Do You Need A Preamp To Record Vocals? Or Is An Audio Interface Enough?

Nowadays, everybody talks about preamps, but do you really need a preamp to record vocals? Can’t you just plug your mics, synths, and guitars into your audio interface? 

Well, yes and no. Let’s find out why.

Do you need a mic preamp to record vocals?

You do need a preamp to record vocals because the output of a microphone is simply too low to plug directly into the recorder or into a line input. But, most audio interfaces nowadays come with a built-in preamp, so whenever you plug your mic into the interface, you are already using a preamp to get the signal’s volume up.

It’s often claimed that expensive external mic preamps will take your recordings to the next level. But for most users, the in-built preamp of an audio interface is more than enough.

The Focusrite Scarlett 2i2 Audio Interface available on Amazon has a mic preamp in-built, and it can also provide 48v phantom power.

What is a Microphone Preamp?

A microphone preamplifier is an active electronic device designed primarily to supply gain to a mic signal and output the signal at line level.

Microphone signals are usually too weak to be transmitted to units such as mixing consoles, multi-track recorders, and other recording devices with adequate quality.

Microphone signals are way below the nominal operating level, so a lot of gain is required, usually around 30-60 dB, sometimes even more. 

A microphone preamplifier is designed to take a microphone signal at its input; apply an appropriate amount of gain, and output a line-level signal.

So you need a preamp to record vocals with your microphone. But this doesn’t have to be an external device. 

Most audio interfaces already come with built-in preamps. And usually, they’re good enough to get you started.

That said, there are reasons you may need an external mic preamp other than the preamp that’s already built into your audio interface.

Do You Need an External Preamp to Record Vocals

As I mentioned before, even the low-cost interfaces offer built-in mic preamps, most of which sound pretty decent and are enough for most artists.

However, there are reasons why you might want to add another preamp to an audio interface that already has preamps in it.

1. The preamp in your interface is of less than optimal quality and not up to the job.

You may want to record a sound that’s not loud enough and for which you have the gain all the way up, and you still aren’t getting enough level into your computer. So you may want to add another preamp to your setup.

A good quality external microphone preamp can deliver a cleaner, more accurate signal with higher gain, lower noise, less distortion, and more headroom.

2. You may need cleaner and more transparent sound.

Most budget preamps inherently introduce at least some degree of hiss and background noise to your signal. A good mic preamp will surprise you with just how much quieter your signal can be.

3. You may want your recording to have different coloration.

You may want your track to sound warm or cool, thin or fat. The built-in preamps in audio interfaces are limited in their capabilities and may not be able to provide you with the color you want for your recording.

Trying out different mic/preamp combinations will yield markedly different results, so I highly recommend experimenting with different mics and preamp combinations to find the perfect color for your tracks.

4. An external preamp will provide versatility.

Because mic preamps are available in such a wide range of configurations, it’s easy to find something for almost any situation. 

If you want to record the occasional live drums, or maybe even an entire band, you can put together a range of rack-mount multi-channel mic preamps in configurations from eight to 32 channels and beyond.

So these were the four good reasons why you may want to purchase an external mic preamp.

If you want to record more mics simultaneously than you have preamps, you’re definitely going to need more preamps. Period!

Types of Mic Preamps to Record Vocals

There are a wide variety of preamps available on the market, and each of these preamps is designed to meet a unique set of requirements and provide a distinct set of features, such as coloring the sound.

The two most common types of mic preamps available are 

  1. Solid state preamps.
  2. Tube preamps.
  3. Digital Preamps.
1. Solid-State Preamp

A solid-state amplifier uses transistor circuits to convert an electrical signal into an audio wave. 

Instrumental amps contain two stages of amplification: the preamp stage at the beginning of the circuit and the power amp stage at the end. In between these two stages of amplification, the sound may be shaped by effects such as EQ and reverb.

The Solid-state preamps are great for modern music styles and for voices that will go through further processing because the footprint of the preamp will be more subtle.

2. Tube Preamp

These preamps use Valves, or Vacuum tubes, to create Gain, and these will color the sound significantly, usually making it sound “warmer.”

Tube Preamps are known for adding warmth, especially to the mids, but also body to the bass and airiness to the highs.

The higher the signal, the warmer it sounds. Additionally, tube preamps tend to naturally compress the sound as well.

3. Digital Preamp

This type of preamp successfully converts analog signals to digital signals while adding their sonic signature during the processing period.

It’s possible to bypass the conversion process of an audio interface.

Many individuals consider digital preamps as digital audio interfaces, but they were primarily designed as preamps.

Solid State Preamp Vs. Tube For Vocals

We know, in music, that even subtle differences can cause significant changes, whether that be the angle of a microphone’s placement or the type of mic. So naturally, a tube preamp will have different qualities from a solid-state amp.

The physical difference between a solid-state amp and a tube amp is that a solid-state machine derives amplification from electronic transistors, while a tube amp uses vacuum tubes.

A tube preamp tends to have warmth and smoothness that a solid-state preamp often lacks.

As a tube creates distortion, it produces harmonics which are known as ‘even harmonics.’ Essentially these are tones that are the same note but are produced higher in octaves. 

This is why typically a tube amplifier is said to sound better because the harmonics it produces are much more pleasing to the user’s ear.

How To Connect an External Preamp to an Audio Interface to Record Vocals?

Let’s assume that you went ahead and purchased a brand new external mic preamp. Now we need to talk about how you can connect your preamp with your existing audio interface.

Step 1: Plug your microphone into the external preamp’s mic input. 

For connecting the mic, you should always use an XLR cable to keep the sound quality high.

XLR cables have one longer pin- the earth pin, and two shorter pins that carry the mic signals. 

The earth pin connects first, which is why you can connect or disconnect the cable with the preamp without picking external signals that create noise or distortion.  

Step 2: Now, use a TRS cable to connect the preamp into an available line input on your interface. 

A TRS cable is a balanced 1/4 inch cable with a Tip (T), Ring (R), and Sleeve (S). 

The tip has a positive wire, while the ring has a negative wire, so the opposite polarities cancel out any noise in the system.

That’s it. You have now connected the mic preamp to your audio interface to record vocals.

Benefits of Using an External Preamp to Record Vocals

So what exactly are the advantages of using an external mic preamp over your audio interface’s built-in preamps? Let’s find out!

1. Better sound quality.

Any recording artist can tell you that the sound coming from an external preamp is way better than that produced by the in-built preamp in an interface. You can get a crystal clear voice even at high gain levels with an external mic preamp.

2. High-quality internal components.

External pre-amps are made up of high-quality components. Their resistors, capacitors, and other parts are superior in quality. 

3. Extra features.

The built-in preamps of audio interfaces usually come with a basic feature set, but often lack some of the more sophisticated features you typically find on an external preamp, such as phase reverse, low cut, or pad switches.

4. Lower noise.

Some internal preamps are actually relatively low noise already, but if you record very quiet sources and/or use low output microphones (such as ribbon mics), you may benefit from an external preamp.

5. Easy to upgrade.

Having a separate pre-amp allows you to buy a new one later if you ever want an upgrade. This is something that you can’t do with an in-built pre-amp.

Will a Preamp Make Your Vocals Sound Better

The only reason you should get a microphone preamp, especially if you are building a budget home studio, is if you have a really low output microphone that your Audio Interface can’t possibly handle.

Using an external preamp, you’re probably not going to get much lower noise, or a flatter frequency response, or less distortion. 

If you’re only starting out, forget about an external preamp. Instead, get a slightly more expensive audio interface with decent built-in preamps. 

An external preamp may improve your sound quality significantly if you work with low-output dynamic microphones, including ribbon mics.

Microphone Preamp Vs. Audio Interface

While they are fundamentally different, they need one another to be able to record music correctly.

An audio interface is used as the front-end device of your recording setup. It receives the signal from a microphone or instrument and subjects it to a conversion process so that it can be edited within a DAW.

A Preamp is designed to amplify low-level audio signals, such as the one from a microphone, while an Audio Interface works by converting the analog audio signal into a digital format so that it can be recorded by the computer, essentially acting as a translator.

Conclusion

If you have just dipped your toes into recording vocals, an in-built pre-amp is good enough for you. 

You can get a good quality interface that has a decent in-built pre-amp. If you are using a condenser mic, this entire set-up would suit you fine. 

You can get an external pre-amp when you become confident about your recording abilities and want to spend more time and money on it. For ribbon mics, I would suggest using an external pre-amp from the beginning.

When using an external pre-amp, please remember to use the right cables when you connect a preamp to the interface. It ensures top-notch sound quality and protects your equipment from any long-term damage.

Written by:
Amit Gupta
Amit Gupta

Hi, my name is Amit Gupta, and I am the owner and contributor at Radaudio. My passions include guitar, bass, and piano, as well as a range of classical instruments that I have been playing since school.

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