Pushing your Preamp For Its Character

There's many types of preamps in the world, and many types of ways to utilize them; but more than any other way to use them (other than the obvious), my favorite has always been pushing my various preamps in several different ways to get their particular character imparted on the signal.


The best part, is that one type of preamp won't just sound good when pushed on only one source - there's so many options for timbre, color, and harmonic sweetness on many areas within engineering a record, so today we're going to explore a few that I've personally become very fond of over the years.


Let's dive in.


Choosing Your Spices

When I look at my options in the studio, whether it be a physical unit or an emulation, my first question is what does this need? I've come to imagine this in terms of cooking, another great passion of mine. If you enjoy cooking, you'll know that a good level of spice can elevate your dish to a new plain of existence, let alone the core ingredients; so if we break this analogy down in terms of audio:


  • You ingredients are the instruments and the quality of them
  • The people creating the dish are your sous chefs, in other words - the people playing those instruments!
  • YOU are the head chef: the person responsible for the overall recipe, let alone the level of spice or the type of spice needed!

To this end there's a few things to take into account in terms of what to choose off the 'spice rack’ as it were!


When thinking about what I have to offer within my studio, I usually think in terms of a few options: Solid State (SSL, API), Transformer (Focusrite, Neve), and Valve (in my case, DBX and TL Audio, but there are many). The reason I think of these 3 options is that I can drive them in different ways, to achieve various results both sonically and harmonically, as confusing as that sounds.

My TL Audio C1 is a much loved favourite of mine in terms of valve options.

The way I think about harmonics is simply in terms of either distortion, saturation, or both which is a whole different topic by itself. But every type of saturation from these 3 options will give you a different character, and there's no right or wrong answer; simply experiment and try to learn these to do what you need them to do. A basic rule of thumb, to my ears at least is the following:

  • Solid State circuits such as SSL, Trident or similar have a great level of punch but when pushed are prominent in the upper midrange as well as the low end, so dial it in carefully.
    • I particularly like this on bass or drums as it fits into the typical rock/metal vibe I'm so used to mixing, but dialed back you'll find it can bring out the best in Pop, Jazz and much more
  • Transformers are typically rich in the low midrange and the best examples are that of API and more so Neve. It's been a little known secret that Neve are a much loved preamp among engineers due to their circuit design in the early 70's consoles that made their way into recordings such as Nirvana's Nevermind, all the way through to the recent Bloc Party record I was fortunate enough to lend my own personal mics to Adam Greenspan when recording on the Neve desk at Konk Studios, North London.
    • They're brilliant on everything from drums, to guitar to bass, and they come in many forms, but depending on how hard you decide to drive them depends on your character.
  • Lastly, Valves have been a staple since the earliest days of audio recording, dating all the way back to the early 1900's.
    • Due to the inherent warm and subtle high end imparted in the character, depending on the type of valve, even since the early days, they are considered to still be staple in the sound of many engineers' ways to record and thus their choice of preamps.

Cooking The Signal

There are a few ways to achieve the best harmonic detail, or saturation when recording depending on what you're after. So, rather than rambling on about what I like, I thought a concise breakdown to how I view these options would be more valuable! I'll also be breaking down this in a video within the JZ Mics Members Area, so if you're a JZ Mics owner and not already a part of this wonderful group I implore you to join as soon as you finish this blog:

Recording the signal hot

This is simply a term for a high input level. However, the key is not letting it peak (unless wanted to shave off peaks with analog clipping, again another topic entirely!). If you carefully gainstage whatever the medium of analog equipment you're using, you'll achieve a far better result. By doing the exact opposite in terms of the input vs the output gain, you'll likely achieve a cleaner signal, so that is worth keeping in mind also.


Level Matching when using plugin emulations

This leads me nicely to the next point: when and if you use emulations of consoles or preamp plugins, ALWAYS gain-match. It is so easy to fall into the trap that louder is better, especially at the end of a long session and you're losing focus, or perhaps it's not the vibe you're used to - regardless of what the situation, get in the habit of always gain matching your changes in both the digital domain and the real world. It'll only help you in the long run, plus, many plugin designers now rely on the gain staging in or out the plugins they make to achieve the sound of the real world equipment; thus, increasing the need for this habit to be initiated immediately if you're not already!


Smoothing the Harmonics

Using Tape or Passive EQ options can impart a pleasing harmonic content that we're all used to hearing and enjoying. The two main that come to mind are the typical magnetic tape machine timbres, 456 either 16 track or 2'' tape, or similar - and the Pultec EQ, or perhaps even Fairchild Compressor.

The Studer Tape a much loved staple of many recording studios, and still is - luckily, we're in an age where the A820 has been emulated by countless plug-in companies such as Slate Digital, IK Multimedia, Fabfilter and many more; it's also a perfect choice for smoothing any pokey preamp harmonics!

These particular examples are special for me as I almost visualize distortion/saturation in terms of grains of sand: saturation for me is a much finer, softer grain. Whereas distortion can almost become crunchy, like the english east coast which if you were curious, is basically just shells and rocks! When I use transformers or a faster breakup design in valves, I'll usually end up reaching for something like this in the mix to smooth out the 3rd harmonics and bring a bit more order to the chaos of harmonic distortion.


Hopefully, this helps you when choosing your preamps, for which sound source, coupled which mic, which timbre, etc. going forward. If you have a topic you want me to explore on preamps or similar, simply reply to the email the blog has come to on (if you are subscribed), or reach out via social media: if I can help, I'll do my best!