Why Do Boutique Preamps Cost So Much?

miroslav

Cosmic Cowboy
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.
 

rob aylestone

Well-known member
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!
 

miroslav

Cosmic Cowboy
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.
 

rob aylestone

Well-known member
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.
 

CoolCat

Well-known member
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
 

miroslav

Cosmic Cowboy
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... :D ...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.
 

miroslav

Cosmic Cowboy
Will the Billie Eilish crowd be impressed with a REDD 47?

:laughings:

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.
 

rob aylestone

Well-known member
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.
 

miroslav

Cosmic Cowboy
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.
 

RRuskin

Rick Ruskin
:laughings:

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.

The really quality equipment makes getting what I want much easier.
 

CoolCat

Well-known member
...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.

this is my results too after trying a bunch of preamps.

with that said a "brand new high end piece" vs some 1965 crusty relic "high end" (that might be worth 10x's the money due to name brand only antique values) is a something I wont have to decide, but for forum fun...an interesting choice?

Old-Relic-Antique Highly sought after Holy Grail big dollar stuff is considered HIgh End and has the caps and parts that are all old, so the quality parts are old and worn out having been heated and cooled 9million times over the 55yrs.... so even the High Quality parts arent so high quality are they?

While a brand new High Quality parts unit will be brand new transformers with new insulation, caps and resistors new and ready for 50yrs service, but wont have the worn out relic vibe name brand usually.

At work we call it over-engineered gear, and its beauty is "tank tough", takes on about any job, zero maintenance, well built, solid. Almost always worth the extra cash. We've tried cheap meters and cheap parts that fail under 7day/24hr operations....so yeah High End parts and credible builders/manufacturers are an enjoyable thing to own...even if it doesnt sound 10,000 x;s better. I read Ethan Winer even mentioned if doing a High Dollar session hes grabbing the highest quality gear not a cheap behringer...due to better build......which is different than comparing sound.

I disagree on the time to tell...
It doesnt take me long to hear something and pretty much know what it sounds like. Preamps with one knob, or no knobs, dont take long at all to test out.
If a persons trying to find miniscule differences then a oscope plugin will do better than ears. (not talking EQ and Compressors).
Like Neumanns site yesterday on PreAmp...its a weak marketing type beginner section but they pretty much sum it up in Clean or Tone-Vibey type Preamps.
If you want Clean Gain... Interface IC preamp can do it just fine. if more gain is needed a Cloudlifter sounds as good.

IC wins for clean.....for VibeyTone ..get a Neve or JoeMeek, transformer,..but ime, the UA 610 preamp wasnt designed for dirty, humans overdrive it for dirt, so the old school tube designs being clean, and when ran in clean mode didnt shock me at all with VibeyTone. ISA ONe or those clean-transformer...

IC Clean or VibeyTone.... Cloudlifter and IC interface preamp handles my clean as any $1000+ unit I tried. For Vibey-ToneColor Preamps probably why everyone clones 1073 and the LA2A & 1176. it works so well for rock, pop, blues.....where clean maybe better for classical, high def acoustics, non-blurry faced tracks?
 
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Cosmic

Active member
Thought I'd bring this one back, as it is a good discussion on "good enough", and also on the Law of Diminishing Returns.

My first external pre was the DBX-286 in 2001, my second a four-pack of Syteks (excellent pres).

I now have a four-pack of Millennia HV-3Ds that I got used for a couple of grand. That's $500 per pre, so not terrible, and they are world-class units in terms of absolute silence, accuracy and bandwidth, with mil-grade parts and pots. No 'tone' here, just pristine, analytical, dead-quiet pre-amps at any volume, including all gain settings wide open.

I am done with pres. That's why I bought them: no more having to think about that aspect of my recording.

They are tanks, with the highest possible performance I could ever use (and then some) and they fit my ribbons and anything else I park in front of them. Whatever else may be wrong in my music or recording, it won't be them.

One's own outlook plays a big role in such decisions, of course; some may say this is overkill, and I am good with that too.

Part of it for me is that I admire and like using well-built things, and the overall level of "excellence in manufacturing" has fallen rather far since decades past...what used to be called "well-built" then is now considered "pro or semi-pro" as most everything has fallen prey to the plastic and the mass production.

So, the turning of the click- pots on the Mills says "durability" and the signals they funnel through (good, bad or indifferent) are worth the price of admission. Combined with my not-cheap mics, they hold up a mirror to me and my abilities, and they help me stay honest about getting better, because they will tell me exactly what is in front of them, no BS.
I may deceive myself sometimes, but all I have to do is listen back the next day...

C.
 

mark de berard

Active member
its all in the Pre Amp , just like its all in the Cross over .. specialised processing needs time to develop. that costs money and if they become popular then the Name is what youre paying for and the guarantee that ( most times ) their product will shine.

Same reason BMW's and Mercedes are more expensive ... although i dont know why on earth you would be seen in a BMW .... im concerned about a culture thats so into its self that even though you have a badge on the car saying that indeed " Yes its a BMW " owners feel the need to have the license plate reflect this ...

Probably up until 1998 big studios had good gear and pre amps were not a worry , just like eq, comps etc ... Now we wanna re live the " sweet " distortion from boutique analog pre's , having used good pre's in the past , yeah they make all the difference. But as a beginner to intermediate engineer id be concerned more about process, ears, monitors, studio environment before considering pre's.
 

JamEZmusic

Active member
Flat monitoring is overrated, get the flattest speaker in the flattest room and your mixes are still gonna suck unless you take it seriously, you're still going to need to reference a lot then take it out to playback on other speakers.

Use reference software to make your headphones dead flat, you're not gonna be a better mixer, it's snake oil. (And everyone fools for it)
 

ecc83

Well-known member
Whilst I agree that there is great tactile pleasure in owning and using high end, very well made gear and that it promises a long working life* there is no escaping the basic electric fact that a mic pre amp these days, as an isolated bit of circuitry, is neither hard or expensive to make of first class audio quality.
This has been the case for some years and the rise of the 'pre-pre amps such as the Cloud Lifter shows this. They are now available for well under $100. I tried the FetHead and found it extremely quiet. No pre amp can however avoid the laws of physics. Resistors will always generate Johnson noise. Even THE very best converters do not do a better dynamic range than 125dB, though admittedly that is probably 35dB better than almost anyone needs in practice!

I still maintain that a professional working studio should have the "flattest" room and monitors. Such a studio will handle all genres and if your room/monitors add 'something nice' (to you!) you are not hearing that piano that the conductor did nor the correct version of that opera voice. The human voice is one of the hardest things to reproduce accurately.

Of course, if all you do is EDM or grunge maybe 'quality' is not top of your wish list?

*Caveat Emptor mind. Some 'booteek' mic pre makers might produce an excellent product in all ways up to crimble but many are small concerns and financially perhaps a bit precarious (especially today!) so you could be left with something with very hard to source parts if they go bust.

I just looked up the specs for those MV-3Ds. Yes, first class. They give the equivalent input noise as -133dB (at 60dB gain, it will be worse at lower gains) They do not indicate if that figure is weighted but it must be because the Johnson noise of a 150 Ohm resistor (common mic OPZ) is -132.75 at 20C and a 22kHz bandwidth. That is about 5dB better than decent mid priced mixers and AIs. Audible but only under very extreme conditions.
Dave.
 
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jamesperrett

Active member
I just looked up the specs for those MV-3Ds. Yes, first class. They give the equivalent input noise as -133dB (at 60dB gain, it will be worse at lower gains) They do not indicate if that figure is weighted but it must be because the Johnson noise of a 150 Ohm resistor (common mic OPZ) is -132.75 at 20C and a 22kHz bandwidth. That is about 5dB better than decent mid priced mixers and AIs. Audible but only under very extreme conditions.
I don't know who runs Millenia these days but I doubt that the spec was written by John La Grou - there are too many oddities in it. For a start, gain should not be specified in dBu but just plain dB (dB just denotes a ratio and gain is one of the few places where a ratio is just what is needed). I think they cheat in this case by short circuiting the inputs rather than using the standard 150 ohm termination - at least that's how I interpret "inputs common". They may also be using dBV instead of dBu which improves the figure slightly.
 

Smithers XKR

Well-known member
Whilst I agree that there is great tactile pleasure in owning and using high end, very well made gear and that it promises a long working life* there is no escaping the basic electric fact that a mic pre amp these days, as an isolated bit of circuitry, is neither hard or expensive to make of first class audio quality.
This has been the case for some years and the rise of the 'pre-pre amps such as the Cloud Lifter shows this. They are now available for well under $100. I tried the FetHead and found it extremely quiet. No pre amp can however avoid the laws of physics. Resistors will always generate Johnson noise. Even THE very best converters do not do a better dynamic range than 125dB, though admittedly that is probably 35dB better than almost anyone needs in practice!

I still maintain that a professional working studio should have the "flattest" room and monitors. Such a studio will handle all genres and if your room/monitors add 'something nice' (to you!) you are not hearing that piano that the conductor did nor the correct version of that opera voice. The human voice is one of the hardest things to reproduce accurately.

Of course, if all you do is EDM or grunge maybe 'quality' is not top of your wish list?

*Caveat Emptor mind. Some 'booteek' mic pre makers might produce an excellent product in all ways up to crimble but many are small concerns and financially perhaps a bit precarious (especially today!) so you could be left with something with very hard to source parts if they go bust.

I just looked up the specs for those MV-3Ds. Yes, first class. They give the equivalent input noise as -133dB (at 60dB gain, it will be worse at lower gains) They do not indicate if that figure is weighted but it must be because the Johnson noise of a 150 Ohm resistor (common mic OPZ) is -132.75 at 20C and a 22kHz bandwidth. That is about 5dB better than decent mid priced mixers and AIs. Audible but only under very extreme conditions.
Dave.
I know very little about Preamps. The only one I crave is the Marshall JMP1. It is rack mount tube and has MIDI interface. I have a restored 69 JMP plexi amp sitting in my room.
 

JamEZmusic

Active member
Quality is a top priority, on all playback systems. I have yet to see anyone here with my view that a great mix should translate to every speaker and sound really good on all of them, even if it means your mix in the treated studio with flat monitors has to suffer for it. Ns10's are popular so I hear? I don't think anybody wants flat ns10s

A killer sounding mix on my flat monitors inside the rfz and room correction software does not at all mean it will translate, far from it. It just sounds awesome in my flat room and on my speakers. ~They produce great low flat end which makes you want more of it. It's important that you're not missing a chunk of low frequencies when sculpting that low end but for the mids. hah, couldn't give a toss. I'll switch between headphones, monitors and check on a crappy laptop. No flat room required.

I've seen the room responses in some nice studios, warren huart did a sonarworks reference shootout and measured his room, it's way off, I don't even think he WANTS to listen flat so he just leaves the plugin off because he just knows how his speakers are supposed to sound, so essentially if he wants to listen flat he kind of needs to re-learn taking a step back. Just learn your speakers and as long as you don't have anything dissapear in the low end you have nothing holding you back.

heh.... you seen where ulrich wild mixes?

There are more important things to worry about
 
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