During the analog days, recording studios often had microphone preamps built into their mixing consoles, so there was no real call for outboard mic preamps. But today’s “in the box” warriors who work with DAWs are finding that then the perfect hardware mic preamp is crucial to recording quality. If you’re just getting into hardware mic pres, here are some models and settings you should check out. To keep my preamp crafting consistent, I used a Shure SM57 microphone for all of these examples.
I wanted to capture a classic-rock rhythm tone “live in the room” using my Gibson Les Paul Deluxe and an Orange AD15 1x12 tube combo. I choose a BAE 1073, because it utilizes a Class A transformer-coupled design, and a St. Ives (Carnhill) transformer that typically produces a fat, rich tone.
● Set the Output knob to 4 o’clock.
● Set the Microphone input level to 30 using the red rotary pot. If you need more level, adjust as desired.
● Additional level adjustments can be made with the Output knob.
● These simple tweaks to a great preamp should deliver really “live” and rockin’ guitar tones.
I was looking for a retro, Byrds-like clean tone for my Eastman 12-string electric, which was plugged into a Fender Twin. I chose the Universal Audio 610 because of its tube warmth. I also find that its subtle, yet extremely musical EQ is very useful for shaping guitar tones to sit nicely in a track.
● Set Gain to zero.
● Slowly bring up the Level knob until you get the desired input level to your DAW.
● Set the High EQ switch to 7kHz, and the level knob to +3.
● Set the Low EQ switch to 70, and the level knob to -1.5.
● Thanks to the vintage sound of the UA preamp, my jangle was as Byrds-y as you can get.
This time, I envisioned a fierce metal tone for my Ibanez 8-string and Marshall JCM 800 combo. Perhaps going against the obvious approach, I used a JDK R20 for its smooth and transparent sound. I was not seeking something that would significantly color or “rough up” the tone, as I loved the sound of the guitar and amp raging in the room, and I wanted to document it as simply and as accurately as possible.
● Make sure you are on Mic (an important “duh”).
● Adjust the Gain knob as desired.
● Watch out—there is a lot of gain in this preamp. If you find yourself overdriving the signal in a “bad” way, you can use the Pad switch to knock down the signal level.
● The natural sound of the JDK gave me pretty much the guitar tone I was hearing in the room on the tracks.
FIND YOUR BLISS
These are just three examples of preamps and tonal settings. To studio geeks, mic preamps are as subjective—and as hotly debated—as guitarists extolling a specific amplifier or stompbox. So get out there and explore other preamps, and look for something that enhances your workflow and makes your ears happy.