Red Dog Music | Oct 9, 2018 | 0
Do I need a standalone microphone preamp?
If you’re recording your source with a microphone that doesn’t plug into a USB port on your computer, you’ll need a microphone preamp. However, with most audio interfaces offering XLR inputs for your microphone, phantom power and perhaps a pad switch and high-pass filter, do you even need to think about an external, dedicated microphone preamp?
As with virtually anything, you do get what you pay for. A dedicated microphone preamp will offer better technical specifications, and often additional features, than the preamp included with your audio interface. The decision-making comes when you decide if you need those extra features and if those better technical specifications translate to subjectively ‘better’ sounding recordings.
Starting with the phantom power, some audio interfaces, particularly those that are bus-powered from your computer, may not offer the full +48V phantom power. For the majority of microphones, this shouldn’t be a problem, but there are a few that require every single one of those volts. A dedicated preamp may also offer more gain, and likely more gain with better technical performance than the preamp in your interface. If you are using microphones that aren’t particularly sensitive, ribbon mics in particular, then you may see significant improvements with a dedicated preamp.
Dedicated preamps may also additional features, before you even start discussing the addition of de-essing, EQ and compression that you might see on outboard ‘channel strips’. Some may offer a zero-latency monitoring path, taking a cue-mix from the recorder so that input/output latency is not a problem for the performer. Selectable input impedance is another option that can be used to tailor the preamp to particular microphones, or be used creatively to offer a variety of tonalities from the same microphone.
If your audio interface has a digital input that you aren’t currently using, choosing an external preamp that offers its own digital output option might not only free up an input on your interface, but may well offer higher quality analogue to digital conversion. Many preamps also feature components such as valves and transformers in the signal path, for a more ‘vintage’ sound. Most also offer an instrument input -great for DI’ing your bass guitar- and a line input, allowing you to record fairly clean, and send tracks out and back into your recorder for some vintage character once you’ve auditioned them in the context of the whole mix.
On balance, it certainly looks as though an external, dedicated preamp is the way to go and, if you record a lot of music that relies on the lead vocal, it will certainly be a good investment. However, if you record mostly techno for example, then, if you don’t already have the setup of your dreams, perhaps your folding might be better spent elsewhere. That Arturia MiniBrute looks good…