Ask a dozen engineers about their favorite console or mic preamp for vocals, and you’ll get a dozen different answers. Everybody hears things differently and we all have different preferences, so the topic of “best” mic preamps for vocals is subjective and very debatable.
I’ve probably heard more standalone preamps (not counting all the consoles I’ve used) than most engineers. Sometimes I’m shocked by the differences I hear. The sonic variations between preamps, while less pronounced than between microphones, are heard in subtle details I’ve described with creative words like smooth, dry, relaxed, or hard. Some preamps make the source sound more three-dimensional, while I’ve heard others that flatten the source material. I’ve heard some that bring out harmonics and some that bring out the low ranges, even though they might all measure the same in terms of frequency response. Like every engineer, I have my favorites for certain applications. Here are some of the ones that Sweetwater sells that I really love on vocals, ones I’ve used when recording artists over several decades.
I’ve worked on dozens of API consoles over the years. APIs are among my favorite consoles of all time. If you need a vocal sound that is crisp and clear, very forward and in-your-face, then an API preamp is what you’re looking for. If you need a single channel, there’s the 512c that works in 500 Series racks or the new 512v with variable output control and 3:1 transformer tapping. The classic 3124+ contains four channels of that famous API preamp sound if you need more channels in a single rack space.
Aside: Legendary drummer Paul Leim (Billy Currington, Faith Hill, Dolly Parton, Lionel Richie), after listening to his drums through a variety of 24 different preamps during one of my preamp shootouts, stopped me at the API and said, “That one. Which one is that? THAT is what the drums sound like when I’m sitting there playing them.”
Many 500 Series preamps try to emulate previous incarnations of rackmounted preamps, but few tread completely new ground. The Mono GAMA is all-new and is probably the most capable 500 Series preamp I’ve encountered in terms of sonic diversity. On a jazz record, I used a vintage U47 into the Mono GAMA to get a full, rich, Sinatra-esque sound. And having the different transformers makes it easy to pick exactly the right preamp sound. This preamp is a winner, and everyone with a 500 Series rack should own a Mono GAMA.
If I had to pick a one-size-fits-all preamp that has personality but works for just about everything, it would be the Great River ME-1NV. When tracking vocals on dozens of singers, with mics ranging from a Shure SM7B to an AEA R84, on condensers such as a Neumann U 87 Ai or Telefunken 251, this preamp will not disappoint. If you need stereo and don’t have a 500 rack, there’s the single rackspace MP-2NV.
Aside: For the last dozen years, 95% of the electric guitars I’ve tracked have been recorded through a Great River MP-2NV. It absolutely rocks. With lots of gain, output drive control, and impedance and loading that are both switchable, I can get any sound I want out of it. I use it on brass, drums, and percussion too. But if you record electric guitars, you need to get one of these preamps.
The AEA RPQ2 preamp really delivers when it comes to an open, honest sound that will really make vocals shine in a track. I’ve used it on lead and background vocals with condensers and ribbon mics, and it sounds great. Add in the fact that it has 81dB of gain, a low-frequency cut to clean up the mud from proximity effect, and the high-frequency Curve Gain to open up the top, and it makes a great all-in-one vocal chain, especially if you don’t have a premium EQ on hand. And if you only need a single channel, there’s the RPQ500.
This all-discrete (utilizing separate op-amps, not ICs), Jensen transformer-equipped Daking preamp also includes a 4-band EQ and derives its lineage from one of my favorite consoles of all time. A long-time favorite of mine on acoustic guitar and piano, it sounds equally sweet on vocals. It’s a great choice if you need a great-sounding single-rackspace preamp with flexible EQ. If you just need preamps, Daking makes the Mic Pre IV, a 4-channel preamp-only version.
Combining the sound of the classic HV-3D and HV-3R (I’ve owned both) with useful features such as a highpass filter, ribbon mic switch (+10dB), and hi-Z instrument input, the HV-35 is a great transparent preamp for vocals or acoustic instrument recording. If you need a preamp that adds nothing but gain, with little to no personality of its own, then the Millennia is the one for you. It’s also great on drums, strings, percussion, and orchestral instruments. The Millennia has been one of my go-to preamps for decades.
The Chandler Limited TG2-500 preamp circuit traces its lineage back to the EMI TG12428 preamp used in recording and mastering consoles at EMI/Abbey Road in the 60s and 70s. Using discrete components and transformers, its sound is smooth and open yet has the punch you’ve heard on hundreds of classic records from that time period. For rock or even intimate personal vocals, this preamp sounds amazing.
Aside: I used the Chandler TG Channel MkII for years on vocals, electric guitars, and snare. The combination of this preamp circuit with the beautiful passive EQ makes dialing in a vocal or guitar tone a breeze.
The Manley VoxBox is a must-have preamp for lots of engineers. With its beautiful preamp section combined with a limiter, de-esser, and EQ all in a hefty masterpiece of engineering, it’s a great solution for anyone looking for fabulous sound in an all-in-one box. Built with Manley’s excellent US-made craftsmanship, meticulous design, and attention to detail, this unit is a delight to behold and to record through. I’ve enjoyed it every time I’ve had the pleasure of working with one.
So what is your favorite vocal preamp? Are there any preamps you are eager to try? Share this article and add a comment about your favorite. Or if you need help picking a vocal preamp (or a variety of preamps) to fit your tastes and budget, get in touch with a Sweetwater Sales Engineer at (800) 222-4700.