As you begin putting together your home studio, you might start to realize you need more gear than you initially thought. Don’t be turned off by this–in fact, you can make some great music with just a computer and DAW these days.
However, if you plan on incorporating vocals or real instruments, you’ll need a way to translate that signal into your DAW. In other words, you’ll need a microphone or two. Not only that, you’ll need a microphone preamp. But why?
Here are three reasons why a preamp is required.
The main purpose of a microphone preamp is to boost (or “amp”lify) a weak signal. Microphones need this extra boost to reach “line level,” or the appropriate level of gain strong enough to be heard clearly with minimal noise.
Some mics, like condensers, need this boost more than others, but they can all use some extra juice. A strong signal is a clean signal (as long as it doesn’t clip), and it will allow you further shape and manipulate the recorded audio to your liking.
It’s worth noting here that audio interfaces and preamps aren’t quite the same thing. The purpose of an interface is to convert an analog signal to digital. It’s true, most audio interfaces have a preamp built into them, but a dedicated preamp tends to provide more power and versatility.
When just starting out, most people purchase an interface with built-in preamps to save some time and money. In any case, an interface with allow you to connect your microphones, Hi-Z (guitar) cables, and MIDI devices to your computer to be received by your DAW. The built-in preamp will boost the output signal to give you more headroom when gain staging and mixing down the road.
Modern DAWs and plugins have become so advanced that a lot of processing is now done digitally. However, a good preamp will give you a nice starting point for crafting your tone before even touching the waveform in the digital realm. As you look into higher-end preamps, you’ll notice that they begin to offer more knobs and switches for tone blending and shaping. For instance, you might find a high-pass filter button, a texture knob, or a polarity switch.
Some preamps offer a warmer tone while others are brighter. As you expand your studio and learn some of the more technical aspects of sound shaping, you’ll be able to find the right preamp for you. One that’s not just powerful, but one that offers the desired tone and enough flexibility for you to mold your output signal as you please.
In short, you need a microphone preamp if you plan on recording anything with a microphone or direct line input. You need the power and tone it offers as you bring analog audio into your digital audio workstation. A preamp is simply a powerful and integral fixture in any studio. The good news is, you don’t need anything too fancy to get started.