Microphone preamps are the next devices in the signal path right after the mic. We need preamps to amplify mic signals to line level, which is the standard operating level of recording equipment. Even when going direct with higher output instruments like guitars or keyboards, a little extra gain from a preamp is necessary. In any case, microphone preamps are an essential part of any signal chain!
Audio interfaces come with their own built-in mic pres. For most of us recording at home, the sound quality from these is great! Dedicated hardware microphone preamps do have their benefits, though, like improved sound quality, a specific desired character, more gain, and sometimes lower noise.
Whether you’re shopping for your first budget mic pre or looking to delve into top-of-the-line equipment, there’s a little something for everyone.
Warm Audio WA73
Modeled after the most iconic preamp of all time, Warm Audio’s affordable WA73 is a great way to get some of that classic character without breaking the bank. It comes in both single and dual channel versions, with or without EQ. Warm Audio worked closely with Carnhill Transformers of Cambridgeshire, UK, to design faithful reproductions of these most coveted, early version transformers.
Focusrite’s OctoPre is another fantastic 8-channel preamp with A/D conversion up to 192 kHz. The Scarlett preamps are natural-sounding to capture the character of the microphone and the instrument without excess coloration. It also has plenty of headroom and pads for “extreme inputs.” Use it for drums or a guitar cabinet without batting an eye.
PreSonus DigiMax D8
PreSonus is synonymous with quality on a budget. If you’re looking for a versatile 8-channel mic pre, the DigiMax D8 is a good shout. The unit has two convenient 1/4″ inputs on the front panel, while the 8 XLR inputs are on the back of the device to keep cabling hidden and tidy. Each channel also has a -20 dB pad for loud sound sources and +48 V phantom power switchable in odd or even pairs.
ART TubeOpto 8
Tube preamps and “budget” don’t often go hand-in-hand, though ART has managed to create an affordable 8-channel tube mic pre. Sometimes it’s advisable to err on the side of caution with this type of stuff in the sense that it’s best to manage your expectations. I haven’t used the ART tube preamp personally so I can’t attest to its quality, but, based on reviews, I believe it’s a piece that’s great “for the price.”
If you’re looking for a little more character in your recordings, tubes may be the way to go. At just $299, the ART TubeOpto 8 is a full hundred dollars cheaper than both the Focusrite and PreSonus preamps. It’s certainly a unique piece worth trying!
The 3124V is API’s newer version of the popular 3124+ with added variable output. It’s a high-quality rackmount preamp with 4 discrete channels. The API preamp is designed to do one thing incredibly well, and that’s amplify low-level signals! You’ll probably notice that high-end microphone preamps like this one have fewer inputs and features than their more budget-friendly counterparts, yet can cost 10x as much.
The very simple 3124V has undeniable sound quality and classic API character that you simply won’t get out of anything else. When shopping for gear like this, you’re going after a “holy grail” piece that will perform extremely well if you like its sound. It’s a lot less frilly than an 8-channel budget pre, and it’s much, much more expensive, but the quality is unmatched.
UK Sound 1173
If the name sounds somewhat familiar, it’s very likely because the UK Sound 1173 is a collaboration between our very own Warren Huart and gear designer Michael Stucker. The unit offers a Neve-style 1073 microphone preamp and a Universal Audio-style 1176 FET compressor.
UK Sound is a division of BAE operating out of California and building gear with carefully selected, high quality components. You could very well consider the 1173 a “top-of-the-line” unit at a price point that’s much more reasonable for home recorders and hobbyists. It’s also a unique blend of two of the most time-tested, go-to choices for preamplifcation and compression, all in a single rack space.
A tube preamp, an opto-compressor, and an EQ, the Avalon 737 is a very popular higher end signal path. For an all-in-one channel strip type preamp, not a whole lot can beat the Avalon. It’s won 2 “Best Preamp” awards in the past 20 years and has received plenty of words of praise.
The 737’s feature-richness adds to the unit’s appeal. For example, users can create a de-esser by cleverly using the compressor and EQ in tandem, and the EQ can be flipped either pre- or post-compressor to taste. If budget permits, this piece is definitely one to consider adding to your collection!
SSL Alpha VHD-Pre
The VHD circuit utilizes a 100% analogue signal path to create rich, pleasant harmonic distortion. Increasing input gain with VHD enabled adds 2nd or 3rd harmonic distortion, or a blend of the two, to the signal path. In terms of affordability, the SSL Alpha preamp isn’t cheap, but it’s relatively feasible–especially when compared to the API. For a home studio, this could be the only preamp you’ll need in the arsenal.
The Neve 1073 is easily the most famous preamp of all time. Rupert Neve was nothing short of a genius, and his innovations singlehandedly shaped the way music was (and is) made. 1073s are known for being rich, full-bodied, and punchy, and driving the input stage can add some really nice saturation. For a classic sound that’s still in fashion, every studio needs some flavor of 1073.
This AMS-Neve 1073DPX is two channels of legendary preamplifier with a 3-band EQ. One of the best microphone preamps ever? Absolutely.
Universal Audio SOLO/610
UA’s SOLO/610 brings the renowned Putnam 610 tube console sound to a portable mic preamp design. It’s a single channel mic pre as well as DI box for recording instruments direct. Controls and features are simple and straightforward—it’s just a classic tube preamp for smooth and buttery recordings. The portability is a huge plus; you don’t need to rack it up in a desk or a case. This thing flies wherever you go.
Focusrite ISA One
Based on the original ISA 110, the ISA One is another single channel desktop microphone preamp and DI box. The input transformer has a character all its own, making the ISA a one-of-a-kind preamp that can’t really be emulated elsewhere. It even has an optional A-D card, as well as a headphone output, for standalone recording.
- SEE ALSO: PreSonus vs Focusrite Interfaces
The dbx 286s is one of the most affordable channel strips available. Reading left to right in the signal path, it includes a a single microphone preamp, compression section, de-esser, enhancer, expander/gate, and a final output stage. This piece is popular amongst voiceover artists because of its complementary features. For the price, this one can’t be beat!
Conclusion: Best Microphone Preamps in 2021
When it comes to microphone preamps in 2021, there’s something out there for everyone. Whether you’re a professional or a hobbyist, shopping for something premium or just dabbling with outboard preamps, there’s no shortage of variety.