Today in a 3 part series, we look at what preamp options are available in today's market, starting with the vintage style preamps loved all over for their sonic ability and much adored designs.
There are several styles, so we’ll move from the most colored (highest available amount of distortion), through to the truly linear and transparent designs so that no matter what area of the industry you mainly focus on, you’ll be able to see what works best for you and if you’ll looking to expand the clientele you have, what options are available to help you build your tool kit within your studio. Let’s dive in.
Solid State Transformer
These are among some of the most widely cloned and made preamps available on the market today. An original will set you back a large amount of money, but competent clones vary in similar sonic characteristics, but always aiming for one particular sound; a warm, harmonically rich and weighted pairing of all JZ microphones, and mic’s in general.
Golden Age Audio's Premier Pre-73 is my go to in the studio for nearly all my recording for vocals and bass DI as well as mic'd up guitar cabinets, drums and much more.
Low budget options are brands such as Warm Audio, or my favorite, Golden Age Audio which employ the same similar components at every stage, whereas other similar made brands have not utilized this route.
Heritage Audio have come on to the market with a very desirable clone and price tag for such a faithful replica of the original 1073 Preamp.
Higher budget options include Heritage Audio, Stam Audio or Neve themselves. Unless using the original Neve units, it’s impossible to recreate the exact same qualities of the original designs, however Stam have possibly come the closest, however Heritage Audio have a growing reputation as well. If you can afford the AMS Neve brand, then of course they are an obvious option however, they are expensive and clones have become so close that for a slightly lower price you can achieve a very close quality in sound.
Valves have a very particular sound. When run cold (low input, high output) they have a glisten and shimmer to the sound and add subtle harmonics that impart an expensive and polished sound. Depending on the tube, depends on the point at which breakup and distortion starts, common ones are 12au7 (low distortion, higher noise) 12at7 (Mid level distortion, common middle ground but less common), and 12ax7 (commonly used across the board for both preamps in pro audio equipment and even more commonly used in guitar amps and pedals).
Vintage tube equipment is where preamps almost first started, and where among some of the most common during the 50’s, 60’s, and 70’s. They are a reliable source or quality preamp, versatile in their sound capabilities. The main problem with these sort of pre’s is twofold - the tubes wear over time and need replacing, and depending on the manufacturer of the tube, they can be much less desirable than they counterparts. Cheap, easy to build chinese models are mass produced and often come with a mediocre quality much surpassed by their russian comrades. However, British valves are of the highest quality I’ve found, in particular Mullard or Philips being the top of the game.
TL Audio C1 Stereo Compressor and Tube Preamp
Vintage tube preamps are so highly sought after today, that there really aren’t any lower budget options here, however some better budget ones are preamps such as the Ivory series from TLA Audio. I have a C1 dual tube preamp and stereo compressor which I’ve loved over the years, British made, and faithful to old schematics used from the early preamp days.
Universal Audio 6176 Tube Preamp and Channel Strip
Higher budget options go as extreme as you’d expect, but Universal Audio’s 6176 Tube preamp comes fully equipped with EQ and 1176 style compressor , and a lower budget option of the Solo 610 - both of which are faithful to the early days of the company and encompass the sound of their heritage extremely well.
Lastly in the main 3 types, are transparent linear preamps, most commonly found in the typical interfaces in today's market. We briefly touched on this subject in another blog post, Preamps At A Glance, but to cover it again there are 3 most commonly used chips found in nearly all preamps making them all similar to each other for the most part - some, however, have slightly more to them in the higher end of the spectrum and even mid level have extras like the 3rd Gen Scarlett with added Air control to each preamp channel. The same rule applies to most 8 pre expansion channel strips like the Ultragain from Behringer featuring Midas preamps, revered in the audio industry for their clean sound and precision. Others like the Audient ASP880 have built in JFet line in’s which are incredible line level options for DI recording instruments like guitars.
Behringer UltraGain (Above), Audient ASP880 (Below)
Other transparent, or at least lower THD preamps usually have a little more to them regarding circuitry than a simple chip. Take the Focusrite ISA range, utilizing an input transformer that imparts a special sonic characteristic through impedance and allowing harmonic content to be passed onto the signal. Unlike the Neve style preamps that also have an output transformer, these preamps run at a much lower distortion range and are far, far cleaner sounding. Another great example is the API range employing op-amp design which are extremely low level distortion design using two stages, one of which is a closed feedback loop and another part eliminating stray electrical noise for the most part. These are highly coveted across the industry as being some of the best sounding preamps, and sound incredible with our line Vintage Mic’s series.
Lower budget options of course are sticking with preamps within interfaces, however if you’re looking for a budget dedicated outboard pre, the warm audio range has a great API 312 clone, as does Capi Audio, however it is only in a 500 series format. The Focusrite ISA ONE is a preamp I have myself that i adore and would implore anyone with a lower budget to invest in the ISA range - not only is the quality a perfect pairing with our Black Hole and Vintage Series, but it’s faithful to the original design schematics and as it’s created by the founders of the design, its a steal for the quality at a fraction of the price.
Warm Audio 412 is a faithful API 312 Style Op Amp Preamp clone
Higher end models include Stam yet again, leading the market in high end recreations, for API 312 clones, and Neumann have entered the market recently with their new line of Ultra Linear preamps designs to impart no colouration to the signal and leave the sound of the microphone untouched, however preamps are usually chosen for their color and characteristic of sound so it’s a niche in the market some of you might want to exploit; others may stick to the status quo which is where I have landed for my almost 10 years in production. Although this one may be a more modern design, Neumann almost encompass the word vingtage when it comes to microphone design and so, it felt prudent to include this on the list given their history and no doubt, that sound or idea being carved into their entry to the preamp world after so long in the microphone game.
The new kid on the block, Neumann's answer to preamps currently on the market is a ultra linear design, created to impart next to no audible colouration to the microphone signal - a strange concept to a lot of engineers as the color of preamps is what has given so many their reputation and desire over the many years of them being around.