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Preamps for Keyboards/Synths

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Preamps for Keyboards/Synths

Postby Collie » Tue Dec 22, 2015 4:40 pm

I'm Looking to invest in a decent Preamp for recording Key/synths,I don't own any vintage synth gear so feel like some of my tracks lack Warmth I do own some of the newer Analogs(Prophet 8/Voyager) and a few digitals but feel they may benefit from a decent Hardware Preamp to add some character.

I've Not got a set budget in mind as I'd like to hear pros/cons of every end of the spectrum,plus its something that I plan to invest into that will last me a good few years if the unit is half decent so would consider a higher end unit but also would like to hear cheaper alternatives,although my only requirement is that its a Hardware unit,and stereo in/Out and Rackmountable although I would consider mono preamps too would prefer stereo.

I'm not interested in software plug ins and stuff as I prefer to have a tactile hands on approach,I basically want it mainly for tracking synths into my recording hardware plus maybe doing the odd vocals although vocals aren't the main use for it.

What units do other use/recommend for warming up their tracks,I'd like to get a list together for a starting reference from those with real world usage of preamps and find somewhere that I can demo in person and decide for myself,I would rather go somewhere with some preamps in mind rather than blindly go in and get sold something by a box shifting sales guy.
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Re: Preamps for Keyboards/Synths

Postby The Elf » Tue Dec 22, 2015 5:14 pm

This is all going to depend on what you deem as being 'warmth'.

A dedicated keyboard pre-amp is a rare thing. I have a VKP-1 valve pre that was specifically designed for keyboards, but I've yet to see a second. Maybe try a valve-based processor, such as an EQ to see what it can do for you when it's driven.

You could run your synths into a DI box and from there into a mic pre and push the pre's input.

You might try putting your synths through guitar pedals, amps and speakers to dirty them up a bit. This is something I do quite often. I use an ART cleanbox to handle the level/wiring differences to achieve this.

Don't forget that if you want to preserve any of your synths' stereo output you are going to need two of anything you choose to pass it through.

Is this going to give you what you consider 'warmth'? Maybe, but maybe not. You may be looking for a magic 'make it better' box when some careful programming, or a little work with EQ might be all you need.
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Re: Preamps for Keyboards/Synths

Postby Richie Royale » Tue Dec 22, 2015 5:15 pm

I doubt any pre-amp is really the issue here. You want 'warmth' but this term is quite subjective and the age of the synth isn't likely to change the sound and make it 'warmer'.

My synths either go directly into my interface, via my Mackie or via my Focusrite Penta. There is no discernable difference between each of those inputs, except the Penta has a button to add 'warmth' which is basically distortion. And that last point is essentially what most people are referring to when they talk of warmth, it is usually pleasant sounding distortion, but one man's pleasant is another's harsh and horrible.

I expect there may be something out there that might distort your recording path that you will find pleasant, but I don't expect ti is truly needed. 'Warmth' can be coaxed from the synths by suitably programming and judicious EQ. Distortion comes in many flavours and you may find that pushing the gain on a mixer adds the 'warmth' you seek, but you may need something more extreme or different which can be got through distortion pedals. Or you may find that a small amount of top end taken off the sound makes it sound 'warmer'.

In any event, unless you really know what sound you are after, I doubt a piece of equipment will instantly fill it.
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Re: Preamps for Keyboards/Synths

Postby Richie Royale » Tue Dec 22, 2015 5:16 pm

Elf - snap! :D
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Re: Preamps for Keyboards/Synths

Postby Wonks » Tue Dec 22, 2015 7:00 pm

For warmth you could always try playing the synth through a clean valve amp e.g. Fender Twin or Rolland Jazz Chorus, and then miking it up. Natural loss of almost everything above 6kHz and a lot more mids. Fairly standard way of amplifying synths live in the '70s. Or you could try an equivalent amp plug-in.
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Re: Preamps for Keyboards/Synths

Postby Dave B » Tue Dec 22, 2015 7:09 pm

If 'warmth' is the same as 'character' then you could try putting your ordinary synths through the Mooger Fooger filter. Wonks does that and it definitely adds to the sound.
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Re: Preamps for Keyboards/Synths

Postby Wonks » Tue Dec 22, 2015 7:13 pm

Yes, I can put my KARP through the MF filter and it does impart a certain thickness to the sound, as well as a Moogy 'flavour'.
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Re: Preamps for Keyboards/Synths

Postby Martin Walker » Tue Dec 22, 2015 8:45 pm

Wonks wrote:For warmth you could always try playing the synth through a clean valve amp e.g. Fender Twin or Rolland Jazz Chorus, and then miking it up. Natural loss of almost everything above 6kHz and a lot more mids. Fairly standard way of amplifying synths live in the '70s. Or you could try an equivalent amp plug-in.

Yep, that would be a sure way to change the sound for a 'warmer' version, by concentrating on the more powerful areas of the spectrum while removing the sizzle.


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Re: Preamps for Keyboards/Synths

Postby Wonks » Tue Dec 22, 2015 10:01 pm

And you can always blend an amped-up sound with a DI'd one and balance to suit.
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Re: Preamps for Keyboards/Synths

Postby Collie » Wed Dec 23, 2015 8:14 am

Thanks for all the suggestions Guys will take your points on board,I think half the problem is since I've switched to a digital desk(Yamaha 01V96)which was more for convenience with total recall/Scene memories etc I seem to have lost some of that fullness and roundness that some of my older recordings I did on an analog Allen and Heath seemed to have.

No matter what I do with the Yammie it just never seems to have that same tone,Obviously I know its going to be different being digital and I am running most of the Keys via the XLR ins to take advantage of the Desks preamps, but being digital it just doesn't seem to have the grit or Lo fi ness of the Analog desk,part of the problem is i got used to the cleanliness of digital recording gear that I hadn't realised how much better things sounded previously on the older gear Until I'd rediscovered some of my older works,either that or my ears have grown tired of the crispness of a louder cleaner digital signal I'd made the change to digital for the best possible clean signal path but in the process lost some of the quality of the innocence of Analog,
the EQ on the Yamaha although it has two different modes its just never that musical,either that or I have yet to discover its sweet spots.

I was hoping a tube preamp would be able to colour the sound and get some of that lofi fullness of my older recordings,I see a lot of these newer producers having mostly digital gear or ITB but always have some dedicated outboard preamp for adding warmth or depth so was wondering how I could perhaps incorporate this.

I have used guitar pedals in the past for keyboards(Mainly EH stuff)part of the reason I fell out of love with that method is more to do with patching things in and out all the time and trying to remove as much Noise from the signal chain as possible in order to keep things as clean as possible I've been eyeing up the Strymon series(Big sky etc)but was thinking the money would be better spent on an Analog Preamp as I already have several dedicated FX units
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Re: Preamps for Keyboards/Synths

Postby ef37a » Wed Dec 23, 2015 8:27 am

Do you still have the A&H? If so try it in an FX loop.

My ZED10 has FET line inputs with a 20dB boost that adds "attitude" (they say, not my ball of interest) you might find one of those on The Bay?

Or, since the synths come out at line level how about some really cheap 1:1 audio transformers?

A pedal with a proper valve with proper 300V HT you might not have tried is the Blackstar HT-Dual? Mono of course but two would not break the bank.

Oh! And the Dual has an emulated speaker output which will kill the fizz.

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Re: Preamps for Keyboards/Synths

Postby The Elf » Wed Dec 23, 2015 9:19 am

I would just get that Yammy mixer out of the process altogether. When you record an instrument, bypass the mixer and plug it directly into your audio interface. I'm betting you hear an improvement immediately.
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Re: Preamps for Keyboards/Synths

Postby Martin Walker » Fri Jan 01, 2016 2:47 pm

The Elf wrote:I would just get that Yammy mixer out of the process altogether. When you record an instrument, bypass the mixer and plug it directly into your audio interface. I'm betting you hear an improvement immediately.

Spot on Elf - the first time I bypassed my old mixer and plugged one of my synths directly into my amp my jaw dropped to the floor at the sonic improvements :beamup:


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Re: Preamps for Keyboards/Synths

Postby ef37a » Fri Jan 01, 2016 4:19 pm

Martin Walker wrote:
The Elf wrote:I would just get that Yammy mixer out of the process altogether. When you record an instrument, bypass the mixer and plug it directly into your audio interface. I'm betting you hear an improvement immediately.

Spot on Elf - the first time I bypassed my old mixer and plugged one of my synths directly into my amp my jaw dropped to the floor at the sonic improvements :beamup:


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Re: Preamps for Keyboards/Synths

Postby damoore » Fri Jan 01, 2016 11:29 pm

I have a couple of ART MP Pres that warm up my VK8 nicely plus there is an "opl" compressor button that grunges up EPs nicely. Best thing is they are cheap - worst thing is that they use a wall wart that delivers 9V AC, which is decidedly odd and hard to replace.

Another possibility is the tube preamps from paia, but I have not tried those myself.
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Re: Preamps for Keyboards/Synths

Postby Exalted Wombat » Sat Jan 02, 2016 12:53 am

Before you buy gear in search of this elusive "warm" quality, try simply turning the treble down a bit.
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Re: Preamps for Keyboards/Synths

Postby Collie » Sat Jan 02, 2016 10:35 am

Exalted Wombat wrote:Before you buy gear in search of this elusive "warm" quality, try simply turning the treble down a bit.



This is exactly what I think the problem is and where the idea of warmth stems from.

For the past week or so I've been transferring some of my old cassette tapes of my recordings over to the computer in order to preserve the recordings and keep them on digital media for a bit more longevity,and to get rid of the physical Tapes in order to have a clear out.

listening to the songs on cassette I felt they sounded warmer,even after transferring them into my DAW(no other processing was used) and the reason for that I guess is that in this day of technology we all listen to crisp,clean music basically dominated by the harshness that Digital gear presents,over this time my ears had become accustomed to this type of sound masking I guess the lofiness that I once felt in the older recordings and as I had never felt the Yamaha 01V eq had that kind of sweet spot no matter what I did with it.

Obviously back then I was using more Analog equipment for recording however even using some of my Vintage synths through the digital gear now they still seem to sound less lofi or Duller or warmer or too clean or whatever the term,in comparison,I did tend to use filtering on the synth more than relying on outboard eq's back then but they still tend to sound not quite what I'm aiming for even now with a cleaner signal path.

I guess I was looking for some kind of Analog outboard either a Preamp that has good Eq options too,as I said I see all these producers using mostly Digital synths and everything processed ITB but they always have some outboard analog preamp/Compressors Eq's etc and always wondered why they still retain such bits of kit yet record using plugins also,I also think that maybe my way of listening to music nowadays has influenced my perception of what warmth is over the years.

I'm maybe thinking of going back to an older secondhand Analog desk although,I'm not going back to the old 8 track recorder though,I enjoy the convenience of DAWs but would like some Outboard preamp I'd told myself I would never go back to the older way of working as over the years I've tried to simplify my equipment in order to minimise my setup,back in those days I was knee high deep in cables and gear,but trawling through the old tapes it made me think how much fun I had.

Although I'm more productive these days musically there was something pleasing being less involved about the end result of every individual sound and processing of such,I think theres so many options within the software to get this or that sound or the option to perfect things all the time that we forget about those happy accidents when there wasn't all manner of cut and paste,I was hoping some Preamp could allow me to capture those types of take without having to spend hours and vast libraries of Plugins to emulate being fooled into things visually,back in those days I wasn't visually dominated by the Gear.

I can recall just simply making a decent mix on the desk and simply committing those to tape as a stereo two track,or bouncing down a few tracks and overdubbing live,with all these options for instant recall and perfecting or tweaking things when it probably doesn't need so much but because the option is there to do it you feel like you need to you get too involved with the commodity to better everything individually for the sake of it that you've lost the warmth of what you were doing originally,I've lost count the amount of times I've always gone back to the original takes.
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Re: Preamps for Keyboards/Synths

Postby The Elf » Sat Jan 02, 2016 11:07 am

Collie wrote:listening to the songs on cassette I felt they sounded warmer,even after transferring them into my DAW

Modern digital recording captures a VERY accurate rendition of incoming audio - even using budget gear. This idea that digitising inevitably introduces something inherently 'cold/harsh/etc' is really not credible IMO.

If the sound is changing significantly then I suspect that something else is at play. The most common cause, IME, is audio being recorded too hot. Some interfaces are not very happy being pushed, either at input, or at output. If I was recording from cassette I would be looking for peaks no higher than -10dBFS. Given how inherently noisy cassette tape is you could go much, MUCH lower than that for no discernable noise penalty!

If you subsequently remove the recording headroom then you may find that the analogue circuitry within, or following the interface begins to sound strained. A couple of years back I undertook troubleshooting of a 'harsh' digital recording system where this proved to be very evident - as soon as the outgoing levels were under control the recordings sounded absolutely fine. Playback levels over -8dBFS definitely began to sound brittle and squashed.

Anyway, worth mentioning in case it helps. :D
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Re: Preamps for Keyboards/Synths

Postby Hugh Robjohns » Sat Jan 02, 2016 11:44 am

The Elf wrote:The most common cause, IME, is audio being recorded too hot. Some interfaces are not very happy being pushed, either at input, or at output.

I agree, Elf, this certainly does have a lot to do with it! Cheap analogue front-ends and monitoring chains with dubious headroom, combined with misguided efforts to track and mix close to 0dBFS, almost always result in a nasty, strained, hard sound character, IME.

As an example, for smaller 'straight-to-stereo' jobs I often use a simple Mackie VLZ mixer. The preamps are surprisingly good, but the thing very obviously runs out of steam at HF above about +12dBu (despite the specs claiming it can deliver +22dBu). This is quite typical performance for budget gear. However, provided I keep signal levels in check it sounds sweet, so I use it with an A-D converter calibrated for 0dBFS = +18dBu and never peak higher than -6dBFS in the digital domain. Works a treat.

However, coupled with a converter set up for 0dBFS=+24dBu, and pushed to deliver peaks around -3dBFS, and it sounds quite nasty...

The other aspect which is inherently absent in digital recording systems (compared to analogue ones) is a lot of LF phase shift. Analogue systems -- like traditional consoles and outboard -- used to have lots of transformers in the signal path, and more modern designs inherently have lots of AC-coupling capacitors between individual circuit stages, all providing LF roll-off and adding to the LF phase shift.

When there is only a single preamp in the signal path -- as is the case with a modern digital interface -- there's often only a single ac-coupling capacitor and almost no LF phase shift. Great for waveform accuracy, but perhaps not what the ear craves after decades of a different approach!

I think that this is a subtle, but subconsciously noticeable effect... and maybe that's something that all these 'console plugins' attempt to replace.

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Re: Preamps for Keyboards/Synths

Postby tea for two » Sat Jan 02, 2016 12:14 pm

How abouts a preamp warmifier with settings : Barley Hops, Log Fire, Malt Whiskey, Toasty Crumpet, Thermal Longjohns
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