Why I care about microphone pre-amps
If you look around the recording blogosphere and Internet forums you often find two opposing viewpoints about mic pre-amps. One is that it is critical to have a large variety of high quality mic pre amps for various instruments/genres, and the other is that the whole concept of needing high-end mic pre-amps is just a big marketing scam. The truth is somewhere in the middle.
I have a pretty good selection of high-end mic pres. And while that is fun and opens up my sonic options in the studio, there are many albums I have made using only one kind of pre-amp, and I would be willing to bet that many of your favorite albums were done that way as well. So as cool as it is to have many different kinds of mic pres, one great style of mic pre is perfectly adequate, especially for a small studio.
On the other end, I think the idea that high-end mic pre-amps do not really matter is way off the mark. I am not going to say that having a high-end pre amp is as important as having a great sounding guitar or drum kit, but great mic pres really do make a difference.
The biggest problem is that cheapo mic pres actually hurt your audio. Not only can many of them have high levels of noise, but they can smear details, clarity and depth of the tracks. This can make mixing far more difficult. I mix records from all sorts of different studios and, in most cases, when the music was recorded with high-end mic pres, rather then cheapo stock pres, the mixes come together easier. When a track has lost its detail and clarity because of low quality equipment, there is very little you can do to try and get that back.
While cheapo mic pres can actually hurt your audio, great mic pres can help you out. In my experience great mic pres will not only give you better detail, depth and clarity, they will actually make all of your mics sound better. I have even found some cheap condenser mics that I really dislike when I heard them through cheap mic pres, but found them quite useful when running them through my best pre amps.
You do not need to own a lot of mic pres, but I think buying one great mic pre is a great investment. It can make all your tracks sound better, and even if one holds the opinion that great mic pres only make a small difference, a small bit of improvement across all of your tracks can really start to add up. But if you do not have great mic pre amps, do not let that slow you down. Fire up whatever gear you have available, have fun and make some music!!!!
Since I am sure this article will fill my email in-box with people asking what mic pres I recommend, I will give you a few examples of mic pres I really like at a few price points. There are some great affordable options in the 500 series (lunchbox) format, but that is beyond the scope of this article.
I have not really tried any mic pres under around $500 that I think are a huge step up from the stock mic pres on a small console or interface. I am always on the lookout though.
My favorite mic pre in this range is the True Systems P-Solo. It does not have a lot of “mojo”, but does a great job of good clean gain with a lot of detail. I prefer it over some other mic pres that are more prestigious. You can see my review of a few of the options in this price range on Ronan’s Recording Show.
It is a bit over the $1000 range new (and not used), but the Great River ME-1NV is a fantastic mic pre. It offers a broad range of sounds and has a very good built in DI. It is one of my favorites, and high on my list of things I want to buy for myself.
My favorite mic pre is probably the A Designs Pacifica (and the similar Ventura from the same company). About 80% of the things I record are recorded through the A Designs Pacifica. To me it has the perfect balance of detail and bigness, and I use it on everything from heavy metal to chamber music. This is a two-channel unit so it is actually a little cheaper per channel than the Great River, but unfortunately is not available in a single channel unit (there is the P-1, a similar single channel option in the 500 series format).