Friday, February 24, 2012

Gear Talk -- Perhaps THE Most Critical Piece of Gear In Your Studio...

It's always touchy trying to claim one piece of gear the most important piece in the studio.  After all, there are many critical pieces of gear -- monitors (your gotta be able to hear what you're recording and mixing!), microphones (first link in the chain), converters, recording platform, acoustic treatment, etc... all important to getting great results.  Of course there are the artistes of the engineering world who will always interrupt such conversations with the obligatory, "your ears are the most important piece of gear in the studio," or some other such truthful, yet completely off-topic comment to show the richness of the depth of their experience and wisdom.  Psshh.

I'm talking about gear here -- stuff you purchase.  Everyone with a recording program wants to know what gear they need to get great results, and with that ever-present question in mind I will venture an opinion -- one developed over many years of observation.

What is the most important piece of gear in a studio (i.e. where should you commit your dollars)?  The microphone preamp.

Not monitors?  Nope.  Every single day folks all over the planet do great work on modest monitors (NS10s anyone?).  They don't have to be full-bandwidth, killer, high-dollar, self-powered client impressors.  They just have to be familiar to you.  You need to be so familiar with their response that you can trust what you're hearing from them, so you can make mixing decisions with confidence.

What about the mic?  It's the first part of the chain.  Yes, your choice of mic is critical, but now, more than ever, there are tons of solid-performing, reasonably-priced mics on the market, from tube and solid-state condensers to dynamics and ribbons.  Most folks can assemble and impressive mic cabinet without too much difficulty or expense.  And I'd much rather record a modest microphone with a killer mic preamp than a killer mic through a modest preamp.  "Why," you ask?

Professional microphones produce a balanced, low level output signal.  For this signal to be useful it must first be amplified a LOT to feed the input of a balanced, line-level signal processor or recorder input.  Most any microphone signal will see a minimum of 20dB of gain to be useful.  That's a 10x increase over the mic's output.  If you require 30dB of gain, that is a 31.6x increase.  40dB is 100x.  And any signal that requires 60dB of gain has to be increased 1000x!  That's a lot of amplification, and the manner in which it is accomplished has everything to do with determining the quality of your signal when it moves to the next device in line. 

Comparatively, an inexpensive line-level device (such as a compressor) has both line level inputs and outputs (essentially a unity gain device).  If your gain reduction is around 10dB (which is a lot, actually), then the compressor's output stage has to produce only just over a 3x increase in signal to produce the same level of output on louder passages... a much simpler task that can be done well with even modest circuits.  But the mic preamp.... your microphone's low-level output, no matter how pristine it may be, will require such gain before it becomes useable that it is literally at the mercy of your preamp.  Skimp here and your $3000 tube mic could lose much of its pricey luster.  And once the damage is done there is no whiz-bang device that will restore what has been lost.  Nothing.

A quality mic preamp will produce a solid, focused, fully intact signal ready for recording or further processing.  Some designs produce solid, but accurate signals (sometimes referred to as a 'straight wire with gain').  Being a rock dog I'm personally a fan of preamps that bring a little sex to the party, and give the signal not only a solid focus, but some rich color as well to add some visceral spice.  For these reasons I'm a fan of older style designs with transformers that saturate, round transients, and generally thicken the whole affair in a glorious way. 

Mmmmm...... transformers....  (Okay, I'm getting off topic...)

Like I say, I'd rather record a modest mic through a killer preamp than a killer mic through a modest preamp.  Ideally both would be killer, but if I gotta choose one I'm going with the preamp.  It'll improve my results with every mic I plug into it.

Thanks for reading!


  1. First off I totally dig your drum mixing videos and stumbled on this blog after watching a few of them.

    So my question is:

    Regarding what this blog is about, If I have 2,000 to spend and I've already got a Apogee Duet, do I go API style pre(or something comparable) and a less expensive LDC or stick with the Duet and by high quality LDC? I guess my main concern is, are the Duet's pres good enough?

    I know this is fairly vague, but if you were in this position what do you think you might do?

  2. Hi, Logan,

    Thanks for the kind comment and your question! The answer to your question is, of course, subjective, but I'm happy to give my opinion, FWIW. It really boils down to whether or not you want color in your signal (from the preamp).

    While I have never personally used a Duet, I am reasonably confident its preamps are very clear and of high quality, but were never intended to add any noticeable color to the signal. People choose designs such as this because it lacks overt color. Conversely, people generally choose vintage style circuits specifically because of the color they impart. Only you can decide which approach is preferable to you.

    If you want accuracy/purity of your original source material, then the Duet would be preferable over any vintage design with transformers -- spend the dough on a more expensive LDC mic. If you prefer some sex in your sound, go with a vintage preamp (with legit, vintage components.... not modern bits in an otherwise 'vintage' design) and then get a solid, musical, yet less costly mic.

    FWIW, I run Rascal Audio (.net) and, and I build custom gear now and then. I'd be happy to discuss options for you if you're interested. You can contact me through either website if you'd like to talk.

    Thanks again for reading, Logan, and for taking time to write!



  3. Thanks Joel for the info. It's definitely a help.


  4. Good day, sir,

    I read about what you say of preamps and I have a question. I am a drummer and I have a small recording studio at home where I do small sessions, I have not really awful mics (EV PL series) and I am I using a TASCAM US-1800 sound card. I am recording 8 channels with the tascam and it has built in 8 preamps for every channel, but I never questioned their validity until I read your post... When you talk about good preamps, do you mean like ones who are not build in into the audio interface? Like separate ones? When I record some drums the raw single before mixing sounds really kind of... dull... like not really bright at all. I thought it was the mics or the room, and I am sure they play some role, but could it really be the build in pre-amps that make the difference? Does better preamps produce brighter and cleaner sound? And what do you think of the tascam?


  5. Hi there! Better preamps won't likely make things 'brighter' than the inexpensive circuits in an interface like your Tascam unit, as often, with drums and dynamic mics (your EV PL series) drums can be rather dull, particularly if miked up very close to the heads, but better preamps will give the drums more natural authority and focus with better detail/resolution and without the harder/edgy texture cheaper pre's often bring (the difference between a quality preamp and a cheap preamp is often revealed or highlighted when adding some high-mid to high frequency EQ -- the sounds produced by a great preamp will become clearer and more detailed, while that produced by cheaper pre's will tend to become more harsh, smeared, and brittle/aggressive/fatiguing.

    While I do not have personal experience with the unit you mention it's street price of around $250 for 8 mic preamps, 14 channels of A/D conversion, 6 channels D/A conversion, coax, etc. indicates a unit that is aimed more at the hobbyist or beginner. If you want to upgrade your signal path I would start with a couple of channels of great preamp (which you can use on kick and snare, or perhaps overheads, since they capture the overall sound of the kit) and then use them on all overdubs after that. Then one pair of great converters (Apogee Duet or UA Apollo Twin) would be great too, as the conversion really determines the quality of sound captured by your computer. Again, use them on the important stuff including all overdubs. After that the options open up greatly as to what to upgrade next.

    I hope this is helpful. Cheers!

    1. Hello again sir, I have been watching your stuff for a while now and I really admire your work, do you offer something like a personal coaching or something of the sort? I feel like I could use a hand to get the best out of what I got and I really like how you do things!

      Thanks, if you are interested you can contact me on my e-mail