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Preamp -- Looking for Lots of Clean Gain
Old 12th April 2019
  #1
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Preamp -- Looking for Lots of Clean Gain

As the title implies, I'm looking to upgrade my mic preamps. I will be recording both naked spoken text and sung male vocals.

Currently, I'm using the preamps on the Focusrite Saffire 24. Until now, I've been using the Saffire's line inputs for synths, where it has been just fine. But for vocals, the pres don't offer enough clean gain. Very noisy, IMO. I just picked up an sE DM1 to try with my dynamic...and while it does exactly what it's supposed to do, it still isn't enough clean gain -- and it can't be used with my condenser (that said, the DM1 is pretty cool, I recommend it if you are looking at something like a Cloudlifter or Fethead).

I'm open to getting a dedicated preamp such as the GAP Pre-73 or even stretching for a Focusrite ISA One. But I've read some pretty conflicting opinions on the value of external pres, particularly as some affordable mixers have reportedly gotten good pres over the years. If I can save a few hundred $$$, so much the better.

I'm not looking for anything to "color" the sound at this point, just cleanliness of audio, no noise, no hiss. I've read that the Mackie Onyx preamps in the VLZ4 series are good, as well as the D-Pres in the Yamaha MG and was considering those -- and $100 seems more palatable than $500, particularly if both price points offer the same clean gain and no coloring.

Opinions? Suggestions? Much thanks.
Old 12th April 2019
  #2
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The cheapest way to get what you're asking is to add something like this to what you already have (and this one even doubles as a DI):
CloudLifter
.
Old 13th April 2019
  #3
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What mic do you have? That's maybe even more important than what pre-amp you use.
Old 13th April 2019
  #4
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Quote:
Originally Posted by MrKahuna View Post
What mic do you have? That's maybe even more important than what pre-amp you use.
I own two mics, a dynamic and a condenser.

My dynamic is a Beta 58a. Once I've developed my mic technique more, I plan to upgrade this (generally performed without a microphone until recently). It sounds pretty good for sung vocals, but is frankly a touch nasal and sibilant on my voice when used for speaking...plus proximity effect can be hair unpredictable from one take to the next. But I've plenty of practice with EQs and other things from working with synths as long as I have, so getting a nice balance isn't much of an issue for me.

My condenser is a decent budget mic, the ST55. It actually sounds pretty nice on my voice overall and more consistently captures my low-frequencies than the 58a. Still needs a touch of de-essing, but there's no need to EQ for tonal reasons. The noisy Saffire preamp doesn't do it any favors though. That said, IMO this is definitely the better mic for my voice.

My room of course is a factor -- I used to have access to a nice recording space, but that's no longer the case after relocating. I'm recording in smallish room, probably 7x10. Fortunately, plenty of furnishing and sound-dampening materials are in the room, and I've rigged up some makeshift acoustical-treatment among other things. Particularly with a dynamic mic for noise rejection, I think the sound quality I'm getting is pretty decent. Plus I own and use audio restoration software, so I can clean up the audio pretty well...but I'd rather do as little post-processing as possible.
Old 13th April 2019
  #5
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weave's Avatar
Simply Sound SS-1 - similar to a cloud lifter but cheaper.
Old 13th April 2019
  #6
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The original post seems to ramble a bit. You say the Saffire is noisy. Then you say you aren’t planning on using your Beta 58 and prefer your condenser. The Saffire has 60 db of gain, which should be more than adequate to stay in a clean gain range with a condenser mic, unless you are padding the mic or recording from five feet away. Next you wander around the subjects of preamps and room treatment.
OK.
You seem to have no clear direction and no specific question. As a general suggestion, I’d say you need to treat the room to make the condenser sound it’s best. Then you might be able to judge whether you need a different/better condenser to improve your sound. I haven’t heard the mic you are using, but while some people who can afford very expensive mics prefer to record with dynamics costing less than $600, I’m not aware of anyone famous who is still using their first under $500 condenser.
Contrary to the occasional “Eureka!” moments reported on GS, preamps are most often a sauce that improves the steak. The right microphone is the steak.
Old 13th April 2019
  #7
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Quote:
Originally Posted by KBSoundSmith View Post
I own two mics, a dynamic and a condenser.

My dynamic is a Beta 58a. Once I've developed my mic technique more, I plan to upgrade this (generally performed without a microphone until recently). It sounds pretty good for sung vocals, but is frankly a touch nasal and sibilant on my voice when used for speaking...plus proximity effect can be hair unpredictable from one take to the next. But I've plenty of practice with EQs and other things from working with synths as long as I have, so getting a nice balance isn't much of an issue for me.

My condenser is a decent budget mic, the ST55. It actually sounds pretty nice on my voice overall and more consistently captures my low-frequencies than the 58a. Still needs a touch of de-essing, but there's no need to EQ for tonal reasons. The noisy Saffire preamp doesn't do it any favors though. That said, IMO this is definitely the better mic for my voice.

My room of course is a factor -- I used to have access to a nice recording space, but that's no longer the case after relocating. I'm recording in smallish room, probably 7x10. Fortunately, plenty of furnishing and sound-dampening materials are in the room, and I've rigged up some makeshift acoustical-treatment among other things. Particularly with a dynamic mic for noise rejection, I think the sound quality I'm getting is pretty decent. Plus I own and use audio restoration software, so I can clean up the audio pretty well...but I'd rather do as little post-processing as possible.
If you want clean again you probably don't want to use a beta 58
Old 13th April 2019
  #8
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A good 2nd hand solution is a Focusrite Forte. 75 db of clean gain. Used for $200 or less.

However, it is something of an orphaned product. They don't appear to be updating drivers which will eventually become a problem. Nice unit though.

Otherwise I second or third the Cloud lifter or similar.
Old 13th April 2019
  #9
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Quote:
Originally Posted by esldude View Post
Otherwise I second or third the Cloud lifter or similar.
While we're on the topic of mic preamps, has anyone used this one? It's significantly cheaper than a Cloudlifter. Cathedral Pipes Durham
Old 13th April 2019
  #10
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If it was me I would get a Mackie used and see what you think, used they are a good value IMHO...
The Mackie has lower noise than the Focusrite Saffire 24.
Plus the Mic ST55 has some noise...
Plus the basic fact is ANY Mic & Pre cranked to max on a low level source you WILL hear some noise..
Try and find a used SCX-25A mic, very low noise and sounds nice...

Last edited by nosebleedaudio; 13th April 2019 at 01:03 PM..
Old 13th April 2019
  #11
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Quote:
Originally Posted by KBSoundSmith View Post
My condenser is a decent budget mic, the ST55. It actually sounds pretty nice on my voice overall and more consistently captures my low-frequencies than the 58a. Still needs a touch of de-essing, but there's no need to EQ for tonal reasons. The noisy Saffire preamp doesn't do it any favors though. That said, IMO this is definitely the better mic for my voice.
Searching around for info on the ST55 and I see other complaints about noise. The self-noise level as listed on recordinghacks is pretty high: Sterling Audio ST55 FET | RecordingHacks.com

It might be worth trying to borrow another Mic to use with your Saffire or bring your setup to a store and demo some other condenser mics. A mic upgrade might be a better use of your funds.
Old 13th April 2019
  #12
Hard to beat the cloudlifter mentioned above. not much to look at...but clean gain. There's plenty of "clean" preamps in the Low End ex. $100 Rane MS1 and many others have a lot of clean gain for the Shure 58, SM7b type low sensitivity mics.

The ISA One is clean with some "tone mojo" more, also add a bass DI, more money too. Doesn't fit in a rack though..

For me finding a mic that has around 12-15mv/pa sensitivity with a standard interface preamp, is good with a medium to soft sound source (acoustic guitar, non-screaming vocals etc..) Problem is the more sensitive the mic the more room noise is picked up.

For spoken text and cheap, something like a Symetrix 528e strip can get you a lot of clean gain and clean compression (and one of the best noise-gates Ive played with). They sold near $900, and sometimes Ive seen them used at $89 to $189....

If music/singing and lush tones... This singing thing gets into LDC's, channel strips and 1176's and LA2A's..better rooms... get the credit card out.
Old 13th April 2019
  #13
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Bushman View Post
The Saffire has 60 db of gain, which should be more than adequate to stay in a clean gain range with a condenser mic, unless you are padding the mic or recording from five feet away.

As a general suggestion, I’d say you need to treat the room to make the condenser sound it’s best. Then you might be able to judge whether you need a different/better condenser to improve your sound.
Quote:
Originally Posted by MrKahuna View Post
Searching around for info on the ST55 and I see other complaints about noise. The self-noise level as listed on recordinghacks is pretty high:
That has been my impression of their mics in general, but only that (that and a couple bucks might get you a latte at Starbucks). But my more general thought/point going along with the posts above is you are assuming you need more gain when there are other factors that might be the issue. I'd beef up room treatment and consider another mic....in fact try a few if possible (borrow from others you know?).
Old 13th April 2019
  #14
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zohomoho's Avatar
 

Quote:
Originally Posted by esldude View Post
A good 2nd hand solution is a Focusrite Forte. 75 db of clean gain. Used for $200 or less.

However, it is something of an orphaned product. They don't appear to be updating drivers which will eventually become a problem. Nice unit though.

Otherwise I second or third the Cloud lifter or similar.
Do you know if forte runs on windows 10? I had one a few years ago and regret selling it, the ad/da was top notch.
Old 13th April 2019
  #15
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esldude's Avatar
 

Quote:
Originally Posted by zohomoho View Post
Do you know if forte runs on windows 10? I had one a few years ago and regret selling it, the ad/da was top notch.
Yes, I've been using mine with Win 10. Also sometimes use it with a Macbook where it worked with High Sierra (haven't tried it on Mojave yet).
Old 13th April 2019
  #16
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12ax7's Avatar
 

For those who may be following along at home:

When choosing a "PRE-pre-amp" product like the CloudLifter (...or FetHead, Durham, SS-1, etc.):

Please bear in mind that while some of these devices are made to block phantom power to the mic (so as to protect ribbon & dynamic mics), others are built to pass it along (to a condenser mic).

Still other similar products are switchable between these two modes.

(...Something to keep in mind if you want to use it with both dynamic/ribbon OR condenser mics.)
.
Old 13th April 2019
  #17
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Piedpiper's Avatar
Yup. The cloudlifter and fethead will preclude use of a condenser which is the OP's preferred mic. Might look into upgrading the Saffire at Black Lion Audio. Might be all you need.
Old 13th April 2019
  #18
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12ax7's Avatar
 

Quote:
Originally Posted by Piedpiper View Post
Yup. The cloudlifter and fethead will preclude use of a condenser which is the OP's preferred mic. Might look into upgrading the Saffire at Black Lion Audio. Might be all you need.
The truth is that most condenser mics really don't need that kinda extra gain from the pre-amp anyway:

A condenser mic already has an amplifier as part of its design, (and has a pretty high output anyway).

...In other words: If a condenser mic is noisy, the noise probably ain't comin' from your pre-amp/interface anyway!

...Still, there ARE versions of these products that WILL pass phantom power along to the mic (if you want).

This is important stuff to know when choosing a product to buy.
.
Old 13th April 2019
  #19
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Piedpiper's Avatar
Quote:
Originally Posted by 12ax7 View Post
[INDENT]The truth is that most condenser mics really don't need that kinda extra gain from the pre-amp anyway:

A condenser mic already has an amplifier as part of its design, (and has a pretty high output anyway).

...In other words: If a condenser mic is noisy, the noise probably ain't comin' from your pre-amp/interface anyway!
Usually, but not always... Depends on how loud the source is. Sometimes you really do need a lot o clean quiet gain, even with a condenser, not to mention a clean quiet condenser.
Old 13th April 2019
  #20
Gear Addict
 

Quote:
Originally Posted by 12ax7 View Post
A condenser mic already has an amplifier as part of its design, (and has a pretty high output anyway).

...In other words: If a condenser mic is noisy, the noise probably ain't comin' from your pre-amp/interface anyway!
Yes, this!

I imagine there are combinations of quiet mics and noisy preamps where the preamp noise could become an issue, but they would be exceedingly rare. In most cases, the condenser mic's internal amp has boosted its output level high enough that the mic's self noise dwarfs any noise from your preamp.

Unless you're totally sure that you've got an exceptionally quiet mic and an exceptionally noisy preamp, I'd be shopping for quieter mics before shopping for quieter pres.
Old 13th April 2019
  #21
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Piedpiper's Avatar
Quote:
Originally Posted by Ebeowulf17 View Post
Yes, this!

I imagine there are combinations of quiet mics and noisy preamps where the preamp noise could become an issue, but they would be exceedingly rare. In most cases, the condenser mic's internal amp has boosted its output level high enough that the mic's self noise dwarfs any noise from your preamp.

Unless you're totally sure that you've got an exceptionally quiet mic and an exceptionally noisy preamp, I'd be shopping for quieter mics before shopping for quieter pres.
Do you have any actual experience with cheap interfaces? It is not uncommon at all for noisy preamps to be an issue with quieter sources, even with condenser mics. Not all condensers are high output either.
Old 13th April 2019
  #22
Gear Maniac
 

Quote:
Originally Posted by Bushman View Post
The original post seems to ramble a bit. You say the Saffire is noisy. Then you say you aren’t planning on using your Beta 58 and prefer your condenser. The Saffire has 60 db of gain, which should be more than adequate to stay in a clean gain range with a condenser mic, unless you are padding the mic or recording from five feet away. Next you wander around the subjects of preamps and room treatment.
OK.
You seem to have no clear direction and no specific question. As a general suggestion, I’d say you need to treat the room to make the condenser sound it’s best. Then you might be able to judge whether you need a different/better condenser to improve your sound. I haven’t heard the mic you are using, but while some people who can afford very expensive mics prefer to record with dynamics costing less than $600, I’m not aware of anyone famous who is still using their first under $500 condenser.
Contrary to the occasional “Eureka!” moments reported on GS, preamps are most often a sauce that improves the steak. The right microphone is the steak.
Hmm. To put it as clearly as I can, I hate hearing noise and don't want it in my recordings, however that might be achieved. I guess I'm asking advice on what I can do to that end (preferably without a lot of extra editing).

The Saffire has a listed range of 60 db, but the whole range isn't usable (not unexpected I'd guess). After experimenting with and without cables and mics connected, setting the gain knob at 7 of 10 seems the absolute maximum that is usable -- anything beyond that starts to hiss too loud and pushes the preamp way too hard, IMO.

To start getting things quantified, I ran some tests with both microphones and jotted down some numbers.

Using the ST55, 4 inches from the microphone, gain set to 7/10, I got the following readings in my DAW mixer:
  • quietest noise level: avg -60 db, +/- 3 db
  • peak singing: -16 db
  • peak spoken: -19 db

Using the Beta 58a (plugged into the sE DM1), 3 inches from the microphone, gain set to 7/10, I got the following readings in my DAW mixer:
  • quietest noise level: avg -60 db, +/- 3 db
  • peak singing: -7 db
  • peak spoken: -10 db

I've included two sets of files corresponding to the above numbers. First, raw recordings of ambient noise. Second, Raw recordings and edited files of spoken text. The edited files are minimally processed: I ran some noise-removal, used a high pass filter, then cut out sections where my voice isn't present. Otherwise, there is no EQ or compression, removal of clicks, etc. As a quick note, I boosted the spoken text ST55 files by 9 db to match the level of the 58a running through the sE DM1.

I'm willing to admit that perhaps I'm being unrealistically picky. I'm used to working with hardware and soft synths with inaudible or non-existent noise levels.

Anyway, I've been spending a lot of time experimenting and trying to get down some mic technique and get comfortable with the process, so a reality check on the sound quality I'm getting would be helpful, if you've the time.

Thanks to everyone who has responded, btw, I appreciate it. I have read all responses. Best case scenario is I don't need to buy anything and simply need to stop being neurotic about noise.
Attached Files

ST55 Spoken Edited.wav (5.05 MB, 651 views)

ST55 Spoken Raw 9db boost.wav (7.72 MB, 665 views)

ST55 noise.wav (3.56 MB, 667 views)

58a Spoken Edited.wav (5.50 MB, 663 views)

58a Spoken Raw.wav (7.72 MB, 650 views)

58a noise.wav (3.56 MB, 667 views)

Old 13th April 2019
  #23
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Piedpiper's Avatar
That ST55 is one insensitive condenser! The Beta 58A is hot for a dynamic mic but most condensers will be hotter, not 9dB quieter. Get a new mic, and talk to Black Lion Audio about upgrading your Saffire. Between the two, you should notice a big improvement, and not only in noise reduction, but also sound quality.
Old 13th April 2019
  #24
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EvilRoy's Avatar
Sytek MP4xa(ii), 4 channels of Neotek pres, $500-$700. Clean and transparent.
Old 14th April 2019
  #25
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Quote:
Originally Posted by KBSoundSmith View Post
I'm willing to admit that perhaps I'm being unrealistically picky. I'm used to working with hardware and soft synths with inaudible or non-existent noise levels.

Best case scenario is I don't need to buy anything and simply need to stop being neurotic about noise.
First, thanks for posting the files.
Your “finished” version is very good. I don’t hear any evidence of your work to improve the raw files, which is a compliment to the quality and care of your engineering.

The noise floor recordings seem to have a bit of room noise, so your practical noise floor is at least a bit higher than the noise floor of the equipment. The soft hiss on one track is typical of a condenser mic, especially a budget condenser. The noise floor of your mic is about fifteen db louder than the quietest LDCs, which are mainly non-tube. Your mic is noisier than many tube mics. But you do sound good on it.
So, I still lean towards improving the mic and the room, but that was my thought going in, so I can’t claim a lack of confirmation bias.
You probably are unrealistic in hoping that an open mic can approach the absolute lack of noise possible with samples and some electronic sources. But you are not crazy in thinking your microphone noise level can be improved. If you can find a mic you like that is, say 12 db quieter, that would be a clearly audible and significant improvement.
And please do not buy the silver Rode NT1A. It has a noise floor 16 db better than your mic, but it is my pet peeve example of an awful vocal mic.
Old 14th April 2019
  #26
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Piedpiper View Post
Do you have any actual experience with cheap interfaces? It is not uncommon at all for noisy preamps to be an issue with quieter sources, even with condenser mics. Not all condensers are high output either.
I haven't worked with a wide variety of cheap interfaces, but I've used a Focusrite Scarlett as my workhorse for years now, and it seems to get a lot of bad reactions in these forums. I've actually been quite happy with it, but based on other people's reactions, I figure it's nothing special.

Its preamps are 3dB quieter than the noise from my worst-case condenser, an AT3528. The Scarlett has an EIN of -122dBu. The AT3528 self noise works out to -119dBu (calculated from self noise of 24dB SPL-A and -51dBV sensitivity @ 1 Pa.) I'll admit that with only 3dB margin between the two noise sources, the preamp's contribution can't be completely ignored, but the mic is still the largest noise contributor, even with this pairing.

When I run the numbers on any of my other mics with more typical sensitivity numbers, they're 10dB noisier (or more,) so the preamp noise becomes negligible. The ST55 is an extreme case; its combination of high sensitivity and high self noise means that its self noise in electrical terms is astronomical, at just above -100dB. This means its noise is more than 20dB louder than my Scarlett pres. I doubt anyone has an interface with 20dB more noise than mine.

I may have exaggerated before about how rarely the interface is the problem, but I really am quite confident, in the case of the ST55, that changing preamps won't help at all.
Old 14th April 2019
  #27
Quote:
Originally Posted by Piedpiper View Post
That ST55 is one insensitive condenser! The Beta 58A is hot for a dynamic mic but most condensers will be hotter, not 9dB quieter. Get a new mic, and talk to Black Lion Audio about upgrading your Saffire. Between the two, you should notice a big improvement, and not only in noise reduction, but also sound quality.
yeah somethings off? the specs on the ST55 is 32mv/pa!

the beta58 shows- Output Level (at 1,000 Hz) Open Circuit Voltage: –51.5 dBV/Pa* (2.6 mV) *1 Pa = 94 dB SPL
Old 14th April 2019
  #28
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Quote:
Originally Posted by ZEF View Post
yeah somethings off? the specs on the ST55 is 32mv/pa!

the beta58 shows- Output Level (at 1,000 Hz) Open Circuit Voltage: –51.5 dBV/Pa* (2.6 mV) *1 Pa = 94 dB SPL
Specs I saw said 30mV, but the at4033 is 25.1mV that's only 1.5dB difference...
Hmm, one spec says 32mV, another says 30mV...
Old 14th April 2019
  #29
My question is the OP has a 32mv.pa and a 2.6mv/pa and the results seen with the interface preamp the same for both.

I know my experience, the SM7 1.2mv/pa would have my interface pre about 90% to full volume...on quiet sources.

A 28mv/pa mic would be less than 50%...and with 12-15mv/pa mics , the interface preamp volume about "center".

the OP shows numbers the beta58 is louder?
Old 14th April 2019
  #30
Gear Maniac
 

Quote:
Originally Posted by ZEF View Post
My question is the OP has a 32mv.pa and a 2.6mv/pa and the results seen with the interface preamp the same for both.

I know my experience, the SM7 1.2mv/pa would have my interface pre about 90% to full volume...on quiet sources.

A 28mv/pa mic would be less than 50%...and with 12-15mv/pa mics , the interface preamp volume about "center".

the OP shows numbers the beta58 is louder?
Hey there, I can clear this up for you.

As I noted in my posts, I'm running the Beta 58a through the sE DM1, which is basically the same thing as a Cloudlifter or a Fethead.

If I had said "ran the 58a through a Cloudlifter" it would have been easy for everyone to tell why the dB difference is there. But the sE DM1 is pretty new to the market, so it was an easy detail to miss in my posts for anyone who hasn't heard of it yet.
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