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The real diff between cheap and pricey preamps? Condenser Microphones
Old 22nd March 2010
  #1
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The real diff between cheap and pricey preamps?

To be honest I'm not a preamp fanatic and I hate to start another preamp thread heh

But this is something I noticed for a long time, and wondered whether it has any truth in it or if others agree. My observations aren't scientific nor culled from any calibrated comparisons or shootout.

When I listen to soloed tracks of cheaper preamp recordings (earlier gen Mackies, Behringers etc), I don't hear much difference with similar tracks recorded with boutique pres (compared at same listening levels) when the source material is within a normal, comfortable dynamic range - i.e. no loud passages.

However once the source material has loud passages (not necessary transients, but also longer loud passages like vocal notes), I always notice the cheaper pres kind of alters the dynamic curve of the actual performance - i.e. it doesn't sound as explosive and impactful when it transits from soft to loud passages as it is supposed to sound. I hesitate to use the word "smear" but that is actually the closest word I can find heh And I don't think this is the famed transformer "smear" that is supposed to be euphonic. This type of smear IMO makes the recording sound dull and "small".

Do others notice that or am I just mad? And more importantly, is recording at lower preamp gain - so that there will be more "headroom" reserved to allow the loud passages to "bloom" fully - the way to optimise the sonic performance of cheaper pres? I mean in the digital world we can scale up the gain as much as want anyway.

Just an idea, because I have read that all pres have an optimum range of their gain.

Thanks for any insight
Old 22nd March 2010
  #2
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cheaper preamps sound thin and unnatural and as a result they cheapen the sound.
that's why they are called cheap preamps.

some people confuse cheap with price. The big thing about quality preamps
is they provide a more detailed focused sound.
Old 22nd March 2010
  #3
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i agree with the above. a cheap pre amp is cheap but there are some preamps in the $500 range that sound good. i look at it as bad, good, awesome. there is a LOT of bad on the market marketed on the consumer level like maudio, digidesign le hardware, presonous ect. a few good ones like the p-solo, grace 101, ssl ect. the awesome ones neve, api, great river, la chapelle ect.

when it comes down to it and i wanted to step up after years of crap pres and a year out of the game i was surprised at how much money it cost just to have two money pres with good conversion these days. it's affordable for a home studio but it's not like the normal joe runs into 3,800 all the time to blow on gear. luckly i'm a senior in college and have a great job now to save my 2 student loans i pulled and invest.
Old 22nd March 2010
  #4
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There's a local band here doing very well... sort of Coldplay-ish. When I first heard their first single I salivated over the vocal quality and production values. I ran into the guy a while ago and got to talk to him about the album. It was done locally at his buddy's studio which doesn't have much high end stuff. Turns out it was a Rode NT2000 through a Presonus pre. The Rode is a bit sibilant but that could have been de-essed.

I own a Great River. I'd love to get the sound they got out of that "cheap" gear. The guy does have a world class voice though... and probably sounds like that through anything.

EDIT
Here's the song...

YouTube - Jason Zerbin - In Your Arms - Official Music Video

Last edited by SkunkWorks; 22nd March 2010 at 09:03 AM.. Reason: spelling
Old 22nd March 2010
  #5
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Quote:
Originally Posted by mattg082 View Post
i agree with the above. a cheap pre amp is cheap but there are some preamps in the $500 range that sound good. i look at it as bad, good, awesome. there is a LOT of bad on the market marketed on the consumer level like maudio, digidesign le hardware, presonous ect. a few good ones like the p-solo, grace 101, ssl ect. the awesome ones neve, api, great river, la chapelle ect.
You could have said more that price depends of the materials that are used.
Quallity of critical things such as potmeters, vu-meters, capacitors tubes and trannies.
Cheap materials often goes with less dynamics and depth of the sound.
And what do you think of the price of a man hour in China against one in Zweden.
I would rate the preamps in a five star category.

* $ 0 - $ 500
** $ 500 - $ 1000
*** $ 1000 - $ 1750
**** $ 1750 - $ 2250
***** $ 2250 and up

greetz,

Paul
Old 22nd March 2010
  #6
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Noise
Old 22nd March 2010
  #7
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The real diff between cheap and pricey preamps?

Maybe $5.00

Manufacturers like to cut corners and let you pay for it.
Old 22nd March 2010
  #8
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Darm's Avatar
 

noise
frequency responce
distortion
transient responce
Old 22nd March 2010
  #9
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Quote:
Originally Posted by flute player View Post
You could have said more that price depends of the materials that are used.
Quallity of critical things such as potmeters, vu-meters, capacitors tubes and trannies.
Cheap materials often goes with less dynamics and depth of the sound.
And what do you think of the price of a man hour in China against one in Zweden.
I would rate the preamps in a five star category.

* $ 0 - $ 500
** $ 500 - $ 1000
*** $ 1000 - $ 1750
**** $ 1750 - $ 2250
***** $ 2250 and up

greetz,

Paul
So pres like api 312 / 512, great river 500nv, grace, gml (dividing for multi-ch models for some of these...) and so many other GS-beloved pres are 2-star? I dunno about the star system...

edit: although I agree with the rest of what you said...
Old 22nd March 2010
  #10
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Quote:
Originally Posted by flute player View Post
You could have said more that price depends of the materials that are used.
Quallity of critical things such as potmeters, vu-meters, capacitors tubes and trannies.
Cheap materials often goes with less dynamics and depth of the sound.
And what do you think of the price of a man hour in China against one in Zweden.
I would rate the preamps in a five star category.

* $ 0 - $ 500
** $ 500 - $ 1000
*** $ 1000 - $ 1750
**** $ 1750 - $ 2250
***** $ 2250 and up

greetz,

Paul

This is the perpetual myth that floats around, that components are the one and only important distinction between high end and low end gear. Better components can improve a piece of gear, but high quality parts don't cost that much more to justify the drastic price difference in your "rating system" (which i take serious issue with), and the majority of manufacturers use the same components anyway. The real answer is not so simple.

What truly seperates great gear from not so great gear is the circuit design. After all, Neve and SSL use 5534's, TL072's, and cheap philips axial electrolytics in their consoles - components that everyone and their mom are trying to replace over in the geekslutz section.

But then why does everyone venerate those companies? Great circuit design. Something that doesn't come cheap, and something that even the priciest components can't replicate in a poorly designed circuit.
Old 22nd March 2010
  #11
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Ethan Winer's Avatar
 

Lightbulb

Quote:
Originally Posted by Darm View Post
noise
frequency responce
distortion
transient responce
Just to be clear, "transient response" is a combination of frequency response and distortion. If a preamp can output 20 KHz at full volume with very low distortion, then by definition its "transient" response is very good.

--Ethan
Old 22nd March 2010
  #12
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Saudade View Post
To be honest I'm not a preamp fanatic
Stay that way! It is mentally healthier in the long run.
Old 22nd March 2010
  #13
Gear Guru
 
Glenn Kuras's Avatar
Quote:
Originally Posted by SkunkWorks View Post
There's a local band here doing very well... sort of Coldplay-ish. When I first heard their first single I salivated over the vocal quality and production values. I ran into the guy a while ago and got to talk to him about the album. It was done locally at his buddy's studio which doesn't have much high end stuff. Turns out it was a Rode NT2000 through a Presonus pre. The Rode is a bit sibilant but that could have been de-essed.

I own a Great River. I'd love to get the sound they got out of that "cheap" gear. The guy does have a world class voice though... and probably sounds like that through anything.

EDIT
Here's the song...

YouTube - Jason Zerbin - In Your Arms - Official Music Video
Not to say that a good quality preamp is not nice, but IMO it seems like people confuse high quality performance and high quality engineering/mixing skills with the gear used. You can't buy yourself into being a pro.
BTW I have a lot of nice mics and preamps and understand the value but also understand the talent angle to it.
Old 22nd March 2010
  #14
Lives for gear
Quote:
Originally Posted by Ethan Winer View Post
Just to be clear, "transient response" is a combination of frequency response and distortion. If a preamp can output 20 KHz at full volume with very low distortion, then by definition its "transient" response is very good.

--Ethan
opamp speed is irrelevant.......... :-/
you can't get an api drum sound on cheap preamps
no matter how many acoustic panels you have
or what your oscilloscope tells you
Old 22nd March 2010
  #15
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Glenn Kuras View Post
Not to say that a good quality preamp is not nice, but IMO it seems like people confuse high quality performance and high quality engineering/mixing skills with the gear used. You can't buy yourself into being a pro.
BTW I have a lot of nice mics and preamps and understand the value but also understand the talent angle to it.
Yup.

There's a member here who's work I really dig and, relatively speaking, hasn't even really been doing this all that long and is getting major label work. He's been upgrading alot of his gear lately, but the stuff he's done up until recently has been on not that high end of gear and I, as well as alot of others here, think his work sounds great... he gets alot of people asking for tips. The guy has talent... writing, drumming, producing, tracking, mixing etc. etc. After hearing what he can do with some low to mid level gear I stopped worrying about whether things like my Fireface were good enough.
Old 22nd March 2010
  #16
I'm certainly not a circuit design guy, but I've found myself sympathetic to the notion that one key difference that may arise between preamps of relatively similiar design (which is a lot of preamps) is the quality of DC power supplied to the audio circuit by the unit's power supply.

I can't weigh in on the practical reality of the notion, but I've read some moderately persuasive musings that using adequate DC battery power ('pure' DC, if you will), while not usually practical, can allow a preamp to more fully exploit the potential of its other circuit components in a way normally only associated with the relatively high quality DC supplied by very good power supply circuits.
Old 22nd March 2010
  #17
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Kronos147's Avatar
Quote:
Originally Posted by LeeYoo View Post
The real diff between cheap and pricey preamps?

Maybe $5.00
I have to laugh at that.
Old 22nd March 2010
  #18
Gear Nut
 
mp54u's Avatar
 

Quote:
Originally Posted by Glenn Kuras View Post
Not to say that a good quality preamp is not nice, but IMO it seems like people confuse high quality performance and high quality engineering/mixing skills with the gear used. You can't buy yourself into being a pro.
BTW I have a lot of nice mics and preamps and understand the value but also understand the talent angle to it.

This hit's home. When I built my SCA Preamps, I thought man, now my Drum tracks will sound how I want them to! ..... 6 months later, 2k spent, My drum tracks were only marginally better. I finally went out to a local studio and begged and pleaded my case to become an intern. I now am starting to really learn what I believe will start to help me use the gear I have and make a good recording on my "cheaper" preamps and mics. You just have to experience it and learn something everytime you track and mix. Sorry to babble a little but this statement just resonated with me.
Old 22nd March 2010
  #19
Deleted User
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I often use the phrase 'underwhelmingly good'

when I got my first good pre (Avalon 737) I sort of expected it to make me sound better ..not more like me. i used it for a few months tracking every thing on it and was not at all 'blown away by the quality sound' so I plugged back into my Rolls RP220 and ouch.. I could hear a big diff now that I had gotten used to something with a higher level of detail

it is much like taking vitamins.. take them a while and you don't really notice a big dif in how you feel. stop and you can feel the slump.

after using really good gear for several years I can tell a lot of dif between that an not so good gear.. more so than when listening for the first time to a good piece.

I still keep and use the 'cheepis' and a few other pieces ..but now its for a specific character quirk
Old 22nd March 2010
  #20
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i have been a composer for a long time but never took over lead vocals much on my music. i would pop up on a song or two and it was ok. when i bought a great river,sm7b, rosetta ect. i had bought it with the intent to use it for other vocals than my own.

now a few months later i sing every day and record all the time with great results. on my end the pre sounding more like me and the tone worked in my favor and let me know i am a better singer than i thought as i am really humble and was down on myself. but at the same time there are some things i can't do and just shouldn't in my vocal range. from this i realized i was a better singer than my lead singer as i really cared and payed attention to theory and every note hit. he winged it for so long and the new stuff exposes him and it's not too pretty. he imitates other singers like manyard from tool very well but that's about it.
Old 22nd March 2010
  #21
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fossaree's Avatar
Quote:
Originally Posted by Saudade View Post
And more importantly, is recording at lower preamp gain - so that there will be more "headroom" reserved to allow the loud passages to "bloom" fully - the way to optimise the sonic performance of cheaper pres? I mean in the digital world we can scale up the gain as much as want anyway.
Nobody chimed in about this important aspect that the OP suggests ...
Old 22nd March 2010
  #22
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mexicola's Avatar
 

Quote:
Originally Posted by theblue1 View Post
I'm certainly not a circuit design guy, but I've found myself sympathetic to the notion that one key difference that may arise between preamps of relatively similiar design (which is a lot of preamps) is the quality of DC power supplied to the audio circuit by the unit's power supply.
You're absolutely right. A poorly designed psu will sap the life out of even the best audio circuits, no matter how good the components are. And it's usually the best place to start when modifying gear because it's usually the area where "low end" manufacturers skimp the most on parts and design.

It also ties in with the above post about headroom. If the psu can't supply adequate current, the active components (opamps, etc) will not perform up to spec when driven hard, resulting in a loss of fidelity in said louder passages.
Old 22nd March 2010
  #23
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Quote:
Originally Posted by fossaree View Post
Nobody chimed in about this important aspect that the OP suggests ...
using cheaper pre's at lower gain to preserve the headroom can 'yes' be done

.. but S/N can become an issue. just call your pre a compressor and be happy
Old 22nd March 2010
  #24
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Quote:
Originally Posted by rogerbrain View Post
just call your pre a compressor and be happy
that's the point
Old 22nd March 2010
  #25
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Quote:
Originally Posted by flute player View Post

* $ 0 - $ 500
** $ 500 - $ 1000
*** $ 1000 - $ 1750
**** $ 1750 - $ 2250
***** $ 2250 and up

Paul
That is the most ridiculous star system I have ever seen. So according to this most of your 500 series pres are 2 star! and GR is barely coming in at 3? And a gap 73 is a 1star? Price does not always mean quality
Old 22nd March 2010
  #26
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Gharper23 View Post
That is the most ridiculous star system I have ever seen. So according to this most of your 500 series pres are 2 star! and GR is barely coming in at 3? And a gap 73 is a 1star? Price does not always mean quality
that means an API 512c is 2 stars !
and one channel of Pacifica is also 2 stars !
Old 22nd March 2010
  #27
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TurboJets's Avatar
Quote:
Originally Posted by Saudade View Post

However once the source material has loud passages (not necessary transients, but also longer loud passages like vocal notes), I always notice the cheaper pres kind of alters the dynamic curve of the actual performance - i.e. it doesn't sound as explosive and impactful when it transits from soft to loud passages as it is supposed to sound. I hesitate to use the word "smear" but that is actually the closest word I can find heh And I don't think this is the famed transformer "smear" that is supposed to be euphonic. This type of smear IMO makes the recording sound dull and "small".

Do others notice that or am I just mad? And more importantly, is recording at lower preamp gain - so that there will be more "headroom" reserved to allow the loud passages to "bloom" fully - the way to optimise the sonic performance of cheaper pres? I mean in the digital world we can scale up the gain as much as want anyway.

Just an idea, because I have read that all pres have an optimum range of their gain.
Sounds to me like you've discovered on your own what the difference is and are able to express it really well, IMO. And "smear" is a fantastic word to describe on eof the major differences.

Another difference I notice is better quality pre's tend to impart a smaller sonic "footprint" on the overall "canvass", leaving more space for other tracks or instruments.

It's true, you might be able to get a few tracks through a behri board with their little IMP pre's or whatever that sound just fine. But begin to stack them and add tracks that are more dynamic and the whole thing just falls apart leaving you with a big thick muddy mess around 750Hz and transients that sound like a train wreck.
Old 22nd March 2010
  #28
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Quote:
Originally Posted by rogerbrain View Post
when I got my first good pre (Avalon 737) I sort of expected it to make me sound better ..not more like me. i used it for a few months tracking every thing on it and was not at all 'blown away by the quality sound' so I plugged back into my Rolls RP220 and ouch.. I could hear a big diff now that I had gotten used to something with a higher level of detail
True story!
Old 22nd March 2010
  #29
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Cool

some cheap pres have great sound, like FMR RNP
some dont...
in the overload, cheap pres sound mudd, or odd harmonics,
great pres, sound great.

price vs. sound quality isnt always a linear curve.
some music styles sound ok with cheap pres.

AD converters work different, some like -6dB, some like it hotter.
depends on the analog circuit design around the chip.
... a good clock captures better those expensive harmonics.

isnt just the pres...
its also the mics, the AC power quality,
the cable quality. power cables, mic cables, audio cables, digital cables, clock cable, the EQs, the compressors, the reverbs, the summing buss, etc...

those small differences, that are not small for a golden ear,
add up, summup, in the end is where the difference really shines.

Quote:
Originally Posted by Saudade View Post
To be honest I'm not a preamp fanatic and I hate to start another preamp thread heh

But this is something I noticed for a long time, and wondered whether it has any truth in it or if others agree. My observations aren't scientific nor culled from any calibrated comparisons or shootout.

When I listen to soloed tracks of cheaper preamp recordings (earlier gen Mackies, Behringers etc), I don't hear much difference with similar tracks recorded with boutique pres (compared at same listening levels) when the source material is within a normal, comfortable dynamic range - i.e. no loud passages.

However once the source material has loud passages (not necessary transients, but also longer loud passages like vocal notes), I always notice the cheaper pres kind of alters the dynamic curve of the actual performance - i.e. it doesn't sound as explosive and impactful when it transits from soft to loud passages as it is supposed to sound. I hesitate to use the word "smear" but that is actually the closest word I can find heh And I don't think this is the famed transformer "smear" that is supposed to be euphonic. This type of smear IMO makes the recording sound dull and "small".

Do others notice that or am I just mad? And more importantly, is recording at lower preamp gain - so that there will be more "headroom" reserved to allow the loud passages to "bloom" fully - the way to optimise the sonic performance of cheaper pres? I mean in the digital world we can scale up the gain as much as want anyway.

Just an idea, because I have read that all pres have an optimum range of their gain.

Thanks for any insight
Old 22nd March 2010
  #30
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TurboJets's Avatar
Quote:
Originally Posted by robertshaw View Post
opamp speed is irrelevant.......... :-/
you can't get an api drum sound on cheap preamps
Right, quality of the opamps is the difference between distortion of transients or clarity of transients. A pre can be described as fast or slow...or at least it's ability to process transients with clarity and efficiency. But maybe I'm just overstating the obvious. Just felt (like robert) that the quality of opamp is directly relevant to distortion of transients.
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