Mojo: That Analogue Preamp Sound

I’ve been looking for an overdriven sound. I love a good analogue clipping if I’m honest. And this has gotten me back around to screwing about with preamps. I do a bit of radio (not professionally at the moment, but I’ve done small projects in the past for broadcast) and I’ve found that preamp type, quality, and how hard you drive them can really affect the sound. I currently keep a Daking Mic Pre One and Universal Audio Solo 610 on hand. The Solo 610 has a very noticeable effect on the human voice when driven hard. It can be pretty cool if you want that style. Though I don’t like to go overboard with it, it’s nigh to the point of being an effect. Some people want more of that sound though. So it was a no-brainer to feed the synth into the 610 and turn it straight past eleven all the way to twelve!

My two main sound sources are Mutable Instruements Elements and Tides. Both are digital sound sources. Perfect for hitting up for analogue saturation, right? Well…

For one, I don’t think either of them sound bad to start with. (This comes from someone who was once a proponent of the analogue hype machine.) I think a lot of the systemic “digital bad!” mentality that exists in audio and synthesis is more of an institutional hangover from the early days when digital was still going through a lot of growing pains. The technology has matured. No doubt, you can still find garbage DSPs and digital sources of all sorts. But they are the exception.

Secondly, when we delve into the realm of audio engineering there are three main things which have a huge effect on your sound.

  1. Your source: If you are a bad performer, a good recording will faithfully reproduce your horrible performance.
  2. Your space: The room you record in has a tremendous effect on sound. Ever wonder why people pay so much money to treat a recording space? It’s not because they have nothing better to do with their time and money. It’s because it pays dividends in sound quality.
  3. Your microphone: The primary tool in the actual capture of the sound. The right microphone correctly used is huge.

But wait… where’s preamp on that list? It isn’t on that list. It’ll never make that list. Because when you’re recording, your preamp is orders of magnitude less influential than any of those three things. I’m not saying preamps do not matter. They’re an important part in the chain, and you shouldn’t skimp on quality. And by all means, solid state, transformer, tube, whatever floats your boat, go for it, and pick up a good one. But at the end of the day, the characteristics of a good preamp are relatively minor. The flavor a preamp brings to your sound is subtle.

Now, think about the kinds of sounds we’re often producing with our synthesizers. We are creating, distorting, mangling, bending and blending waveforms. The output is often harmonically rich, to the extreme. You know how much difference I’m able to hear driving the tubes in the solo 610 to the max? Not a bit. None. I can hear the 610 plain as day with spoken word. I hear it drive, distort, fuzz. But for all my playing around I cannot bring myself to hear even a slight difference with the synth. The synth absolutely drowns out the subtleties of the preamp.

Perhaps if you are laying down an entire album feeding each track through a particular preamp, I could see how this could build a “sonic profile” so to speak. But I feel that overall, we’ve begun to think and act as if there were magical sound wizards living inside these things. And if we can  just get the right one we’ll sound just like we’ve always dreamed. The quest for analogue mojo from preamps, really just turns out to be a snipe hunt for a synthesist.


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*I tried running the synth in the Solo 610’s DI and also running it through a Radial Pro DI and feeding it through the microphone input on the 610 to see if I could get more saturation that way. Neither produced meaningful results.