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Tube Preamp (<$500) Advice Single-Channel Preamps
Old 17th July 2018
  #1
Gear Maniac
Tube Preamp (<$500) Advice

Hi,

I'm looking to purchase a Tube Preamp for vocals. I currently have an Allen & Heath Qu-16 for my audio interface. I think the sound is very clean and I'd like to try "warming up" my female vocals a bit. I might be completely wrong about it, but I've got the idea in my head that a tube preamp will give me more weight and take off the rough edges a bit. It might not make a big difference but it's something I'd like to try.

I've read so many conflicting opinions about different gear and I don't really know where to best focus my efforts. Here's what I am considering.

New ART MPA II
Used Grove Tubes The Brick
Used Electro Harmonix 12AX7
Used Studio Projects VTB1


I appreciate that higher end preamps are "better" but right now I'd like to stay under $500.

I'd like to hear opinions on these preamps or others and if you think I'm delusional that's fine too. I don't have any experience with preamps other than My Eureka. I'm thinking the only way to know is to try for myself.

Thanks,
Old 17th July 2018
  #2
Gear Nut
I think the ART is the best out of that bunch. Upgrading the tubes can make a subtle difference as well depending on what you go with. Not too expensive to do so either. But not necessary.

To me, what distinguishes the ART from other tube pre's at this price point is the adjustable impedance. It gives you essentially a 'one knob' EQ that allows you to pull varying tones from a single mic and placement. The DI also sounds decent for bass, guitar, and keys.

Considering that they normally go for less than 250 used, I think it's a good choice that will leave you with some $$$ left over.
Old 17th July 2018
  #3
Lives for gear
 
deuc647's Avatar
 

Used sebatron single channel. Great preamp.
Old 17th July 2018
  #4
Gear Maniac
Thanks for the replies.

I was leaning towards the ART but I've seen a lot of love for the Groove Tubes. The Groove Tubes pre is also completely tube. No op-amps. Again, without any experience with these I don't know if that makes much difference.

I've also seen a lot of love for the ART Pro VLA II compressor ($300). For $600 total I could have two channels of tube pre and two channels of tube compression. This seems like a nice way to dip into outboard gear and see where that will take me.
Old 17th July 2018
  #5
Gear Maniac
I don't find any Sebatron pres in this price range. But they do look nice.
Old 17th July 2018
  #6
Lives for gear
 
deuc647's Avatar
 

Quote:
Originally Posted by rschlierbeck View Post
I don't find any Sebatron pres in this price range. But they do look nice.
Sebatron VMP-1000E tube microphone preamplifier | eBay

Worth the 100 upgrade.
Old 17th July 2018
  #7
Lives for gear
 

I'm assuming you mean the EHX 12AY7?

The EHX 12AY7 is highly underrated IMO. Low end GOLD! It's in a whole different league than MPA II and the VTB1 (but I haven't owned the GT Brick so I can't comment on that one).

However...

Unfortunately many of the EHX 12AY7s are noisy to the point of being completely useless. I don't think I've ever encountered a product with THAT many faulty units in circulation. And it's not that they break over time. The noisy ones were bad right out of the box. Very poor QC but if you find a good one it will (probably) stay good.

Some of them are only noisy on the TRS output. Some are noisy on both TRS and XLR. Some can supposedly be fixed simply but tightening one specific screw on the chassis (ground). Some can't be fixed whatever you do. Some have a hum that develops when it has been switched on for an hour or so (and disappears again when phantom power is switched on/off).

And some of them are simply amazing! Especially when considering the ridiculously low price (I guess they saved a bit on QC...).

If you can try it (thoroughly) before you buy I highly recommend it! If not STAY AWAY!
Old 17th July 2018
  #8
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monkeyxx's Avatar
You know, the UA Solo 610 is pretty good at this. Probably better than the ones you mentioned and I believe I got mine around $500.
Old 17th July 2018
  #9
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bgood's Avatar
Quote:
Originally Posted by rschlierbeck View Post
Thanks for the replies.

I was leaning towards the ART but I've seen a lot of love for the Groove Tubes. The Groove Tubes pre is also completely tube. No op-amps. Again, without any experience with these I don't know if that makes much difference.

I've also seen a lot of love for the ART Pro VLA II compressor ($300). For $600 total I could have two channels of tube pre and two channels of tube compression. This seems like a nice way to dip into outboard gear and see where that will take me.
You could get the ART MPA II and the VLA II used PLUS maybe NOS tubes... The MPA is full volt so it really does shine with a retube… Retubing the VLA was less dramatic.

My other suggestion would be a used UA 610 lunchbox
Old 18th July 2018
  #10
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TurboJets's Avatar
My EHX 12AY7 tube pre is amazing. Certainly better than a UA 610. I did invest a little bit in new/better tubes though.

However, it is possible to sometimes find a Grace m101 for between $500 and $600, and the Grace has a beautiful sound for vocals.

Another consideration would be a tube microphone. I love my iSK 2B with the stock tube for vocals. The stock tubes are audiophile quality. Very smooth, sort of hi-fi sound. $350 The thing I love about that mic is the wonderfully musical natural tube compression you get from it. More so than anything else in that price range.
Old 18th July 2018
  #11
Lives for gear
I’ve owned both the ART MPA II and the VLA. The MPA is a real tube preamp. The tubes can operate at high voltage or be switched to a lower voltage “starved plate” operation. The VLA is a starved plate design. The tubes are an add-on at the output and have nothing to do with the operation of the compressor.
I had some fun experimenting with both units. I sold the MPA because, while it was OK, it didn’t do anything that my Eureka couldn’t do. I sold both the Eureka and the MPA and bought a Focusrite ISA One, which suits me better than either.
The VLA I eventually had modified by Revive Audio. Cheap compressors aren’t better than current software, and not as good as some.
If I were you, I’d spend the money on one exceptional preamp. The MPA isn’t quite that.
Old 18th July 2018
  #12
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monkeyxx's Avatar
Quote:
Originally Posted by TurboJets View Post
My EHX 12AY7 tube pre is amazing. Certainly better than a UA 610. I did invest a little bit in new/better tubes though.

However, it is possible to sometimes find a Grace m101 for between $500 and $600, and the Grace has a beautiful sound for vocals.

Another consideration would be a tube microphone. I love my iSK 2B with the stock tube for vocals. The stock tubes are audiophile quality. Very smooth, sort of hi-fi sound. $350 The thing I love about that mic is the wonderfully musical natural tube compression you get from it. More so than anything else in that price range.
I'm curious.... Have you owned a Universal Audio 610?

I sort of said "it's probably better than the ones you mentioned" but in fact I haven't tried any of them. Except one time an ART Tube Fire preamp/interface which was pretty good. I've never tried the EHX pre.

I was just making an assumption based on the price points and the brand names.
Old 18th July 2018
  #13
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TurboJets's Avatar
Quote:
Originally Posted by monkeyxx View Post
I'm curious.... Have you owned a Universal Audio 610?

I sort of said "it's probably better than the ones you mentioned" but in fact I haven't tried any of them. Except one time an ART Tube Fire preamp/interface which was pretty good. I've never tried the EHX pre.

I was just making an assumption based on the price points and the brand names.
Never owned a 610 but have tracked with one that a friend had and was actually disappointed. The EHX pre is all about bandwidth, detail, and a resulting dimension that is really impressive.

The Tube Fire is a nice preamp with a good sound also, IMO.
Old 18th July 2018
  #14
Any thoughts on the five fish audio VT-73? As a DIY fan I've been eyeing these.
FiveFish Audio - VT-73 Hybrid Vacuum Tube Mic Preamp Kit, 500 Series
Old 18th July 2018
  #15
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soundmodel's Avatar
 

Quote:
Originally Posted by Bonzo4880 View Post
I think the ART is the best out of that bunch. Upgrading the tubes can make a subtle difference as well depending on what you go with. Not too expensive to do so either. But not necessary.

To me, what distinguishes the ART from other tube pre's at this price point is the adjustable impedance. It gives you essentially a 'one knob' EQ that allows you to pull varying tones from a single mic and placement. The DI also sounds decent for bass, guitar, and keys.
I haven't tried the other ones and while I can agree with the "tunability" of the ART pres, in general I didn't find the pre sound something that I would want to record through stuff that's supposed to be high-fidelity. For that I'd much rather use the solid state ones in e.g. my Digimax FS. I found it okay as an "effect pre" for smashing drum loops and stuff, but the reason it was okay for that was that the pres sound dark and when distorted, quite mushy. This is the opposite of what I believe people generally want from a tube pre. They want some warmth (darkness), but on the contrary of mush sound, they want "crisp" and "bite" above 6kHz or so. The ART I found, tends to mush these freqs, which I interpret is because it introduces undesirable distortion.

I would go with EHX or then at this price point, solid state pres and then get the tube effect using e.g. some Nebula pre program or Looptrotter SA2RATE or something.

People ought to perhaps learn that low-cost tube gear is not usually good. So if purchasing tube gear, then be willing to pay enough. Also, the tube sound can be emulated through a variety of means. E.g. the Looptrotter SA2RATE is an "emulation" of tube sound, but it's all solid state.
Old 18th July 2018
  #16
Gear Maniac
Quote:
Originally Posted by deuc647 View Post
I saw that one but I'm trying to stay below the 500 dollar mark until I can truly appreciate what a preamp like this gives me.
Old 18th July 2018
  #17
Gear Maniac
Quote:
Originally Posted by S.F.Sorrow View Post
I'm assuming you mean the EHX 12AY7?
Yes that is what I meant. Fingers type faster than brain can keep up. I've read so many things about this preamp. When it's good people love the sound. When it's bad it's just bad and it seems so random. I think I'll keep this on the list to try when I can pick one up just to play with. eBay is going to be a crap shoot.
Old 18th July 2018
  #18
Gear Maniac
Quote:
Originally Posted by monkeyxx View Post
You know, the UA Solo 610 is pretty good at this. Probably better than the ones you mentioned and I believe I got mine around $500.
I have this on my secondary list (the one where I pretend I have a grand to blow on a preamp.) Mostly positive comments but I have read some that were not flattering.
Old 18th July 2018
  #19
Gear Maniac
Quote:
Originally Posted by bgood View Post
You could get the ART MPA II and the VLA II used PLUS maybe NOS tubes... The MPA is full volt so it really does shine with a retube… Retubing the VLA was less dramatic.

My other suggestion would be a used UA 610 lunchbox
Thanks for the comments on the ART gear. One of the things I like about my Eureka is that it has a compressor and I like the sound of a tracking with a couple dBs of GR. The Erueka compressor is Solid State though. That's why I was thinking about the VLA as it's an Opto Compressor. I have read some really positive reviews of it. Especially after Revive Audio mods.

The comments that put me off on the 610 said that it was dark and less detailed on the top end. That might actually be what I'm looking for but I won't know until I hear it. That's what makes this process so painful. Right now I think the Eureka is too neutral and the Qu-16 is way too neutral. So my ears hear too much bite in the top end on female vocals. I guess I need to put the 610 back on the list.
Old 18th July 2018
  #20
Gear Maniac
Quote:
Originally Posted by TurboJets View Post
My EHX 12AY7 tube pre is amazing. Certainly better than a UA 610. I did invest a little bit in new/better tubes though.

However, it is possible to sometimes find a Grace m101 for between $500 and $600, and the Grace has a beautiful sound for vocals.

Another consideration would be a tube microphone. I love my iSK 2B with the stock tube for vocals. The stock tubes are audiophile quality. Very smooth, sort of hi-fi sound. $350 The thing I love about that mic is the wonderfully musical natural tube compression you get from it. More so than anything else in that price range.
Thanks for the reply.

I do want to try the EH. I should probably start a side fund just to take a chance on one.

I do have a tube mic. It's a Stellar CM-5. It's not perfect for this voice and we don't use it a lot because most recording I do is live with no overdubs. Live is all Shure KSM8. Surprisingly nice and balanced mic.

I haven't consider the Grace because I really want to try a tube preamp.
Old 18th July 2018
  #21
Gear Maniac
Quote:
Originally Posted by Bushman View Post
I’ve owned both the ART MPA II and the VLA. The MPA is a real tube preamp. The tubes can operate at high voltage or be switched to a lower voltage “starved plate” operation. The VLA is a starved plate design. The tubes are an add-on at the output and have nothing to do with the operation of the compressor.
I had some fun experimenting with both units. I sold the MPA because, while it was OK, it didn’t do anything that my Eureka couldn’t do. I sold both the Eureka and the MPA and bought a Focusrite ISA One, which suits me better than either.
The VLA I eventually had modified by Revive Audio. Cheap compressors aren’t better than current software, and not as good as some.
If I were you, I’d spend the money on one exceptional preamp. The MPA isn’t quite that.
Bushman,

Thanks for the reply.

I've been wondering if the MPA would sound different from the Eureka. I don't hate the Eureka. I just don't feel it's adding anything over the Qu-16 pres. I really want to hear a bit of weight for lack of a better way to put it. I do like the impedance dial on the Eureka. It does seem to give me the ability to tame the mid range a bit.
Old 18th July 2018
  #22
I've had pretty much every pre mentioned in this thread so far. The only ones I've kept are the ART Pro PMAII with NOS JAN Phillips 5751 tubes. With those tubes, the ART blows away any other tube pre in it's price range and most that are above it's price range as well. For instance, I didn't think the solo 610 had the depth of the MPA with the 5751s installed.
Old 18th July 2018
  #23
Gear Maniac
Quote:
Originally Posted by soundmodel View Post
People ought to perhaps learn that low-cost tube gear is not usually good. So if purchasing tube gear, then be willing to pay enough. Also, the tube sound can be emulated through a variety of means. E.g. the Looptrotter SA2RATE is an "emulation" of tube sound, but it's all solid state.
Hi Soundmodel,

To truly know how low-cost tube gear sounds, I think you have to have first hand experience with it. Until then comments and reviews are all I have to go on. There are boatloads of positive reviews on the MPA. Lots of negatives too. What I can't tell from reviews and comments are the backgrounds of the reviewers or their breadth of experience and aesthetic sense and how it compares to mine. I tend to read everything I can and see if there is a general trend. With low end gear it seems like data points are often equally balanced above and below the neutral mark. The MPA though seems to ride above the line for the most part. What I'm coming to terms with is that I'll have to actually have these in my hands and try them out for myself before I can make a decision.

Thanks for your comments. I take them all in.
Old 18th July 2018
  #24
Gear Maniac
Quote:
Originally Posted by Rob Coates View Post
I've had pretty much every pre mentioned in this thread so far. The only ones I've kept are the ART Pro PMAII with NOS JAN Phillips 5751 tubes. With those tubes, the ART blows away any other tube pre in it's price range and most that are above it's price range as well. For instance, I didn't think the solo 610 had the depth of the MPA with the 5751s installed.
Thanks Rob,

Another tick on the positive side for the MPA II.

What do you think about buying one used? I was thinking of getting one from Sweetwater. They've been great any time I didn't like something and wanted to return or exchange it. Seems like a safe way to try this out. But a used unit in good condition would give me some cash to buy those tubes. I haven't priced these but some of these NOS tubes are stupid expensive.
Old 18th July 2018
  #25
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soundmodel's Avatar
 

What about the GAP PRE-73?

While it's not tube, then having owned a COMP-2A I'd expect it to be pretty good. The PRE-73 is not tube, but it might be a similar principle to the SA2RATE, that they've made a warm and "tubeish" preamp circuitry, but using solid state.

"Pre 73 came across as having a very obvious character. It exhibits a strong and confident‑sounding mid-range, very smooth highs and a generally 'rounded', slightly compressed‑sounding tonality, that I found reminiscent of some tube mics and tube preamps." Golden Age Project Pre 73 |
Old 18th July 2018
  #26
Gear Addict
 
zohomoho's Avatar
 

You can find a Blue Robbie for 500 or less. I prefer it over Avalon for clean tube sound.
Old 18th July 2018
  #27
Quote:
Originally Posted by rschlierbeck View Post
Thanks Rob,

Another tick on the positive side for the MPA II.

What do you think about buying one used? I was thinking of getting one from Sweetwater. They've been great any time I didn't like something and wanted to return or exchange it. Seems like a safe way to try this out. But a used unit in good condition would give me some cash to buy those tubes. I haven't priced these but some of these NOS tubes are stupid expensive.
I would buy a used one. But...that pre is OK with stock tubes but goes to a whole new level with the proper tubes. I've probably tried 30 to 40 different tubes in the MPA and the JAN Phillips 5751s came out the clear winner. No idea why this pre is so sensitive to tube changes but it is. The Pro MPAII also has very good sounding adjustable high pass filters on both channels that work especially well on bass.
Old 18th July 2018
  #28
Lives for gear
Quote:
Originally Posted by rschlierbeck View Post
Bushman,

Thanks for the reply.

I've been wondering if the MPA would sound different from the Eureka. I don't hate the Eureka. I just don't feel it's adding anything over the Qu-16 pres. I really want to hear a bit of weight for lack of a better way to put it. I do like the impedance dial on the Eureka. It does seem to give me the ability to tame the mid range a bit.
Both of these preamps fell in my opinion as stock interface preamps became better and better. You might like a used MPA with boutique tubes. I got to the point where it didn’t seem that the repatching and knob twirling on the MPA netted anything noticeable in the final mix.
Old 18th July 2018
  #29
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tedtan's Avatar
 

Quote:
Originally Posted by rschlierbeck View Post
The comments that put me off on the 610 said that it was dark and less detailed on the top end. That might actually be what I'm looking for but I won't know until I hear it. That's what makes this process so painful. Right now I think the Eureka is too neutral and the Qu-16 is way too neutral. So my ears hear too much bite in the top end on female vocals. I guess I need to put the 610 back on the list.
Take a listen to the preamp comparison clips posted in the second post in this thread over in the High End forum. You can hear the 610 on female vocals in there towards the end of each video, and get a chance to compare it to various high end pres (Chandler REDD47, Neve 1073, etc.).

REDD vs. NEVE preamps
Old 18th July 2018
  #30
Gear Maniac
 

Just want to chime in with some 610
love. it gets a lot of flack on this website but I personally love the sound, it’s one of my favorite pres.

I find it to be so much thicker than a lot of other preamps and if it feels too dark I just add 1.5db or 3db of 10k shelf and it’s absolutely perfect - I do this on the 6176 which has the EQ onboard but there’s no reason you couldn’t just do it with software or your Allen and Heath. I really like the sound of female vocals into a dark chain and then adding a hi shelf, it gives it a smoky presence.

I haven’t tried an ART or EHX with the tubes swapped, but I would definitely take a stock 610 over either of those stock, and the stock ones don’t exactly make me curious to hear if tubes make an improvement. for me it’s the difference between “good for the price” and “sounds like a classic record”, or “I think it’s slightly better than the interface?” vs “I wish I had more channels of this so I could put it on everything!”

one bargain I do like better than the Art and EHX is the Bellari RP220, I did some recording on a friend’s setup and it was noticeably nicer sounding than his Focusrite stock pres, I was pleasantly surprised by both that and their 282 comp. but again, I wouldn’t choose them over the UA gear, which were a big leap forward in my setup.
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