I recently rewired my home studio and added the capacity to include some outboard gear in the process. Over the past few weeks I’ve been doing some recordings to work out the kinks and get set up to record a new batch of originals that I’ve been working on. As is inevitable once my recording setup reaches a good spot, I stumble across some article or YouTube video where I see some new piece of gear and the GAS (gear acquisition syndrome) immediately kicks in.
This time around it was mic preamps. Particularly the Avalon VT-737. There’s no way I’d spend that kind of money, but once you start thinking about gear like that it’s amazing how quickly you can convince yourself you need something almost as good or at least better than what you’ve got.
This lead me to a deep dive on mic preamps, doing some listening comparisons of recordings as part of reviews folks have done online and, more relevant, comparing the pre-amps my Audient (which has the same pre-amps that Audient uses in their consoles) vs the pre-amp in my Behringer ADA8200, which are, well, utilitarian to say the least.
So here’s where I landed:
If the priority is “clean” amplification and you don’t need tons of gain (meaning, you’re not trying to capture the sound of a butterfly flapping its wings) you can get away with some pretty pedestrian gear. Meaning, while there was a subtle difference between my Audient and Behringer as far as clean gain goes, it was really only noticeable when I needed a lot of gain from the preamp. If I was sending in a pretty good, loud signal (e.g. mic’ing an amplifier), I think I’d be kidding myself if I thought I could hear a difference between the Audient and the Behringer.
Sound on Sound did a pretty good analysis of a ton of mic preamps and compared the resulting wav files and then did anonymous testing and the reviewers couldn’t hear a difference between mic pre amps of various price points, either. That said, they were recording a keyboard, not a human voice. They did so to get a consistent signal for the testing, but I imagine had they recorded something like a human voice or a cello or fiddle there would likely be some minor subjective differences between the mic pre amps when sending a clean signal—but minor and subject are the key points here.
As I started digging into the reviews and working with my own gear, I realized something really important: while many preamps are very similar (regardless of tech or price point) when they’re generating a clean or distortion free signal, they are HUGELY difference in how they sound when they are overdriven. Meaning, if I nudged the Behringer pre’s just a smidge above their comfort level with my WA-87 microphone it turned my voice into this buzzy garbage. Clearly distorted and overdriven. The Audient is a totally different story. Somewhere between clean and overdriven with the Audient pre amp is this really amazing spot where the sound just sounds bigger or more saturated without the annoying buzz. I couldn’t find that sweet spot anywhere with the Behinger.
I imagine with a tube pre amp, that sweet spot is not only wider but capable of more varying degrees of saturation given the forgiveness of tubes. (As an aside: I remember back in the day I had a CD player that had a tube preamp built into its signal chain. I now realize that the tube in the preamp was useless unless it was being overdriven just a smidge and given how much the audiophile magazines like numbers when it comes to CD players, especially clean/non-distortion numbers, that the tube was probably not being leveraged enough or even at all! Would have been a great hack to see how it sounded with a smidge hotter signal.)
So, a sweet solid state pre-amp or a really nice tube preamp, is only doing its do its best work if it is being nudged a bit beyond its comfort zone. Any preamp can get good and clean, or at least a lot of cheap preamps can, but what makes a good preamp is its ability to give you a great sound when you push it a little out of its comfort zone.
I remember doing a long string of vocal recordings in my home studio and then putting on Willie Nelson’s Red Headed Stranger and just having my jaw drop at the way his vocals sound on that record. Willie, of course, has probably my favorite voice of any singer, ever. But that said, now that I listen to that recording with this knowledge in mind, I would bet that some of that saturation is coming from the super subtle distortion being introduced into the chain by a tube pre-amp.
This is all to say, now that I’ve stopped worrying about meters and lights with my Audient preamp and started using my ears instead, I wish I could go back and record everything I’ve every recorded. Or at least every vocal. Live and learn.