Matching The Preamp To Your Signal Chain

To close off our focus this month, all around Preamps, I wanted to visit the big picture: matching your preamp to your signal chain. Now, when I say signal chain, I’m talking of everything - the microphone, the preamp of course, but also any dynamic or EQ processing, and most importantly of all, the voice or source. That last one really does have the most determining factors within it that should play the biggest part in your decisions.

Right, let’s dive in!

Knowing Who Plays Well Together

One of the biggest steps in my producing career was understanding which gear I had at my disposal worked best with the microphones I had available. I remember for a long time, I wasn’t really thinking of the choices I was making, but more following advice or similar from forums or videos (which now, I know had bad advice!). So, I don’t want to do that today. Instead, I’ll impart my experience and encourage you to think logically about your choices.

Now, let’s consider the mics available: FET, Tube, Dynamic, Condenser, Ribbon, the list goes on. Depending on the color, brightness (or darkness), quality, and make-up of the mic should be what you decide on the preamp to be if you have more than one available; if not, then the plugin emulation of that preamp you have in mind.

  • I’ve often found that a FET Condenser works very well with valve preamps: they sound rich and full which adds to the character of the mic as well as enhancing the top end detail that is typically not as obvious with this design sometimes.
  • Ribbon mics are usually much darker and need more power from the preamp to boost the output signal from the mic itself. Transformer based preamps work great to not only give you a workable signal, but also allows you to lean into the timbre of the mic as well as add more depth to the bottom end associated with ribbons.
    • The same is usually true for a lot of dynamic mics too, so this is where I usually start.
  • The basic rule of thumb I guess I try to go with in each and every session is more based around the color of the mic that is inherited with its design, and complementing it with a preamp. There’s many options available, so it can be daunting if you have a plethora of plugins or physical preamps available. Try to have a bigger picture always in mind such as the overall tone of the drums, or if you’re trying to go for a richness and a big bottom end in the guitars overall, etc.
  • The more you experiment, the more you’ll grow to understand your mics and preamps, and I’ve found after all these years, I’m still learning more and more about what my tools can do for me from session to session; there’s no right or wrong answer, just trust your ears and if it sounds good, it sounds good!

Always Have The Source In Mind

This is the most important thing when choosing anything in the signal chain. The thing you’re placing the mic in front of will have the biggest impact on the overall sound, and in turn the person playing it. It’s so important to keep this as your primary focus in every session, day to day, as it will ensure you’re always making the right choice for what you can hear in your head.

It’s always great as well, to find and research your favorite recordings to gain a better understanding of how they achieved that sound. When I was first starting out, I was convinced that a dynamic mic was needed for an aggressive vocal, or screams, but that’s simply not true, and in fact, I find I prefer a condenser much more. But because I was listening to the many people on the internet and not making choices based on what I was hearing, I wasn’t getting the sound I wanted simply through my own ignorance.

These 3 mics have anyways helped me to get some of the best metal vocals I've been able to record, and all can be shaped by an array of so many preamps to help you match them to the source even further

The same can be said for drums or guitars. In fact, I had a session very recently in which something wasn’t sitting right for some members in the mix on the guitars. I think the way they described it was a fuzziness from them, which I took to mean the top end, whereas it was the lack of clarity on the low midrange. The dynamic and condenser choices chosen for the amp didn’t sit well with the other elements of the mix. Now, until recently, I‘ve never been a major fan of ribbons on guitars (there was always more bottom end than I liked to work with usually), and because I tend to rely on impulse responses rather than a real cabinet, I’m limited to what they have chosen as the mic choice and preamp.

But when I switched to a ribbon mic on the amp, everything started to come together and for some reason until then, I’d always been against using them; possibly due to the amount of people that do like using them and thus trying to break the mold, I’m not sure - but in any case, even now I was falling into the bad habit of not trusting my ears and simply choosing what sounds good rather than following a prejudice I’d had for a while. Once I had the tone we all liked, then I could match the color of the desk emulation, and make a much more informed choice on the preamp timbre to the mic and in turn the source. So don’t make the same mistake I made for many years and still fall in the trap of, and more importantly remember to trust your ears - if it sounds good, it's good!