Microphone PreampsBuying Guide

What to Consider and How to Choose an Affordable Preamp for Recording

Microphone preamps are external boxes that amplify weak, low-level microphone signals to line-level so that they can be adequately processed for recording. Many audio interfaces—the ones with an XLR input for your mic—feature built-in mic preamps, but these are often included by necessity and won't compare to a dedicated external preamp designed for the purpose.

External mic preamps boast higher sound quality than interfaces with preamps, lower noise, more gain, and can be found with additional useful features, like ADAT, hi-pass filters, DI or Hi-Z instrument inputs, and more. Many engineers and home recordists also use them because they can sometimes color your recordings with a different sound quality and interesting saturation characteristics.

If you're looking to take your recordings to the next level, an external mic preamp is a great way to do it. Watch the video below and scroll through the guide to explore our 15 best picks for affordable mic preamps and find which one is right for you.

Watch Rachel break down why you should pick up a mic preamp and what to consider before you buy.

Quick Picks

A couple of our go-tos based on your use case.

What to Consider When Buying a Mic Preamp

Number of channels.

  • Preamps come a variety of sizes with all manner of channel options, and how many you'll need is dependent on how many things you're trying to record simultaneously.

  • More channels will mean a higher price tag, so if you're only going to be recording one instrument at a time, we suggest spending your money on a solid one- to two-channel mic preamp, like the Focusrite ISA One.

  • On the flip side, if you're trying to record an entire kit, you might want to consider something more robust, like the 8-channel Focusrite OctoPre.

Solid State vs. Tube

  • Neither preamp option, whether solid state or tube, is unequivocally better than the other. It all comes down to specific application and personal preference.

  • Solid state preamps are generally quiet and articulate, with true-to-the-source accuracy. They can often be found for less than you'd spend on a tube-based alternative and often have less maintenance issues to boot. If you're trying to capture the truest version of your recorded signal with consistency and low distortion even as gain increases, solid state is the way to go.

  • Tube preamps are usually associated with thicker bass, airy high-end, and warm mid-range. You'll often hear tube preamp users talk about the "vintage color" they bring to your signal by way of their natural compression and harmonic saturation characteristics. Because of the tubes and components, these preamps can sometimes require more work to maintain, especially as they get older.

Transformer?

  • Much like tubes added to your preamp circuit, transformers also color your signal. So if you're looking for more effected and interesting tones from your preamp, transformers can be a great way to achieve that.

  • Again, if you're after the most pristine and clean-sound signal possible, a transformerless solid state option is more than likely the right choice for you.

  • You can also find hybrid preamps, like the Universal Audio 710, that feature options for switching between transformers or tubes as well.

Onboard EQ?

  • A preamp with onboard EQ and dynamics controls allow you to get more creative with your sounds without purchasing a separate hardware EQ or compressor.

  • There will be a cost increase, so if you're more comfortable sticking with the in-the-box EQ and dynamics processing, we suggest saving the money and getting a preamp without those features.

Other Features

  • Lots of preamps come with added features like hi-pass filters, decibel pads, and DI or Hi-Z instrument inputs.

  • Consider what you might need or want, like onboard A to D conversion via ADAT, which will free up a lot of precious inputs in your interface.

  • Preamps with multiple outputs are also excellent if you want to be able to send your signal to multiple sources without latency.

Desktop Preamps

Ideal if you just need a channel or two.

A desktop preamp is perfect if you're looking to pick up an external preamp that won't take up a ton of space in your studio and is easy to move and rearrange. These mic pres will usually only have one or two channels, though, so make sure you consider that if you're hoping to recording more than two things at a time.

500 Series Preamps

Space-saving and affordable.

The 500 Series is an extremely flexible, scaled-down, and cost-effective way to get recreations of lots of classic preamps that you'd never be able to afford otherwise. Rackmounted, these units are also exceedingly space-efficient, which can be a great selling point if you're working to get studio-level recordings in a restrictive space.

Rackmount Preamps

Great for building out your rack and adding multiple options.

Rackmounted preamps are great options for musicians who already have a rack they're trying to fill out, or for those who are interested in having more than one preamp option available to them.

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