Best Mic Preamps for Home Studios | The Ultimate Guide

Updated May 29, 2017  |  by Hollagully  |  in MUSIC, TECHNOLOGY

You’re a home studio musician looking to elevate the quality of your recordings and are looking for the best mic preamp to add vibe and colour to your tracks, right?

Or perhaps you’re wondering why you even need a microphone preamp in the first place? Hell, what is a preamp? If any of these questions apply to you then you’re at exactly the right place.

We’ve put together a complete, in-depth buying guide that will teach you all of the essentials to help you equip your home studio with the appropriate mic preamp for the tasks at hand.

We have included eight models that cover quite a bit of ground and vary in features, so there’s surely a little something in here for everybody. All models are entry to mid-range models that are affordable at almost all budgets.

Though it is true that you will always get what you pay for, and that the price of a preamp will reflect the quality of the sound it can reproduce, the market is loaded with some fantastic affordable units that do an incredible job replicating the character and features of much higher priced models.

You can spend thousands of dollars on a world class microphone preamp, but unless all factors along the signal path are optimal, and you have someone with extraordinary talents mixing your tracks, you’re highly unlikely to benefit from this type of investment.

That being said, a quality preamp is a fine way to achieve premium quality recordings and get the best out of literally any microphone.

Keep scrolling to read our complete microphone preamp buying guide.

focusrite-isa-one-mic-preamp

1

Focusrite ISA One

The Focusrite ISA One is a truly all-in-one microphone preamp based on Focusrite’s popular Forte console. It is loaded with valuable features making it one-of-a-kind in its class of single channel mic pres and is has a totally portable design for getting great sounds wherever you are. It boasts an independent D.I which can be used as a second channel for blending signal from DI sources such as guitars or basses.

Its Lundahl L1538 transformer-based mic preamp includes four impedances to match microphone to input and offers tons of headroom with absolute clarity. The Focusrite ISA One can drive any low-output mic and deliver a completely professional sound just like any of Focusrite’s high-end professional studio gear but at a consumer market price fit for the home or project studio musician.

>> Read our full review of the Focusrite ISA One

2

presonus-studio-channel-mic-preamp

Recording on a console is great for those who can afford it but for home studio musicians working in smaller spaces on a budget, this is just not an option. However, the features of a given channel of a console most certainly are and they can had at an affordable price. The PreSonus Studio Channel Strip is a single channel rack mount that features a Class A vacuum tube microphone preamp with tube gain and tube drive, a Variable VCA compressor, 3-band parametric EQ and a precision analog VU meter. These features allow you to breath life into your signal from the point of tracking and will allow you to shape your sound right off the bat, before going into your DAW.

>> Read our full review of the PreSonus Studio Channel

PreSonus Studio Channel Tube

art-pro-mpa-ii-best-mic-preamp

3

ART Pro MPA II Tube

The ART Pro MPA II is a highly sought-after tube preamp that is widely considered the best value-for-money mic preamps on the market. With two Variable Input Impedance channels featuring 12AX7 tubes and 70db of gain, this tube preamp offers professional functionality and sound that outperforms much of it’s competition. Though considered to be a budget mic preamp it still sits confidently next to more expensive high-end products, offering vibe and character to anything going through it. With it’s wide range of features, professional sound and great price, it is not uncommon for project studios to pick up several of the ART Pro MPA II to serve justice to a good performance.

>> Read our full review of the ART Pro MPA II

4

dbx-286s-best-microphone-preamp

For more control of your signal going into your DAW, a versatile channel strip like the dbx 286s is a perfect choice that features a studio quality microphone preamp, classic dbx compression, a tuneable de-esser, an enhancer for definition of high and low frequencies, and an expander/gate. These controls will allow you to shape your signal, tailoring it to your liking before hitting your DAW and leaving much less work to do in the mix. It comes with all the essential features of a standard preamp and allows you to insert your signal at any point within the signal path, allowing you to use the preamp independently or in combination with any of the other processors and in whichever order you desire.

>> Read our full review of the dbx 286s

dbx 286s Channel Strip

warm-audio-wa12-best-mic-preamp

5

Warm Audio WA12

If you’re looking for vintage vibe, tone, and coloration with minimal fuss at a budget price then the Warm Audio WA12 should surely make your shortlist. Its high-quality components and all the essential features of a classic mic preamp make this unit a top contemporary solution for achieving the depth and warmth of much more expensive vintage gear. It is a self explanatory one channel mic preamp ready to receive any signal to its dual XLR/TRS input socket and deliver a tight bottom end and soft high frequencies. If you want a sound that is identifiably vintage, check out Warm Audio WA12.

>> Read our full review of the Warm Audio WA12

6

presonus-bluetube-microphone-preamp

The PreSonus BlueTube DP V2 is a highly versatile half-rack sized stand-alone tube mic preamp featuring their popular XMAX Class-A solid-state preamp which drives a 12AX7 tube output stage. It’s all-metal case is 1U high and comes with balanced XLR 1/4-inch Combi mic/instrument input/output jacks, has cool-looking backlit VU meters, and uses a 12VDC external power supply module. This is an ideal mic preamp for the budding home producer looking to dial in some tube vibe to his/her recordings for some great results at a reasonable price.

>> Read our full review of the PreSonus BlueTube DP V2

PreSonus Bluetube DP V2

golden-age-project-pre-73-mic-preamp

7

Golden Age Project Pre-73 MKII & MKIII

If you’re looking to add the natural harmonic distortions and tonality found in vintage gear but aren’t ready to dish out the thousands of dollars it would usually cost you, then put the Golden Age Project Pre-73 MKII or MKIII at the top of your shortlist. These one-channel vintage style microphone preamplifiers feature circuitry based on the famous Neve 1073, considered among the best-sounding preamps of all time. They offer the project studio market sound character that is warm, punchy, sweet and musical, cutting absolutely zero corners in their assembly, components, sound, or overall value.

>> Read our full review of the Golden Age Project Pre-73 MKII and MKIII

8

warm-audio-tb12-tone-beast

Warm Audio appropriately name their TB12 The Tone Beast as it is offers loads of gain with a big, bold sound that will colourize your signal beautifully. It likes to be pushed into full harmonic distortion but can also be kept transparent, offering itself to a wide range of uses. It is easily one of the highest quality microphone preamps in it’s price range that offers a true analog sound typically only found in much more expensive pieces of hardware. Stocked with high-quality, American-made components, the Tone Beast is a fan favourite that outperforms all competitors in its price range. 

>> Read our full review of the Warm Audio TB12 Tone Beast

Warm Audio TB12 Tone Beast

Microphone Preamp Buying Guide

What Is A Preamp? Why Do I Need One?

The main function of a preamp is to boost a low-level microphone or instrument-level audio signal up to line level. In doing so, a preamp gives the signal a sonic fingerprint and definition before sending it to the next unit in the signal path.

Conversely, a mic preamp may offer a -20dB pad in order to tame an overly hot signal coming in, while still imparting its unique sonic character.

A preamp can add immense character, warmth, and dimension to your music before it even reaches your DAW. There is a popular expression that any audio professional would find fitting right now, and that is: “Shit In, Shit Out.” The best front end of your recording will give you lower noise, will allow you to capture more subtle nuances of a performance, and offer more headroom, making for an overall better recording.

Getting a quality signal from the get go will make everything you do thereafter much easier, and that is a fact. It will save you time and CPU usage down the road in applying plugins and tooling with their parameters to enhance and make up for poor audio.

Your audio interface or mixer most likely already comes with one or more preamps. In some cases, these can be of outstanding quality and totally sufficient for the applications of a home studio. However, there are many cases where these components are mediocre at best.

An audio interface is built for analog to digital conversion, and though they’re equipped with preamps, there isn’t room in a single interface or mixer to house the components of a well-designed external preamp.

There is a reason why dedicated hardware preamps are oftentimes larger than the audio interface at hand. They use pristine circuitry and components that make them signature enough to have professional audio engineers drooling.

Types Of Preamps

Tube or Solid State?

For the novice, buying recording gear can get overwhelming. Factoring in all of the influences that microphones, preamps, A/D converters, signal processing, studio monitors and room acoustics will have on a recording is huge undertaking with many nuanced facets.

Anything along the electronic signal path will affect the audio in some sort of way. When it comes to preamps, you have two choices: a) Add coloration or b) Be transparent.

There is no right or wrong choice here and the best answer is simply what sounds best to your ears. Considering that you don’t have access to preamps before purchasing to make this distinction, you want to take a close look at what you’re recording.

Professional recording studios are well equipped with both of these types of preamps as they can be leveraged in appropriate situations to get a desired result.

Tube Preamps

Set The Tone

Tube preamps offer colour, body, vibe, and oftentimes a vintage character reminiscent of older recordings. The degree in which you implement these characteristics can be precisely dialled-in to flavour. This can be great if you’re recording a vocalist with a thin voice, and would like to give it some foundation and warmth.

To understand why adjectives such as “fat” and ‘body” are used to describe the sonic character of a tube preamp, it’s good to understand what’s going on under the hood. Tubes produce a mellow distortion as the signal level increases. This distortion takes place at exactly the same note for several octaves above the fundamental note being played. The octave reinforces the fundamental tone, similar to the effect known as doubling. This effect “beefens-up” the sound, hence the multitude of savoury adjectives engineers use to describe it.

Tube preamps are also said to “glue” sounds together better. This is a result of their circuit design which applies a natural compression to the top of the wave forms as gain is gradually applied. This compression is musical and pleasing, and when applied to several instruments, grouped instrument auxiliary busses, or a master buss, it is described to “glue” things together naturally.

Though there are no hard rules, tube preamps are often used for recording melodic and harmonic instruments like vocals, guitars, and pianos.

Solid State Preamps

Transparency

A solid state preamp aims to reproduce the true original audio as transparently as possible without modifying the intrinsic tone or timbre whatsoever.

Instead of using tubes, solid state preamps achieve gain through transistors which operate more consistently as gain increases. This allows them to be brought up to maximum levels with very very minimal distortion. Engineers recording jazz, classical, or lots of drums and percussion use these as they are excellent where attack information is essential. Recordings are crystalline and true and serve these recording applications very well.

Ins and Outs

Connectivity

Preamps are available in single-, dual-, or multi-channel versions and you want to make a choice based on what you can afford and the type of recording you plan to be doing in the future. 

Any microphone preamplifier will have one microphone input and one line-level output. Some have a hi-Z Direct Input (DI) on them for recording guitar, bass, and other electric instruments directly. They may feature both an XLR and 1/4″ TRS output for more connectivity options to match your set up.

Some models of microphone preamps offer built-in A/D converter that enables your to send a digital signal from the preamp directly into your audio interface. This would produce a lower noise floor than an analog connection and would open up your interfaces analog input for a different application

Channel Strip

All-In-One

These are great for processing the audio signal to taste before it reaches your DAW. A channel strip is a standalone unit that most commonly includes a preamp, EQ, and a compressor/limiter. These are the fundamental processing applications for any audio recording, and if used well on a channel strip, can save you plenty of time down the road in post production. The goal of a channel strip is to replicate a single channel from a large, traditional mixing console but in a smaller rackmount enclosure.

A channel strip is a fantastic tool if you are very comfortable working with the signal processing applications they feature. If you are not comfortable dialling in the parameters of a compressor to suit a given performance, you may only ruin the audio before it reaches your DAW. This means you can’t go back and fix it later—you would have to record a whole new take. Therefore, channel strips are typically ideal for seasoned engineers. If you’re a novice, we recommend getting comfortable with plugins first.

That about wraps up our buying guide for the best mic preamp under 1000. Is there anything you think we have missed or you would like to add? What are you recording with now and how do you feel about it? What’s working for you? Let us know in the comments below.

©2017 Hollagully 

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