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Microphone preamp Comparative and Test

Préampli micro pour studio

Discover all the microphone preamp reviews for recording studios or live performance. The choice of a microphone preamp guarantees high quality sound recordings in a home studio or professional studio. That's why it's important to choose the right one. We guide you in choosing your preamp. The most prestigious brands are AMS-Neve, API Audio, Audient, Avalon, DBX and Golden Age.

Good to know: A good microphone preamp will help to bring out the sound of your microphone. You should also pay attention to the impedance and input gain. Everything is determined by the microphone.

Which best microphone preamp to choose? ✅

If you were not satisfied with the sound quality of your old audio and video recordings, it means that you (perhaps) didn’t consider investing in a dedicated microphone preamp. No matter what kind of microphones you are going to use in your home studio, a microphone preamp is a must to guarantee a clean and much better sounding audio.

So you can see why it’s important to use a high-performance microphone preamp in a recording studio. The real question now is what should be taken into consideration when selecting a microphone preamp.

It’s also necessary to pay attention to the choice of the type of microphone preamp to be used according to the type of recording to be made and especially to the sound quality that you wish to obtain. This is the reason for this guide.

Why do we need a microphone preamp? 🤔

A microphone preamp is primarily used to amplify the sound signal delivered by a microphone (of any type) when performing a vocal or instrumental recording in a studio. The result is an audio signal of optimal quality that can be processed more easily via an audio interface or a dedicated mixing console.

A microphone preamp performs an essential function by increasing the audio gain and adding depth and breadth to the sound you wish to record. The choice of a microphone preamp should also follow three basic rules. In order to choose a microphone preamplifier, you must consider the following points:

  • The power reserve (called “headroom”).
  • Phantom power ( according to the type of microphone chosen). If you need to use a condenser microphone, you must activate it. In the specific case of a dynamic microphone, it’s strongly recommended to deactivate it to prevent damage to the dynamic microphone, as this type of studio microphone is designed to work without the need for any phantom power.
  • The attenuator (depending on the electrical sound signal rate perceived at the microphone input of the preamp).

    The use of a good quality, high performance microphone preamp will guarantee an almost flawless recording quality. The sound quality will be much better if you combine it with a mixing console and a sound card equipped with an internal preamplifier.

Microphone preamp and regular amp: what's the difference? 👏

The microphone preamp and the classic audio amplifier have (in common) the essential role of amplifying sound, but the similarity ends there! The first, the microphone preamp, is used to amplify the sound signal at the input ( so at the input) in order to perfect the audio processing.

The second ( the power amplifier) amplifies the sound at the output. The sound that has already been processed and that is to be output through the speakers must also be amplified.

A microphone preamp cannot perform this function. It’s the classic audio amplifier, in other words, a power amplifier.

And in the same way for a phono preamp, it amplifies and embellishes the sound emanating from a turntable at the input through a dedicated mixing console. The sound from the turntable with phono cell comes out clean, crisp and perfectly balanced for amplification by a receiver to output to speakers and to a headphone or headset output for monitoring.

You can also choose to bring out the sound to be able to amplify it further on output with an op-amp. This operational amp strongly accentuates the gain at its input to boost the sound that will come out towards the powerful 120 to 150 Watts speakers.

An ordinary Class A amplifier is used to distribute the line level signal to all types of speakers (Hifi, Home Cinema, Subwoofer, wired or even wireless speakers…). Technically, by “line level” we mean the audio signal that is picked up and amplified from a few millivolts to about 1 Volt.

If you want to connect your mixing console or DJ mixer to a home theater amplifier, you may need to use an adapter and specific cables. The same is true when you want to bring out the sound from a subwoofer with RCA connections.

If you are using several multimedia devices, you should also consider purchasing a receiver, a UHF decoder, a signal splitter and several converters in order to be able to really have a complete studio equipment.

The microphone preamp and the conventional amplifier are not the only devices that are able to work with line level signals. Equalizers and compressors can also receive these types of signals. To do this, they are simply connected to a microphone preamp (input) and an audio amplifier (output) to distribute the sound through the speakers.

Why should you invest in the purchase of a dedicated microphone preamp? 🎤

Mixers, audio interfaces and sound cards for professional use usually already have an internal microphone preamp. If you already own and use one, you may not need to purchase a dedicated microphone preamp. However, it is recommended for one of the following reasons:

  • Your high-end professional microphone (dynamic or static) should only be connected to audio recording equipment with line inputs.
  • Your mixer, sound card or audio interface has a microphone preamp built in, but it doesn’t have enough power to generate enough gain. By the way, ribbon microphones, like dynamic moving coil microphones, have a very low signal-to-noise ratio, and therefore require more gain to optimize the perception of the sound signal at the input.
  • You want to increase the number of inputs to your interface or audio system.
  • You want to give more breadth, depth, dimension, detail and clarity to the sounds you are going to record. If this is the situation, a tube or valve microphone preamp would be the ideal choice.

Whatever your audio recording enhancement needs, using a dedicated microphone preamp will result in a finer, cleaner and more transparent sound. The perceived gain levels are also very high, whereas in the case of a mixing console, or a sound card with integrated microphone preamp, these gains rarely exceed the 60 decibel threshold.

However, it should be noted that coil and magnet microphones, or moving coil microphones as well as ribbon microphones, can require up to 70 dB of gain, or more depending on the circumstances. Using an external microphone preamp in conjunction with a sound card or mixing console can greatly improve the sound quality of a vocal or instrumental recording.

This is particularly important when a dynamic microphone is used. You can also obtain a much better sound quality without background noise by coupling the use of an external microphone preamp to that of a static or condenser microphone. Similarly, if you intend to use it with a wide-bandwidth microphone such as Warm Audio WA-8000, or with a frequency response between 20 Hz and 20 kHz.

The microphone preamp integrated into a sound card, a mixing console or an audio interface often gives a sound quality that is above average: more clarity, transparency and depth…, but to bring a particular dimension to the sound to be recorded, the use of an external microphone preamp is more than essential.

By the way, audio interfaces and sound cards with internal preamps only give access to relatively basic and limited settings. If you want to access more sound equalization options to add a nice color to the voice or sound of an instrument, you will have to customize your audio capture.

Advanced features such as phase inversion, bass cut and attenuation pads are often missing on a standard sound card and audio interface. This is in spite of the fact that they are equipped with a powerful built-in microphone preamp.

External microphone preamplifiers from API and Neve are (for example) renowned for their near-perfect clarity, power and sound depth. Although there are a variety of high-end mixing consoles with sophisticated internal preamps, the use of a powerful external microphone preamp is still advantageous.

Moreover, an external preamplifier can bring specific tonalities and sound colorations that will be complementary to those that the internal preamplifiers are likely to offer.

The different types of microphone preamps 🎙

The microphone preamps available on the market can be classified into three main types: tube or valve preamps, transistor preamps and so-called Channel Strips or multi-channel preamps.

The latter also give access to a wider range of settings. Each of these preamps generates specific sounds. Everything will depend on the recording result you wish to obtain.

By the way, you can also consult our complete test guide of the microphone Presonus M7. In this guide you will find a complete overview of this condenser microphone, as well as our opinion on the quality of this microphone and some test demos on its use.

👉 The tube microphone preamp

This microphone preamp amplifies the sound while adding depth and color. A tube microphone preamp differs from a transistor preamp in that it tends to transform the sound by adding a nice distortion effect. The sound amplified by a transistor preamp remains (on the other hand) sharper and at the same time neutral.

The tube microphone preamp incorporates one or two vacuum tubes to amplify the audio gain from the microphone. It’s an ideal choice if you want to add warmth, color, roundness, and dynamism to the tone of your recordings. These vacuum tubes work to generate distortion that emphasizes second-order harmonics and sounds better to the ears.

Besides this point, the tubes integrated in this microphone preamp work in the same way as compressors. This has the effect of balancing the sound by reducing the sound pressure (Spl) as well as the note attacks (more offensive) by compressing them slightly.

The result is a smoother and more pleasant sound. The tube microphone preamp has one or two tubes (12AX7 tubes) which are normally replaceable when worn. This type of microphone preamp is ideal if you want to give your recordings a retro, vintage and at the same time soft sound.

It’s perfectly suited for picking up low and medium tones. It should be noted, however, that this type of preamp is not entirely recommended for picking up high-pitched sounds such as those of a violin, snare drums, acoustic guitar, or electro-acoustic guitar.

👉 The microphone preamp with transistors

As its name suggests, the transistor microphone preamp, also known as a “solid state” microphone preamp, uses transistors (instead of tubes) to amplify the sound signal. Because of its specific design, the transistor microphone preamp provides a clearer and more high-fidelity audio gain.

This microphone preamp eliminates distortion to provide more clarity, sharpness and transparency to the sound perceived during recording. The sound delivered by this type of microphone preamp comes from its amplification circuits or from the transformers that make it up (if its design is based in part on them).

As already mentioned, the transistor preamp delivers a more transparent sound. In contrast to a tube preamp, a transistor microphone preamp is able to manage a large sound signal flow in the high range. This is particularly true without (almost) any distortion or distortion of the sound signal at the input.

That’s why it’s particularly effective for the recording of classical music. The transistor microphone preamp is also more specifically adapted to the listening requirements of an audiophile.

Other guide: Test and opinion of the microphone Blue Bluebird SL. Discover in this guide an overview of the technical features, the sound quality, the technical specifications, as well as our opinion and some demonstrations of the use of this condenser microphone.

👉 The "Channel Strip" microphone preamp

The Channel Strip is a specific “multi-channel” microphone preamp which has a fairly complete control panel to perfect the amplification of the audio signal perceived at its input. It usually includes an equalizer, a compressor, an attenuator pad, a noise limiter and a de-esser.

The “De-esser” function acts much like a pop filter, except that instead of reducing “p” plosives, it’s used to reduce “s” sibilance (this time) by way of adjustment. This type of preamp alone can therefore be used to fine-tune and optimize the sound signal at the input.

A Channel Strip microphone preamp gives you access to all the audio settings necessary to rectify, improve, parameterize and optimize the sound signal flow perceptible at the microphone input. Buying one can be a smart investment if you want to achieve the best sound quality in your recordings.

The Channel Strip also provides much more versatility than the previous two microphone preamps. If you’re willing to pay a premium for a powerful, high-performance Channel Strip audio preamp, consider the AMS Neve 1073 DPX preamp!

Which microphone preamp should you choose for your audio recording? 🎛

The choice of the type of microphone preamp must above all depend on the use you wish to make of it. Here are the main recommendations for choosing the type of microphone preamp you should use according to your audio recording needs:

  • If the sound source from which the audio signal is being picked up is quite weak (it may be a voice or a particular type of instrument), a tube preamp should be used to add breadth, power and depth.
  • If you want to achieve a pure and (almost) true-to-source sound, it’s recommended to use a transistor microphone preamp. This will give you a clean, neutral and richly nuanced sound. The same applies to the sound of high-pitched vocals and instruments that generate quite powerful acoustic pressures in Spl (including percussion and drums).
  • If you really want to clean and process the sound beforehand to optimize its quality, long before the signal reaches the input of an audio interface or mixing console, it’s advisable to use a multi-channel preamp or Channel Strip.

Each microphone preamp has its own specificities 🎯

Even though a mixing console or audio interface includes a preamplifier to process the audio signal, it’s always advisable to improve the quality of the signal by using a dedicated external preamp. This will allow you, in addition to amplifying the sound, to improve its rendering; even to enrich it.

Whether it’s a vocal or instrumental pickup, a microphone preamp can add tone to the sound you want to achieve. Tube preamps give more or less distortion without deteriorating the sound signal. On the contrary, the perceived sound will get more roundness, dimension and depth.

The transistor preamps reduce distortion to a maximum to give a clean sound, free of low noise, while suppressing peaks. And this, in order to make the sound more pleasant to listen to.

Channel Strips, on the other hand, are more versatile, because in addition to adding gain, removing noise and enriching the sound, they allow you to optimize the sound of the audio jack. This is long before the signal is sent to the input of a sophisticated mixer.

By the way, you can also check out our Lauten Audio Atlantis FC-387 microphone review guide. This is a condenser microphone with an NTE-type semiconductor. Find out in this guide the complete details of this studio microphone, as well as its sound quality.

Does a microphone preamp optimize the digital audio transfer ❓

Indeed, this is possible depending on the type of microphone preamp chosen and provided that it’s equipped with one or more digital inputs for connecting a USB cable. Thanks to this wiring, you can optimize the digital audio transfer.

The advantage of a microphone preamp equipped with USB connections and compatible with a Dsp (Digital Signal Processor) is that it doesn’t lose any audio signal. This is true even if you want to export the audio in dsd (Direct Stream digital) format.

The sound perceived in input ( meaning at the input) in analog mode comes out as it is in output and is even purified and colored in its digital version. Thus, the sound will be much more easily exploitable on a computer with a dedicated USB audio interface.

How to perfect the instrumental pickup by using a microphone preamp? 🤔

It may be a good idea to connect an electric guitar, an acoustic guitar or an electro-acoustic guitar to a microphone preamp. This can be a tube microphone preamp, a transistor microphone preamp or a multichannel microphone preamp. Of course, you can also use a guitar amp as an output.

Just be careful to not connect these instruments with high impedance! First, make sure that the preamp has a dedicated input that can be easily recognized by the indication (Hi-Z) or “Instr“. Preamps with this feature also have an XLR input as well as a jack input.

You should also be careful with instruments that have a line output, such as synthesizers or electric pianos. These instruments deliver an audio signal that often exceeds the power that the microphone preamp itself is able to deliver.

If you want to connect a synthesizer to the line output without risk, you must be careful with the volume control of the output. It should be reduced as much as possible!

What other functions can an external microphone preamp perform? ✅

A microphone preamp (of any type) normally has three main functions:

  • The 48 V Phantom power supply: it only allows to power condenser microphones by using a dedicated XLR signal cable. Be careful however, because this function must be deactivated when you wish touse a dynamic microphone with a moving coil. This will prevent damage to the coil.
  • Phase Reversal: The phase reversal is very useful when you intend to use several microphones at the same time (cardioid, omnidirectional, bidirectional, etc.).
    Low-cut filter: this function reduces the saturation of the sound signal that can be generated by sounds whose pitch is too low.

In addition to these functions, a microphone preamp can also provide access to a wider range of functions. This is particularly true of the Channel Strip or multi-channel microphone preamp, which provides access to the following four main functions

  • EQ : This sound equalization function allows you to modify the sound tone in the middle of a recording, especially when the audio signal is sent in. It allows you to amplify or reduce some of the frequencies (bass, midrange, treble) and to reduce the noise level.
  • Compressor: This compression function reduces the dynamic range of the sound signal at the microphone input. Weaker signals are thus emphasized and amplified.
  • Gate/expander :This function is used to remove noise and grain.
  • De-esser : This function is used to reduce “S” whistles to a minimum. You can also set this function to guarantee optimal sound clarity when using a condenser microphone with a pop filter.

Our selection of Microphone preamp ❤️

For a perfect match, we have made a selection of the best microphone preamps on the market. It’s important to note, however, that before you buy a preamp, you should try it out. Remember that each preamp produces its own unique sound.