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Preamp quality

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Sorry for this incredibly sophomoric question, but I've never really understood what preamps do, or more specifically what high end preamps do that cheap ones don't. I mean I understand that they amplify audio signals prior to output, but I'm wondering what else they do, as I'm sure the list is long and varied. It just has always seemed such a straightforward black and white procedure to me: to pre-amplify the signal. I'd never considered there was a amplification "quality" that varied depending on the price paid.


Here all along I thought I was doing fine with my little Presonus but evidently people are paying thousands for high end preamps. I'm just curious as to how much a difference in sound in say, a $2500 preamp makes vs. a $250 one from a technical as well as audible standpoint.

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Good question. All I can say is that hi-priced boutique pre amps seem to do a few things to the sound:


They are either crystal clear and allow each and every sound to stand out (ie you can hear a pin drop while the singer is belting) or . . .


They color the sound in an artificial way that is exceptionally pleasing and flattering.

1) They smooth out the jagged edges (as if they have some built in subtle compression and dynamic eq.) automatically.


2) They add some high harmonics that when pushed hard resemble subtle overdrive


3) They seem (to me) to shift the phase of different regions of the audio spectrum. For example, high frequencies might sound slightly delayed from the rest of the spectrum.


I like expensive amps that do the latter (often tube pres) since you can buy relatively cheap crystal clear pres. The presonus Eureka always impressed me as a nice clear pre for a reasonable price.


But hearing an acoustic guitar or vocals recorded through some of the very expensive tube pres just sounds so rich, smooth and good, automatically.


The question of course is, can you recreate all of that coloration with a good plugin if you just use a good clear pre to get the signal into the digital domain.

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Let me tell you a story:


Roger Nichols, the engineer who did a lot of work for Steely Dan among others,

was invited to participate in a high-end mic-pre shoot out. A he tells us he brought hi Rane MS1b, an uncolored roughly $200 mic-pre but very clean and well-designed, a real bargain, to the test.


They recorded a number of sources, coals, guitar ,etc. with all the mic-pres and without knowing which mic-pre was which the majority of panelists rated the takes done with the Rane as #1 -3. When they learned how little the mic-pre cost they were flabbergasted.


Does this mean that all expensive boutique mic-pres or the mic-pres in high end consoles are not great? No.


But at the end of the day, it's the guy, not the gear. BTW, the Onyx mic-pres in newer Mackie units/mixers are quite good if you want clean relatively uncolored mic-pres.

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