Updated June 3, 2023

The Ultimate Guide to Mic Preamps | Best of 2023

Welcome to our comprehensive guide to mic preamps, where we will provide valuable insights into the technology and explore some top-rated options.

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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?

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’ve come to the right place.

Microphone preamps play a crucial role in the signal chain of recording equipment, amplifying mic signals to line level. While audio interfaces often come with built-in mic preamps, dedicated hardware preamps offer improved sound quality, specific character, more gain, and sometimes lower noise.

In this guide, we’ll delve into the different types of mic preamps, explore some of models for every budget, and discuss whether investing in a dedicated outboard preamp is a good choice for your home studio.

What Is A Mic Preamp?

In short, a mic preamp is a box of circuits and components that work to serve two main functions: adjust the impedance of the microphone’s output to match the requirements of your recording equipment, and amplify the weak audio signal from the microphone to a usable level.

This allows the signal to be properly processed and avoids unwanted noise interference. Microphone signals are typically very low-level, and preamps apply appropriate voltage gain to make the signal usable, minimizing the impact of noise introduced during subsequent processing.

Furthermore, the components in a given mic preamp will either produce a signature sound so remarkable that engineers are willing to pay thousands of dollars for them, or they are completely transparent but wildly powerful.

Budget Mic Preamps

PreSonus Studio Channel Tube

Recording on a console is great for those who can afford it but for home studio musicians working in smaller spaces, this is just not an option. However, the features of a consoles single channel most certainly are and it 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

dbx 286s Channel Strip

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

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

PreSonus Bluetube DP V2

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

Mid-Price Mic Preamps

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

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 its 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


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

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

High-End Mic Preamps

Universal Audio SOLO/610

Bringing the renowned Putnam 610 tube console sound to a portable design, the UA SOLO/610 is a single-channel mic preamp and DI box. With its classic tube preamp characteristics and portability, it’s an excellent choice for on-the-go recordings.

Avalon VT-737

The Avalon VT-737 is an all-in-one channel strip type preamp that includes a tube preamp, opto-compressor, and EQ. Known for its feature-richness and versatility, this preamp has received numerous accolades and is a popular choice for professional studios.

Ultimate Guide to Mic Preamps

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.

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, do a deep dive into the model used to on your favourite recordings and look for a variety of models that offer similar sonic characteristics. Many brands are developing more affordable units that are modelled after higher end ones

Tube Preamps

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.

Solid State Mic Preamps

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. 

Channel Strip Mic Preamps

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.

Built-in Mic Preamps

As mentioned, most audio interfaces in the market today come with built-in mic preamps. These preamps are designed to provide clean and transparent amplification, even in affordable and compact interfaces. While more expensive interfaces tend to have better preamp quality, the built-in options are sufficient for recording decent signals.

If you’re using a budget audio interface and are considering investing in an outboard preamp, your money may be better spent on upgrading to a more premium audio interface. We’d recommend something from Universal Audio or RME as their interfaces are known to come with very high-quality preamps.

Outboard Mic Preamps

Outboard mic preamps, commonly found in professional recording studios, offer a significant upgrade in sound quality and tonal options. They are standalone devices that bypass the preamps in audio interfaces or mixing desks. While these can get outrageously expensive for home studio owners, there are plenty of options available in all price ranges.

It’s hard to discuss the sonic character of each through text, so we’d recommend figuring out which sonic characteristics you’re after and find models that do just that. From there, dig around for some before and after examples either from a company website or YouTube. 

Preamp Plugins vs Outboard Mic Preamps


Preamp plugins are software-based emulations of hardware preamps, designed to replicate the sonic characteristics of popular analog preamp models. They are convenient and cost-effective, as they can be used directly within digital audio workstations (DAWs) without the need for additional hardware. 

Most top plugin manufacturers are developing preamp plugins with many users claiming they hear no difference between the two. Without weighing in on the debate, these products will only get better and with time and it doesn’t look like their outboard equivalents will be getting cheaper any time soon. 


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


If you’re just starting with home recording, the built-in preamps in entry-level audio interfaces are sufficient. However, as you gain experience and seek more creative options, dedicated preamps can elevate the quality and tonal options of your recordings. Keep in mind that the choice of microphone and mic preamp are critical elements in shaping the overall sound. By understanding the role and benefits of mic preamps, you can make informed decisions to enhance your home studio setup.

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