Mic preamp shootout

Hello, welcome to September.  It’s the first real fall like day around these parts, so I did a little gardening work this morning, and now I’m sitting in the studio.

I just redid my studio with my pal Joe “The Shadow” Pires.  He wired up a new patchbay for me so I could access all of the outboard equipment I’ve acquired in the last year or so.  I’ve now got 192 points going on in here, which seems like a lot except there was one MAJOR addition to the studio:  my trusty old Allen and Heath System 8 console.  24 channels with 8 buses!  For the past decade it’s been down at my buddy Ed Riemer’s barn studio in Canton mainly being used as reverb returns for his Pluto Plates and occasionally being used for extra preamps for bigger sessions.  I have been doing a bit more recording here and picking up mic preamps here and there, and it occurred to me that if I got the console in here, I would have more than enough mic preamps to record 16 tracks at once.  Plus, the plan is to use it as a giant piece of outboard equipment because the EQs on the thing are exceptionally sweet for a mid level piece of equipment.  In my opinion, they give Neve EQs a run for their money.  They are somewhat similar to 1064/1073 EQs in that they have limited control on the low and hi shelves,  but have a varied mid range sweep.  They aren’t what you’d consider “surgical EQs”, but more of a musical tone control.  I bought this board in 1994, used it for a few years as I was learning how to record, and it sadly got abandoned when I started working at Woolly Mammoth as there was higher end equipment at my disposal there.   I am incredibly amazed that the quality of this board still impresses me after 20 years of working on high end gear.  Woolly has it all!


So, on to the point of this post.  As I am testing all of the patch points and equipment with this new set up, I decided to do a quick A/B of all the mic preamps here: (see below for a list of equipment I use)*
1st on kick drum–M88 in the hole. To be honest, there’s no clear winner and in fact, I couldn’t possibly identify any one of these from any other because they sound almost exactly the same. The only real subtle difference is my ART TPS preamps sound a little tiny bit thinner, but they have “sonic presets” and I just left it on “neutral”. I think if I had put it on one of the “warm” or “percussion” settings, it may have been the closer to the others.

Go figure. $2,000 preamps sound nearly the same as $80 preamps for a kick drum.
Now I’m totally confused.

So, I went back and stuck an 87 about 8 feet in front of the kit and repeated the exercise. It’s a little bit more obvious of a difference while playing the whole kit, but daggone it, not that much!


Dammit audio…’re a little bitch.

I would imagine that the differences might be a bit more obvious on a vocal, which to me is always the real test because we are the most familiar with the sound of the human voice, but I think I’m done testing and anyway, I’m not a good enough singer to repeat phrasing with enough consistency to do a fair A/B test.

It’s worth mentioning that I did some basics a few months back and I was using the ART TPS on electric guitar. Sounded fine, but then once we finished basics and got into overdubs, I switched to the Fearn and it was night and day better (clearer, fuller, warmer…the usual stuff you’d expect from a high end preamp).

It is also worth mentioning that about a decade or more ago, I was doing a record with a well known singer who was able to borrow loads of high end mic preamps from our friends at Mercenary Audio to try out.  They sent us loads of different items (I can’t recall most of their names at this point) and my usual test was to hook up a Neumann M149 to it, put some headphones on and say “check 1, 2”.  After we had been thru about a half dozen which were all pretty nice, they sent us the Fearn VT1 and I was IMMEDIATELY blown away!  So there is something about a GREAT mic preamp that can’t be beat

I am also thinking that layering music one track at a time will benefit from using a higher quality preamp such as the Fearn VT1, as the overtone series will be in harmony somehow.


*DW Fearn VT1

Focusrite ISA2 and ISA430

Nice Pair prototype

2x ART TPS (Versions 1 and 2)

TLAudio C-1

Allen and Heath System 8 mic preamps (in the console)


If anyone is reading this and would like the Pro Tools files to check this out themselves, please send me a message and as long as I still have the file, I am more than happy to send it along.  It’s about 60mb in size.



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