For many amateur musicians, a preamp is just another piece of equipment in the studio. You understand the need for a microphone, the headphone, the speakers, and all the digital support, of course. But do you need a preamp? You don’t even know what it’s there for.
Here’s a quick fact check. Most of the microphones and audio interfaces (irrespective of how expensive or cheap they are) come with a built-in preamp.
Well, a Preamplifier or Preamp, is important. If you leave out the preamp, there is so much your recording will be missing.
You may not be aware of this technicality yet, but all microphones record at a weak signal level. We are talking about the electric signals that are captured for recording sound from the microphones. The mic-level signals have low voltage and generate low sound volume. These signals are weaker than the signals from electrical instruments like the synthesizer or the electric guitar.
When recording instruments together, the mismatch in the sound from mic-level signals and the line-level signals of the electrical instruments becomes apparent. The same is the case when the sound is processed through an amplifier. If you try to raise the volume of the microphone, in other words, if you try to “gain” the sound level, you will end up with much noise in the background. But in a professional recording scenario, this never happens.
The credit goes to the preamps. Preamps tweak the mic-level signals amplifying them up to the level of other music equipment and/or speakers.
Built-in Preamp and External Preamp
A preamp can be either built-in or be used as an external device. Mostly, if the microphone already has a built-in preamp, you wouldn’t need the external device. But in a recording studio, where multiple instruments and microphones are used, all the device signals have to be matched to a studio standard level.
Home audio and amateur musical instruments operate at a level much lower than the studio levels. Therefore, they are not suitable for recording purposes directly.
You may have seen a device with all the knobs and input channels at the recording studio. That’s an external preamp. It may be useful for upgrading your set-up to professional standards. For example, you may want control over the “gain” setting. This could make a significant difference to the recording quality.
Advantages of External Preamp
Let us see how the external preamp can make the recording or performance sound superior and professional.
First of all, the external preamp gives you the option of setting the “gain” level to higher decibel levels than what the built-in preamps are capable of.
Secondly, with an external preamp, you can achieve clear and transparent sound even at a high “gain” setting. This means, even at a higher decibel level the sound output will not become grainy or dull. Some external preamps come with extremely low “noise” features, eliminating background noise to the highest possible levels.
Thirdly, the external preamp settings can give a distinctive touch to the sound. Some bass pre-amps can make the output more appealing and attractive, with a characteristic punch.
And finally, the external Preamp has some advanced technical features like pad-switches and low-cut options, which allow you to control the sound output even further.
Should you buy an External Preamp?
A good quality audio interface has a built-in preamp, which supports high-quality recording in a home studio environment. If you’re starting recording or investing in a home studio, in our honest advice, you can skip on the external preamp device. A good quality audio interface will cover you well.
Once you are past the beginner’s experiences with recording and editing, we strongly recommend exploring the external preamps in the market. Besides, some microphones like the ribbon microphones have very low output levels. In that case, you need an external preamp to get better quality output.