As technology has developed over the last 25 years, the changes to the ‘Home Recording Studio’ have been unbelievable. Nearly every piece of hardware that we used back in the day is now available in a plug-in form that not only looks the same but is incredibly close in most cases to sounding the same as well. All this and at a fraction of the cost!
With all these powerful recording tools on hand, we all think we are top studio engineers.
Unfortunately, most of us are not.
You can have every plugin ever developed, and that would be a lot! But there are two things that are exactly the same today as they were when humans first starting recording music. The microphone and the microphone preamp. You may not need mixing consoles or racks of hardware compressors and effects units anymore, but…
…if you can record the source well, all the plugins in the world won’t make it sound much better!
We’ve covered a host of microphone choices in other features, so today, we will be concentrating on ten of the best Microphone Preamps for home recording.
So, let’s go through them and find the best microphone preamp for you…
- Top 10 Best Microphone Preamps For Home Recording 2020 Reviews
- 1 Grace Design m101 Single Channel Microphone Preamplifier
- 2 Cloud Microphones CL-1 Cloudlifter 1-channel Mic Activator
- 3 Avalon VT-737sp Class A Mono Tube Channel Strip Limited Edition
- 4 ART TubeOpto 8 Tube Microphone Preamp
- 5 Dbx 286s Microphone Preamp & Channel Strip Processor
- 6 PreSonus DigiMax D8 Eight-Channel Preamp
- 7 Solid State Logic Alpha VHD (4-Ch Preamp)
- 8 Universal Audio SOLO/610 Classic Vacuum Tube Mic Pre & DI Box
- 9 Focusrite Scarlett OctoPre 8-channel Microphone Preamp
- 10 Behringer Ultragain Pro MIC2200 Audiophile Vacuum Tube Microphone
- Best Microphone Preamps For Home Recording Buyers Guide
- Better Microphone vs. Better Preamp
- So, What Are The Best Microphone Preamps For Home Recording?
Top 10 Best Microphone Preamps For Home Recording 2020 Reviews
1 Grace Design m101 Single Channel Microphone Preamplifier
The M101 is an upgrade to the companies previous model, and many of the components have been changed out and updated. The original preamp was most certainly very good, but this surpasses it in every way.
It is only a single channel preamp, but to be honest, for home recording, that is usually all you need. You may want to do a stereo acoustic guitar or similar, and if so, you would need a two-channel interface. However, a full-on drum recording session is rarely done at ‘home,’ so the one channel format should be suitable for most track laying.
It features a wide gain range from 10 to 75dB. And it incorporates an improved output line driver amplifier and an HPF amp with higher performance levels.
Featuring a twelve position gold plated gain control, the contacts provide reliability as there is no oxidization. This allows for improved and consistent electrical contact to occur. There is also a sealed gold contact relay for Hi-Z input switching. Also improved is the RFI suppression, which eliminates disturbances from external sources.
It has three output connectors – 1⁄4 inch TRS balanced and TS unbalanced, as well as an XLR balanced.
Another new feature is the excellent Ribbon mic mode. This allows an increased input impedance, a bypass of phantom power, and an increased gain for power-hungry ribbon microphones.
It is well built, rugged, and compact; therefore, it is not only an asset in the studio but also on the road. The original’s silver casing has now been replaced with the new black outer, so it looks the part as well. Plus, if you are taking it on tour, or like to keep your home studio well organized, it is rack-mountable if required.
The Grace Design m101 is an effective and powerful preamp that will give you similar results to those in big-budget studios. But, at a fraction of the cost and in the comfort of your own home.
If you are not sure whether you should get a new preamp or upgrade to a new microphone and are not sure where to place most of the budget, then you can do a lot worse than the M101. We will go through this point fully in our in-depth buyers guide later. But, in essence, this preamp will make any of the best cheap mics sound a lot better then it ever has before.
The unit itself is not the cheapest on the market, especially considering it is only a single channel, but for the price, it could well be the best. The results it produces are simply stunning, even when used with cheaper microphones.
Definitely a strong contender for the best of the best microphone preamps for home recording.
- Superb feature set.
- Very high-quality build and sound.
- Excellent choice for ribbon microphones.
2 Cloud Microphones CL-1 Cloudlifter 1-channel Mic Activator
Our second review isn’t of a ‘normal’ preamp, but we think that it is such a useful studio accessory that we just had to include it.
So, have you got a favorite microphone that just does not have enough signal to be usable? Maybe a vintage mic which has lost its power over the years or a ribbon microphone? Whatever it is, the CL-1 from Cloudlifter could be the answer?
In essence, the Cloudlifter is a line preamp that will give any microphone that has a low output up to 20dB of boost.
Why is this a problem?
Many microphones, especially older passive dynamics and ribbons, have a very low output and therefore require a lot of gain to transmit a usable signal. Of course, you can just turn the gain up on the preamp, but this can often add unnecessary noise because you are pushing the pre to its limits. This is, even more, the case with less expensive preamps.
The Cloudlifter CL-1 will then give your mic an extra bit of gain to produce a more workable signal. This will allow the preamp to remain within it’s ‘comfort zone’ and not get pushed too hard, producing a noisy signal.
The Cloudlifter is phantom powered; however, it doesn’t pass any voltage through to the microphone. This will gives peace of mind to owners of ribbon microphones who are prone to issues or even complete failure when exposed to phantom power.
Therefore, this little accessory is a clever idea that will alleviate the problems of using low output microphones. It is also very well built, and is small in size but relatively heavy, and this gives it the impression that it will take a bit of abuse and will be in your mic closet for many years to come.
Also for live use…
And this is not only for the studio; it can be used anywhere a signal needs a boost. For example, if you are running long cable lengths on larger stages, placing one in your cabling will guarantee a stronger signal with much less loss of headroom wherever you are sending it.
This also applies to more ambitious recording sessions where, for example, a guitar amplifier is placed in a particular location far from the control room for acoustic purposes. Such as when U2’s The Edge recorded his guitar sounds in a particular corridor because it produced just the sound that was needed.
It’s basically, small, neat, and sweet and is a practical answer to any microphone that is suffering from a lack of gain. At the price, it is an excellent investment, and to be honest, every sound engineer should own one or even a few.
- An invaluable studio tool.
- Simple to use.
- Well built and sturdy.
- Offers protection to Ribbon microphones.
- It is a line-preamp, not a microphone preamp in the normal sense.
3 Avalon VT-737sp Class A Mono Tube Channel Strip Limited Edition
Size isn’t everything, but psychologically, when we see a piece of equipment that takes up two studio rack spaces as opposed to the usual one, you can usually assume that it’s going to get serious, and with the Avalon VT-737sp it does.
The VT-737 specializes in making the worst sounds you have recorded or given and simply bring them to life. So just imagine what it does to a well-positioned quality microphone signal?
It is a Class A designed preamp offering three different input selections. The first is a high power microphone input featuring 48-volt phantom power — secondly, a direct input for an instrument into the units front panel jack socket. Finally, there is a balanced line input. And a high gain switch gives you the option to boost the signal.
Also included is an Opto-compressor with a minimal signal path, as well an EQ with controllable mid frequencies. This unit operates on a hardwired bypass, so next to no signal will run through it when on bypass, giving you a clearer way to compare what the unit is doing to the signal.
Being a ‘tube’ or ‘ valve’ preamp, it will deliver a luscious warm sound that only tubes pres can produce. Having the built-in EQ and compression makes this into a complete channel strip, so you can treat any signal in any way you wish without needing any more outboard equipment.
And don’t think that this is superb for vocals or voice-overs only. It will deliver stunning results when recording anything from acoustic and electric guitars to drums, especially the kick and snare, and it is also excellent for DI’ing bass guitars.
It is an amazing piece of kit. Not cheap, but then you wouldn’t expect it to be, but you do get a box load of tricks for the money. It’s a worthy candidate for the title f the best microphone preamp for recording at home, and it could well be the winner? Read on to see if it is…
- Stunning sonic results.
- High quality build.
- Enhances even the cheapest of microphones.
- It certainly isn’t cheap.
4 ART TubeOpto 8 Tube Microphone Preamp
Applied Research and Technology or ART, as they are better known, are a fairly new kid on the audio signal processing block. They were formed by former members of MXR in 1984 and have since established themselves as producers of quality equipment at a cost-effective price. ART does not exactly produce a budget range, but the equipment they design is priced to make it very attractive.
They have realized that many engineers earn for the iconic ‘tube’ sound in their recordings. And, therefore, they produced the TubeOpto 8 preamp, which will do exactly that. But, the beauty of this preamp is that it offers eight, YES! Eight channels, each of which features a Class A vacuum tube mic preamp with up to 70Db of gain.
There is a choice of either XLR inputs or 1⁄4” phone inputs for every channel, and it is ADAT equipped. Every channel also has an input gain and output level controls, alongside an input pad, low-frequency roll-off switches, and a phase flip. It also features two additional Hi-Z inputs for instruments, which are mounted on the front of the unit.
As a microphone preamp, considering the low price point for eight channels, it is outstanding. And having eight channels will obviously make life so much easier, especially if you want to record drum kits, etc.
It is well built and rack-mountable for use in the studio, but it could also be carried to live performances or rehearsals if required. And the eight channels should give you enough to record the whole band, as long as you limit yourself with the drum microphones.
If you are looking for a tube preamp with more than a few channels, then this is definitely well worth having a look.
- Eight channels.
- Good features.
- Robust and well built.
- None for the price.
5 Dbx 286s Microphone Preamp & Channel Strip Processor
The DBX 286s will certainly turn a few heads. Built for use in either the studio or in live shows, it has been designed to create excellent vocal sounds with its in-built processing tools. It features +48V phantom power, extensive gain control, and an 80Hz bypass filter to remove unwanted bottom end rumble.
DBX is a legendary compressor manufacturer, with their 160 and later 160X and 160XT all being found in most major studios. So it is only fitting that the 286S also features a quality compressor with DBX’s excellent OverEasy function (as found on the 160s). This will smooth out the vocals yet maintain their natural feel and sound.
And there’s more…
Also included with the 286s is a very effective de-esser. This can be used to remove any harsh ‘s’ sounds from vocal recordings or live vocals and also an enhancer that will give a little boost to the lower end resonances or, alternatively, a bit of crispness in the top end.
Plus, it will handle any unwanted noise interference by using its expander/gate even in the toughest stage conditions.
For inputs, it has two 1⁄4” TRS’s, as well as an XLR. For output, there is a 1⁄4” TRS. And it features a full array of status meters and LED panels for easy visual control and monitoring.
With all these superb facilities, the dbx 286s Microphone Preamp & Channel Strip Processor will bring your studio to life as well as add real quality to your vocals. It is very easy to use and continually produces great results. Without question, it is a studio-quality processor and more than just a preamp.
The price includes the power cord, manual and screws, and washers for rack mounting.
It is very reasonably priced and isn’t going to break the bank.
- An excellent all in channel strip.
- Very good compressor from one of the legendary compressor manufacturers.
- Competitive price.
- None for the price.
6 PreSonus DigiMax D8 Eight-Channel Preamp
The Presonus Digimax D8 combines the best of the company’s analog and digital technology to produce a quality ADAT equipped preamp.
Many of the studio interfaces currently available feature a small number of inputs, one or two in most cases. This can be a major problem in some situations, especially when you want to record a full band or even a drumkit.
PreSonus has addressed this, and the D8 is a 24-bit/48kHz interface with eight Class A XMAX microphone preamps. On top of that, it also features eight analog outputs for sending your signal externally, for example, to external compressors, EQ’s, etc. It also features ADAT lightpipe connectivity, which allows you to add a further eight preamps using a compatible ADAT equipped unit.
ADAT is a data transfer format developed by Alesis that can transfer eight channels of data through an optical cable. This can, of course, give you a lot more in the way of channels to work with. And the D8 will act as an interface for those channels.
All the microphone preamps feature the same gain-trim control, as well as a 20Db pad button and a 48V phantom power option.
There are also two additional instrument inputs that are placed on the front for ease of use. However, the Phantom switches are on the back of the unit, which makes them difficult to use if it is rack-mounted.
All eight XLR inputs for your microphones are also on the rear, right next to eight TRS jack outputs. This means you will either need to connect it all up to a patch bay, which is normally overkill for a home studio. Or alternatively, position it somewhere that will give you easy access to re-configure the signal flow.
To be fair, 99% of single and two space 8 channel rackmount preamps have this same issue, so it is unfair to blame PreSonus for this.
There are also, as mentioned, direct outputs on every channel and full LED monitoring. And, generally, the controls have been well laid out and are easy to understand, but the inputs on the rear could cause problems.
A very good piece of kit that nicely satisfies the need for a few more channels.
- Good facilities.
- Expandable with ADAT.
- Realistic pricing.
- Inputs and outputs on the rear could be a problem for some.
7 Solid State Logic Alpha VHD (4-Ch Preamp)
And now we are back in the big league! Solid State Logic, or SSL, is one of the most legendary recording console manufacturers in history. In fact, it is estimated that more hits have been mixed on their equipment than any other. Now that’s impressive! Their mixing consoles are found in many of the biggest and most famous studios worldwide. So we expect this preamp to be somewhat special.
The VHD gives you four separate high-quality SSL microphone preamps to any line-level Audio interface. So, by adding this to your set-up, you will have a professional sounding quality analog recording system with multiple channels.
The preamps will give you up to 75Db of gain. Therefore any microphone which needs quite a bit of boost, such as a ribbon microphone, will certainly have more than enough to give its best.
This preamp has another trick up its sleeve in the form of the Variable Harmonic Drive. This uses 100% analog signal paths to generate a rich overdrive sound, which has a separate control per channel to select how much you want to add. By increasing the input gain, this circuit will introduce rich second or third harmonics to the original sound.
This innovation really opens up a new world of sonic possibilities, allowing you to create sounds that others simply can’t!
The controls are very visual and simple to use and include 20Db pad switches that are illuminated as well as Hi-Z controls for instruments. Each channel also features individual input and output controls, as well as the Variable Harmonic Drive controls we mentioned. The rear panel contains all the inputs for XLR mic and line, as well as the XLR outputs.
Some will find this preamp expensive, and yes, it is, but consider what you are getting and the name on the front. It’s most definitely worth considering for such professional quality equipment, and the VHD in itself will take your productions up a level or two.
This could well be considered the best microphone preamps for home recording, but will it beat out the other strong contenders? Read on to find out…
- Legendary SSL heritage.
- Excellence from a high-quality manufacturer.
- Great onboard sound facilities.
- VHD technology to enhance any signal.
- As with the PreSonus, inputs and outputs on the rear can a problem.
8 Universal Audio SOLO/610 Classic Vacuum Tube Mic Pre & DI Box
The Solo/610 basically gives you a single channel with the classic sound of the console of Bill Putnam, Senior. Bill is, of course, legendary in the recording community. And besides being an outstanding sound engineer from the 50s to the 70s, he also designed recording studios and equipment.
Universal Audio is the company that was co-founded by his son. And they now concentrate on delivering the same classic analog sounds as was produced by equipment from the past.
The Solo/610 from Universal Audio is an incredibly tough and well-built unit. And it is obvious from the design and the build that they were not just thinking of studio use when they thought of this. Its design means it is usable either in the studio, at home, on the road, or anywhere you fancy to be honest. And its rugged steel build won’t mind at all.
It is as rugged as it is portable, and it gives you all the classic features you would expect. These include 48V phantom power, a high pass filter, direct input for instruments, and polarity reverse. It also features Microphone and DI inputs and a flexible dual impedance selection. There are two analog inputs, an XLR for microphones as well as a 1⁄4” Hi-Z for instruments. There is also an XLR and 1⁄4” as outputs.
Tube circuits are, of course, still admired and loved by many engineers because of their unique sound. The Solo/610 will give you the opportunity to record through that legendary circuit, producing exquisite sonic results. Even the switches and the dials on the front scream vintage at you and will visually take you back in time.
So, let’s raise a glass and say a big thank you to one of the ‘fathers of modern recording,’ the late, great Bill Putnam Snr.
- Creates superb quality original tube sounds.
- An excellent price considering what you get.
- You might need more than a single channel.
9 Focusrite Scarlett OctoPre 8-channel Microphone Preamp
Most of you will, of course, already have a digital interface. If not, why would you be reading this? And we suspect that less than 0.0001% of you are actually still using tape? So, you have a nice digital interface that you’re happy with, but it doesn’t have enough channels. Maybe only one or two, which is stifling your creativity.
Focusrite is well-known for producing not only extremely high-quality recording equipment. For example, their ISA Preamp, which is one of the greatest pres ever created. But, they also produce quality equipment at a more reasonable cost aimed at smaller studios. This means that their products are always worth a look.
The OctoPre features eight mic/line preamps that offer a range of facilities. These including clean gain, low noise, and high headroom. It also features two instrument inputs on the front panel, which can be used to plug in keyboards or guitars. Phantom power is also available across all channels when needed. For monitoring, it features LED’s and channel clip indicators
The best thing about it is that it is compatible with other equipment using an ADAT connection. So if you have a smaller or even another 8 channel interface, you can connect this up, and you will have, for example, an 8 + 8 system, giving you 16 channels of recording at the same time. Now we are talking!
Obviously, you would only get that if you already own an eight-channel interface. If it is a four-channel unit, you will end up with 12 channels, etc. Also, it will need to have ADAT connections on your current interface as well, or the system will not work.
Focusrite specializes in low-noise, low distortion preamps. This allows the OctoPre to benefit from the years of experience that the company has in this field. To produce the best quality digital audio, you need to have exceptional conversion, and the Focusrite’s 24-bit/192kHz converters are recognized as being a class leader, especially when you consider the price.
What’s in the box?
Included are the Focusrite Red 2 and 3 plug-in suite, as well as the Softube Time and Tone Bundle. This includes four of Softubes best plug-ins, including their Reverb and Delay.
The OctoPre is an excellent investment with a number of superb options. But possibly most importantly, it allows you to expand your channels through its ADAT connections. This can open up a lot of options from extensively mic’ing a drumkit to recording a full band with ease.
For the price, it is a quality piece of equipment, and it will serve you well, not only in the studio but also for live work.
- Legendary Focusrite heritage.
- Eight preamp channels allow you to expand your current system through ADAT.
- Lots of excellent Plug-ins included.
- None for the price.
10 Behringer Ultragain Pro MIC2200 Audiophile Vacuum Tube Microphone
We like Behringer and its mission to bring good quality equipment to any music maker at a very realistic price that everyone can afford.
One of the criticisms often stated about modern-day recording methods using DAW’s is that they lack the warmth of the old school tube-equipment that was found in classic recording studios.
It is designed with a real tube inside. And when you pass your microphone signals through a 12AX7 tube, it will give your tracks that extra fullness and warmth. The 12AX7, which was known as the ECC83 Valve in the UK, is the real deal in vacuum tube preamp amplification.
The 2200 also features a Parametric EQ with a dedicated center frequency, as well as bandwidth and level controls. And a 12dB high pass filter. Also on hand, for when needed, is 48V phantom power to run a condenser microphone and a phase reverse switch to keep everything sounding as it should.
There is LED metering, which lets you see exactly what is going on. And it features two analog XLR and two analog 1⁄4” inputs, as well as two analog XLR plus two analog 1⁄4” outputs, all of which are located on the back of the unit.
This really is an excellent piece of equipment, especially when you consider the cost. If you are setting up a home studio, then you won’t go far wrong with the Ultragain Pro MIC2200.
It can handle just about anything, but it is very good with vocals, where that warm tube sound will really lift your recording.
- Excellent build and sound quality.
- A very low price.
- Lacks some features.
Best Microphone Preamps For Home Recording Buyers Guide
As is probably very clear by now, a good preamp is a vital piece of equipment if your goal is to produce the very best recordings that you can. Some people think that a preamp is just a way to make the microphone louder. Yes, it does that, but a good preamp does more, it adds to the sound in a musical way, enhancing it to the ear.
You are probably using the preamp that is built-in to your audio interface at the moment, and this is a superb start. But, as your recording skills improve, you will want higher resolution sounds. And to get these, you will need quality microphones, cables and of course a great preamp.
Time For An Upgrade…
That is why upgrading to a dedicated outboard preamp is one of the stepping stones to becoming a good sound engineer. And it could well be the reason you are reading this. Outboard preamps not only come in all shapes and sizes, but they also produce different sounds, and that will be key to your decision.
Yes, the preamp will obviously ‘make things louder.’ But, more than that, it will also add its own ‘flavor’ to whatever is running through it. They actually have their own sound, in exactly the same way as instruments and amplifiers do.
What Is The Sound You Want?
We have reviewed some simple preamps, as well as some that return us to the classic tube amp days, and some very serious high-end equipment. But, the sound YOU want to create is the most important thing to consider, and only YOU know what that is?
The options are there in this list of the best Microphone preamp for home recording. And there are plenty of them, so decide on your budget, then add a bit for luck, and then see what’s best for you.
Better Microphone vs. Better Preamp
There is a lot of debate about what is a better buy, a high-end microphone, or a high-end preamp. This decision will depend a lot on what you already own, of course. And many will argue that the microphone is the most important factor in any recording chain.
And in so many ways, they are correct. If you happen to have $10,000 to splash out on a vintage U47, you will get amazing results with the right voice, but very few people can afford that. They are also correct in that changing a microphone will create more of a change to the actual sound than by changing anything else.
Many of the greatest vocalists of all time have used relatively inexpensive microphones to record with. Examples include Bono from U2 and Chris Martin from Coldplay, who both use $99 Shure SM58’s in the studio, Paul Rogers from Free and Bad Company, who uses a $99 Shure SM57 in the studio.
And there is even Michael Jackson who recorded the whole of the biggest selling album of all time, Thriller, with a Shure SM7, which doesn’t cost much more. Other SM7 users include Anthony Keidis of Red Hot Chili Peppers and James Hetfield of Metallica.
So, if they are singing through relatively inexpensive microphones, probably ones that a number of you already own, what’s the difference? Well, yes, they are all superb singers, but the difference is the preamp. They were using cheaper microphones, but we can assure you they were not using cheaper Preamps. That, in a nutshell, is why upgrading your pre will benefit you instantly and well into the future.
Having a superb preamp will certainly up your recording game, but there is more to it than that. If you want to find out more, please check out our in-depth reviews of the best studio headphones for home recording, the best acoustic foam panels, the best studio monitors, and the best home studio desks.
So, What Are The Best Microphone Preamps For Home Recording?
Hopefully, that little explanation has pushed home the importance of a quality preamp in any recording chain. All of us here have sat in studios where the engineer has simply changed the preamp for different sound options, and the change was incredible. And that is ONLY from switching preamps.
This is, as is now clearly obvious, an important piece of equipment, and therefore, we have decided to ‘push the boat out.’ It’s not an easy choice. The modern-day Putnam design is here, and is very tempting. We also love the Behringer and the ART for what they do for the money. And the Grace pre is simply stunning.
However, in the end, we’ve decided on what we think is the best. Our choice of the Best Microphone Preamps for Home Recording is, therefore, the…
SSL, say no more. We have all used them over the years and love them to death. Four quality channels will make every microphone you have shine and give you the professional-sounding recordings you’ve always wanted to make.
So, I better go and tell the wife that I’ve sold the car. Wish me luck!