How the Pros Choose Microphone Preamps
The Essential Color Palette of Professional Recording Studios
When it comes to iconic mic preamps, the "Big Four" manufacturers — Neve, API, SSL, and Universal Audio — are responsible for some of the most revered preamps ever made. Hardware like the Neve 1073 and API's 512 and 212L mic preamps, as well as classic SSL pres and Universal Audio's own 610 tube preamp have shaped the sound of modern music with their own unique character and flavor.
But what exactly is that thing that each of these mic preamps gives you? How do they shape your sources and how can you best use them to enhance your productions?
Here, three recording giants — Joel Hamilton, Gimel Keaton, a.k.a. Young Guru, and Joe Chiccarelli — breakdown the differences between the "Big Four" iconic mic preamp designs — and their UAD plug-in equivalents — and how you can harness their unique fingerprint on your tracks.
Meet The Producers
The engineer of choice for Jay-Z, Common, and more, Young Guru has been dubbed “the most influential man in hip-hop that you’ve never heard of,” by the Wall Street Journal.
A Boston native and ten-time Grammy winner, Chiccarelli’s list of production and engineering credits is extensive, featuring the likes of My Morning Jacket, The Killers, Morrissey, The Strokes, and Jason Mraz among many more.
A Grammy and Latin Grammy-nominated Brooklyn-based producer, engineer, musician, and co-owner of Studio G Brooklyn, Hamilton’s CV features credits with Tom Waits, Highly Suspect, Pretty Lights, Sparklehorse, and The Black Keys.
Are preamps the most crucial link in the recording chain?
Joe Chiccarelli: In terms of signal processing, yes, the preamp is going to make the biggest color change in the sound.
However, an early mentor of mine — engineer Shelly Yakus, who recorded John Lennon, Tom Petty, Stevie Nicks, you name it — explained to me that you’re going to make the biggest change in a sound by changing the musician, because the instrument is literally in their hands.
You’re going to make the second biggest change in sound by changing the instrument; a Stratocaster versus a Les Paul, for instance. You’re going to make the third biggest difference in sound by changing the microphone. And the next biggest difference is the preamp.
Joel Hamilton: At any given stage, the delta — the difference from where the signal is in terms of volume and timbre, and where we want it to go — is critical. And the delta is the largest when you go from mic level to line level.
Your mic preamp will reveal the texture of your sound more from mic to line, than in any other stage of the recording process. That’s why there’s so much mythology surrounding Neve, API, SSL and the UA 610 preamps.
“To really hear the distinct colors of different preamps, turn up the input to exaggerate their characteristics. Then you’ll really get a sense of its colors.”
– Young Guru
What are the key characteristics of each of these preamps?
Young Guru: The SSL has a punch that no other preamp has. That’s why people love it to mix rock and roll, and why they love it to track and mix hip-hop, because it’s extremely punchy and clean. It’s great on drums, and it’s great for providing an overall blend for final mixes.
That said, if I still want punch, but a little more character, I’ll go with an API, which has more crunch and drive in the harmonics. That’s why virtually all my mixes for the last 15 years have had API preamps on the drums. I love tracking drums through them. They offer the best combination of clarity and sizzle, along with the punch you need for rock and hip-hop drums.
Joe Chiccarelli: They all have their own distinct character. Typically, Neves have a warmer, fatter, more “retro” rock and roll sound, partly because our sense memory of that sound comes from the ’70s rock and roll records that were recorded using Neve consoles.
The API is a much faster and more aggressive, midrange-forward type of sound. The SSL, which was made in the ’80s, is a much brighter, faster, and perhaps a more clinical sound.
They all overload very differently, and the way the preamp compresses and distorts, and the way the transformer saturates the sound all contribute to their unique color.
The Neve may be a thicker, richer distortion, while the API might be a more aggressive, “grittier” kind of distortion. The SSL will be a brighter and harsher and more odd-harmonic version of distortion.
Joel Hamilton: In some ways, the actual preamps in Neves and APIs aren’t so very different, but the EQ sections really diverge: the frequency points that are chosen to accentuate, the way they boost or cut.
The APIs are like a solid, faster version of the same kind of muscle as the Neve — they make me think of California rock rather than British rock, like the Neve. If Neve is the heavyweight, the API is just below that in weight class, but that just means it’s a little leaner and more nimble, but with that mid-forward tone, it can still really throw a punch.
The UA 610 is like the Rolls Royce of preamps, a premium sedan that has a really powerful motor. It’s not especially fast, but you get there in style, for sure. It seems to add harmonic content, especially when you push it.
Conversely, if you push an API too hard, it’s going to melt whatever’s running through it, because they’re so damn hot. But if you open up a 610 and get it to the edge of driving, there’s simply more harmonic content there than there was at the source, and it’s all euphonic. You’re adding even-order harmonic content that actually helps it to live in the mix, that helps it “read,” even if you’re listening on your iPhone.
“I love the sound of APIs on snare drums and electric guitars — things that I want to pop out of the speaker.”
– Joe Chiccarelli
What about the SSL preamps, which many rock engineers covet primarily as mixing tools?
Joel Hamilton: The SSL preamp might lead you to believe that it’s not as exciting as an API, or as sexy as a 610, or as beefy as a 1073, and yet we’ve heard SSL preamps on so many hits, it’s ridiculous. There are so many classic lead vocals that were tracked entirely on an SSL, and they’re 100% perfect.
At polite levels, it can be hard to hear a substantial difference between these preamps. How can you reveal those differences and listen for them?
Joel Hamilton: A tube line amp, like the 610, sounds not unlike a discrete transistor line amp, like an API, when you’re just kind of going through it politely. But when you crank it up to +4dB or more, that’s pedal to the metal. When you really step on it, it reveals what’s under the hood. Think about it, when you’re just sort of cruising along at 55, it could be a Honda Accord, a freight train, or a Ferrari.
Young Guru: When you drive the input of a preamp, you’re literally sending it through more harmonic stages, so you’re making what happens to the source on a harmonic level more prominent.
So if you really want to hear the distinct colors of a particular preamp, try turning up the input to exaggerate their characteristics. You’ll really get a sense of its colors.
Joe Chiccarelli: When you’re listening to all these different preamps, try to listen for a difference in the low end, as well as a difference in how the preamp responds to the “transients.” That is, how much clarity there is in the top end in the initial attack of the instrument or vocal sound.
And yeah, you’ll definitely want to listen for differences in the amount and quality of the distortion that each preamp produces when you drive the input stage. One might appear to be a bit clearer or more “transparent,” or even invisible, like the SSL. Others might sound a lot more colored and saturated.
What are some other sources and scenarios that seem best suited to particular preamps?
Joe Chiccarelli: It depends on the type of music you’re doing. If I’m recording something that wants to be a bit more retro, ’60s-sounding, and I’m recording bass guitar, I will probably grab a UA 610.
If I’m doing something more aggressive and rock n’ roll, that wants to be dirtier and thicker on the bottom, I might go with a Neve. If I’m going for a cleaner, more ’80s, more synthetic sound, especially for keyboards, I’ll go with something brighter, punchier and more in-your-face, like an SSL.
The APIs will be more aggressive in the midrange; they’ll have a bit more “crack” and “crunch” in them. Generally, I love the sound of APIs on snare drums and electric guitars, things that I want to pop out of the speaker more.
Joel Hamilton: I’ll use the API on anything that needs to be fast, like snare drums or a hard-picked bass part. Even some keyboards — Farfisa bass through an API is a classic sound. With an API you feel like you’ve got your hands on the steering wheel of something that took people to the top.
With overhead mics, I often use the Neve 1073, with Coles 4038 ribbon microphones, and I can throw a little bit of that 1073 shelving EQ on the top, and even the high-pass filter. That combination is never too trashy or shrill, it chills out the cymbals a little bit, and it feels really good with plenty of heft to it.
Interestingly, the tube crunch of the UA 610 Tube Preamp really pulls guitars forward, because the clipping is harmonically gorgeous and really animates the sound. It’s as if it’s the first time this sound is hitting air is when it’s coming out of my monitors.
"The UA 610 Tube Preamp pulls guitars forward, because the clipping is harmonically gorgeous and really animates the sound."
– Joel Hamilton
What about vocals?
Joe Chiccarelli: With vocals, I want a complementary preamp. Meaning that, if I have a microphone and a singer that are both bright, I want a preamp that sounds rounder and softer, that’s going to add the missing pieces to the sound. Or if it’s a singer with a very midrangey, aggressive rock voice, you would want something to counter-balance that, like the softer, satiny 610. You can really shape the sound that way without ever reaching for EQ.
Guru: My go-to preamp for vocals is nearly always a Neve 1073. I trust it to bring out the midrange character of the vocals and place it out and in front of the mix. Even if there are other sounds that are loud and prominent, the vocals will still cut through with the 1073.
Of course, if you push the 1073, you get that more distorted rock sound, but it’s never what I call “screamy,” where it’s almost piercing or hurts your ears. With Neves, that distortion is inviting and warm, so it’s pleasing even as it’s really exciting to hear.
Are preamps as valuable a tool for line-level sources like samples, synths and beats as they are for miked sounds?
Guru: Absolutely. I come from the era where DJs always played and sampled a vinyl record through a DJ mixer, which is, in essence, just another preamp. These days, producers are doing a lot of that type of sampling work with an MPC or by downloading samples online, but I still want to give those sounds some sort of harmonic character, so it still has the feel and the warmth of when we all ran vinyl through a mixer.
I’ll often run synth and sound samples through the Neve 1073, especially when I don’t necessarily want to use EQ, but I want to give the sample some real presence and body. I’ll turn the input of the preamp way up, and bring the output down to keep the level correct. This gives the sound a lot of presence and character.
For drum samples specifically, I’m more likely to use an API and I’ll take advantage of the multiple outputs on an MPC to individually dial in the preamp sound for kick, snare, hats, and everything else.
Joel Hamilton: I like the SSL preamps on anything that’s already line level, like a drum machine. The SSL just has a way of carrying that sort of idiom, anything from a Janet Jackson or En Vogue record, where you want that perfect ’80s or ’90s R&B snare that just “splats” so well, that Timbaland-type of snare.
Working with all the electronic acts that I do, that type of SSL sound is crucial for me. Now, the artist may have created those sounds in Ableton or on an MPC, but I color it with the SSL for that modern analog vibe, and it gives it that correct, big-studio sound. The SSL is a great finisher.
— James Rotondi