What Is A Preamp And Do You Need One?

If you are a newcomer in the music industry, you must have heard of this term- preamp.

Now you are asking yourself, what is a preamp?

It is funny that some of them do not even bother to know the meaning of the term while it is one of the essential elements in studio gear.

We now want to breakdown what the device is and its importance in a studio and answer this question once for all.

What Is A Preamp?

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The word preamp can mean two things. One of the meanings is simply the preamplifier circuit that is within any device.

The second meaning is basically a dedicated device that is external and contains such a circuit.

The primary purpose of a preamp is to amplify signals that are low to the standard level of the recording gear you are using.

The funny thing about preamps is, they are built and hidden everywhere.

You will find them in mixers, in most instances you will find them build-in USB mics, you will also find them built-in some audio interfaces and even soundcards.

Funny enough, preamps are so hidden in devices such that when some newcomers in the industry start recording for themselves, they do not even realize their existence and they end up not using them.

However, it is 100% possible to record without using preamps, but you should be ready for the same probability of horrible output in your recording.

You should not be so obsessed with recording numerous songs but instead focus more on the aspects you should improve to make excellent recordings.

The question of whether to use or not to use preamps will depend on the information you have about them and how serious you are about your recording.

Obviously, preamps exist for a reason and its high time you make proper use of them in your recording.

What Does A Preamp Do?

As the name suggests, a preamp is a preamplifier. Its purpose is to prepare for the signal that comes from the pickup or microphones so that it is further amplified. There are a few reasons why you should always have a preamp at your recording.

  • It usually boosts a low signal
  • It cleans up a signal so that it makes a better sounding coming via the amp
  • It has the potential to adjust the signal, that is volume control or equalizer
  • It is dynamic and able to blend numerous signals into one

Also, the question of if you need a preamp at your recording or not will pin down to the output of your microphone or pickup.

When you make the action of pluging your mic or pickup into the amplifier, what kind of sound does it produce? Do you find the signal loud enough? Do you feel it balanced? Or is it smooth?

If all these aspects are working out for you without using a preamp, then I think you probably do not need one.

It is essential to note that a pickup that is plugged directly into the amplifier can be said to be passive while, on the other hand, a pick up that has a preamp can be termed as active pickup.

There are certain pickups that are designed as passive pickups. This simply means that they can work effectively without a preamp.

The good thing with the passive preamps is, they have a low maintenance cost, and they usually produce a warm, full, and round tone.

Their working ability without a preamp is excellent.

On the other hand, active pickups are usually brighter and louder. The use of preamps, in this case, will allow you to shape the sound of the pickups in quite a broadway.

This include; bass, volume, treble, gain, mid, phase and many others. You will realize that the more expensive the preamp is, the more powerful it is and of course, the more control it gives you.

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Apart from the function of controlling the output of your pickup, preamps also improve the quality of their sounds.

In cases where you find your pickup output to be too low, scratchy, the signal being noisy, the signal being unbalanced and having some problems with the feedback then what you need is a preamp to solve your problems.

Most preamps you will find in the market will provide a solution for volume control and equalizer. Some preamps will even provide you with a phase switch.

A phase switch usually has a huge impact on the quality of your sound and this is by ensuring that the sound waves from your pickup and instruments do not interfere with one another.

One of the most important considerations you have to make when purchasing a preamp is noise handling ability.

Whenever you are amplifying a signal, the primary goal will be to keep the signal to noise ratio as high as possible.

You will realize that a little noise from the pickup or the preamp can translate to very loud noise upon amplifying the signal.

It is an excellent practice to place the preamp as close to the signal as possible to ensure that you do not introduce extra noise from the preamp.

The Different Types Of Preamps

There are three main types of preamps, and they are based on how they amplify the signal, transistors, tubes and integrated circuits.

Vacuum Tubes

This is the mother design of preamplifiers. Its design is based around valves or vacuum tubes.

After most people did not favor them due to their size, cost and weight, vacuum tubes have made their way back in the market.

They are designed in many models you can choose from nowadays.

Vacuum tubes are famous for their warmth which results from the harmonic distortion they create from their even-order.

Vacuum tubes play an excellent role, especially when you want to soften the signal a little bit and this is more significant before you go to a digital audio workstation.


Basically, transistors do the same work that vacuum tubes does but with less cost, heat and size. In the early years, many of the preamp mic designs were separate transistor types.

They were famous for their accuracy and punchy sound. Funny enough, they remain a favorite brand to many people today.

Integrated Circuits

As the name suggests, an integrated circuit is simply where all the components are put together usually on one board.

This is a significant evolution from the discrete components.

The circuitry components such as the ICs or the Chip made the components of the circuits even smaller.

These circuits still have a niche in the market though most of the people still prefer the discrete model design.

You have to note that these three kinds of preamps have their basic amplification usually determined by the type of component.

Should You Get An External Preamp?

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Now that I have answered the question “what is a preamp”, It’s time to find out if you should get an external preamp for your home recording studio.

If you are a starter in the music industry, I would advise that you stay away from any external preamps. Instead, get yourself a more expensive audio interface that has preamps that are decently built-in.

If you are working with dynamic microphones with low output, then working with an external preamp will improve your sound quality significantly.

If you are working with high output condenser mics, then an external preamp might not make any significant difference in your sound quality.

One of the reasons you should have a preamp is to blend numerous signals into one. Use of preamps is an excellent step towards achieving high quality of sound but do not rush to the second step before making the first step.

You can make great recordings by making proper use of your audio interface internal preamps and an additional one or two condenser microphones that are of high quality.

At later stages of your recording, you may add an external preamp to your studio gear.

Juan Stansbury
Juan Stansbury

I'm Juan Stansbury, author and owner of Homerecordio – your ultimate destination for everything about homerecording. With hands-on experience, courses, workshops, and industry research, I offer tips on selecting the best equipment, and mixing and mastering your recordings to achieve professional-quality results at home. Join me on this journey to explore the world of homerecording and music production.

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