Are PreAmps a marketing myth?

CoolCat

Well-known member
ok not trying to troll anything or any brand....

but I seem to be stuck in a perpetual circle of preamp purchasing that literally goes nowhere.
like life, I can recall the first preamp purchase really well and it was like ok...then added a RNC and it was like wow! this does sound more "studioish than my portastudio preamp...

then thinking Lightening might strike twice even better! I sold it and got a more expensive one! and that was pretty cool...and I felt kind of like an explorer into sound.

then I go blurry, and something to do with SM7 got me into even more and more and reading and cash was more and more....and years flew buy (pun intended)...the list so long of preamps I dont even remember them all....

then eventually I got the big PayPal and went for a few $1700 pro-pieces and was totally let down in the sound difference but the Engineerng pieces of work were amazing, but I was looking for that "professional mastered Capital EMI SoundCity " sound! and it didnt happen...and actually...for sanity checks I rebought the first ones again and they sounded really close to all the others.

so the point is...am I nuts? or is this WOW! factor more a marketing placebo GAS thing than a true engineering-honest opinion(no marketing allowed) that there is very little difference once you have a decent preamp...which these days can be on the interface itself.?

maybe its a psychologist question about placebo namebrand effect that gets to me? because my ears dont hear a difference, and Ive tried literally a long list of gear....and theres still some
GAS bug like...oh try <enter preamp model> !!! it might sound different!! and be the warm gooy honey holy grail one!

:facepalm:
 

RRuskin

Rick Ruskin
Holy grail? No such thing. However, the wider bandwidth, faster transient response, higher signal to noise ratio, and lower distortion of a good outboard mic preamp make working so much easier. I noticed that decades ago when I compared my Deane Jensen designed mic pres to the ones on my old Fostex 450-16 console. I have plenty of others now and the differences are far more subtle but the they all beat the crap out of my current console's front end.
 
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TalismanRich

Well-known member
Ah, obviously the gold leafing has fallen from your ears! You should consider moving to another hobby/profession, for your hearing is no better than the common folk walking around the local Walmart. :eek:


I have been spending a fair amount of time browsing on GearSlutz and have come to the conclusion that many of the people over there are quite delusional, or they can hear a gnat fart from 10 ft away. There's no other explanation. They hear MOUNTAINS of difference in similar items, things that I can barely perceive. One fellow was talking about hearing a change in rhythm when he changed the cable from his mic to his preamp. Really??? Of course the new cable cost about 10 times more than the old cable. It must be at least 10 times better, right?

Besides the obvious perception bias that we all have, there's the added fact the there is no absolute standard as to what is good or right. Someone pronounces that a particular microphone or preamp is THE ultimate device, and from then on all other are shot down as being inferior. Then the comparisons, and judgements fly fast and furious for 20, 30, 50 pages at a time. A week later, the cycle starts again, but this time with a different "ultimate" standard. Clearly there is more than one "ultimate" standard.

The thing to remember is that "different" doesn't necessarily mean better or worse. It just means that its not the same. That's why some people like Coke, some like Pepsi, and some drink RC.
 
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ecc83

Well-known member
Cool Cat? I am at the other end of this conundrum. I am going to assume that you have little or noknowledge of electronics? Well I have a fair bit, was me job, and I have read extensively about and built some audio circuits.
I know for instance that with just two, low noise transistors (BC214L will do) and a dual op amp, even the humble TL072 you can make a mic pre amp that has a noise performance that is close to the Johnson noise in a 150 Ohm resistor and that is the best anyone can do. Physics innit. So long as microphones are the impedance they are, 150-200 Ohms, noise figures will be at the -128dB level at best (200 R at 20C 22kHz is -130dBu near as)

The distortion produced by said pre amp will be in the third decimal place, on a par with digital converters and WAY lower than tape or vinyl. Component cost? $3 ? Of course it has to be put in a tin and powered and connected and controlled but the audiophools are not claiming a CASE sound! (yet?)

I also know that the frequency response will be ruler flat from 10Hz to way past 20kHz unless steps are taken to restrict it. In short, I know of no mechanism why such a pre amp would NOT give a subjectively perfect reproduction? "Hi F" in its proper meaning, nothing added or taken away.

And yet! I am constantly bombarded with adjectives about the 'sound' of electronic devices that ALL my training and knowledge tells me should not do that!

Confirmational bias is the answer most offered. Then, Emperor's New Clothes? Someone who pays $2000 for a single channel pre is going to say it sounds SO much better than the one in his $200 AI.

Of course, some pres are deliberately designed to add some level of 'attitude' (aka "distortion") but these are a special case.

Dave.
 

jimmys69

MOODerator
Ah, obviously the gold leafing has fallen from your ears! You should consider moving to another hobby/profession, for your hearing is no better than the common folk walking around the local Walmart. :eek:


I have been spending a fair amount of time browsing on GearSlutz and have come to the conclusion that many of the people over there are quite delusional, or they can a gnat fart from 10 ft away. There's no other explanation. They hear MOUNTAINS of difference in similar items, things that I can barely perceive. One fellow was talking about hearing a change in rhythm when he changed the cable from his mic to his preamp. Really??? Of course the new cable cost about 10 times more than the old cable. It must be at least 10 times better, right?

Besides the obvious perception bias that we all have, there's the added fact the there is no absolute standard as to what is good or right. Someone pronounces that a particular microphone or preamp is THE ultimate device, and from then on all other are shot down as being inferior. Then the comparisons, and judgements fly fast and furious for 20, 30, 50 pages at a time. A week later, the cycle starts again, but this time with a different "ultimate" standard. Clearly there is more than one "ultimate" standard.

The thing to remember is that "different" doesn't necessarily mean better or worse. It just means that its not the same. That's why some people like Coke, some like Pepsi, and some drink RC.

I kind of forgot about the whole 'rep' thing. I can't give to you without spreading it around, so I started with RRuskin above. :)
 

TalismanRich

Well-known member
Of course it has to be put in a tin and powered and connected and controlled but the audiophools are not claiming a CASE sound! (yet?)
Dave.

Its true that the case doesn't contribute to the sound, as long as you place the magic wooden discs and polished rocks in the proper place. It helps to put it under a pyramid and have proper Feng Shui in the room. Don't forget to lift the power cord off the floor with vintage ceramic power line insulators that have been aged properly by sitting on top of a pole for at least 60 years. ;)
 

rob aylestone

Well-known member
It's nice to not be alone in my thinking.

As said above - a ruler flat, noise free preamp is not a tremendously difficult or expensive, but for some reason this is NOT what the expensive preamp buyers seem to want. They want colour, they want something that changes the sound. I have no idea why. Very often, to my ears, the real difference between preamps is like having your first graphic or parametric EQ - something brighter, mellower, warmer, crisper - that kind of flowery language that really seems to be what my current EQ does pretty well. I think it extends to microphones too. These rarely sound better or worse, but attract the same flowery language. We know X mic will be bright sounding, and another warmer. This is appropriateness to task, not better or worse.

Since lockdown, I've had my two Behringer X32's and my Midas M32 in the video studio. Taking the stuff recorded to my audio studio, I cannot tell the difference, although the Midas is marketed as having improved preamps. I've got a load of clips labelled tuesday1, Tuesday 2 etc etc but recorded on the three different mixers used as preamps into my Mac. I cannot tell which take comes from which machine.

I'm very comfy with preamps having differences but I find it very difficult to use the work 'better'.
 

Ponder5

Member
Ever met a guitarist that plugs directly into an amp and nothing else? They're quite rare.
Way back when Jimi H had a distortion box made, they've been using effects to sound *better*. And it does. YouTube has some comical vids of metal songs played with no distortion.
Few mixers can have the components necessary (plus placing and other physical attributes) to have a perfect, linear response at the pre amp. Outboard, it's really not that hard to do.
But just like the guitar pedal, there are lots of mic pres that make the input sound *better*. They do. Sure, it might be through a controlled 2nd harmonic distortion for "warmth". Sure, it might be for a non-linear hysteresis over boosted amplitude values. blah, blah... just like the guitar pedal board, it sounds better. Some don't. Some do. Some do only on some things. Just like guitar pedals.
Now sure, this attracts the cork-sniffers.
And yes, cork-sniffers write essays in terms far more bombastic than the actual realized differences.
And yes, prices, decor, and adverts carry as much weight as objective listening.
But i gotta give them their due. When these high dollar (and some low dollar) tube pres are inline, the input can sound better.
It does happen.
But it's no more of a given than using the wrong distortion box on the wrong guitar player.
 

Tadpui

Well-known member
I do think that the differences between preamps is WAY overstated in home recording communities. We live in a time where even entry-level interfaces come with preamps that are quieter, cleaner, higher gain, higher headroom than anybody would have thought possible for the price 20 or 30 years ago.

When people talk about "color" with respect to preamps, you'd think that they're talking about the difference between blue and hot pink. But the differences are subtle. A couple of years ago, I did a preamp shootout just speaking into a microphone that was plugged into 5 or 6 different preamps by Behringer, Focusrite, Roland, Zoom, RME, and BAE. It was shocking how similar they all sounded. There were differences, but none of them sucked. And even the obscenely expensive BAE was within a few percentage points (totally subjective, mind you) of the preamps built into a $150 interface.

I think that the world's cork-sniffers have lost sight of the fact that preamps are supposed to be clean, quiet, and offer ample gain and headroom for a wide variety of situations. They're not some magical component that revolutionizes the way a signal sounds.

That said, I'm not selling off my BAE any time soon. It does have a little "something" that stacks up well track-over-track in a mix. Isolated in 1 track, it's not a huge difference. I just love that it has a crap-ton of gain (80 dB!!!), plenty of headroom, accepts mic/line/instrument level signals, has built-in EQ, phantom power, polarity flip...it's just well decked-out to be versatile. But my tracks wouldn't sound hugely different without it.
 

TalismanRich

Well-known member
Some of you might be interested in reading this article by Ethan Winer. It spells out some interesting effect of minute placement changes in frequency spectrum. I wonder how much this comes into play with a lot of these comparisons.

Why We Believe

The article he mentions near the end from SOS is interesting. Do we really want high fidelity? Is it preferable to have a bit of distortion to make things sound good?

I remember the old advertisements... "Is it real or is it Memorex?" Could the Memorex actually be better than real?
 

Gtoboy

Active member
IME the only discernible reason to use different preamps is the non linearity that is added to signals by transformers found in some preamps. Basically, the color of the preamps is desirable in some cases. Good mics and mic placement and a good clean preamp are all that one really needs to get a great recording, colored preamps are just that, color.
 

VomitHatSteve

Hat STYLE. Not contents.
I suspect there's a lot of diminishing returns for most gear on price.

If there were such a thing as "perfect sound", your Beringher will get you 90% of the way there. Maybe something twice as expensive will get you 99% of the way there, and something twice as expensive as that will get you 99.9% of the way there, but eventually you have to find your cutoff when it's not worth exponential price increases for marginal result improvements.
 

rob aylestone

Well-known member
The snag is that the only measurement for good sound is in our heads, not visible on a test screen. I think we'd all agree that distortion can be positive in some contexts, but we can't really say why. It just works. We bang on about microphones so much, as if X is bad and Y is great, but we now have the trend of people building kits of parts to produce magic mics. Are we not just producing a mic that sounds nice and has a built in eq curve that appeals? We look at those curves on paper and see those little peaks at 3.2k or a dip at 7k and I wonder why this is special? Years ago now, I bought some line 6 radio mics that used their dynamic modelling. You could set it to mimic an SM57, or an Audix or a Sennheiser and they really did sound like those mics BUT the polar pattern stayed the same, so they didn't perform like these mics, they just sounded like them. The little nodes and their influence on performance were completely missing. We NEVER EVER refer to these differences when we talk about microphones, we're just obsessed with dynamic vs condenser and the response curve. Maybe the fact a certain brand works on an acoustic guitar better than another is the angle of the nulls removing or enhancing sound that is off axis, but within the overall polar pattern?
 

grimtraveller

If only for a moment.....
In saying that though, this is where Miroslav being around would be useful to the debate because he has a view that runs counter to that and he puts it across articulately.
 

rob aylestone

Well-known member
What has always worried me is that in recording and musician circles one person's delight is another's nightmare. We can't make other people believe in our view of quality. I'm not sure we can ever actually find a set of proper rules for this. 100% of us will hear some things and say BAD. Then other things we hear we don't like, but we don't have any adequate vocabulary to explain it - like how it's impossible to describe a colour without referring to other colours.
 

snow lizard

Dedicated Slacker
rob aylestone said:
The snag is that the only measurement for good sound is in our heads, not visible on a test screen. I think we'd all agree that distortion can be positive in some contexts, but we can't really say why. It just works.

Distortion is one of the main things that sets different preamps apart from each other. If you have something along the flavor of an API, Neve or Trident with transformers in the path and a hefty price tag, the differences will be more aparent if you intentionally abuse the thing. It's not always going to be feasable to do that. Comparing different clean sounds should narrow the gap, and modest preamps built into the interface or whatever have improved over the years.

Another thing that can have an effect is input impedance. It might not make much difference on certain condensers given that they have a head amplifier stage before the preamp, but passive ribbon and moving coil mics can be sensitive to higher values. Something like a fethead or cloudlifter can narrow the gap that way.

I don't see much value in shootouts where someone says "Hello, test, this is a mic preamp" through a bunch of different varieties. Evaluating gear requires you to put it through its paces over time, in context. Maybe the "make or break ya" differences in preamps is overstated, but I don't think it's all pixie dust and unicorn farts either.
 

ibleedburgundy

The Anti-Lambo
Ah, obviously the gold leafing has fallen from your ears! You should consider moving to another hobby/profession, for your hearing is no better than the common folk walking around the local Walmart. :eek:


I have been spending a fair amount of time browsing on GearSlutz and have come to the conclusion that many of the people over there are quite delusional, or they can a gnat fart from 10 ft away. There's no other explanation.

I suspect Gear slutz unfortunately is more like gear whores.

That is to say, half those assholes are selling the products or manufacturing the products they are talking about, and proper disclosures are few and far between.

Those guys aren't Jons. They're pimps.

I don't trust anything I read on there.
 

ibleedburgundy

The Anti-Lambo
I don't have extensive experience with a ton of preamps, but I do have extensive experience with a few:

RNP (Bass Drum, Snare Drum, Guitars, Bass)
Meek TwinQ (Vocals, Guitars)
Audient ASP008 (Drums, Bass DI)
Millennia (Classical Guitar, Amps, Drum Overheads)

The Millennia has lots of gain with extremely low noise. I needed it for classical guitar and they really do work better for that IMO. Classical guitar is a very quiet instrument so it does a nice job of helping to notice differences. When I first used them for overheads, I felt like they had more detail than the Audients I had been using for years. The ride cymbal was crisper and had more shimmer, more high frequency.

The one thing that sucks about the Millennia is no phase shift. WTF.

All the others sound just fine. They get the job done. I've used them on drums, amps, steel string, Bass guitar amps, DI guitars and bass, vocals, and nylon string guitar. The meek is a full channel strip, so after EQ and compression - if you get it right - it sounds cool. It's fussy though. The best vocals I've recorded were through the Meek.

The DI features are telling. The Meek kinda sucks for that. The Audient is OK. The RNP is OK.

The TwinQ is utterly unreliable. That damn thing has been in the shop a couple times, and now the meters crapped out. Sometimes I plug it in and have it set up, turn it off, come back to the studio the next day, same settings, and the damn thing sounds different, or now the sound is 12 DBs lower. I bought it used on eBay. Never again.

Lately I kinda look at what the big studios are using. Not that I am going to buy everything they have but if NONE of them are using something, maybe I won't either. One thing I noticed is they almost all have distressors. I might get one. I have a few RNCs, and I like them. I got my favorite snare sound so far with an RNP-RNC combo. Very happy with that. RNCs are not happy on bass or bass drum. They get flubby. Not good. I realize there are work arounds for this. I suspect there is a lot a distrseeor can do that an RNC can't.

I also started mixing using the RNCs on the drum buss. This may be completely unnecessary because I have 5 compressors in logic but I don't care. I got a good sound that way and also I learned a lot about the RNC by sitting there and inserting and listening, and trying lots of settings.
 
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rob aylestone

Well-known member
I got a questionnaire from Sound on Sound today. One question was about why we buy preamps. More inputs, more facilities, better sound, different connection system, location of ins and outs - and I struggled. I looked at my preamp purchases and have to really say that I did not buy any of them for the sound - because I'd never heard any of them before purchasing. I did buy them for the number of inputs, and where the cabling was and the 19" rack mount. I've never been disappointed in the sound of any, and to be fair - when I swapped a Tascam for a Presonus, I only did it because the drivers didn't play happily with Windows when something changed in a windows update. Looking back, none of the interfaces I have had sounded anything other than fine and transparent. I think I have to be in the camp that finds the endless X sounds better than Y discussions possibly valid, but totally something I'm not interested in. I often get projects from e external collaborators that are heavily loaded with endless plugins in the channels and the control room panel. They all load up switched out because I don't have them, and have no interest in even trying them. I'm really positive that many of them are doing very little - but my collaborator is plainly sure they do positive things. When I return the project to him, I assume they load back up and he is happy with my tweaks, but it means I have never heard what he heard?
 
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