The Dawn of "Vintage" Outboard Preamps

Dan Alexander Audio: A Vintage Odyssey comes on not only as a textbook covering some of the finest classic recording gear you could ever hope to use, but also it feels like a memoir tracing the author's 50-plus years as a pioneering dealer in the world of sought-after studio equipment.

Dan Alexander Audio: A Vintage Odyssey front cover
Order Dan Alexander's book from the man himself here.

The story has its roots in 1977 when Dan, at the time a vintage guitar dealer, built his first studio, placed a small want ad for recording gear in a trade magazine, and made money on his first deal with a pair of Neumann U 67 mics.

"I thought, 'This is a lot easier than selling guitars,'" he tells me on the phone line from Los Angeles. "That's how I became a vintage audio dealer—and the terms 'vintage' audio and 'vintage' recording equipment came directly from the fact that I was a vintage guitar dealer."

The book ranges across continents as Dan moves around in search of ultimate gear stashes and the like, from LA to London, Nashville to New York, and around again. And all the while he tells stories of the gear he's come across in his life, not least a remarkable ex-Abbey Road REDD 37 console ("the single most valuable piece of recording equipment ever sold"). Matching that for unobtanium-like qualities is the book's cover star, a unique Telefunken Ela M270 stereo tube condenser mic ("the most valuable microphone in the world").

Not everything is so highfalutin, but most of it you'd definitely want to have. Dan is careful, too, to remind the reader that he is not an electronics tech, for example when he assures us that, aside from technical considerations, experience tells him tube mics are simply superior in most settings ("bigger, more present, sweeter, and more full sounding").

The sparkling brand names you'd want to know about are all there, from Fairchild to Neumann, AKG to RCA, Neve to Pultec, and more. Alongside are plenty of photos and catalogue shots and a pile of letters and bills and ephemera from the collection of a man who clearly has no access to a wastepaper bin.

We asked Dan to focus on one part of his story, to tell us how outboard microphone preamplifiers came into vogue. How did these hidden components that nobody thought much about turn into standalone items that everybody suddenly seemed to want?

He takes us back to 1979, when he met Peter Duncan, an English audio dealer, at one of the Audio Engineering Society's regular gatherings of recording-biz folk.

"Peter took me out to his car and showed me these Neve modules he'd brought to sell to a guy who hadn't shown up," Dan recalls. "He said I could give him 50 bucks apiece so he didn't have to take them back."

Dan bought them, and then wondered why. He'd never sold an outboard microphone preamp before.

A custom rack of eight Neve preamps from the 1970s.
A custom rack of eight Neve preamps from the 1970s. Photo by Mechanicland Vintage Gear.

"I'd go around all these studios, tell them I'd got these old Neve modules and that they could mount them in a box, plug their mics into them, and get the Neve sound. They would look at me with a quizzical expression, scratch their heads, and pass on the idea."

In the early '80s, he walked into Allen Sides' Ocean Way Studio A, which by then had relocated to the original United Western building and had become one of the best studios in Los Angeles. Dan, a regular visitor, saw Allen fiddling at a console.

"It was a 40-input API that had come from the Record Plant, and sitting on top of the console he had a little rack. I looked closer, and in that little rack was an API 312 mic pre card," he says. "It was hooked up to a Urei 1176 compressor and thence to a patch bay.

"I said to Allen, 'You have an API console," Dan continues, "so why are you doing this?' And he said something meaningful that has always stuck in my mind: 'It's the shortest signal path to the recorder.' What that amounts to—in general, in audio—is that shorter signal paths just sound better. That's why if you compare the sound of an old Neve to the sound of other more modern consoles—anything that has lots and lots of signal path—then, usually, the simple circuits actually sound the best."

It took until 1984 for Dan to finally sell the first pair of those Neve mic pres, and the customer was the engineer John Cuniberti, who used them to record Joe Satriani's 1987 album Surfing With the Alien. The record became something of a benchmark for hi-fi rock sound, not to mention Joe's extraordinary playing. "So then I was able to tell everyone hey, that was recorded through a pair of Neve modules," Dan says. "And that's when I started selling Neve modules as a regular thing. It went insane. For a number of years, the only thing that would sell was Neve modules—although currently, any number of older modules are sought after."

Why? Dan looks around today and, of course, he sees how normal and unremarkable it is for engineers to carry around boxes of mic pres. Most studios now, big or small, with or without a console, have a rack of outboard mic pres. They have become part of standard operating procedure.

"You plug your mic into your mic preamp, and then you put it into your computer," he observes. "But in your major recording studios, you've got, say, a Neve console—but you've still got a big rack of 500 Series mic preamps and whatever else. Currently, someone who has a studio in their bedroom can go buy any number of high-end mic preamps and actually obtain a quality of signal that rivals many professional studios."

"Currently, someone who has a studio in their bedroom can go buy any number of high-end mic preamps and actually obtain a quality of signal that rivals many professional studios."

What was it, then, that caused the change of attitude to mic pres back in the day? Dan does not hesitate in his answer:

"The recording consoles that were being installed in studios back then didn't sound all that great, and that had an awful lot to do with mic pres catching on. Most console manufacturers had gone to electronics that were IC-based. Those consoles had extensive facilities but utilized a long line of amplifiers, and they sounded kind of electronic. But it's pretty hard to plug a mic into an old Neve pre, put the mic in front of a signal source, no matter what that may be, and not have it sound like, Wow! That sounds great!"

Not that it's quite as simple as that. "Of course, it's not like every old outboard pre sounds great—that's just not true. What has happened is a lot of vintage audio dealers needed something to sell, so 'vintage' became good, and the sales pitch was: 'If it's old, it's great.' But that's not always true. There's great old design, and there's not so great old design, and there's also great modern design."

Back in Dan's pioneering days, instead of old consoles going to the skip, they'd be stripped and remade into outboard mic pres. They were given "a whole new existence," as Dan puts it. He lists some of the brands that gave that idea credence—older pres from CADAC, Calrec, API, Neve, Pultec, Langevin, and so on.

"They can sound so fantastic," he says. "Western Electric, RCA stuff, there's a long list of really great sounding gear. But there's also equipment that's more mundane and not necessarily all that wonderful."


500 Series Pres

Why do the best ones sound so good? "In general, I'd say first it's because the people who designed them were very aware of fidelity and sound. And second, they're overwhelmingly simple in their electronic circuits. APIs and Neves, for example, have such a small amount of circuitry involved. There's just not much of it—and it sounds wonderful."

That simple circuitry wasn't consistent from one brand to the next, necessarily, but most of the pres from the venerable brands Dan mentions have just an input transformer, then an amplifier or maybe a couple of amplifiers, and then an output transformer.

"With many of these devices, there's also an equalizer that's part of the module," Dan adds. "And those equalizers, depending on which one you're talking about, sound freakin' awesome—they're musical, and beautiful, and sound natural. But look, you can take anything and if you adjust it incorrectly or whatever, of course you can ruin things. In general, though, those high-end mic preamps—which are actually console modules that incorporate an equalizer—are simply great."

There is a shortcoming, Dan suggests. "None of these devices can rewrite the lyrics," he says, laughing out loud at the thought. "I think the digital empowerment that comes with a lot of the technological shifts we've seen has been a two-edged sword. When you compare the songwriting from 1965 to 1975 to the songwriting from, say, 2010 to 2020, I just, ah…" He stops, uncharacteristically lost for words. "I mean, who writes songs as good as Ray Davies? I don't know."


About the author: Tony Bacon writes about musical instruments, musicians, and music. His books include Million Dollar Les Paul, London Live, and Legendary Guitars. Tony lives in Bristol, England. More info at tonybacon.co.uk.

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