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Expensive Pre-Amps & Interfaces vs budget...

Discussion in 'Studio Techniques' started by charlie, Jul 21, 2010.

  1. charlie

    charlie Senior member

    I have a broad question about why "expensive" pre-amps & interfaces are "better" than inexpensive ones. I have read some interviews recently with some electronic musicians who are at the top of their game, doing soundtrack work, making albums etc and they all swear by these top of the line audio interfaces and pre-amps.
    Before anyone jumps at me to say that experience really dictates quality, let me say that I get that.
    I really do. :hippy:
    But as someone on a budget and who does not have easy access to scrutinize (A/B test) a Prism Sound Orpheus interface vs my little Apogee Duet, for example, I have to wonder what the difference really is? Why do respected professionals favor the sound of these high priced pre-amp/interfaces?
    What exactly makes them a cut above?
    I guess I am asking what is the difference in quality? Is it that they color the sound favorably? Is it reliability and consistency?
    I realize this question is rather simplistic as say, why is a BMW better than a Hyundai... But I figure the smart folks here who use this gear would be the best people to ask.
    I appreciate your time! :)
  3. georgelegeriii

    georgelegeriii Senior member


    Well that is a great question, and one that doesn't have a very clear answer. I have had the experience of recording a CD for a client, where we had almost all VI's and the lead and BG vocal were the only analog parts. I had these components:

    Neve 1081 mic pro, and a Distressor compressor, into a modified Octavia 012. into a decent A/D converter (can't remember exactly which one)

    The Octavia 012 (same mic) into a M-Audio Onmi I/O, and then used UAD cards for digital dynamics and EQ.

    So a pretty good chain, or one that would not be considered very good at all by some.

    If you go back and listen to the different cuts, you will not be able to guess which ones were recorded on which path.

    So, in this case where not many tracks were actually analog, not much of a difference.

    Then I work with a producer who is recording tracks for a major artist, in his studio, where he has Avalon, API, Neve, and a number of other high quality mic preamps, he has LA-2a, 1176, DBX 160s,, on and on.

    He records full bed tracks with a band live off the floor, fantastic players, great engineer, and it sounds as good as any 24 track session I heard back in the day when people still record like that.

    In this case, using allot of lower quality gear would most likely have not sounded the same. The mic pre's were picked for each mic and instrument used, combinations that were the best for the part (API mic pre's are fast, so drum transients don't get as lost with others, so they retain more attack for example).

    What is the point to all of this: well, it really depends on what you are recording, and how many things are real... less acoustic sources, less concern I think.

    One important consideration here: this is only MY opinion and experience.

    Now, I can guarantee you that there are other people who feel that I'm full of it, and that their suggestion is correct. We engineering/recording types are an opinionated bunch.

    I really think that more important issue is: do you have a good song, a good recording environment, that encourages creativity and inspiration for the artists you work with?

    The reality is that, in the end, who really cares? A mic pro/compressor combo is never going to "make" your song or project a "hit" (or whatever you call a popular song these days where the music "business" is no longer a viable way to make a living). Your ideas are, your creativity will, your personal investment into your artistry will.

    I hope this helps,

    I feel inspired now, so I'm going to boot up Logic, and run my SM 57 through my DBX 286 Mic pro/eq/compressor thingy, and make some music. If it comes out good, and I need a band to help, I'll go over to my friends "good" studio, and use all the nice toys when I take my demo and want to record it with the band.

    George Leger III
  4. charlie

    charlie Senior member

    Oh, I couldn't agree more that good music is good music no matter how/what it was recorded on...
    Perhaps I have been picking up on a consistent thread in these interviews & reports I have been reading over the months (and years) with established Producers and Artists... Perhaps their insistence for "this" Mic Pre over "that one" supports what you said about "engineering/recording types being an opinionated bunch."
    And I would be fine with this as the answer. It's as valid as any other!

    But if I could, I would be curious to take some great recordings that I am intimately familiar with & listen to them through different boxes just to see if I could discern one from the other.
    It would be an interesting science experiment for me, if nothing else.

    Thanks for taking the time to ponder this, George!
  5. georgelegeriii

    georgelegeriii Senior member

    Then you might want to head over to the "gearslutz" forum... they have done a number of head to head "contests" regarding a number of things, from mic preamps, to summing amps, and the different algorithms used by each DAW creator.

    You can find them here:


    You will find a large group of truly obsessed audio geeks, a number of very successful producers and engineers, hardware designers, and big mouths who really don't know or have a clue about much of anything other than "I THINK THIS".

    It's fun, and one can learn a heck of allot about stuff (or waste hours looking).

    George Leger III
  6. Eddie Sullivan

    Eddie Sullivan Senior member

    Mic Pre's

    I think that these outboard devices are like flavors of ice cream, everyone has their favorite. Also someone might have a favorite without trying every flavor. I buy this chocolate coconut milk ice cream all the time. I know that Baskin Robbins has all these flavors I've never tried, but the chocolate coconut milk is awesome and I like what I like...

    Investing in a good mic pre might be dependent on budget, the genre of music, the instruments used, etc... but really it comes down to the engineer gaining experience with the gear, and having an intimate working knowledge of it. A good engineer can coax wonderful things out of gear that he knows and has grown to love...
  7. Eli

    Eli Senior member

    George - that was an EXCELLENT post. I couldn't agree more whole heartedly.

    I've worked in a few different local studios with varying degrees of quality of gear, and I have come to the conclusion that unless all the components in your chain are of consistently high quality, plus the recording environment is pristine; you won't really get any significant advantage by having one or two items be of higher quality than the rest. Providing the rest is decent mid level quality of course.

    A little while ago I borrowed a pretty well regarded pre amp - not super expensive, but well reviewed, and I did a little experiment here. I plugged in my average mic in my average room, with my average voice, and recorded myself speaking the same text through every different preamp I had here. On the low end was my fifteen year old original version Mackie 1604. Then I tried my MOTU 828 mk ll built in pre amps. Then my PreSonus MP 20. Then my Focusrite Octapre LE, then this borrowed one (can't remember the name). I put all the files back to back on a track in Logic, and for the life of me, could not hear any significant difference between them.

    One important factor is the type of material you are recording. If you are going to record foley or other extremely low level source material, I would think the pre amp would make more of a difference than if you are recording your averge vocal or wind instruments close mic'd in a studio.

    But that's just all my very humble two cents worth...

    The older I get - the more I'm with George on focusing on the music, the vibe,the creativity, the song - all the rest is really secondary.
  8. JuanTahnahmahrah

    JuanTahnahmahrah Senior member

    Money is part of the limiting factor. If your third CD just went triple platinum, might as well get the best gear out there. An Apogee Duet sounds like a great start. I have been trying to find reviews and forum chat on a bunch of entry-level mic pres. These include the Focusrite Voicemaster Pro, the Joe Meek Oneq, the Drawmer MX60, as well as the discontinued DBX 586 and TL Audio 2051. People selling those units rave about them, but people discussing them on forums frequently say, "save your money and get a real pre." I have heard a so-so mic can turn in great results with a top notch pre. Universal Audio or Avalon might do it. But for me, I ask myself, what should I buy first..an eight core Mac..or a $2,500 mic pre? It would be nice if I could afford both. Right now, I am thinking a John Hardy M-1 or M-2 might keep me happy for a couple of years. For about $1,100, starting with a single channel and then expand the unit little by little...
  9. charlie

    charlie Senior member

    I think the consensus that a little inspiration goes ALL the way is what's being echoed here... And I find that very inspiring. ;)
    Thank you to everyone for their opinions.
    I am still curious about science and maybe the expectation that goes into using these products. But I've always found that limitation is the best motivator for creativity.
    You all have reminded me of that here. :thmbup:

    Thank you again.
  10. Peter Ostry

    Peter Ostry Administrator Staff Member

    Well, not necessarily.
    But this would lead into a political discussion :)

    Let me take another approach.

    If you have a clear target for your musical way, if you know exactly what you want, if you do not accept any compromise, if you trust perfect gear, well-known proven equipment, if you love to try exotic devices for some musical piece to reveal more emotions in a certain atmosphere, then you are – either not a musician or one of the best musicians in the world. If you aren't the latter, you should rather think about running a studio and work for others. There are only few people on this planet, who are good on all things. I believe they have three brains and at least two souls.

    Regarding the technical part, today we have a thin bottom of really bad gear and a thin ceiling of extraordinary good gear. All the rest is something between. For the quality of music, we don't talk money. But for recording and mixing, day after day, delivering constant quality in short time, we definitely talk about money.

    Now the question is, "I am sitting here with my Duet, which is a marvellous little thing, but I am wondering wether I should look for more and better gear." If you want to have more options for recording, the answer is obviously "yes". But the next questions are waiting. Who feeds this preamp? Is there a first class mic that is able to let the preamp shine? Could you even hear that, in an excellent room with excellent monitor boxes and do you own the right ears for that? For me, the answer to the last three questions is "no".

    During the years I learned that I have three choices:
    1) Stay with good but cheap equipment and concentrate on creating music.
    2) Go for better gear step by step, as good as the learning process allows.
    3) Forget small coins. Get the best gear and assume that the result will be good.

    I did not want 1) because I need technical toys like creativity, they inspire me.
    I did not want 3) because I am romantic.
    What did I choose? Correct. Number 2, step by step. This is a long way and – over time – a very expensive way in relation to the results you get. It's like a journey and I love to travel. Although many people travel this way, I cannot recommend it to anyone.

    My last bigger investment was about three months ago and now I basically stop to think about better gear because I am not willing to spend much more money. I have six mics and four preamps, suitable for everything I do. A good interface, monitor controller, headphones and good amps for them, reasonable speakers, a mixer for monitoring and proper cabling. Thats it, I am happy. Apart from experimenting, what I still love, the equipment does no longer play a role. I just use it.

    Was it a good path? From the economical view not, for the same money I spent over the years I could have top gear. But did I know what top gear is, what this means for my music and the way I want to work? No I didn't. But if I would start again, I would do it in a similar way because of the journey and the adventure, the excitement when things go better and better.

    If I would decide to run a studio, I would do it in a very different way. Upperclass gear, upperclass people and hopefully an upperclass business plan. And I would buy a pair of really expensive sunglasses to look cool. I would not wear them but I would know that I can look cool if I want to.


    Maybe you expected some advice, a bit of hardcore gear talk. But you asked for thoughts and I disclosed some of my thoughts and hope that they are of any value for you; on your journey.
  11. JuanTahnahmahrah

    JuanTahnahmahrah Senior member

    Here goes an interesting audio file comparison between a Neve 1073 and two entry level mic pres. These two pres can be modded to more closely emulate the classic. See if you can hear any difference...

  12. charlie

    charlie Senior member

    I thank you for your honesty. You are right, it is a journey. I look over at my old synths from the 80's, Effect boxes gathering dust in my Rack and I wouldn't trade them for anything... (Well, also, they're not worth that much last time I checked on eBay. :rolleyes: )
    But I'm glad that I needed to have them, use them at a point in time where it was necessary to my growing.
    If I didn't save up & buy all those synths in the 80's, I wouldn't be able to program sounds on all the VI's I use now.
    It's all a progression.

    Oh, and Pete, in my book, you already have those sunglasses. :cool:
  13. charlie

    charlie Senior member

    This seems interesting!
    When I am home, I might download these high quality files and give them a blind listen.
    Thanks Juan! :thmbup:
  14. Peter Ostry

    Peter Ostry Administrator Staff Member

    I have two of the Golden Age Pre-73 that got compared to the Neve in this test, but without modifications. As they heard that you call them "entry level" they fell in deep dolorousness and I spent half of the day to talk to them and dry their tears. Afterwards they told me that they do not want to be Neves but just good sounding preamps. They haven't made their price themselves, this was the fault of Golden Age.
  15. JuanTahnahmahrah

    JuanTahnahmahrah Senior member

    "...they fell in deep dolorousness"

    Hi, Peter. Nice to know people read my posts, but I meant no ill will.

    I guess I should have used more savoir faire. Entry level to me means I can afford it without skipping a mortgage payment, selling off excess stuff or taking out a loan. The Pre73s are about the only under $300 pre that forum posts put in a class with the $1,000 stuff. That's quite a complement. Probably would choose to buy an unmodified one, because with the expense of the circuit/transformer upgrades I would just as soon own a Daking Mic-Pre One. Its Jensen transformer sounds like a safe bet. Plus, I like the Blues Magoos.

    Two things that make me very interested in the "most excellent" GAP Pre-73: it has a selectable ohm for input, and it claims an 80 dB gain. I would like to try it with ribbon mics.

    Price, cost and value. A lot of philosphy intermingled with marketing, quality and hype. I have to say the Pre-73 sounds like a tremendous value, but cannot comment on its quality. Relative to the audio comparison, I think it sounds almost equal to the Neve through my Sony 7506 headphones. A very slight loss in the low bass, maybe a different response curve, but barely noticeable.
  16. Peter Ostry

    Peter Ostry Administrator Staff Member

    Don't count on the 80 dB, your ribbons will deliver noise anyway. And in this price class you cannot expect a preamp to bee "noiseless" between 60 and 80 dB gain.

    Here is the Pre-73 on a nylonstring guitar:


    Raw recording, no EQ.
    Mics: 2 Cascade Fat Head II with Lundahl transformers.
    Technique: Blumlein, about 50 cm in front/above the guitar.
    Preamps: 2 Golden Age Pre-73 unmodified, 60 dB Gain, output open.

    This recording is "on the low edge", it was done in a small wooden room, I played very quiet. The recorded level for the part you hear is only –26 dB RMS and –19 dB peak maximum. I pumped it 12 dB up for the mp3 file. If you turn your volume up, you hear a lot of noise. No problem in this case because finally the volume will be far down, delay and reverb applied and other sounds in the front.

    Considering the source of the unprocessed example you can imagine that the preamp can give you a lot of warmth and fullness on louder sources.
  17. JuanTahnahmahrah

    JuanTahnahmahrah Senior member

    Sounds like a Michael Hauser guitar strung with Hannabach low tension. But, what do I know?

    I really enjoy the sound of guitar through a ribbon mic. Always wanted a Coles 4038, and should have bought a Royer 121 when I saw one second-hand, but...

    I do own (and can afford) two Cascade mics: a condenser VX20 and a tube model MX56, both now discontinued. I think they represent great value. I am glad you upgraded your Fatheads with the Lundahls, was wondering how they would trick out the sound. They were worth the extra coin.

    Further to this thread, there is a quest for gear just like the quest for better performance. Not everyone appreciates a wide radius ebony fretboard or a spruce soundboard. But the closer you get to capturing their nuances, the better.
  18. Peter Ostry

    Peter Ostry Administrator Staff Member

    Haha, never heard someone guessing guitar and strings from a recording, especially when it is played in an unusual way :)

    But to spare you the next two million guesses, it is a Francisco Bros with D'Addario ProArte medium tension.
  19. georgelegeriii

    georgelegeriii Senior member

    There is a great article in Tape Op about Neve style Mic pre's that you might want to check out... some very interesting observations ;-))

    George Leger III
  20. JuanTahnahmahrah

    JuanTahnahmahrah Senior member

    There is a push/pull relationship with retro equipment/bleeding edge technology. I found the article at this link pertinent:


    A listing of the equipment used to work their magic follows the conclusion. Included are a Drawmer 1960 pre, a John Hardy M-1 pre, a UA 610 solo and, among others, unspecified Chinese ribbon mics. And also an Apple G5, same model I run Logic 8 on, but they used an Accel system (the last version of ProTools to support the G5 was 8.01cs2, so these HD cards are now obsolete). As you can see in the article, they also employed an Otari 1/4 inch half track and some ancient analog keyboards.

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