Good Preamps really do matter

Hi Everyone :)

I have been learning how to record so I can create my own CD’s to sell at my gigs. I have spent the last year and a half or so getting a handle on that ( evening and weekends mainly ).

One of the many bits of advice I was given was to invest in the best Preamps I could afford. Their was already so much other stuff to learn and buy that I kinda put that on the back burner. I figured I would make do with a Presonus Tube Pre.

One of the main things that was really disconcerting to me about recording was the tremendous amount of time that was required to get my recordings even close to what I was hearing on my favorite Pro Cd’s. I assumed that I just needed to keep massaging the tracks with more and more time and effort and things would get better.

Finally I decided that it was becoming waaay too time consuming and that I needed to hang it up and leave it to a Pro so I could go about my other business. I actually started packing up my studio stuff for sale. Right about this time though, something changed…

I gained access to some very high quality Preamps and I decided to give it one last try before I sold off my stuff on Ebay. The Preamps were straight preamps, no compression, no EQ, nothing else.

I laid down 3 tracks, Bass, Guitar and Vocals and then I did a quick mix, and then I did a more thorough mix based on what I heard.

I hadn’t really expected much of a difference but what I heard floored me, it was like night and day. I was able to do the whole project in about 1 to 2 hours because the quality of the initial tracks was so good that their was little tweaking for me to do, just some subtle EQ, panning, verb and compression and it was done. The quality of the recording is as good as anything I have heard anywhere and I haven’t even had it mastered yet.

I have now changed my mind about selling my stuff, and I plan to keep it and do my own recordings once again.

So if your a newbie, like me, and your getting a little discouraged, consider this carefully. To me it appears that their is no substitute for Good Preamps and you do indeed get what you pay for. I wish I had paid more attention to the people that told me that a year and a half ago. Once you have Good Preamps all you need is Ntrack (or whatever), A nice sound card (I use an M-audio audiophile 24/96), A good instrument, and if you want to do vocals a decent studio mike and you are pretty much set. Oh, and maybe some decent plugins, hehe.

Thanks for reading my book and have fun :)


Give us a hint, please. What preamps did you use?

Heh - this could be interesting :)

I’ve done quite a lot of tracking these last few years (bass, vox & electric guitars) & I find that the sounds I get with cheaper stuff like the Presonus BlueTube/Mackie VLZ/POD are more than good enough for my mixing abilities.
I suspect that goes for phoo’s mixing abilities too. I try to use half decent mics, though.

Ted - I’m not dissing you, I’m just curious as to what really works, so let’s hear it :)

Oh, and please try to describe the difference you hear between the pres.

Like other parts of your chain, quality preamps definitely make a difference. I find a good sounding room is just as important though, as is a performer who KNOWS how to play. Even in a good room with good mics and amps, a bad drum player is going to result in bad drum tracks. When there are pros making the music, the recording kinda happens on it’s own. Recording people who make music for a living (as opposed to folks who do it for fun) is an absolute pleasure.

And it’s trite, but an experienced engineer really can make a good recording with low budget gear. The trick is knowing the gear. Knowing what it can and can’t do and working within those limitations. This takes time and practice. You need to practice recording, just like you practice your instrument.

The thing about quality preamps is that you can stack a number of tracks together and you don’t get a smeared or indistinct mix. The quality gear also has a depth and detail to it that I don’t hear on lower budget gear. Mixes do come together easier with less tweaking, trying to find that sound that just didn’t go on the tape. I have nice amps because I’m a gear freak and I run a studio for hire where people come to use gear that they can’t afford on their own. The difference is very noticable between what I can do at home on a Mackie and what happens in the studio with API and Langevin and Ward Beck and MCI stuff.

I would never insist that someone who wants to record go out and spend the money that API or Universal Audio equipment commands. Folks having fun recording themselves and their family and friends don’t need to blow that kinda dough to have fun and get good enough results to impress others. Frankly, (and self preservation is only part of my sentiment) if you want a professional sound you should make your tracks at a professional studio with real gear in the hands of an experienced engineer. Bring the tracks home and mix 'em on n-Track yourself. Do it at least once just to see what the hype is about. The money you spend on a single day in a real studio would be the price of a mid level preamp, and the insight you’d gain on the value of a good sounding room and quality gear would be invaluable…

oh man…if Mac were still hanging around here, you know what he would tell you?

Something about a stick mic and ears. Something like that.

If switching just preamps made that much difference all other things being equal I’d say there was something seriously wrong with the previous preamps.

TUBEPre - Single Channel Tube Mic Preamplifier -

there are more things that can make a tube malfunction than there are stars in the sky - two are, banging the unit and tube life - tubes unlike solid state burn away with use - the older the tube the less use it is - thats if the tube was any good in the first place ? -

Dr J

A decent 12ax7 is cheap. I don’t see the problem :)

"A decent 12ax7 is cheap. I don’t see the problem "- if you dont know what a 12ax7 is then it is a problem - look at it from the beginners point of view -

Dr J

If they are that new to recording then better preamps aren’t going to do them much good.

Heh - if you’ve bought a cheap tube pre and still don’t know what a 12ax7 is, well, Houston, we have a problem :)


Uh oh, did I open a can of worms ? Hehe.

Does this mean I have to pretend like I know what I am talking about ? :D

Well, shuck guys, I didn’t mean to over dramatize and I am certainly not encouraging anyone to spend any more than they feel they need to, but I did hear a very pronounced and obvious difference.

I think that Clavastudio did a great job of describing that difference and his experience mirrors mine precisely. The tracks have considerably more detail, resolution, depth, and richness and they didn’t require endless " adjustment " to make them work well in the mix. The transparency of the mix was much better right from the beginning. The sonic integrity of the tracks was better and the tracks responded to even subtle EQ changes in a more effective and less time consuming fashion. To me it was as big as the difference you would hear between using an SM 57 and a Neumann U 87 to record vocals in a studio.

Hey Teryeah ! How You ? It was great to hear from you !
I have heard several songs that you and Phoo have collaborated on and I think they sound Great ! Keep on rockin in the free world comes to mind :). I really enjoy the stuff that you two have done.

I think the Presonus Blue Tube that you are using is actually a step up up from the Presonus Tube Pre that I have. I have never used the one you have and for all I know it may sound awesome, I am sure you can make it sound more awesome than I can. I don’t consider my 1.5 years of experience ( evenings and weekends only ) to be much. I can only relay what I experienced and the difference was major.

Well, golly, I am like waay hungry now and I need to eat, but I’ll be back to read some more comments and goodies later.

Thanks Everyone for you Feedback :)


Ooops, sorry, double post :)

No, you didn’t open a can of worms that wasn’t already open. There’s been some discussions about this kind of thing that were down right nasty when someone was saying you had to have $10000 AD converters to record anything worthwhile. Hearing little differences when switching to different preamps could make obvious big differences later, and that’s a good or bad thing depending on the direction. Sometimes those differences aren’t obvious until everything is mixing. The hard part is knowing what caused the differences, usually because there were so many other changes that happened, not JUST the preamps, or AD converters, etc. It’s a good discussion and no one should think anyone is pointing fingers at anyone else and saying you don’t know what you are talking about. I’m TOTALLY amazed at how different (and in many many ways…crappy) the far tones stuff sounds just by moving to a different room.

$ 10,000 for an A/D converter ?! Oh Lord, no no

My sound card only cost a hundred bucks.

I can assure you that even the preamps I tried out are no where near that kinda money, man I would be afraid to use them :)

The main point to take from all this Ted, (IMO) is that there is a certain point where the law of diminshing returns kicks in. There have been excellent recordings made with a 25 buck Soundblaster with a cheapo 50 buck Behringer mixer for a front-end/pre-amp. Now, could those recordings have been better had the guy used a 1500 dollar RME Fireface stoked by a 3000 dollar Apogee AD converter with a 3000 dollar Presonus ADL600 mic preamp? The fidelity and sonic quality would almost certainly be improved AS LONG AS the guy doin’ the doin’ knew what he was doin’. :) Learn to use what you have on hand. Wringing the absolute best out of it will only improve what you do WHEN you get the mega-buck equipment. If you have a good song, good arrangement and good performance recorded well with mediocre hardware, it will win out EVERYTIME over crappy stuff recorded on fabulous equipment.

Took me a while to come to grips with that myself… the old adage “You can’t polish a turd.” is a hard lesson to learn sometimes.

Good luck with whatever you do.


Ted, try a Studio Projects VTB-1 preamp. Reputedly better than the Presonus or the ART tube preamps. Reportedly best when not even using the tube, though I find I like to blend a little tube in – can’t say why, I just like it.

A good preamp seems to wake my tired old SM57s right up. Also, with my other preamps (mixer preamps and MOTU 828), when recording acoustic guitar, I had to have the gain at max and the mic 3" from the strings to get a decent level (and still not where I like it – and my Martin HD28 is a loud guitar!) With the VTB-1, I get the levels I want at 1 or 2 feet, which gives me a better sound in various ways. (For example, then I can record the Martin using Mid-Side method, using the SM57 along with a Studio Projects B3 condenser mic. Lovely sound, I need to record and post some samples!)

IMHO, when deciding where to spend money in a new studio, ranked by importance:

- instruments! Good instruments make an incredible difference. Note that the best sounding aren’t always the best recording.
- monitors – you can’t mix it if you can’t hear it
- preamps – make sure you’re recording what the mike is sending!
- mikes – there are a lot of great cheap mikes, so this is low on the list
- soundcard – an inexpensive soundcard can work great, and until you’ve addressed the above there’s no point in spending big bux on a fancy one

HOWEVER, in terms of cost/benefit, an inexpensive preamp like the VTB-1 is only $120, so it belongs higher on the actual priority list. A better instrument might not be in the budget, and you only have so much money for monitors, but you should squeeze at least one decent cheap preamp into your starter kit.

Of course, I agree that great recordings can be made using a built-in soundcard, an SM57, and a cheap mixer. Most people will never notice the difference between that and a higher quality job. But clearly Ted has the bar set higher, and good for him!

BTW, in the industry, any preamp under $1000 is called “inexpensive”, with $500 usually being the bottom rung. Sure, that’s a different scale than for us homeys. I’d love to find out what kind of difference they could make, but it’s not likely to happen. And the VTB-1 is compared very favorably in reviews with the preamps in the $500-$1000 range. I’ll take their word for it!

I have to agree with Ted…and I will take it a step further…good pres do make a world of difference… I took the same path with one difference. I worked in a studio with some pretty “slutty” gear for a few years…moved to another state and decided to start a small Daw based room to record my stuff…nothing fancy since I am not a rich guy by any means…I stumbled across this software, saved for a decent mic or two and started…and had the EXACT same experience as Ted…finally after a friend (who owns the old studio I where I worked ) came to visit and brought some high end toys to track with for a weekend did I realize what I was after… but I still had no $$ and knew I could never afford thosebeautiful toys…so…I took 2 years and delved into electronics in a big way…learned to read schematics…precisely what made the gear I liked sound so “big”…and started building things…racking old console modules…building pres, power supplies…all on the cheap…it made a HUGE improvement…no more massaging anything! …but then came the big one…I never liked the sound of the low end comps…the FMR 1173 RNC was pretty good and the plug ins were pretty good…I bought a waves bundle (OUCH!) and could get some decent things mixed…I decided to build a few classic hardware comps and limiters to see if that was the right direction…I built an LA2A (vintage tube limiter)in spring 2006…really cool…smooth as a gravy sandwhich but not always the tonic for vox or acoustic guitar (killer on kick and bass tho)…Then I built an 1176 this past fall (fet based comp…REALLY fast) neither of these ran me more than 250$ in parts,and the 1176 was about 150 with some creative evilbay shopping… not to downplay the beaucoup hours spent hunched over the work bench and reading books learning how these guys work :D …that was the ticket! track with a good pre (for me., API 312’s with various discrete opamps for different flavors) and good comps…sometimes the 312-LA2a-1176-into the Delta 66 all at once…So… now is crow eating time for me…my favorite vocal mics thru these rigs? a plain ol’ beta 58 or SM7b…I tried renting some big boys…a U67, a U87…a Coles 4038 ribbon…how could I like such un -slutty mics!! I still like a good condenser on some things like acoustic intruments…but yeah…I now believe that some famous vox were cut with these guys…take it a step further Ted…beg, borrow or rent a good comp to add to the chain…it will floor you…100%…I am not boasting here at all but just saying there is a way, even for us poor folks, to get real close to the big boys…


Great post Ray.

It would be great, if you have the time, to document your self-build experiences for those of us here on the forum who might like to have a go as well. Even just pointing us to the right web sites, with a little knowledge of what to look, for would be a great help.