Today in a 3 part series, we look at what preamp options are available in today's market, starting with the modern style preamps loved all over for their sonic ability and much adored designs.
There are several styles, but unlike the previous post regarding vintage preamps, the modern world is so widely based off old technology with the addition of innovation, so we'll simply state our 3 choices in this post that bloom to our minds when we talk about Modern Preamps. Let’s dive in.
The name that pops to my head at the forefront of modern preamp design and innovation has always been SSL Technology. From their early vintage designs in the original 9000E and G consoles they have continued to persevere towards a way to revolutionise their sound and design.
SSL have a specific sound depending on the preamp or desk you use, the E being slightly more rounded to the bottom end and with more bite, the G with much more controlled low end and both having different shapes and bands to their respective EQ's when part of the desk variation.
Their Alpha series is the newest kid on the block featuring VHD Pre with 4 all solid state, all analogue circuit preamps that add a modern variation of warmth, colour and bite. It is its own style of sound, utilizing the innovative VHD circuit design, similar to THD as you'll remember from our recent posts, where the most you push the input, the more distortion you can achieve; anything from the widely acclaimed SSL style tube warmth, all the way to serious levels of clipping.
As we previously wrote about, tube designs are some of the first ever preamps utilized in the audio word. As such, they've always held a special place in engineers hearts from new to old - and so the designs have been played with over and over to create new, wonderful styled color options ranging in price to welcome any stage engineer into the world with open arms.
I'm going to pick two that have always been a recommendation for me regarding this style preamp, with 2 very clear price points that should give flexibility - whether you're looking for a great preamp to get you into this never ending game, or you're looking for an upgrade to accentuate the pristine quality of our JZ Mics.
I started with the one channel, $50 version of this preamp, with nothing more than the basic controls to reverse polarity, cut 80hz, and a -20db pad if I recall correctly. This version of the basic preamp I had features flexible tonal controls to tweak the level of warmth or distortion to the signal, along with higher value and better made valves, and lastly, is much lower noise especially at lower levels of recording (something usually overlooked when starting out!).
Not only can it afford dual mono recording, but Mid/Side recording as well - so as a beginner preamp, this would be a great no-brainer start off especially if you want to broaden your skills in drum or acoustic guitar recording. In terms of modern preamps, this Class A designed preamp isnt the best on the market, but at less than $300 secondhand it will be a work horse for years - trust me, I still have that first preamp I got all those years ago and by investing in a very desirable valve, it's still used in my recordings..
One of my most used preamps, perfectly paired with any microphone I've ever put it with; this preamp is a new take on what preamps can do. DBX have been in the game since the start, revered for their compressors, their preamps often go unnoticed.
But the 676 is an all tube channelstrip, running at a super high voltage to allow for maximum headroom and full versatility when dialing in the right level of warmth. The quality of this preamp is much higher than the aforementioned option, and it shows in the sound. This preamp also includes their mastering compressor technology, and it's very easy to switch valves to achieve the right level of distortion on your tracks no matter when you're tracking. Modern tube preamp technology doesn't get much better than this in terms of sound for me.
Lastly, as we have touched on transformer preamps, it seemed prudent to show where they can be utilized in some of the more linear and lower THD options on the market. The name Neve has always been accredited with some of the more incredible sounding equipment on the planet, but their modern take on Rupert's much loved design has allowed for one of the cleanest preamps they offer.
The 511 preamp is based of the much loved, but much less known 5017 preamp that achieves a crystal clean timbre it was so well known for, but on the 511 they have included the addition of the Portico II Silk/Texture feature to allow more of a vintage Neve vibe - including clipping, turning this into both super clean and super vibey all in one very small 500 series package.
Lastly, a much less known company gets an honourable mention. Joe Meek is a company owned by the same people that bought you the Trident console (the 80B console was the same that tracked much loved records like The Dark Side Of The Moon by Pink Floyd) and their Twin Q2 has been a reliable and sturdy preamp for many years in my studio.
It features a completely analogue design, super transparent, and with the addition of an Iron Input transformer extending the low end response of anything put in front of it. Not only does it have the typical controls of a preamp you'd expect, but it has a fully parametric EQ, optical compressor Joe Meek was so well known for back in the day, and can operate in both dual mono and stereo.
These preamps are similar to the above example in that, their classic, untouched design (no goodies engaged) achieve a pristine and crystal signal that is simply shaped to the manufacturers design specification to impart 'their' sound upon your recordings, but offer much more with when pushed, or have extra features (like the iron transformer in the Twin Q2), that can bring it into the realms of many other styles of circuit we've discussed thus far.