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Are microphone preamplifiers really less important than skill and artistry in recording?

A post by David Mellor
Thursday July 07, 2005
Response from a Record-Producer.com visitor regarding a recent feature on microphone preamplifiers versus skill and artistry in recording.
Are microphone preamplifiers really less important than skill and artistry in recording?

Hi David

While I completely respect your professional advice and have used it in numerous situations of my own; I must whole heartedly disagree with a couple of statements you made to the author of this question. Please understand that my disagreements are based upon my own, professional experience.

You stated:

"I can only repeat again that Pro Tools is seen everywhere in the professional industry. Sonar is hardly a blip on the radar."

My reply:

Agreed, however it is obvious from reading the authors' studio list that he is not even close to the affordability of a professional Pro Tools set up. I hope you were referring to the more professional Pro Tools HD system? Because dollar for dollar a Pro Tools Digi 002 system is sonically and track count wise sub-par from any Sonar with a respectable I/O front end system. Believe me I am no fan of Sonar, in fact I think their audio engine is trash IMHO. I use Nuendo and SX3 as I feel their audio engines sound much better, thicker, and more realistic than any Sonar or Digi 002 system and, with the right I/O on the front end, rivals the sound of the more costly HD system found in most commercial studios. Let's talk converters and studio clocks shall we :-)

So, if transporting file formats back and forth from a home studio to a pro studio is top priority (however, I export/Import files to both formats without loss) or if you are constantly working in commercial studios that have a professional Pro Tools setup, then I would agree 100% - get Pro Tools! But to make a hit record, something with great sonic appeal I believe can be done without incurring the expense of Pro Tools.

You stated:

"A preamp will not help much unless you are recording vocals, and there is no such thing as a 'powerful preamp'. Most microphone preamps are perfectly adequate and capture an accurate sound from the mic."

My reply:

Oh my god David, are you really sure about this advice? I mean really? let me attempt to address your statements using my own experience. I record not only vocals but real drums and real acoustic guitars and real acoustic pianos and all of these instruments have complex sonic characteristics that a cheap (read "budget or inexpensive") mic and preamp simply cannot capture, no way, not even close!! (I'll arm wrestle you over this one :-)). I use to have 24 channels of Aphex 201 and Prosonus preamps, both considered "Good Preamps" by industry experts along with "inexpensive" standard microphones. However, I always found that I had to tweak the EQ– a lot – to get a sound that would sit well in the mix, not to mention limiting the preamps gain to reduce noise. I now use only top quality studio microphones; thinking that was the key to great, open sound, I sold off my "inexpensive" collection and broke down and bought the top names: Neumann KM-183-4's, M149, U87's, AKG C414's, Beyer, Royer, etc. I must admit this investment made a huge difference in the sound, but often times my vocals, drums and guitars came out sounding muddy and lifeless even with these wonderful mics; they had punch, but still didn't sit well in the mix and I had to incorporate the addition or subtraction of too much EQ IMHO.

Then I ended up purchasing a "more powerful" preamp, I would like to say "more sonically superior" preamp vs. powerful. I ended up buying a TRUE Audio Precision 8, and what a difference it made in the sound of everything, especially the drums, acoustic pianos and guitars. I noticed immediately that I did not have to use EQ on the drums to get them to sound great (key here is to have a great sounding kit to work with, which I do in my studio). In fact the sound was actually much better then some of the sounds on "professional" recordings, more punch, thickness, AIR – finally - they sat well in the mix, I didn't have frequencies stepping all over one another, all this right out of the box and all I truly had to do was to adjust the mics to get the right level of EQ. Looking at the specs of this preamp confirms why it sounds more "powerful or sonically superior"; tons of gain greater than +64dB and a frequency response of 1.5 to 500 KHz!!! And NO discernable noise! This makes a huge difference and definitely worth the $3800 U.S. investment; I bought two more. I can now hear transients on acoustic guitars and pianos that were lost because the preamps s-i-m-p-l-y c-o-u-l-d n-o-t reproduce them. Likewise with vocals, I ended up buying an Avalon 737 and have not looked back since; I now own 3 of those, talk about Air and space WOW truly makes the U87 sound fabulous. On a final note, while I feel the P8's direct box provides a much improved sound for Bass Guitar. I recently went out and purchased the Avalon U5 for Bass, why would one spend $500 on a direct box? Seems insane when you could get a decent Countryman for less than $200 on ebay – truth is - I am now selling my Countryman DI's on ebay and my Bass sound? my absolute nemesis! Simply put actually sounds like what a Bass is suppose to sound like.

Again, David this was not meant as a question of your professional abilities, I'll never question those. But when you make a statement like the ones you made to this individual, then I must stop and question your rationale. If you want to send me Mr. Stalling's e-mail address, I would love to point out some of my professional experiences to him, I promise not to spam him, rather, just set the record straight. In fact I might even start off my discussions with him using the following line "Simply put Mr. Stallings, to get the sound of the "big boys" requires a significant investment in good microphones and preamps, coupled, as Mr. Mellor stated, with the artistic talent to paint a masterpiece."


Brad Lund

Response from David Mellor...

All of what you say is fair comment. My personal position is that I hear many people's recordings and there are certain priorities most need to attend to...

1. No faults - clicks, pops, background noise, correct level etc.
2. The crisp, clean, clear sound you can get from any professional mic and preamp.
3. Good sound through mic positioning, selection of dynamic/capacitor mic, large/small diaphragm, choice of particular model (in that order)
4. Accurate monitoring, or at least representative of real-life listening systems
5. Skill and artistry in recording

I have considered this issue very long and very hard, and every time I come to the conclusion that selection of preamp or converters is simply not as important as the five factors listed.

I still accept and respect your comments though, and I will revise my opinion if and when I am convinced.

A post by David Mellor
Thursday July 07, 2005 ARCHIVE
David Mellor has been creating music and recording in professional and home studios for more than 30 years. This website is all about learning how to improve and have more fun with music and recording. If you enjoy creating music and recording it, then you're definitely in the right place :-)