The actual signal produced by your microphone is too weak to be used for any serious studio work. It is, therefore, the job of a preamp(s) to boost the signal to the level that allows you to edit and use the recording in the project you’re working on.
This makes the unit you’re using a vital part of your recording chain and its quality will impact the sound.
If you’re recording your music with a microphone, it and the preamp used will affect the tonal quality of the outcome the most (when compared to a source).
The microphone captures the signal and reproduces it with varying levels of coloration (depending on the microphone) and the preamp takes that signal and boosts it while also adding its characteristics to the sound.
Preamps are divided into two types – those that are built into your mixing desk or audio interface and standalone, outboard preamps.
The technology involved can be vacuum tubes (valve preamps) that are used to amplify the signal and produce a signature warm sound beloved by many pros and hi-fi enthusiasts and solid-state design (transistor preamps). The latter is easier to produce and therefore significantly cheaper.
What to look for in an audio interface?
So, let’s say you do your recording and producing in a home studio and have enough money to be able to decide between an audio interface with built-in preamps and an outboard preamp.
Do you go for two pieces of equipment or make do with an audio interface, relying on its built-in components? How do you divide your money between the two or how much do you spend on the interface?
Let’s start with the choice to buy an audio interface. Since in this case, it is the tool that handles all signal coming in and out of your computer, it will impact the way you hear recordings/mixes and the way you react, guiding your mouse cursor through various editing/mixing decisions.
Modern interfaces with numerous channels come with USB 3.0 connection (which has replaced Firewire 400/800) and Thunderbolt – the fastest possible connection type currently on the market.
This is the first thing you should consider when inspecting any unit – a good connection is crucial if you are planning on using many channels.
USB 1.0 will not do if your tasks are anything more than basic bare minimum, USB 2.0 will perform fine in basic tasks with low channel while USB 3.0 and Thunderbolt means you can do serious work and not worry about any latency issues, provided the unit is not defected and all other aspects of your setup are on-point.
The decision on whether to buy any audio interface usually comes down to the channel count, which is understandable. More channels mean bigger price, but can also mean lower fidelity signal path.
The rule of thumb is – if you see an expensive unit with relatively low channel count, it probably means that the better-quality signal path is the reason for the price. While the seemingly good price tag on a unit with many channels and knobs suggest components of lower quality.
To make a decision you should consider your primary needs – are you making demos, jotting down song ideas? Or are you recording musicians and bands for profit and organizing sessions with numerous musicians all of whom could benefit from separate monitor mixes?
If you want to record yourself for any purpose which makes sound quality particularly important, go for lower channel count unit that has better components and build quality. If you’re looking to do a lot of studio work and a single audio interface is what you want, it is advisable to dig through as many reviews as you can find and make a list of units that boast large channel count and have good reputation sound-wise and built-quality wise.
Basics of choosing a preamp
Make no mistake – the main purpose of a microphone preamplifier is to boost the signal and all of them should be able to do that.
The question is – what will the resulting boosted signal be like? The type of preamp can audibly impact the tonal characteristics of your recording.
A dedicated preamp will, in most cases, mean much better quality (in all aspects) than what you can find inside a budget audio interface. But there is no universal answer to the question which would work best for your studio, because the perception of sound “quality” is subjective, as we all know.
The choice between different units sometimes means choosing between tube or solid state preamp. Do you want the lush, vintage vibe-filled signature tube sound or audibly crisper, more defined solid-state sound (if we’re talking about a good solid state, that is). The channel count, just as with the audio interface, is still important as well of course.
But what you should also look for is a preamp unit that would fit in well with your workflow, current recording chain and other studio gear.
There’s no easy way though – to find a unit that does the magic for you, you will have to do research. Luckily in the age of the internet that can mean scouring through pro audio forums and accumulating opinions, experiences and reviews, rather than going on long trips to various pro audio brick & mortar stores.
There’s also no shortage of truly amazing online video/audio content that gives a good insight into various types of gear.
Take note that outboard preamps can also have various additional sound shaping functions like low-cut filter, switchable transformer, stereo mode etc.
Being in the recording business is generally costly and it all comes down to budget.
If you’re just starting out and financing yourself, in terms of gear, it is advisable to have more of that which will give you versatility.
At this starting position, your goal should be to learn the various aspects of recording not to have one super expensive unit in your studio that doesn’t get along so well with others.
A good mic, working audio interface and a laptop with DAW is plenty of gear nowadays. Most certainly plenty enough to showcase your current abilities and give yourself a chance to develop your craft. Tweaking and polishing nuances, acquiring an expensive, separate preamp comes after you’ve done the basics.
Rarely someone can just buy and have all they want, but any sound engineer/producer worth his salt will tell you that limitations fuel creativity and develop character. Use your money to acquire versatile tools that will simultaneously help you and develop your skills.