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Is it possible to achieve a good vocal recording without using a preamp (maybe with plug-ins)?

An Audio Masterclass visitor enquires whether you can record vocals without a microphone preamplifier, and whether plug-ins can compensate for this omission.


Question from a Audio Masterclass visitor...

"Is it possible to achieve a good vocal recording without using a preamp (maybe with plug ins)?"

Every so often I get a question that seems simple on the surface, but when I consider it in more detail it provokes more thought than I would have expected.

Clearly, you can't record vocals without a preamp. The output of a microphone is simply too low to plug directly into the recorder, or into a line input on the mixing console or audio interface.

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But why is the output of microphones so low? Now that's a good question.

It would quite easily be possible to provide amplification to line level inside the microphone itself. Building in the circuitry would be simple. Powering it would be more difficult - it would take more current than phantom power is able to supply.

But it's not rocket science. 'Phantom Power 2.0' could provide the standard 48 volts (which could be increased within the microphone by a DC-DC converter if necessary), but with as many milliamps as necessary rather than a mere 10 mA, which is all that phantom power supplies have to be able to give to each mic, according to the IEC specification.

But the problem would be in controlling the gain. There would have to be some kind of remote control to set the gain within the microphone. Even so, this would be possible through additional wires, control signals at very low or very high frequency, or perhaps even wi-fi.

But I don't see any of this happening. The system we have works fine and there is no pressing reason to change.

Going back to the question. I imagine whoever asked it actually meant not using an external preamplifier, rather than one in the mixing console or audio interface.

The answer is YES! You CAN make a recording without an external preamp. That's how recordings used to be made before external preamplifiers became fashionable.

There wasn't any mystique about preamps in those days. Take the signal from the mic, bung it into a transformer to up the voltage a little. Then use an amplifier with maybe six transistors or so, with reasonably low noise, low distortion and adequate frequency response.

And that was it. Engineers were free to concentrate on the choice of microphone, which really does matter, and to their other significant tasks.

So, to answer the first part of the question. Yes, you can make a recording of fully professional quality using a decent microphone - a Neumann M147 for instance - and the internal preamp of a mixing console or audio interface.

Of course, seasoned engineers like to go a little further and use different preamps, particularly vacuum tube preamps, for their subtly different tone colors. But there is no necessity to use one.

Now, the other part of the question - plug-ins!

The question seems to assume that without using an external preamp, the sound will be somehow lacking in quality and that plug-ins can correct that.

The answer to that is a resounding NO!

If the signal coming out of the microphone isn't right, then there is absolutely nothing plug-ins can do to rescue the situation.

And it is absolutely possible to get a good signal from the mic, that doesn't need correction.

Yes, plug-ins can be used for their creative potential. But the signal has to be right when it comes out of the mic, and then pre-amplified cleanly.

This is probably the most fundamental point in the whole of sound engineering. Use equipment of professional quality and position the microphone well. Try alternative mics to see which one suits that particular singer (on that particular day) best.

Make sure you get the best possible sound from the mic that you can, before considering processing of any kind.

By David Mellor Thursday November 30, 2006