4 Pristine Analog Preamps for Your Digital Studio

If you record music at all, chances are that the end result of your recording will be a digital file of some kind, either downloaded, streamed, or committed to a physical medium like a CD. For a select few musicians that have the resources and the temperament, the conversion to digital happens at the very end of the process, after the music has been recorded in a studio and mixed in the analog realm to magnetic tape, but for most musicians the digital conversion happens much earlier. Often, their instrument is plugged directly into a digital audio interface, with amp simulators and plugins taking the place of real amps, cabinets, pedalboards, and microphones. There's nothing wrong with either method, and if the recording is executed well, the final results can be equally excellent. In my experience, though, if you're the kind of guitarist that tends to record direct to the computer, either for practical reasons or personal preference, it can be much easier to dial up a rockin' guitar tone by prefacing the digital converters and software plugins with a nice analog preamp that has been purpose-built for guitar.

JHS Colour Box

Plugging into an analog guitar preamp prior to converting the signal to ones and zeroes can improve the recording experience and the achieved tones in several ways. For one, most recording interfaces are general purpose, with neutral sounding preamps designed to make a clean, truthful document of any instrument. For distorted electric guitar especially, this can mean that the recording resulting from plugging directly into such an interface is often somewhat flat, both in feel and tone, lacking the color and response of a real amp's input circuitry. Plugging into a good guitar preamp first can often fix this problem, achieving an amp-like feel and sound before the signal ever hits the A/D converters. Additionally, tweaking EQ, gain, and levels in the analog realm is usually much quicker than making similar adjustments in the computer, streamlining the process of getting tones, and saving everyone involved from a potentially major source of frustration and wasted time. Many analog preamps even have amp and cabinet simulation built in, making digital amp sims unnecessary, saving both time and CPU resources.

In this era of digital dominance, the need for an analog, guitar-specific front end is greater than ever, and the industry has responded to this need with a number of products designed to warm up your digital recording experience. Here are a few of our favorites:

Tech 21 SansAmp

The SansAmp line of preamps and DI boxes from New York's Tech 21 are familiar to most guitarists and bassists who have done any recording in the past 25 years or so. Designed by Andrew Barta and unveiled in 1989, the original SansAmp was the first analog amp modeler, convincingly simulating classic British and American tube amp tones in a compact, stompbox-sized enclosure. In addition to the amp sounds, SansAmp boxes also feature fairly extensive EQ, drive, and output controls, excellent guitar speaker emulation, and even mic placement simulation. This might seem to be regular stuff by modern standards, but remember, the SansAmp is 100 percent analog, and when it was first introduced it was positively groundbreaking, becoming an invaluable and ubiquitous studio tool nearly overnight. It was designed to replicate the circuit of a tube amp using FETs, a concept which is still in use today in every amp-in-a-box pedal on the market.

JHS Colour Box

The Colour Box is an unconventional guitar preamp, as its design is based on a solid-state Neve 1073 console preamp, rather than a guitar amp. This seems unusual, but only if you are unfamiliar with the tonal legacy and robust, distinctive sound of an overdriven Neve recording console. Guitarists from Jimmy Page, to Tom Petty, to The Beatles have been recording direct through Neve consoles forever, with The Beatles's "Revolution" fuzz tone being the most famous example of Neve-derived guitar filth ever printed on oxide. With its extensive gain controls, three-band EQ, and switchable Hi Pass filter, the Colour Box is full of warm, immediate guitar tone possibilities, from the conventional to the highly unorthodox, and its quarter-inch and XLR input and output jacks allow it to be used in a variety of recording and live situations.

AMT Electronics SS-11

One of the most impressive dedicated guitar preamp lines to emerge in recent years is from AMT Electronics, a company that originated in Russia in the early aughts, and has since launched a USA branch. AMT makes a variety of preamps and pedals, but its 12AX7 valve-based SS-11A and SS-11B are incredibly good sounding and feature-rich preamplifiers that are ideal for those that frequently find themselves recording direct to a computer’s sound card. These preamps are about the size of a dual-channel overdrive, but are absolutely packed with knobs and features. They have three distinct channels: Clean, Overdrive, and Lead, as well as extensive gain, level, and EQ controls. The difference between the two models is that the SS-11A's lead channel is geared towards classic rock type tones, while the SS-11B's lead channel is oriented towards big, bad metal tones. Other than that, the two models are identical, and also feature effects loops and on-board cabinet emulation, making them ideal for the guitarist that regularly records straight into the box.

Voodoo Lab Guitar Preamp

Voodoo Lab is known mostly for its effects pedals and comprehensive range of pedalboard power supplies, but the company also made a kickass, tube-based rack preamp that can be an ideal front-end for any digital studio that records a lot of direct guitars. Simply called the "Guitar Preamp," this unit has three footswitchable channels for clean, rhythm, and lead, a bright switch for each channel, and dual three-band EQ sections. The clean channel is based on a Fender blackface-era tone, the rhythm channel is Marshall Plexi- based, and the lead channel is designed around a high-gain, Boogie-style tonal profile. It also features selectable 2x12 or 4x12 cabinet emulation through both its quarter-inch and XLR output jacks. Like all Voodoo Lab products, the Guitar Preamp is tank-like in its build quality, and extremely low-noise in its operation. Sonically these units are very impressive as well, with a big-bottomed, modern quality to the sound and a huge variety of dynamic gain possibilities. Voodoo Lab doesn't make the Guitar Preamp anymore, but used models can periodically be found on eBay and elsewhere for a few hundred bucks.

Voodoo Lab Guitar Preamp
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