Magnatone Giveawya

September 2014

The Importance of the Microphone Preamp

Welcome once again to all! Since we’re focusing on recording as this issue’s main theme, I thought we could dig even deeper into the “Signal Chain” on this particular subject. Recording is probably my overall favorite thing to do as a pastime. At times, I can become a bit obsessed with it, too! I haven’t seen too much discussion in guitar magazines about the crucial importance of the microphone preamp’s role in capturing incredible tones and then translating them to tape, or even to a DAW.

In fact, directly after your choice of microphone(s), the microphone preamp will absolutely dictate what type of sound you’re going to get. In addition to its function as a preamplifier, this piece of equipment is also responsible for imparting a large amount of its own tonal character into the mix. When I listen to any record or CD, I’m always listening to the “front line” (microphone and preamp) because this is where the recording process really begins—that is, of course, apart from all the other components involved… guitars, pedals and amps and such. You do not want to scrimp here or your tone will suffer in a big way!

Most importantly, you do not want to waste valuable time and money buying the cheaper, budget types of microphone preamps, trying one after another until you finally find a good one. Most people wind up going through two or three units before realizing that they could have gotten it right the very first time. That’s exactly why I’m going to give you a brief primer here—to spare you a great deal of aggravation and expense. The object here is to help you reward yourself instead with recordings that you can be proud of, right from the start. Okay, here we go…

A Really Nice Start
The fine people at FMR Audio of Austin, TX, are famous for making great-sounding gear at affordable prices, and their Really Nice Preamp (RNP8380) is certainly no exception. The fact that this particular piece is also a stereo mic preamp makes it all the more affordable in the “bang for the buck” department. These are selling for $475 on the street, and the RNP8380 is an unbeatable preamp for its design and function (not to mention its sound). This one was actually my first good quality microphone preamp. While you’re at it, check out the FMR Really Nice Compressor and Really Nice Leveling Amplifier, too. Yep, I’ve got these two pieces in my rack as well—incredible sounding units indeed. If you haven’t gone down this road before, start right here.

Take Me To The River
Great River Electronics of St. Paul, MN, make without a doubt my favorite “default” mic preamps. Everything has to pass through my beloved pair of ME-1NVs before going further down the line. The mono ME-1NV is certainly more expensive (around $1175 street) than the FMR Audio RNP8380, but one listen to these preamps and you’ll know what I’m talking about. These are huge sounding units that have a wonderful sonic depth and width to them that is truly amazing. A real favorite combination of mine has been running a Gretsch Country Gentleman into a Klon Centaur overdrive pedal (or others depending on what’s needed) patched into my Fender Champion 600 5-Watt amp, using a Neumann KM 184 condenser microphone. The KM 184 is ultimately connected to one (or both) of the Great River preamps before it hits my Digidesign 002 Pro Tools Rack.

One night I was tracking into the wee hours of the morning when I just had to use a guitar amp. None of my various brands of guitar amp emulator software was cutting it for me. What I then discovered was cool: since there was barely any signal coming through the amp, I cranked up both volumes on the Great River unit to compensate for the lack of volume coming from the amp’s speaker. When I took the reverb off the track, it sounded about as wide as the Nile! One other good thing about the ME-1NV is that you can record as many tracks as you want without fear of bottom-end buildup that occurred with some of the earlier seventies-era British preamps. Awesome stuff with a classic seventies sound (albeit much improved here).

Summer of Love, Anyone?
The Chandler Germanium Preamps from Chandler Limited of Shell Rock, IA, are just the ticket if you want to recreate a special sound associated with the Summer of 1967. When I first heard the Chandler Germanium preamps in action, I immediately thought of the Sgt. Pepper’s tone—the opening chords of “Getting Better” were really spot on! These germanium transistor-based beauties are going for $1430 per channel (external power supply included). They also make a wonderful compliment to the Great River ME-1NV or the FMR Audio RNP8380, as well.

Around the Universal
The claim to fame of Universal Audio of Scotts Valley, CA, is that they invented the first modular tube recording console. This vintage desk was called the 610 and was responsible for taping the live performances directly from the Monterey Pop Festival and several live Jimi Hendrix records (courtesy of the Wally Heider Mobile Recording Truck, which was filled with a load of 610 microphone preamps). These warm-sounding, all-tube mic preamps are highly coveted for their unique tonal coloration, and are famous for producing a very big, rich sound. Fortunately for you, the 610s have been made available once again and are a great addition to any home or commercial studio. These units excel at giving the signal source a beautiful tube saturation character, and they have been used by everyone from the likes of Nat King Cole and Frank Sinatra to countless of others during the late fifties to late sixties. I use my LA-610 for guitars, vocals, and as a direct input for bass guitar. If you like tubes in your tone, this is the de facto benchmark reference. The stereo LA-610 (retail $1599), SOLO/610 ($699) or 710 ($799) are all great choices.

Once you enter this door, your job as a recording engineer becomes much easier. This is where you can let the gear help you make better sounds without too much forethought. Just a few good microphones in hand, and you’ll be off on a wonderful trip that might never end. Think guitars are addictive? Believe me, this is an entirely different level of obsession. See you next time.


Dean Farley
is the chief designer of "Snake Oil Brand Strings" (sobstrings.net) and has had a profound influence on the trends in the strings of today.