If you’ve only just begun with the ins and out of audio engineering, you might be confused about what a preamp vs. audio interface is.
Both are important in recording good audio, but can you get one without the other or not?
Let’s take a look at what they’re used for, how to choose one, and some recommendations which may pique your interest.
What Is A Preamplifier Used For?
Most straightforwardly, a preamplifier is used to ensure that the sound quality of what you record is crisper and clearer.
But to understand it better, a preamp is a dedicated external device with no direct computer connection that amplify low-level signals into something stronger, thus making it reach the line level. The line level is considered the standard level of your recording gear.
It could also be a circuit inside any device, such as an audio interface with a built-in preamp. It will take the analog signal and convert it into a digital signal to use in your Digital Audio Workspace.
Microphone signals are lower than the nominal operating level, so you’ll need a lot of gain to get it up to par. Meanwhile, an acoustic guitar or bass guitar won’t need quite as much gain compared to something like ribbon mics but will still need it.
Professional devices operate at +4dBu while home studio or semiprofessional devices operate at -10 dBV (due to different voltage references, the difference would be around 12 dB instead of 14 dB).
If you don’t use a preamp, you risk not hearing all the good bits in your music which would be a shame.
Why Should I Use A Preamplifier?
Normally, you can find internal preamps in your audio interface, which will do its job just fine.
However, dedicated preamps exist to boost your sound quality even more or add distortion or more color.
Since built-in preamps in audio interfaces, you’ll only need to buy an external pre-amp if you’re looking to match the studio-level high-quality sound. That, or the audio interface you bought, isn’t very good, to begin with.
How to Choose A Preamplifier
Shopping for a dedicated preamp can be a daunting task if you have no idea what you’re supposed to look for, but we’ll make a list to make it easier for you.
- Find a dedicated preamp that suits your needs. Are you going to use a preamp for your electric guitar? If you end up choosing a mic preamp, it will sound different from what you expect it to.
- Look out for a transparent preamp. This means it will completely replicate the sound from your recording device.
- Trust well-known brands. They’re well-known for a reason, and there’s no reason for such products to let you down. You can also research which brands are the best before you spend money on a dedicated preamp.
Aside from that, you might want to look into the color, coloration, and flavor that comes from your dedicated preamp. It refers to the slight distortion it will give the audio signal, which some users focus on.
You might not even have to use an external preamp if you find a high-quality audio interface with a great built-in preamp.
However, external preamps will beat a great preamp inside audio interfaces most of the time, so you might as well get your money’s worth.
Can I Use My Guitar Preamp for My Mic?
What if you don’t have the budget for another preamp on top of getting a mic preamp?
The thing is, the microphone signals need a lot of gain to reach the normal line level signal due to its weak electrical signal.
A guitar preamp isn’t made to amplify the human voice, which may cause your vocals to sound distorted and well, bad.
Aside from that, if you sing in a DEEP BARITONE voice, the guitar amplifier may not be able to pick up on those frequencies.
If you don’t want to risk it, you might want to invest in some quality mic preamps. It’ll save you a lot of money in the long run.
Different Types of Preamps
In this article, we’ll go through the CIRCUIT DESIGN of categorizing different types of preamps.
A tube preamp will add warmth to your mids, while also adding body to your bass and airing your highs.
These pre-amps use tubes or valves which will distort the sound in a pleasing way. Because of the way they’re shaped, the compression of the tube adds to the color of the audio.
Or another way to put it: it adds a rich depth to your music.
Solid State Preamps
In comparison with a tube preamp, a solid state preamp provides more transparency from recording audio.
That’s because they have the capability of capturing more gain without distorting the audio signal.
However, they don’t produce the same pleasant sound due to the ODD HARMONICS it creates. Odd harmonics make your recordings sound more aggressive and unfiltered compared to even harmonics.
Like the name suggests, preamps like these are a mix of tube preamps and solid state preamps. If you’re a home studio recorder, you’ll be able to do a lot with this type of external preamp.
The downside is that the quality won’t sound as good as an exclusive preamp. However, if you’re on a budget and you want to take advantage of the versatility it offers, then hybrid preamps are a great choice.
Single Channel vs. Multi-Channel Preamps
You may have already figured it out, but a single channel preamp can only take one channel at a time when you record while a multi-channel preamp can take multiple channels at a time.
So which one is better?
Well, if you’re only going to do solo projects where you’ll only need ONE microphone or instrument at a time, take a single channel preamp instead.
If you want to record audio with electronic instruments and microphones all AT THE SAME TIME, get a preamp that supports multi-channels instead.
However, it might be more useful to buy a multi-channel preamp even if you’re a solo recording artist.
If you get a multi-channel preamp, you’ll be able to use two microphones and add diverse sounds to your recordings. Aside from that, if one channel goes bust, you can always use the other channels while waiting to repair the other one or find a replacement preamp.
Focusrite ISA One
If you’re looking for high-quality preamps, then look no further than the Focusrite ISA One.
This external preamp has got a good balance of XLR and balanced jacks for your microphone inputs or line inputs. Its DI has its own gain control knob so you can adjust the gain from the preamp itself.
The most important aspect about this preamp is that it genuinely sounds great. It can add a certain fullness and depth to your audio that you might be interested in adding to your audio.
All in all, this is a great preamp to add color to your audio or simply get whatever you’re recording to a line level signal.
Universal Audio SOLO/610
This dedicated external preamp will be a delight for musicians who are chasing after that VINTAGE FEEL.
This external preamp converts the analog audio signal into a digital signal that hits the line level you’ll need. It can add a girthy and warm feeling to your audio which will kick your audio up a notch when it comes to recording guitar solos or bass.
This preamp can also utilize 48v phantom power, as well as mic and DI inputs with gain and level controls for whatever you need.
dbx 286s Microphone Preamp
External preamps like the dbx is a godsend for live performing artists and studio recording artists.
When you use this preamp, it takes your analog audio signal and enhances it to the cleanest sounds you can possibly imagine.
You can also connect any effects device using the jack output on the back which can give you more options when it comes to making your audio sound even better.
It’s functional and while it is bigger than other portable preamps, it’s still compact and lightweight.
It also doesn’t hurt that Sweetwater’s customer service is amazing and they offer a 2-year warranty for this preamp.
What Is An Audio Interface?
An audio interface works by converting the audio analog signal from your microphone or instrument into a digital signal so your computer can properly record it.
While you might be imagining that an audio interface is a box full of different inputs and outputs for your microphones or instruments, that’s not always the case.
USB microphones or anything else that can connect to your computer and let you record audio will be considered an audio interface by the definition above.
When Should You Use An Audio Interface?
You’re definitely going to need an audio interface if you want to record music with your microphone, guitar, or keyboard.
Especially if you want high-quality sounding audio.
Aside from that, you can set up your audio interface so you can hook your computer to your studio monitor speakers.
How to Choose An Audio Interface
There are several things you’ll need to consider before buying an audio interface. You can buy a great audio interface only to realize that it doesn’t fit your setup or needs at all so be careful.
Before you buy an audio interface to hook up to your computer, you’ll need to make sure that whatever audio interface you’re getting suits your needs and is compatible with your computer’s available ports.
Here are the most popular connection types an audio interface has:
- USB: Most laptops will have a 2.0 or 3.0 USB port that you can utilize if the audio interface you’re using is powered through a USB connection. Luckily, most modern audio interfaces on the market offer USB port compatibility whether it be an audio interface for the budget or all the money you can spend on one.
- FireWire: This type of connection can be found on Macs or other Apple devices. It offers better speed than a USB which some users may find attractive. PC users can also make use of a FireWire by installing an expansion card on their computer.
- Thunderbolt: The Thunderbolt is now becoming the standard for connecting audio interfaces to a laptop. With its high-speed connection and the low latency it offers, it’s no wonder it’s so popular.
- PCIe: The PCIe (PCI express) is a chip that you can install in the motherboard of the computer you’re using. This means you can’t use this with your laptop. These are most often used by professional studios that need high track counts with minimal latency and an instantaneous transfer speed.
Input and Output Configurations
When you look for an audio interface, check the XLR input, mic input, and line inputs.
Most audio interfaces will have at least two XLR inputs and outputs so you can be versatile with what you use to record.
You also need to check if your audio interface supports phantom power or not. This is important because most condenser mics require phantom power to be used at all.
The number of inputs and outputs will also significantly impact your recording process so you have to choose wisely.
At the very least, it’s recommended that you get an audio interface with at least two inputs. That way, you can use two microphones or a microphone and one of your musical equipment at the same time.
And if one of the inputs break, you have a backup so you don’t have to put a hold on your recording until you can repair your audio interface or find a replacement.
Since you’re buying an audio interface to improve the quality of the audio you’re recording, you want to check if its quality is good enough for your standards or even a professional’s standards.
Here are certain things you’ll need to check to get the quality you deserve.
When you record analog audio signals into digital signals, they will be converted into bits and bytes for your DAW to receive.
The higher the bits the audio interface can convert, the better your audio will sound.
CDs have a 16-bit standard that delivers a range of 96 dB which is fairly high. However, you may be able to hear some noise during some quieter times in your recording.
The professional standard for bit depth is 24-bits which gives you a dynamic range of 124dB
In the simplest way to explain it, a sample rate is the number of times your audio gear will “capture” your audio.
At the lowest, pro studios work with 48 kHz, but they also work with 98kHz or even 192 kHz.
But if you really want that professional sound, you’re going to want to work with a 24-bit/98 kHz processing rate.
You may be thinking that an audio interface must surely cost a HEFTY PRICE, especially with all that it does. However, that’s not entirely the case.
There are many audio interfaces nowadays that won’t leave you crying over your empty bank account.
But you may also be thinking that cheap audio interface options lead to bad quality audio interfaces. That may be true, but there are plenty of great inexpensive options out there that will fulfill your needs while still performing soundly.
So don’t just go looking for the most expensive audio interface; find one within your budget and look at the reviews to see if they’re any good.
Audio Interface Recommendations
Audient iD4 MkII
If you want a cheap audio interface, then the Audient iD4 MkII could be a great match for you!
This is a good quality audio interface that shines bright with its instrument input that gives you CLEAR SOUNDS with enough punch to keep you dancing to the groove.
You can also make use of the mic input for your line input which it will accept with a TRS jack.
The great thing about this audio interface is that it’s compatible with IOS products which makes recording easier when you’re on the go.
The only downside to this audio interface is that if you want to get the best out of it, you’ll need to use USB ports that are made for 3.0 USBs.
Focusrite Scarlett 4i4 3rd Gen
Need a piece of inexpensive home studio gear that doesn’t drop its quality for the price?
The Focusrite Scarlett 4i4 is the choice for you if you need more inputs to take advantage of to record with even more tracks and equipment.
This interface also supports 48v phantom power if you ever need it for your microphones to work which is always a great plus.
Aside from that, it comes with software that makes it easier to control what’s happening with your Scarlett 4i4. So if you’re too lazy to take off a mic from the interface, you can just mute that channel from the app.
With this audio interface, you get to make us of the Air feature which adds a warm and airy tone to your recording. With that, it acts like built in preamps that’s a solid state type.
With the Loopback feature added, you can even take audio from other software and drop it to your DAW from there without any third-party software or equipment needed.
Steinberg UR22C Audio Interface
This quality audio interface might be a good choice for you if you want a beginner-friendly interface that will last you a LONG TIME.
The dual mic/line input feature makes for flexible usage which means you can plug in either a XLR jack or TRS jack in it. There’s also 2 gain knobs to manipulate a low level signal and a master volume knob to control the output volume.
Like the other audio interfaces mentioned above, this can also make use of phantom power in this interface, allowing you to use condenser mics and the like.
Another great thing about this audio interface is that you can capture audio at 32-bits which is already higher than the industry standard of 24-bits. That way, your audio will sound as clean and crisp as it gets.
The UR22C is also portable due to its build and the fact that it can utilize 3.0 USB connections for your laptop or IOS device. With that, you can always record music if you’re ever hit in a bout of inspiration in a snap.
Preamp vs Interface: Which One Should You Get For Your Studio?
Do You Need To Have Both?
Now that you know that there are preamps built in within audio interfaces, do you actually need to buy a dedicated external preamp along with your audio interface?
The answer is both yes and no.
Like we said, audio interfaces contain built-in preamps within them that allow you to forgo buying a dedicated preamp.
Still, because the space of which the preamps occupy may be small, the space for vibration may dampen its abilities.
So if you’re really serious about this, you may want to buy an external preamp for your recording setup to get the best results you can.
Now that you know all about preamps and audio interfaces, it’s time you set out and decide what you need for your recording setup.
You can buy a quality external preamp or make use of the built-in preamps that come with any audio interface. It all depends on your budget and how serious you are about mixing and recording audio.
Either way, we hope this article helped you on your journey to learning about audio engineering.