Choosing The First Preamp for Your Home Studio

As home studios grow into project studios, the needs you have for your gear get more demanding. Many engineers do just fine with minimal setups – a very powerful computer with a strong interface and small selection of workhorse microphones. They prove day-in and day-out that the results aren’t about having all the options available, but rather maximizing the results they get with the stuff they do have access to.

Even still, there comes a time where every studio starts to think about their preamps and the affect they have on their recordings. Other than the microphone and the interface, there are few things as integral to a recording’s sound than the preamp. 

But how do you know when to upgrade? And what should you look for when you do? Today, we’re going to get into both of those questions by discussing what to look for in the first preamp for your home studio.

Needs vs. Wants

The first thing we should really take a step back and look at is how much your studio needs a new preamp. If you’re working with any modern interface, you’ve likely already got some great preamps at your disposal. And while the preamps built into your interface might not be the most revolutionary or unique sounding ever, they’ll certainly get the job done as well as they ever have.

For many engineers, a new preamp is going to be a want instead of a need unless it serves one of two purposes: 

  • Expanding the total inputs of your interface
  • Drastically changing the sounds you can achieve

If either of those is your motivation, congratulations – you’ve come to the right place! 

How To Pick a Pre

Picking between preamps is a lot like choosing an ice cream flavor. There are a lot of great options (and a few not-so-great ones), but you’re really going to get a great result no matter what you pick. 

Most modern preamps have plenty of gain and will serve the purpose of expanding your interface’s capabilities if it has dedicated Line Inputs without preamps already. In these cases, I’d recommend something transparent that’s not going to color your sound too much. 

But maybe that’s exactly what you want! So, if you’re upgrading an existing preamp or expanding your inputs and want something new, how can you decide?

For starters, do as much research on the preamps you’re considering as you can first. There’s little value in spending a lot of time looking at preamps that are out of your budget, so it’s in your best interest to start there. Watch videos on YouTube, read articles and forums, and ask your peers for some honest feedback. Cumulatively, this should give you a ton of context about most any preamp before you make your decision.

Landing on the Right Option

There are a bunch of common options that major studios rely on that you can also use as a starting point – SSL, API & Neve are all extremely popular options. These pres will rarely steer you wrong, but doing your research is still important. Unlike interfaces where manufacturers try to keep things as clean and transparent as possible, preamps often have a lot of character behind them. Fortunately, they also hold their resale value well, so if you start down the wrong path, it’s not too difficult to course correct and get back on track.

Most studios will have a slew of options to choose from, so it’s often more of a matter of “what preamps should you start with?” I often recommend that engineers start with one of the big three above (or clones of them) and build from there. APIs sound incredible on guitars and bass, Neves have a great, warm roundness, and SSLs are extremely receptive to EQ. This is all subjective though – you may find other uses, and honestly, there are no bad pres in the group – just flavors that sometimes work better together than others.

What Happens Once Things Move In The Box?

One of the most common reasons engineers and producers hold off on expanding their preamp collection is the selection and color they’re already achieving in the box. With powerful DAWs and plugins/processors that can drastically change any sound, why invest in hardware?

If you’d rather explore in-the-box solutions first, make sure you check out our Howard Benson Vocals Bundle; it’s jam-packed with tons of great tips, tricks, and feedback about getting any vocal to sit just right in a session!