Q. Should I buy a separate preamp?

Published in SOS April 2009
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I have happily been using Pro Tools for the past decade and am currently using Pro Tools LE with an Mbox 2 interface. I want to buy a mic preamp, perhaps a Behringer Tube Ultragain or similar, but will this be a waste of money when using Digidesign's LE Interfaces?

Jody O'Brien

When you're on a budget, a good‑quality preamp that's clean sounding is likely to be the most sensible long‑term investment, but if you're set on 'character', there are a number of suitable devices that won't break the bank, including the original SPL Gold Mike, which can be found second-hand for £200-300.When you're on a budget, a good‑quality preamp that's clean sounding is likely to be the most sensible long‑term investment, but if you're set on 'character', there are a number of suitable devices that won't break the bank, including the original SPL Gold Mike, which can be found second-hand for £200-300.

SOS Reviews Editor Matt Houghton replies: It's difficult to say whether adding a mic preamp to your Mbox setup is a "waste of money” or not without knowing what you want to get out of it. I'm not sure which of the Behringer Tube Ultragain models you had in mind, but at the budget end of the market I'd probably avoid tubes altogether and spend the money on something good‑quality and clean‑sounding — which is likely to be of more use to you for a much longer time. You can always add 'character' after the event using plug‑ins, if you want to.

If I were in your position and could stretch the budget to around £85 ('street' price), I'd probably look at something like a Mackie 402 VLZ3 mixer, which gives you excellent preamps for the money. As well as the preamps, this would give you a few other benefits, such as line inputs, EQ and basic monitoring facilities. For more on these mixers, read Hugh Robjohns' review of their bigger brother at /sos/may07/articles/mackie1642.htm, which discusses the preamps in more detail, and Paul White's shorter review of the 402 and 802 at /sos/oct08/articles/mackie802402vlz3.htm.

In terms of other 'affordable' preamps, I picked up a second‑hand SPL Gold Mike for about £200 last year and that's a nice tube preamp. In the same sort of price range I'd probably consider the TL Audio PA2, which makes a great bass DI as well. There's also the solid state Aphex 207D, which has digital outputs to connect to the Mbox, thus bypassing its A‑D converters if they're frustrating you; or the most recent one we've been playing with here, the Golden Age Project Pre 73 (reviewed in our March issue). It's only one channel, but at £200 for something that has transformers and sounds rather like a Neve, you can't go wrong! The Focusrite Platinum range is good too, and falls into this price band.

Another option, if you're just looking for flavour and want EQ and compression, is to seek out one of the old Joemeek designs, such as the VC3Q or the VC6, on eBay or in our readers' ads. They're not valves and they're certainly not transparent, but they sound nice on some music styles and you get a compressor and EQ thrown in.

Of course, this all assumes that the preamps are the weakest point in your recording and monitoring chain: it may be that you'd get more benefit from spending some money on acoustic treatment, or upgrading your mic or speakers.  .


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