There Are a Few Pro-Quality Mic Preamps At Under $500
The mic preamps in your interface are pretty good, but you want some flavor. Maybe you’re looking to introduce some different colors to your mix and only an external preamp is going to do it for you.
While I am a vocal proponent of simply using what you have, I can also say that having a couple different preamps has allowed me to get sounds out of my recordings that I may not have been able to get with my interface’s preamps.
I’ve never gotten a satisfying DI guitar sound out of an interface that I’ve owned. The first time I was really happy with my DI guitar was when I bought a 2-610 a few years back and ran it through a Saffire Pro 40.
Luckily, I later discovered the ART Pro MPA II, a great-sounding, inexpensive 2-channel preamp.
Features You Should Look for in an External Preamp
- Naturally, your mic preamp should have phantom power (they all do)
- It should do something that your interface’s pre doesn’t do. Buying an inexpensive pre to “improve the clarity of your recordings” or some other nonsense like that isn’t going to do anything for you. Buying a Neve 1073 clone to introduce some harmonic distortion will provide something your interface doesn’t
- A high-pass filter. You really should use this on any source that’s not a bass instrument.
- If possible, it’s nice to avoid units that have wall warts. This isn’t a must-have, but if you can avoid having an annoying wall wart, go for it.
My Top Picks for Best Preamps Under $500
Everything that Warm Audio produces is top-notch, and the WA12 is no exception. The WA12 is based on the old API 312 preamp, a venerable preamp that the 70s that was used on countless records.
The pre can take both an XLR or serve as a DI. It also features a gain knob and an output attentuator, which allows the user to drive the internal components into saturation and even distortion. This is a desirable feature for a home recordist that is looking to add color or a bit of a vintage or lo-fi vibe to a track.
The WA12 takes up a 1/2 rack space, but it doesn’t necessarily need to be racked. It does not have the high pass filter that I really like in a preamp, but as I said before, that’s not a deal breaker.
Overall, you can’t go wrong with a unit like this.
Description of Sound
Snappy, solid, like a really well recording snare hit.
ART Pro MPA II
As I’ve mentioned in other posts, I have an ART Pro MPA II and I really like it.
It is a tube preamp that actually uses the tube in the signal path, so it does a great job of getting tubes into digital recordings. This unit is my go-to guitar DI and I often use it on vocals as well. If a unit like this had come out 35 years ago, it would have easily been a $1500+ preamp. It has all of the features that one would want out of a preamp and it’s a steal at under $500.
Description of Sound
Round, bell-like, clear until overdriven. Sound changes with tube swaps.
Golden Age Pre-73 MKII
Focusrite ISA ONE