Project Studio Upgrades, Pt. 2 – Preamps and Channel Strips
Part 1: Microphones
Part 4: Mixers and Audio Interfaces
Part 5: Computers, DAW’s and Control Surfaces
Part 6: Monitoring and Acoustic Treatment
In the first installment we changed acoustic signals in the air into electric signals in a wire. There’s still a step to take before we can record this signal.
We have two options to explore:
A microphone takes an acoustic signal (sound – variations in air pressure) and turns them into an electric signal, by means of a transducer. By their nature, though, they don’t put out a lot of power, so the signal being recorded is fairly weak. It is standard practice to amplify the signal before it reaches the recording medium. The device used to accomplish this is a preamp. There are numerous preamps on the market: some of them specialize in providing super-clean amplification; others are known for their unique coloration they impart to the signal. At the budget level you can pick up a little coloration with the Presonus Blue Tube. This is again a unit I have some experience with, and I like the the sound of it. It can function as two mono units, or be synced together to work on one stereo signal.
A good, “musical”, preamp for our “Well-Equipped” studio is the Golden Age Pre-73. This is a clone of the classic Neve 1073 preamp, which is a colored sound that flatters many sources, including and especially vocals. Often it is described as “warm, punchy, sweet and musical.” The Golden Age has come highly recommended by a large number of recording professionals I trust.
Another option in this general price range that is drawing rave reviews is the True P-Solo pre-amp. This unit is characterized as being very clean, sometimes characterized as a “wire with gain.” In other words, it can increase the volume of the microphone signal without changing the sound in any other way. This is another unit that is very highly regarded in the home and professional recording community.
Another factor to consider at the “well-equipped” level, is that we spec’ed a ribbon microphone. Ribbon mics generally don’t put out as much signal as a Condenser, and so need more clean gain to get a usable signal. Tue Systems make a ribbon version of the Pre-73 with an additional 12dB of gain, but several reviews I found mentioned that the basic Pre-73 has so much gain that the additional unit may not be necessary. Another solid option at this price point for a clean preamp would be the Grace Designs M101.
At the “Dream Studio” price point, you can’t go wrong with just about any preamp. I don’t have experience with this level, and people who do don’t spend their time talking about it – they’re too busy making music. Well respected options include the Great River ME-1NV, the Avalon M-5, and you will never go wrong with a product from API, such as the 512c (but note that you need to buy a 500-series rack to mount it). At this level, I think my gut is telling me to look at the Manley Mono Mic Preamp. Boutique, Made-in-America, all-tube goodness in a purple box.
3. Channel Strips
There is a great debate going on in the home-recording and project studio world right now about whether or not you need a channel strip (or any outboard gear, for that matter). A channel strip is essentially a string of processing units (usually EQ and compression) tied to a preamp and everyone from ART to Manley is making one these days. The idea is to get the best possible signal recorded, rather than fixing it later in the mix. The pro argument is two-fold: first, outboard gear is frequently of higher quality than most plug-ins, or at least has some “undefinable” aspect that makes it desirable. Second, I have recently heard several higher-level audio engineers aver that you get better results more quickly by committing to the sound at recording. Get it right at the source and the mix will fall together much more easily.
The anti- argument is equally compelling to me, however. That argument says that you don’t need to commit to a particular sound at recording, so don’t. This is especially applicable to amateur part-timers like myself who don’t have the experience to know what sound I want at recording. I need the context of a mix to know that. Even if you buy this argument, however, there remains a legitimate reason for having a channel strip – you can still use it at mixing. Just run an audio signal out of the computer to the channel strip, then back in from the channel strip to the computer. The limitation here (aside from needing spare audio outputs and inputs) is that many audio programs allow you to mix-down your audio in faster than real time (as fast as the processor can handle it). This outboard arrangement requires you to mix down in real time since you are processing analog audio, not just digital audio.
At the budget level, there are several options, including the ART Pro Channel, but I think I’m going to look at the Joe Meek ThreeQ. Being Joe Meek, it will be a colored processor, but with a sweet and controllable sound. Actually, I’m somewhat surprised that there is a Joe Meek anything coming in at this price point, but I’m not going to quibble.
At the well-equipped level, I have some experience with the Presonus Eureka, and it comes very highly recommended as well. I’ve recorded several tracks of vocals and instruments through it at my good friend’s studio. You can hear some examples here. All in all, it’s a solid contender and my first choice. There is also an optional A/D converter so you can free up an input in your interface (provided the interface can take a digital input). A few other options, however, would include the dbx 376 and Drawmer’s budget MXPro-60 Front End. Both well-respected brands.
At the “Dream” level, the choices are abundant, with offerings from such notables as Daking, Grace Designs, Empirical Labs, Universal Audio, and even the venerable Rupert Neve. I would probably have the most difficult time choosing between the Grace M103 and UA LA-610, but there is one other contender that steals my first look.
The sound of records in the 80’s and 90’s was defined by the Aphex Aural Exciter. Some pro-audio guys might chaff at that idea, but it is undeniably true. The Aphex Channel Strip puts this exciter in line with a quality mic pre, eq and compressor. Even though it comes in at 2/3 the cost of the channel strips previously mentioned, it gets my nod for the Dream Studio and may even appear in my rack before the Presonus Eureka if the budget allows.
There’s a quick overview of Mic Pres and Channel Strips. I’m recording again (yea!) and getting ready to move into a new house, so future installments may be spaced out a bit more, but I do intend to complete the series, so stick with me. Next time, one of my favorite aspects of the home studio (and my own personal axe), keyboards and controllers.