Thoughts on Varying Mic Preamps
Some thoughts I had in a recent topic in the Tape Op forum on varying preamps.
This is a topic that's obviously coming to a head over the last few years. And it's a dynamic that's moved from actual engineers to gear dealers and manufacturers. When people started putting project studios together - en masse - a little over ten years ago, I was definitely one of the loud mouths telling people that they really needed to invest in good preamps. Preamps, at that point (and maybe still so) were this sort of mysterious thing that people really didn't get, or why they should invest in them. Instruments, mics, monitors, etc were more obvious. But why spend all this money on preamps - which are just boxes that sort of sit there.
Some people took the leap; bought some quality preamps, and were getting demonstrably better results. They joined the choir, and over time, preamps caught on. This created a big market over time - most of which was driven by online forums and recording webzines.
The SOS preamp test isn't particularly useful to form any real conclusions, because there aren't a lot of dynamics, and there aren't various instruments and voices working together to fit in a mix. When you get a lot more going on, that's when quality preamps will really start to show what they can do.
Here's a preamp test done with a drum machine loop. Preamp Shootout With Drum Machine.
One of the things that's gotten out of hand - since the home/project studio market has gotten so big - is that there are now so many manufacturers and dealers that have sprung up, and it's really gotten to the point of the blind leading the blind. Most of the dealers and people that work at them are not really qualified engineers. I addressed this in a recent article, Web 3.0 Age of Expertise.
I think there's some merit in the idea that some of the best-sounding records were recorded on desks with the same model of preamps. But then we have to realize that in those cases that they were also recorded to tape, and even released on vinyl. And tape - lest we forget - is a living, breathing instrument in itself - which can be used and tweaked to arrive at a lot of various differences. And with ITB digital recording, it ain't so. Tape is like working with oil paints on canvas. Digital recording is like painting on glass.
Then the question is, how far down the rabbit hole do we want or need to go? Another thing that an open-architecture studio with a console allows for is much more manipulation of sonics through all that good outboard gear - which can be used used effectively while tracking, as well as tweaking and mixing.
With more and more people working on (effectively, I might add) ITB systems, there are some advantages and disadvantages. And one of the disadvantages is not being able to tweak to the level available in a studio with a console and outboard gear. So, that leaves ITB with needing to make some sonic decisions earlier on in the process. Preamps, and having some complementary flavors, can help with the choice of sonic pallet while tracking. The preamp moves closer to the front of what could be termed "source" with ITB systems than with console systems.
Preamps have characteristics, just like instruments, voices, rooms, etc.. Music - and genres - are created in spaces. Legit (classical) music tends to be recorded in natural-sounding spaces - and the mixes reflect that. Rock - and more modern rock - are often made in very artificial spaces, and they sound like it.
As an aside, Rupert Neve initially developed preamps to record the BBC orchestra. And that's what he could do at the time to achieve what he called "accuracy."
For the same reason a jazz guitarist would tend to choose a hollow-body, an engineer recording a concert in a great acoustic space would tend to choose faster (slew rate) often transformerless (transparent) preamps, and even neutral/flat mics such as DPA. An engineer working on rock will usually want some balls, energy, distortion and work with more heavily colored preamps - Neve, API, Telefunken, etc.. So, it's no surprise that preamps - and they're use and selection - have merit in what is - in a very real way - the sonic minutiae of making great recordings. Read about any great recording, and it gets pretty esoteric. Refer to Classic Tracks: Fleetwood Mac 'Go Your Own Way'.
I've been testing, using, and reviewing preamps for years, and have attempted to put together a graph to describe the basic sonic characteristics. Mic Preamp Graph
I think getting the right kinds of preamps based in what is generally being recorded is just another set of tools to achieve the desired results. And I have found that having some pres that complement each other can be useful in a studio arsenal. But there does come a point where it does get nuts, and I agree that it turns more into marketing, PR, and hype. And i also think it can become a distraction and a disservice to the community of recording musicians, engineers, and producers. But then again, maybe just the ones who are buying into it.
Something I learned over the years, after having talked extensively with most of the preamp manufactures on the planet, is that they very often don't really know where their own products truly fit into the scheme of all the preamp flavors out there on the market. They usually have a philosophy or a type of sound they want, and they work towards that. Of course, that can result in some very good products, but often what can be bizarre marketing on their part. But I do think their head is in the right place; on their own bench and R&D in their own company, rather than running around trying everything out there on the market.
One good thing I've found about forums and all the online communication over the years is that the good products and companies do get noticed and the cream rises to the top. And in that way we all win. The people who are serious about making good music are going to do that. And there's never been a better time for just about anyone to get their hands on some amazing, creative tools.
There are also going to be the tail chasers who are going to think - or buy into thinking - that their "great work" depends on some elusive something they can buy in a box.
I think it's more the dealers that have to be approached with some kind of caution and grain of salt. They're often on the front lines of "pushing" not just gear, but entire philosophies about what is important and not important in music recording and production. The easiest thing I can recommend, at any point when you're wanting some information on anything studio related, is to keep in mind who you're talking to, and where their interests and experience are. And with a bit of investigation you'll usually start to see some common denominators for good solutions to what you want to do.
I can understand people who are serious about engineering and making music want to explore and play with different sonic alchemies. And I can understand that it takes some time and experience - often with a lot of different gear and methodologies - to arrive at our own understandings, preferences, and opinions on what works. So, a rabbit hole here and there is to be expected, when you consider the road of what is essentially a mixture of craft and art.