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Thread: Why Do Boutique Preamps Cost So Much?

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    Why Do Boutique Preamps Cost So Much?

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    I got a newsletter email today from Sweetwater, and one of the articles was about the cost of high-end preamps...so I thought I would post a link to that article for all the guys who have ever asked about them...or argued against the value of buying and using them.


    Why Do Boutique Preamps Cost So Much?

    Lynn Fuston has heard and used more preamps than probably anyone else on the planet....and done preamp shoot-outs.

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    Thanks for sharing.

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    The snag here is that there are preamps and then there are preamps. Without any doubt, there are a few products that make audio sound nicer, and as these things have been around since the early days of 'hi-fi' they do do that. Clearly some of these things have pedigree and have featured a lot on classic tracks. I'd love a Neve from the 70s. These are NOT 'boutique' preamps in my book, they're proven tools.

    However, now we have products that borrow the designs, or worse, use technology to simulate what the old products did. Neve didn't design to give the magic, he designed using the best engineering, electronic and mechanical, he had available to him. We now design to mimic the byproducts of the original flawed designs. All the things we have learned to love were accidental defects at that time they couldn't fix, but discovered people liked them.

    Tony Waldron, the old Cadac chief engineer told me years ago the issues they had when they brought out new designs with better designed electronics. People hates every purity improvement they made, and they had to design in new ways to recreate their classic sound. His job was to solve technical defects and make improvements without destroying the classic sound that was virtually impossible to measure and document. His younger engineering people just didn't understand it at all. Their very expensive electronics and hardware was recreating the old sound in a way people appreciated.

    My beef is with less well engineered products that do this far more bluntly, and perhaps excessively to cache in on the gullible aspects of many serious audio people with hi-fi attitudes, who believe some of the crazy stuff claimed.

    My ears have never been trained enough to appreciate some of the stuff. I once tried testing a track on a Neve preamp, and while I could hear the difference I simply could NOT say which was better. On one track I liked the 'tone' but on another I didn't. I decided I didn't have the ears for the very small differences to make sense. Colleague of course felt the difference were outstanding. I believe them, but it's left me for maybe twenty years with the opinion that preamps are either OK, or they're not. Every time I use a different one, I like it, or I don't, and it seems to have little to do with cost. Also, the ones I like are often way down the popularity list. I am content with any product that to me, does its job. I've lost my brand swing. I've got a decent collection of guitars and basses. Some rather nice and expensive ones. Which do I pick up to play? A Peavy bass and a Line 6 guitar, but for smugness I play the Les Paul or my American Standard Jazz. They're not my favourite guitars though.

    I will never buy one of the current boutique preamps. The ones that glow, the ones that claim nice distortion and the ones that claim how wonderful they are. If I saw a Neve on ebay for a sensible price in fully working order I'd buy it, but these new products leave me cold. I seriously doubt they do very much at all!

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    Quote Originally Posted by rob aylestone View Post
    I will never buy one of the current boutique preamps. The ones that glow, the ones that claim nice distortion and the ones that claim how wonderful they are. If I saw a Neve on ebay for a sensible price in fully working order I'd buy it, but these new products leave me cold. I seriously doubt they do very much at all!
    I think you're being way too general.
    Yes, there are many new products that don't have the real goods, but they try to cash in on some mythical aspects of classic designs.
    That said...there are many new boutique models that aren't simply attempted clones of old classic designs...rather they are inspired by them, but with their own twists that also take advantage of current high-quality components and production techniques.

    As just one example (and I'm not trying to pimp here)...I just recently picked up a 2-channel pre from what I would consider a "boutique" manufacturer that isn't widely known down in the home rec world, like Neve or API. The company is Sonic Farm, up in Canada...and they make several pre models, and the one that broke the ice for them is their "Creamer" pre, which I recently purchased, but until my new studio I ready, it's mostly been sitting in the box.
    If you check out their website, you find quite a few well known pros praising both the company as a whole, and several of their products...some that have gotten tech awards, etc.
    There are quite a few other brands of recent manufacturing that are top-notch, not pure clones, yet on the same level as some of those prized vintage models....maybe even better, considering that those vintage models have all probably gone out of spec by now, and often no two identical.

    I feel the same way about guitar amps. I know some chase only the vintage stuff...with the assumption that it possesses some "magic" not to be found elsewhere...but I prefer the new boutique stuff, because it's...well, new...and specs and tolerances are better, plus, they posses their own "magic".
    I think the same can be said for some new production boutique mics...and they even cost a fraction of some 60 year-old vintage models.

    Sure...a real Neve would be highly desirable...among many other vintage pieces of audio gear...but there's quite a lot of modern, boutique gear that is killer.
    If I can't afford the high-end vintage stuff...I'll go for the high-end boutique modern stuff without hesitation.

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    I get it, but what they offer is to me, less value for money. I'm very happy with those things if the end user loves them, but I think maybe more revealing monitors and extra mics for me are where the next money will go. I can hear mic differences and speaker differences clearly, but preamps either sound good, or they don't. I'm happily outnumbered by those who disagree.

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    I think one of the biggest downers for many HR is the sound they want is from some famous album thats been mixed and mastered.
    So they get the big dollar item and it doesnt sound much better than a $500 used Grace Design, which doesnt sound much different than a $100 Rane MS1..... that even the famed Steely Dan engineer used on big albums of that era. My experience. My ears are fine, the huge pro sound just wasnt there for the money. For HR where there isnt a large amount of work and paid by the hour session musicians and engineers...a unit breaking down = quality issue, has a limit to ROI.

    One of the largest albums of all time per BIllboard is the Adele...and the engineer used the Rode Classic II into a UA 6176...but into the rabbit hole of reading, that simple combo made it to the album, but it also went through massive plugins at mixing and and the Mastering of all of it went through more polish. So to buy a Rode Classic II and a 6176 probably wont sound the same as her finished sound on the album.

    My experience with the expensive preamps was complex, sound wise I didnt hear some huge polished album sound, but the build and designs of the internal guts is cool...like a LA610 or a ISA One, theres alot going on inside those compared to a Rane MS1. The caps and all the science of parts is amazing.

    The history and stories of the old gear of yesteryear is for older folk too, imo.
    My sons kids wont even really know much of the Beatles let alone Elvis and before him Frank and Bing who were the Beatles of their era.
    Then through the 1970's to 80's to 90's to 2000's...whose gear are we copying and cloning and which albums made the gear popular?
    Will the Billie Eilish crowd be impressed with a REDD 47?

    the REAL NEVE...or one of the Clones.... does it end?
    Dallas Heritage Auction sells posters of old movies for $190,000...something for rich to spend their money on or investment mentality. Neither for me fortune-lessly...

    As for Engineering, it comes down to sound. Forget the name brand, get to the sound. Forget the price tag, forget if its a Tube, Transistor or IC....does it sound good? Ive heard many expensive pieces with subpar musicians and the gear doesnt save them, its only something to talk about at the bar.


    Tubes , Transistors, IC's.... Capital Records golden era and Tony Bennet, Beach Boys.. ... or Bedroom Produced Billie Eilish ITB..and AT2020 and interface preamps...

    It all starts with a Mic and Preamp one way or another.
    Vintage King puts the Neumann U47 tube and NEVE 1073 and Emu-comp as their "top" vocal chain in an article.
    Even that expensive setup will get Mix Plugins and Mastering polished before going to the radio...or streaming site.

    then theres always the well done SOS shootout that blindfolded the experts chose the ART MPA and overall it came in side to side with the NEVE and other high end preamps.

    makes the brain hurt...lol

    if it's not happening in the room, it ain't gonna happen on tape.-H.Gerst

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    Quote Originally Posted by rob aylestone View Post
    I get it, but what they offer is to me, less value for money. I'm very happy with those things if the end user loves them, but I think maybe more revealing monitors and extra mics for me are where the next money will go. I can hear mic differences and speaker differences clearly, but preamps either sound good, or they don't. I'm happily outnumbered by those who disagree.
    Yeah...you need the revealing monitors...but as was mentioned in the article, that super nice mic you have gets plugged into a mic pre.
    So I don't see preamps as just about gain.
    Sure, you can go for the "straight gain" type, where the pre adds nothing more than that, and there are a lot of "boutique" high-end pres that do just that...but many have their own sound too, like the Neve or API you mentioned, along with many from the new crop of boutique builders.

    I was lucky to score a single channel D.W. Fearn VT-1 for a decent price last fall, right before my studio build started...so I only tested it out and can't say how much I like it with various mics...but I wanted something that had that "straight gain" thing but at a very high quality level. During the previous spring, I had come across some higher end mics also at great prices (dealer demos, close out)...and then sent them all in back to the manufacturer for upgrades and check-ups...so the Fearn VT-1 was intended for them, though I have other pres too.
    That Sonic Farm Creamer was a completely different intent...it can do clean, but it really shines when you get it cooking, and I wanted a high end pre that could also do that.

    The pres I already have...they are all different sounding, so I can certainly hear that and can pick a mic/pre combination for specific flavors.

    One thing I do notice from a lot of articles, interviews and reviews that I have read...is that most pros value their pres as much as their prized mics.
    Those are the "front line" pieces that start the ball rolling...and in many cases, with a good mic/pre combo, the sound you capture needs not much more done to it, all the way to the mix....which is really the way much of the old-school recordings were done. Room - mics -pres...and great performances.
    I know these days...things have kinda of "reversed polarity" if you will... ...and many people are more focused about creating good sounding tracks AFTER they have been recorded, which is possible with some things, and not always a bad way to go...but for me, I'm looking to take things back to those old-school basics, and I do think that once the sounds are captured...if I want to do more to them later, it will be easier, than using lower quality front end.

    Didn't mean to get into a whole rant about production values and all that...just saying that I do feel pres can offer the value for the money with the high-end stuff.

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    Quote Originally Posted by CoolCat View Post
    Will the Billie Eilish crowd be impressed with a REDD 47?


    And that's the thing...you don't need the boutique stuff just to create something, to record somethig...but for a certain recording mindset, a quality mic and pre and whatever else, helps bring out the production style and goals, and enhances the subtleties within that production.

    If you're doing Billie Eilish vocals and her style of Pop...you don't need anything more than a computer, lots of plugs and lots of VSTi libraries.
    Even the room is almost meaningless, because 99% of it is all done ITB.

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    It's good to air the topic. I've got a couple of Behringer X32's in my hire stock, and a Midas M32 that has (it says) the better Midas designed preamps. The Behringer preamps are pretty noise free and the audio quality sounds decent enough. I really cannot decide if I like the Midas ones better. There is a sort of difference but it's the sort of difference you get when you first apply a bit of initial EQ, and I fall into the trap of usually doing the same thing - finding 1-3K and giving a very gentle boost, which too my ear sounds nicer than flat. The Midas seems to just do that slight warming without the EQ. I just can't get excited about preamps. The 16x4 Tascam I had did the job nicely, until it started to do weird things needing disconnecting and reconnecting and a friend loaned me a Firewire Presonus that does a similar job with multiple inputs. This had slightly more gain before the noise crept up, so I found one on ebay and I'm using that. I can't say it sounds different from any of the interfaces or mixers I have.

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    Awhile back I picked up one of the new Warm Audio Neve clones...the 2-channel. It has some better parts, and looks to be built fairly well, but without a real Neve to compare it against...I don't know if it's the same, though it seems to have gotten mostly favorable reviews.
    I used it a couple of times, and it did have a nice vibe in the upper mids, helping to bring out some character....but I need to spend a lot more time using it.

    I also recently picked up some of the new Klark-Teknik EQs and their two new comp offerings...and they are part of the new Music Group, along with Midas...and all under the Behringer umbrella...so I do also think there's value in the non-boutique gear too, and I have a variety of both high-end gear and some less expensive stuff.

    Without having a roomful of all the available options...and then a couple of months or more to sit in there and test it all, experiment, try different combinations and take a lot of notes...it is hard to say something is better or worse...but I do feel that with the boutique stuff, you can't deny the build quality and lasting value even if you can't hear a difference between it and something at 1/5th the price.

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