RECORDING TIP: Great mic preamp debate. Are they REALLY necessary?

So, for years I’ve recorded my own songs without using any dedicated mic preamp… just whatever was in my mixer. All mixers and audio interfaces these days have built-in mic pre’s, and if they didn’t, the microphone basically wouldn’t generate any signal when you sang into one. Built-in mic pre’s are usually sufficient, and these days, with digital, compressed music (MP3 and iTunes/AAC/m4a), it’s very hard to distinguish a song tracked with a dedicated mic preamp or built-in mic pre’s.

Since 2001, I’ve used a Behringer MX2004A mixing board. A few cheap condenser mics (MXL, CAD, and an AKG C2000B) and that mixer (into an M-Audio Delta 44) was my vocal chain.

Last week, I finally sprung for a dedicated mic preamp, the Focusrite ISA One. It’s a $500 mic pre, with a good amount of settings and also has a direct input for bass guitar or any line-level signal.

I’ve spent a lot of time over the last week doing A/B tests… singing exactly the same (as close as I can) using the mic preamp, and using that same microphone and the Behringer mixer’s mic pre. I’ve dabbled with EQ settings and tried to get them to match up exactly. And I set markers in my recording software so I can just hit a key and then hit another key and play the different takes seamlessly… and really… REALLY listen to see if I can hear a difference, on monitors, and two different pairs of headphones.

I want to say that I couldn’t really hear a difference at all, between the $500 Focusrite mic pre going directly into the M-Audio Delta 44, and just the mic & mixer’s pre (without the Focusrite). I really want to say I couldn’t hear a difference at all. But I could!

It’s slight, but it’s there.

The dedicated mic pre does make my microphone sound better, fuller… warmer, AND, there’s less hiss (about 6db using the Focusrite). I get 6db more hiss/noise when using the microphone directly into the mixer, at the same gain/level. So, there’s definitely a quality difference.

But to most ears, you probably won’t hear a difference at all.

Take for instance, my Smiths cover of “The Headmaster Ritual” that I did last summer. There is no mic pre used in this video. It is that MXL going directly into the Behringer mixer, and then right into the Delta 44. I added some EQ, reverb, slight delay, and compression in the recording program. I think it sounds fine. A little high-endy when coming through laptop speakers, but that’s to be expected.


Last night, I did this tiny clip of Rogue Wave’s “Eyes”, using my dedicated mic pre. I recorded the acoustic guitar with the same mic I did the vocals with (MXL V67g)… and both were run through the $500 Focusrite. I do believe there’s a warmth/fullness/cleaner sound with the dedicated pre. It’s pretty evident. Then again, I did track the vocals basically right up on the mic (for the Rogue Wave clip), so there’s a proximity effect going on (adding more fullness).

Rogue Wave – Eyes clip

So, to the age-old question of “Are mic preamps REALLY necessary?”….. The jury is still out. I honestly don’t know. But I do think it will improve my recording quality overall. And if it doesn’t, I’ll sell it. I really don’t have a lot of experience with dedicated mic pres yet (just a few days)… but so far, I like what I hear.

update (2/24/2012): After extensive tests, comparing my mixer’s built-in pre’s against the Focusrite ISA One’s… I decided to return it and stick with my built-ins (with a slight upgrade, mentioned below). I just got more hiss from the Focusrite, no matter what I had my gain set at. Sure, I could get more volume without the mic clipping or whatever… thus, “fuller sound”, but ultimately I didn’t think it made much of a difference. I probably would need to spend a great deal more time with it (and more extensive tests, which I didn’t think could be possible after the testing I did)… just to see if it was worth the investment. Instead of going back to my main setup (mic > Behringer mixer’s pre’s > interface) I decided to get rid of the Behringer mixer entirely and add an M-Audio Omni I/O to my Delta 44 (the I/O provides mic pre’s, more inputs and routing, plus 2 headphone outs). You can only get the Omni I/O from ebay as it’s been off the market for years. Now my signal path is mic > Omni I/O. Done. I get basically the same quality without the dedicated pre… many audiophiles and studio engineer snobs would argue that it was a horrible decision, but really… the song matters most, then the mic, then the performance through it. From there, it’s all tweaking this and that and mixing the track. If the song isn’t interesting/melodic and better than most of the shit out there, then no one is going to give a shit about your studio upgrades or high-end mic pre. That being said… I’m still on the hunt for a dedicated pre, haha! Maybe this time around, the Golden Age PRE 73 MKII (it’s $150 less than the Focusrite). We’ll see…. I know, I know… back and forth, with my decision. Enough of the blabbing about mic pre’s and studio upgrades. Let’s just write and record some damn songs! 🙂


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1 Comment

  1. josiah

    my thoughts exactly. ive been using a motu 8pre usb, and when i hook up my outboard preamps ive spent far too money on, the only difference i hear is more hiss. i have an fmr rnp, a golden age pre 73, and a UA solo 610. ive tracked using a rode nt1a, a legendarlily quiet mic as far as its signal to noise ratios. maybe something is going over my head, but ive become highly suspicious of “high end” preamps. an excellent read is Ethan weiner’s book, The audio expert. its filled with extensive technical info with little as maths as possible haha. good post man 🙂

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