Your Audio Interface Has Clean Mic Preamps (Which Is Neither Good Nor Bad)

2015 Jun 15, 2015

Today let’s talk about the microphone preamps inside your audio interface, and why there’s nothing wrong with them.

I’ve talked about the myths about the built in interface pres before, but today I want to clear up some confusion on what you should (and should not) expect from them.

What Is The Job Of The Mic Preamp Anyways?

The first thing we need to address is the reason we have mic preamps in the first place.

Primarily they are a functional tool – they exist to take the super quiet signal that a microphone captures and boost (or amplify) it to a more useable level for audio recording and manipulation (line level).

That’s it. A giant volume knob.

Nothing magical, fancy, or mysterious about it. The mic pre exists as a way to turn up what your microphone hears. That is all.

Sound Quality Is Critical

Now of course we want to increase the gain in a way that doesn’t degrade the sound or add any noise or artifacts. Thereby keeping the recorded signal as close to what the microphone “heard” in the room as possible. Right?

This is why having quality mic preamps is critical in all recording studios, whether large or small. Even the bedroom enthusiast wants to capture a quality signal.

Here’s the good news: the mic pres in your audio interface are perfect for the job!

The preamps we have now-a-days are clean, clear, and have plenty of headroom. They will do a perfectly good job of capturing and retaining all the sonic qualities of your recorded signal, and boosting them to the acceptable level.

In fact – audio engineers from just 30 years ago would kill to have the kind of quiet, clean, and clear preamps and signal chain we now have built into the modern audio interface. It’s a thing of beauty!

So Why Do People Hate On Built In Pres?

If these built in mic preamps are so good then why do some people bash them on internet forums? Or another question, why do a lot of the engineers I respect and admire use specialty outboard mic pres (like Neve, API, etc)?

This is usually not because of a quality issue, but because of a tonal issue.

You see, the mic preamps in your interface are perfectly clean. No color. Some would say no character. And I would agree.

They give you exactly what you put in. Which is neither a good nor a bad thing.

Creating Vibe On Recording Day

But many engieneers want to add harmonics, color, and vibe to their recordings by mixing and matching different microphone preamps on the way in. Much like guitar players who want certain pedals or amps to color their guitar’s sound.

In this situation, the external pres have their own “sound” and the engineer is using that to his advantage.

If you, however, record with only the stock preamps in your interface you will have to be intentional to sculpt your sound in different ways. Some examples could be different sounding microphones, unique mic placement, and of course plugins that have a lot of harmonic distortion or character.

Again, nothing wrong with that. It’s just part of the process for many home studios.

There’s Nothing Wrong With Your Preamps

So, in conclusion – there is nothing wrong with having or using the built in stock preamps in your audio interface. There is nothing inferior about them either. They are well made, clean preamps that will do exactly what you need a preamp to do.

Just understand that them being clean and transparent is neither good nor bad. It is what it is, and it’s not everyone’s (or every situation’s) cup of tea.

Once you make peace with your gear – you can move on to things that will make more of a difference in the sound of your final recording and mix, like improving your skill and technique.

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