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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.

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.
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 Golden Age Project Pre-73 MKIII is an affordable alternative modeled after the classic Neve 1073 preamp. The Black Lion Audio Auteur MKIII is a clean, dual-channel preamp with a clean, responsive sound.The Warm Audio WA12 MK2 is inspired by the API 312 preamp. These mic pres delivers serious bang for the buck!

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.
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? Check out the Warm Audio TB12 Tone Beast or Heritage Audio HA73EQ Elite Series.

Pick a Preamp with an EQ Section: Many channel-strip-style preamps, such as the Heritage Audio HA73EQ Elite, 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, save time mixing, and avoid sapping your computer's processing power.
Best of the Best Mic Preamps
These 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.

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. Adding compression is a key part of mixing, but 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.
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.

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!
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!

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.