Preamps are a topic that gets raised quite a lot in music recording circles. When there’s so much muddy water about the subject of pre-amps, it’s hard to make the right decision. That’s why I want to answer the question of ‘do preamps really sound different?’ And if so why?
Well yes, they do. There are different types of preamp all with different circuitry and these all add a unique tone or character to your sound.
In this article I’ll explain why and conclude with whether I think they are worth your money.
What Are Preamps?
Preamp is short for preamplifier. The function of this piece of electronic equipment is to prepare the signal which comes from your guitar pickups or microphones for amplification.
They take a weak signal (such as microphone signal levels and boost them to what is referred to as the ‘line-level’ signal.
The key thing is that preamplifiers increase the gain of a signal. This is the level a track is recorded at and is a measure of the loudness of the audio. Every stage of amplification is known as a gain stage. So preamplifiers provide one gain stage.
Preamps help you get more out of the audio signal you already have.
Preamps are nowadays found already built into many items of equipment. For example, if you have an audio interface then they are more than likely to have preamps built into them.
For more detail on the differences between an external preamp, and an audio interface check out this article I wrote on the subject.
Likewise many USB microphones have preamps built into the body so you don’t even need an audio interface to boost the signal before it enter the computer or laptop.
There are then stand-alone external preamps that can be added to your setup for extra signal boost or to alter the ‘flavor’ of your sound.
How does a preamp improve the sound?
Before we start there’s one question that you need to ask yourself.
No matter what type of preamp you decide to use, do preamps make a difference?
Maintain sound quality at high gain levels
Preamps are particuarly useful for maintaining and improving sound quality at higher gain levels.
This is particularly helpful for recording some types of low output dynamic microphone to allow you to keep the full tone even at high gain levels.
Adding unique tonal character
The other reason many people use external preamps is for a special sound character.
If you own an audio interface that will have a preamp built in, but it will be fairly standard and clean, designed for recording all sorts of instruments.
If you want a more unique sound a preamp can add this.
As with many things people often crave the warm vintage tone of older models. Many of the sounds you might know from the 60s or 70s are a result of the preamps being used at the time.
Is there a difference in preamp models?
In reality, there are two types of the preamp to choose from. The standard vacuum tube version and the solid-state circuit version.
Both of them will help boost instrument sound but both will have benefits and drawbacks. Aside from external preamp pedals that are added to the FX loop, your essential preamp sound comes from either one. Now I want to give you an idea of how they affect that overall sound you are boosting.
The vacuum tube preamp
A tube preamp will give you a nice warm tone quality with character. Its fuzzy warm distortion is always pleasing on the ears and brings out a harmonic frequency likewise.
Tubes also have a life of their own and sound better the longer they warm up. This is why a concert can have a different sound by the end of a set. Most musicians will even power-up their preamps an hour or two before a show starts to keep a richer sound.
Preamp tubes will have a downside since they need to be changed fairly often. Their sound also changes over time, telling you that a preamp tube is aging.
They also don’t do well at lower volumes and are not really designed for light bedroom practice. Tubes work best when they’re pushed to the limit. Often you’ll get 1000-5000 hours out of a preamp tube before it goes dead. Keep track of how often you practice to track your preamp hours.
The solid-state preamp
Depending on the style of music you play, you might consider this type of preamp.
This electronic version is more stable and less prone to having to be replaced.
It also has a unique feature that some musicians dislike because it sounds dissonant. In other words, it will have a reverse effect on tone quality making the sound darker or harsh. This is fine if your band is playing death metal or something that offers foreboding doom.
The resulting sound is also very clean sounding without so much of the distortion involved. It’s also great for handling higher gain signals for those screaming guitar solos. These tend to be cheaper when compared to tube amps.
Which preamp is better?
Of course with all aspects of playing music it comes down to personal preference.
Presentation is all part of the show aside from the equipment, and they don’t teach that in music school. If you want to save some money, then a solid-state preamp is fine if that sound works for you.
In fact, depending on the mood of the music, it might just add the kind of tone that the music represents.
About the only difference between models will be the cost and subtle sound variations. What you add on top of that amp and preamp when developing a deeper sound will evolve as you play. In addition to all the music tricks you’ll learn on the way.
Don’t forget about the preamp tubes
Types of preamp tubes that sound the best are always up for criticism. Most people also forget that preamp valves are also responsible for shaping overall sounds that come from your amp likewise.
To begin with, there will always be the type of amp you own that runs on a specific current. You need to ask your music store what tubes and valves are compatible with that model. Then you can start to mix and match.
If you want to get really snobby about tone, get into online forums that are dedicated to those kinds of amps to develop a sense for the different brands. You can get a cheaper tube preamp and upgrade the sound significantly with some better tubes.
You can also buy different kinds of preamp tubes and valves that you can test out. Ask the amp experts at your music store the kind of sound you want to hear. They can make possible suggestions about what can work and what won’t. The best advice is experimenting until you find the right sound and tone you like more.
Most bargain preamp tubes are going to cost between 10-20 bucks apiece. It’s best to buy them in packs to save on bulk pricing. You can often find good deals on Amazon that are worth paying for. Preamp valves are roughly the same cost. Another great idea is searching at electronic discount outlets, garage sales, flea markets, and of course online searches. There are many people selling preamp tubes on eBay as well.
Wrapping-up preamp tips
Preamps do make a difference and different types of preamp will shape your sound in different ways.
Personally I love tube preamps, they not only enrich and warm your sound but put life back into your overall tone additionally.
Solid-state preamps are fine as well but you may need to further sweeten-up that tone with additional FX pedals. Before you start looking for the ultimate amp for your band project, check out both kinds to see their pros and cons.
Then later you can decide for yourself if they will be the right choice for your money spent. Just make sure that if you decide on a preamp that uses tubes, you’ll need to invest in those later. Be smart and start researching before you buy anything. And it never hurts to ask a lot of questions if you’re unsure about a preamp tube type. Always ask what it does, how it sounds and so on.
By the time you finally get everything together, you’ll start to know what kind of preamp tube is best. And further, understand why do preamps sound different? Just the creativity you apply towards your preamp will help you to have a sound that makes a difference. In the music world, having that special sound means everything in a band and the music. All the best musicians are known for their branded style and sound.
Should I buy an external preamp?
As a beginner or someone who is just starting out in a home studio. A dedicated external preamp is probably not worth spending money on (unless you have loads to spare!). If you don’t already have one look for a good quality audio interface that has decent pre-amps built-in.
That said improving your “front-end” sound, i.e the sound before it enters your computer, is always preferable to trying to fix the sound too much using plugins in the DAW. So if you can find a nice preamp and run all your recording equipment through it, you may improve your overall recordings without much effort at all.
You really can’t beat that rich sound of a vintage tube preamp though so when you have the cash to spend and you want to get nerdy then why not!