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Mic Preamp Buying Guide: Upgrade Your Signal Path

If you've got a mixer or audio interface, you've likely already got a mic preamp or two. So, why invest in a standalone mic preamp like the ones you'll find in this buying guide? Well, if you've been plugging your microphone into the same pre all this time, you likely haven't heard everything your mic has to offer. Mic preamps can make a huge difference in your signal path -- and your recordings.

What's a Mic Preamp -- And Why Do I Need One?

As any audio engineer will tell you, a microphone converts acoustic energy (such as the sound of your voice) into electrical energy (voltage running down a cable). Even a very sensitive microphone produces a relatively weak signal, so a mic preamp is necessary to bump it up to a useable level. A microphone preamplifier takes that low-voltage output from a microphone, and amplifies it to a much stronger line-level signal -- often up to 80 dB louder. Now, your stronger, louder signal is ready to be recorded.

How Does a Mic Preamp Affect My Recorded Sound?

Mic preamps make microphone signals louder -- but they also do so much more. In a word, the electronics in preamps "color" the sound of any signal that's run through them. A tube-based preamp will add characteristic harmonic distortion. Meanwhile, a transformer-based solid-state preamp will offer its own subtle character and definition, while a transformerless solid-state preamp is likely to result in a more transparent sound. Every pre is different. Your vocal mic may sound hollow and thin through one pre, but rich and warm through a better pre. In fact, microphone preamps are so crucial to the sound of recordings, pro studios often have racks full of preamps for different purposes -- just as they have microphone collections.

Ready to upgrade your signal path? Find the right pre for your price range in this buying guide!
Best Mic Preamps Under $300
Adding an outboard mic preamp to your studio's signal chain can really help you get more out of your microphones. All under $300, these single-channel mic preamps are great choices for recording vocals and voiceover.

See More Mic Preamps Under $300 »

Pick a Preamp with Phantom Power: Most condenser microphones require +48V phantom power to operate. Luckily, phantom power is a feature of every mic preamp in this guide -- and using it is as easy as pressing a button on the front panel.
  ART Tube MP Studio V3
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  dbx 286S Microphone Preamplifier
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  PreSonus Studio Channel Tube Microphone Preamp
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$214.95
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See More Mic Preamps Under $300 »
Best Mic Preamps Under $500
In the under-$500 range, we start to see preamps built as "homages" to classic pieces of vintage gear. The ART Voice Channel and Warm Audio WA12 are meant to add pleasing coloration, while the Black Lion B173 and Focusrite ISA One are designed to be more open and transparent. Every one of these mic pres delivers serious bang for the buck!

See More Mic Preamps Under $500 »

Pick a Preamp with Hi-Z Instrument Inputs: Want to record your guitar or bass "direct"? If your preamp has a high-impedance (Hi-Z) instrument input, you can plug in your instrument's 1/4" cable and use the preamp to shape your tone before hitting your audio interface. You can even use it as a DI box when you play live.
  ART Voice Channel Tube Microphone Preamp System with Digital ...
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  Warm Audio WA12 Microphone Preamplifier
or 4 payments of $112.50
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  Focusrite ISA One Analogue Microphone Preamp
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$444.95
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See More Mic Preamps Under $500 »
Best Mic Preamps Under $1000
Shopping for your first high-end mic preamp? You can't go wrong with the Universal Audio 710 Twin-Finity or Solo/610 -- both offer tons of tube warmth on tap, and the Twin-Finity has a blendable solid-state signal path to help bring your sound into sharper focus. Want more tone-shaping tools? The solid-state Joemeek oneQ2 and PreSonus RC 500 aren't only mic preamps -- they're full-on channel strips with compression, EQ, and more.

See More Mic Preamps Under $1000 »

Pick a Preamp with an EQ Section: Many channel-strip-style preamps, such as the PreSonus RC 500, include a parametric equalizer section. Tweak these knobs to dial the "boxiness" out of a snare drum, add some high-end air to a vocal, and so on. If you EQ "on the way in," you can shape sound before it hits your DAW, and avoid sapping your computer's processing power.
  Universal Audio 710 Twin-Finity Microphone Preamplifier
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  Universal Audio Solo/610 Microphone Preamp
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  PreSonus RC 500 Microphone Preamplifier
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See More Mic Preamps Under $1000 »
Best of the Best Mic Preamps
These Universal Audio, PreSonus and Avalon mic preamps are right at home in pro studios -- so it's no wonder they're some of the most popular pres on zZounds. Got a great mic? Pair it up with one of these preamps to create a stellar signal chain.

See zZounds' Most Popular Mic Preamps »

Pick a Preamp with Dynamics Processing: Some preamps offer on-board dynamics processing -- compressors, limiters, expander, and/or gates -- to help you get your levels under control before the signal hits your DAW. In addition to saving you from clipping distortion on a too-hot take, compression and peak limiting can "thicken" vocals and instruments to make them seem larger than life. Don't be afraid to add a bit of compression while you're tracking -- let it "sit" on the peaks of a signal and prevent the loudest moments from getting too loud, while making the quieter parts of a performance feel more immediate.
  Universal Audio LA-610 MkII Classic Tube Microphone Preamplifier
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  PreSonus ADL 700 All-Tube Microphone Channel Strip Preamplifier
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  Avalon M5 Pure Class A Half Rack Preamplifier
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  Avalon VT-737SP Class A Mic Processor
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See zZounds' Most Popular Mic Preamps »
500 Series Mic Preamps
Want a rack of outboard gear that's easy to carry around? Step 1 is to get yourself a 500 Series chassis -- also known as a Lunchbox, the API trademarked name -- with two or more slots. And Step 2 is to fill the slots with 500 Series modules! Much smaller than regular rack gear, 500 Series modules are usually more affordable than their bigger siblings. So if you're looking to build a preamp palette, 500 Series preamps are a good place to start. Remember, get a 500 Series chassis first -- it has the power supply and audio connections you'll need. Then, pack your Lunchbox with these delicious-sounding 500 Series mic pres!

Shop All 500 Series Mic Preamps »

Pick a Preamp with Variable Impedance: All microphones -- and all mic preamps -- have an impedance rating, measured in ohms. Generally speaking, your preamp's input impedance should be 5 to 10 times higher than the impedance of the microphone. If your pre's input impedance is too low, your mic can sound dull and thin -- especially if it's a ribbon microphone or low-output dynamic. In general, higher input impedance is good -- but if your pre has a variable-impedance switch or knob, go ahead and experiment! It won't hurt the mic or preamp to try mis-matching impedances -- in fact, it may add desirable color to your sound. So go ahead crank your pre's input impedance knob from 150 ohms to 20,000 ohms -- and see what kind of tonal character you get.
  Warm Audio WA12 500 Series Microphone Preamplifier
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Dual-Channel Mic Preamps
Dual-channel preamps give you two mic preamps in one box. Why get two of the same exact mic pre? Well, if you're recording a stereo pair of microphones, you're going to want the same exact signal path on both mics. Next time you you want to record a stereo pair -- such as for room mics, drum overheads, grand piano, or simply to make an acoustic guitar sound huge -- try plugging them into one of these 2-channel preamps!

Need more channels? Check out the 4-channel Universal Audio 4-710D -- it even has digital ADAT output.

Shop All 2-Channel Mic Preamps »

Pick a Preamp with 2 Channels: A perfect time to use a dual-channel mic preamp is when you're A/B comparing two microphones. For your mic shootout, you'll want to record them simultaneously, on the same source, placed as close together as possible, and plugged into the same preamp. May the best mic win!
  Black Lion Audio Auteur Microphone Preamplifier
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  Focusrite ISA Two Dual Channel Microphone Preamplifier
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8-Channel Mic Preamps with Digital Output
If you're going to be recording a full band or a drum kit, you'll need lots of mic preamp channels. How about 8 more? If your existing audio interface has an ADAT optical "lightpipe" digital input with a Toslink connector, you can easily add 8 mic preamp channels to your studio. All you need is one of these 8-channel preamps with ADAT optical digital output, and a Toslink fiber-optic cable to connect it to your interface. This is the economical way to up your studio's channel count!

Shop All Mic Preamps with Digital Output »

Pick a Preamp with Digital Output: If you're recording real instruments or vocals into a DAW, eventually you'll need to convert your audio from analog to digital. And your audio interface's analog-to-digital converters might not be the best. That's why preamps with digital outputs are so popular: they let you bypass your interface's analog electronics and A/D converters, and capture a cleaner signal. If your pre has both analog and digital outputs, try both and go with the signal path that sounds better.
  Focusrite OctoPre MkII 8-Channel Microphone Preamp
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No paperwork. Nothing to track.
No application to mail or fax, no bills to pay. We automatically charge the payments to your credit card.

We'll wait on your money so you don't have to wait for your gear!

When you checkout, just click the Play as you Pay checkbox to indicate which installment plan you wish to use.

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smaller orders

Really heavy stuff might cost you a
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We have warehouses on both coasts, so most shipments arrive in 3 days or less.
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