An often overlooked consideration of a recording chain is the brand of pre-amplifier you decide to use when bringing your signals up to a usable level. I spend just as much time considering this as I do when selecting the microphones I will use. I always have a thorough conversation with the artists I am recording about the overall aesthetic they want for their instruments and song as a whole. These conversations help guide me towards a great pairing of source instrument, microphone and preamp. While I may pick a different preamp for each instrument we record, I do my best to stick to one style of preamplifier when recording an instrument with a multi-mic array (ie: drums).
Bring Life to a Tracking Session with your Preamp
As far as signal processing goes, the microphone preamplifier will make the biggest change in colour to your source. That’s why there is so much hype and excitement around big-name preamps like Neve, SSL, Universal Audio & API (to name a few). It is important to remember though, that the biggest changes you can make to a sound will happen before it reaches this point.
Choosing the right performer will have the biggest impact on your recording. The next important factor comes from selecting the right instrument for the job. The third-most influential decision comes from choosing the microphone that captures the performance. The often-overlooked preamp comes right after these considerations on the list.
The preamp you choose will influence the rest of the recording chain that follows like no other processor can.
Characteristics of Different Preamps
Hype words are often used to describe the colour that these gain processors impart on a source sound. This is because it’s quite hard to put a finger on exactly what is happening to the harmonic saturation that takes place as a signal goes through them. You can really set the stage and set the mix up for success by paying just as much attention to detail on your preamps as you do with your microphones during the tracking stage.
SSL: SSL preamps have “punch”, but yet can come across as very clinical and clean. I always choose SSL when I want my recording to be open with a lot of pleasing detail in the midrange frequencies. It’s close to being transparent, yet has a very high definition character all it’s own. It’s subtle, yet a signature sound. I tend to reach for these preamps any time a musician is in love with the natural sound of their instrument or voice.
Neve: Neve preamps have a very “fat” vibe that can come across as retro while they impart a feeling of “warmth”. This is my go to preamp whenever the artists have requested a “big” sound. They have a way of really hyping up the low frequencies in a very musically pleasing way. I love turning up the gain on a Neve before I ever reach for an equalizer.
API: These preamps are considered a much “faster” and aggressive breed, which pushes the midrange forward in a pleasing way. I always reach for an API when the artist I am working with wants to capture a strong sense of “attack” coming from their instrument. It really hypes the mid-range and adds a bit of “bite” to the track, unlike an SSL which will be a bit more clean.
Tubes: Tube preamps such as the UA 610 can come across as “slow”, but tend to add the most harmonic content. I love using tube preamps when we’re recording an instrument that is intended to come across as a bit more “smooth” or “round”. The harmonic saturation that occurs from pushing gain on these preamps does a really good job of adding a sense of colour, particularly to the sustain portion of an instrument. These are great preamps for instruments that hold notes and come in with a subtle entree.
Push Preamps to Bring their Personality to the Forefront
Even the most colourful tube preamps can come across as very discrete and transparent when using polite levels. You can really hear the unique qualities of each preamp if you crank up the gain on a source as it travels through them. The personality of the gear will really bloom and come to light as the signal travels through the extra harmonic stages. It’s important to remember this detail if you’re not really hearing much of a difference from your preamp selection. You may find yourself reaching for less compression and EQ after the fact if you’ve nailed a winning combination of the right instrument, mic, preamp, and gain.
With this in mind, I will often consider keeping my gain levels low when I’m on location at a site that doesn’t have a large selection of high quality preamps. Budget preamps found on a lot of consumer interfaces have come a long way in the past decade. However, they still tend to exhibit their unpleasing aspects as the gain is pushed on them. You’ll usually notice a bigger noise floor as you reach the very top of the gain knob, as well as noticing that they add their rather unpleasing harmonic saturation at these levels as well. I always record with the gain knobs as low as possible in these confining situations, opting to consider how we can add colour and saturation during the mix phase of the production.
Preamps' Role in Modern ‘Sample’ Based Productions
Preamps are still a valuable tool when processing already line-level samples, synths, and beats. The beauty of our current era is that we can sample sounds as transparently as possible using high-quality converters. We should keep in mind that a lot of early DJs were sampling vinyl records through a mixer - which in essence, is just another preamp. It is incredibly common for mixing engineers to reach for a preamp to add colour and vibe to a carefully cut sample instead of hitting it with EQ. Luckily, we have the benefit of making these types of decisions in a non-destructive manner with our modern DAWs. The sky’s the limit when it comes to selecting the colours from a diverse palette like we have today.