The Case For More (And Different) Microphones And Preamps

2015 Jun 22, 2015

Have you ever noticed how all the big studios you’ve ever been in (or seen in interviews) have racks of outboard preamps and massive mic lockers?

If Neve preamps are so amazing why do many engineers also own and use APIs? If Neumann mics are so great then why do they also own AKGs?

Believe it or not, the reason has a lot to do with painting.


Via Brett Weinstein Flickr

The Best Way To Paint A Picture

In my somewhat casual observation, the best paintings are done with color.

And what’s more, if you’ve ever enjoyed a beautiful painting in an art gallery somewhere, I can almost say with 100% certainty what you saw wasn’t painted with just one color.

In fact, I’m sure the artist used many different colors to create his or her masterpiece.

Each color or shade of a color was strategically chosen to bring out detail, depth, and emotion in the painting.

Recording Music Is Not Much Different Than Painting

This sounds obvious as I write it out, but don’t lose the profound lesson in the simplicity of the analogy: different colors help us create a more beautiful and engaging piece of art.

And recording music is an art – one that uses “colors” as well. The only difference is that our colors are sonic, not visual.

Another word for color in the audio world would be tone.

If you want to create a beautiful sounding recording, then you likely want to have a variety of tones to blend together and use on different parts and instruments so your final piece of art (recording) is sonically interesting and peppered with variety.

As Engineers We Can Use Mics And Preamps To Sculpt Tone

One of the big ways we as engineers can create the tones (or colors) we want in a track is by strategically matching a microphone and preamp to the given source.

Each microphone sounds different, with their own built in frequency response and character. The same is true with preamps.

So by simply swapping out a microphone and preamp on say a vocalist, you can instantly “paint” that vocal part with a different “color”.

It becomes an artistic decision. And that’s part of the fun of recording: not simply capturing a part accurately, but in an aesthetically pleasing and appropriate way.

Double Or Quadruple Your Sonic Colors

If you’ve followed me for even 5 minutes then you know I’m all about simplicity, minimalism, and limiting your options.

Why? Because it actually helps you stay focused, creative, and zeroed in on the things that truly make a big difference in the quality of your recording or mix.

The beauty of thinking this way is that the average home studio owner with one mic, a solid audio interface, and a DAW can make a great full band recording and spend hardly anything to make it happen.

The biggest challenge though (I believe) with having only one sonic option (one mic and one preamp) is that you’re in essence painting with one color.

This means you must be creative and intentional with your source, mic placement, and mix shaping to create different tones for each track so you get that separation and depth you want.

The simple idea of saving up some cash to buy a second (different sounding) microphone and outboard preamp (neither of which has to be crazy expensive) is easy way to instantly double or quadruple your sonic flavors, giving you multiple mic/preamp combinations.

What you’ll get is more “colors” with less work, and it will be done on recording day – making mixing a lot easier.

FYI – One of my favorite preamps is the PreSonus Eureka (pictured above) and can be found used online for around $200!

Remember That Gear Is A Means To An End

Going back to our painting analogy – no one looks at a beautiful painting and says “Gosh, I love this painting because that color red is just so awesome.”

Rather we love a painting because the painting is good. The image itself is beautiful and all the colors help that image jump off the canvas.

In painting, color is simply a means to an end. The same is true in recording and mixing.

The gear is either a tool or a color device. Whether a mic, a preamp, or a plugin, all gear is simply a means to a greater end – a great sounding and engaging piece of music.

So just as a painter wouldn’t obsess over “which color is the best” – blue vs red for example – we as music makers shouldn’t obsess over which microphone, preamp (or plugin) is the best.

That’s missing the point.

Rather we should use different mics, preamps, or plugins as “colors” to create a great sounding track. We’ll have more fun this way, and keep the main thing, the main thing.

What Colors Do You Like?

So my question for you today is simple: what sonic colors do YOU like? What are your go-to microphones and preamps in the studio and why? Please share below!

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