time. It is the best preamp I have ever used. It is dual-channel and solid-state, with all the options that you have come to expect from reading this article. There are inserts and instrument inputs as well as knobs that are stepped.

One thing that you will see is that the outputs are not balanced. You’ll be able to see it right by your interface so don’t use a 10′ cable. Instead, use regular patch cables. This was paired with a Rode NTK microphone and it has outperformed top industry releases.

CHECK PRICE AT AMAZON You can trust me on this one: Crystal Clear Recordings…

GRACE DESIGN M101

Another indisputable top-rated product in this price range is the Grace Design. This half-unit desktop version can be rackmounted with ears, or placed on a shelf. It also comes in the 500 Series version called the m501.

Users who are looking for a transparent preamp or a direct injection point will love the m101. This guy basically takes your microphone and shows you its true potential. This mic unlocks the greatest value from any microphone you give it. For ribbon microphones, you will see a “ribbon button”. It also features high pass filters and phantom power.

It’s one that I cannot personally speak to as I haven’t used it. However, everyone else claims it’s the best, especially in high-frequency settings. It has that sparkle. It is worth a look!

CHECK PRICE AT AMAZON

A Must-Have Industry Product in the Rack

UNIVERSAL AUDIO SOLO/610

The Universal Audio SOLO/610, another standalone lunchbox chassis is modeled after the Putnam 610 pre-‘s that are highly coveted because of their stunning tube colors. It has a low cut feature, phantom powered, impedance settings and D.I., just like all the others in this range. input and phase reversing.

This preamplifier has a single channel with tube circuitry and phase reversing. The ground lift allows you to disconnect the ground loop from the electronics nearby and eliminate any buzz or hum.

While the low-cut switch will take care of most of this, depending on what you are recording, you might not want to use it. This extra option is great.

The SOLO/610 is a highly colorful option for this price range.

CHECK PRICE AT AMAZON The Colorful Putnam 611 Clone…

TRUE SYSTEMS P – SOLO

The True Systems PSolo is often mentioned when the RNP comes up. Both are loved by many and debated (meaning that they both rock). The only difference between the two is that P-Solo is a single channel and not dual. The P-Solo has a color, despite being solid-state and completely transformerless.

The bad boy has a high-impedance input for instruments, a high-pass filter to avoid low-frequency noise and phantom powers. You can dial in the perfect gain stage with the large and smooth gain pot.

The “Ribbon version” is shown above. You can clearly see the difference as one has Ribbon written on its face. It is designed for ribbon microphones. For condensers or dynamic mics, the “normal” version should be used.

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RNP Neck-to-Neck

Unlimited Budget – No Obligation!

This is the realm of infinite possibility. However, there are limitations. Some of the most powerful preamplifiers have been discontinued and must be bought on the used market. Some are for large mixer consoles.

Although some are easily available online, prices vary between sellers. I will list the top ones that are easily accessible without having to wait for eBay or forums to see if one is available.

  • LedgerNote Favorite

AVALON VT 737SP

The Avalon VT-773sp channel strip is a classic that does wonders for vocals. It adds warmth and quality to the mix while also providing equalizer and compressor. These are often used by recording studios that specialize in R&B, rap and pop. It’s a great bass guitar D.I., and it’s a common practice. ‘d in.

The desktop Avalon is also available. This is the preamp from a channel strip. The price difference is not worth it since the preamp and chassis still make up the bulk of the cost. However, the standalone option is available.

One time, a friend asked me to keep his 737 strip during his move. I kept it for six months, and almost wept when I had to return it. It did a lot for my vocal recordings, even though I was using it in the vocal booth. This is a must-have item for anyone who has a studio. I am going to buy it soon.

If I was playing bass or keyboard live, I would do this and mix it before the sound guy. Vocals are also possible.

CHECK PRICE AT AMAZON Preamps are the Holy Grail of Preamps

GREAT RIVER EECTRONICS MP-2NV

The Great River is designed after the Neve preamplifiers, but with its own advances. This is the reason I have yet to buy an Avalon. These guys are my dream. It’s really, really terrible. This is when you stop worrying about the quality.

Everything is perfect. It’s all about what flavor you choose. It was a pleasure to have a chance of playing with one and I love how it handles large diaphragm condensers paired with vocals. It is the most transparent, crystal clear preamp that I have ever had the pleasure to use.

This rackmount dual channel option has independent controls for polarity reverse, impedance changing and gain and trim. There are also Hi-Z inputs to instruments. If you are building a lunchbox, you can also get a single channel in the 500 Series format called Great River.

I will stop talking about it because I could go on forever. I would love to have at least four channels, and I would be a happy man to die.

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The Preamp I’m Saving up For…

SOLID STATE LOGIC ALPHA VHD

Although you may not be familiar with the full name Solid State Logic’s, everyone is familiar with the acronym SSL. Professionals will happily buy a 20 to $100,000 SSL mixing console that has 24 to 96 channels, and call it a day. This is the standard in the industry. It can be used for pre-amplification, compression or equalization as well as conversion.

They’ve also released the Solid State Logic Alpha VHD for everyone else. This is a four-channel preamp strip with the classic SSL transparency. It also has the Variable Harmonic drive option, so you can add any warmth. You can expect everything you would want, including D.I. It has inputs, pad and lots of gain (+75dB).

They keep it affordable by offering four channels at a fraction of the cost that other companies charge. They have been in the business since 1969. They developed their channels quickly and sold like hotcakes every music, radio and television company. They can now keep the costs low for those of us who don’t need 96 channels.

This is the best preamp for those who need more than two channels. This is the price-isno-object section.

CHECK PRICE AT AMAZON The Industry Gold Standard…

API 3124+

API is another company that isn’t afraid to be bold. This is evident with The API 3124+. API is another company that has their masterpieces in consoles, and decided to make it available in rackmountable form for the rest of us mortals.

Yep, you got it. You have phantom power, instrument inputs and -20dB pads. Polarity switches are also available. This beauty, like the SSL option, offers four channels of clear, punchy, transparent, yet slightly dark preamps.

API is a popular record release that many have heard of. It’s well-known for its ability handle rapid transients and has been used on numerous top records. These API pre’s are a favorite of many studio engineers, who also use them to track drums.

This is a great place to start. This flavor is quick to react and transparent in high’s, with a little warmth at the low end. You can also choose from 500 Series formats.

CHECK PRICE AT AMAZON

Rank Access to a Classic Console…

NEVE 1073DPX

Finally, we arrive at the Neve 1073DPX. The 1073 is undoubtedly the most desirable option, and it has the most noticeable and pleasing color. You’ll find a lot 1073 numbers online with letters tagged after them.

This refers to the 500 Series, the EQ only, etc. The console version of the classic 1073 was only the 1073. It had a preamplifier as well as an equalizer. This is what you see here, with two channels and turned sideways.

You will need two channels to record stereo sources if you buy this. This monster has been on many of the greatest records since 1970. There are inserts on the back and direct injection. Headphone monitoring is available. Level meters are also included.

The equalizer features three bands and a dedicated high pass filter. This equalizer can be used live or in the studio to dial in the perfect mix. You can also commit it to the take, if desired, instead of using plugins. Hardware mixing is great and I try to use as much as I can before I start (but not too much to avoid having to go back).

This is the ultimate preamp. You won’t regret it. This is it.

CHECK PRICE AT AMAZON The One That All Others Want to Copy…

These are the Best Mic Preamps Available…

We explained the purpose of a preamplifier and the effects it has on the quality of your music recordings. The best preamplifiers were then listed, with prices ranging from $200 to $500, $1,000 to $1000, and no budget limit.

I did my best to provide the most concise description possible of each preamp’s technical and sonic characteristics. It’s impossible to compare these preamps without listening to them all.

Because I cannot reach the screen, shootouts are nearly impossible to make scientifically with controlled variables. Make sure you’re listening on the best studio headphones and monitors that you can find in an acoustically treated space.

It is almost impossible to find a store that has all these items and allows you to play with them. It is also expensive to rent them, but you could spend that money on buying one.

We’ve selected the very best. You can then read more about transparency, color, number channels, and other features.

You will be happy with any upgrade decision, no matter how high your budget. You want to unlock every microphone’s potential, so make sure you pick the preamp that interests you and is within your budget.

Do not get too caught up in the debate about which vocal preamp is the best or best for what. All of them serve the same purpose in the end: to boost the mic-level signal up to line-level and keep the signal clear of noise. It’s so subjective and subtle that you could ignore the idea of “color” and still be perfectly happy.

Do not get bogged down in analysis. You won’t be disappointed by any of the pre-amps on this page. Make sure you get the best mic preamp that you can afford, and start recording!

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