Mark Wingfield is a mixing and mastering engineer at Heron Island Studio. He has three DownBeat Masterpiece albums under his belt, a Jazzwise Best Release Of The Year, and over 300 rave reviews from around the world for albums he has worked on. In this series of articles Mark gives advice on how to avoid common mistakes made in the recording studio which will hold back your album from sounding great.
Without getting technical, a preamp is used to connect a microphone and the recording device. They come in various types and qualities and their quality is extremely important. One thing recording engineers who treat recording jazz the same way as rock or pop commonly get wrong is the choice of preamps. Understanding the difference they make to your sound helps when making choices in the studio.
I break mic preamps down into five categories.
1. High end clean preamps. A good choice but small studios are unlikely to have many of them.
2. High end character preamps (they can be modern or vintage). Can be great but are a risky option.
3. Modern good quality preamps. A good choice and are affordable by smaller studios.
4. Vintage “dull and loose” preamps. Avoid, they prevent your recording from ever sounding great.
5. Modern “cheap and thin” preamps. See 4.
There are three places mic preamps can be located. They can be separate units, they can be built into the mixing desk, or into the digital converter. The studio you record in may have a mixture of these types.
It can be difficult to know how good a studio’s preamps are. However, it should be one of the first questions you ask. If the engineer can’t assure you that they have excellent preamps, then look elsewhere. On the other hand if they do have high quality preamps but most of them are “vintage”, “vintage design” or “character preamps” be wary. I’ll explain why below.
1. High end clean preamps
If the studio has enough of these, look no further. They allow microphones to work at their optimum and they will capture all the detail you need in jazz while retaining a rich sound with plenty of dynamics. However they are very expensive for small studios. Just to give you an idea, a Millennia four channel mic preamp costs around £4000.
2. High end character preamps
Here you need to be careful. These kinds of preamps colour the sound – they are not transparent. A character preamp connected to the right microphone, on the right instrument, can sound great. But if the combination is wrong, it can colour the sound in a way that can’t be undone. This can cause real problems in a mix.
Nice sounding though vintage and character preamps can be, part of the colour they add is saturation. And saturation is a type of distortion. Think of it as like adding an effect to your instrument. It might sound great in the excitement of the moment in the studio, but in the cold light of day it might be too much of a good thing. Or you may find that a character preamp adds colour to one instrument which just doesn’t sit well with the others in the mix. For instance, everything sounds like a high end 21st century recording except the saxophone, which sounds like it was recorded in the 1960s. You don’t want to find that you’ve got a problem like this when you get to the mix.
Other problems I’ve run across from this type include: A drum sound where it’s impossible to get the kind of detail you need on the ride cymbal or snare in the mix. A sax that sounds great in the ballads but harsh and squeaky in the uptempo tracks. An acoustic bass that sounds great during the solo, but lacks detail and definition when the whole band is playing.
If you decide to try out a character preamp on a particular instrument during the setup, ask yourself: Does this sound really fit with the sound of the rest of the instruments? Does it really suit the overall production sound you are going for? The answer may be yes, but keep in mind you are making a bold choice, and it’s not one you can change later. Just to give you an idea of the price of a quality character preamp, four channels of a Neve mic preamp costs between £3000 and £4000.
3. Modern good quality preamps
Modern mid range mixing desks may have good quality preamps. Desks vary too much in size and spec to give a price, but even a small good quality console will cost between £10,000 to £15,000 and larger ones can be ten times this or more.
Decent preamps are also often built into digital converters in small studios. Such preamps are affordable and if it’s a good brand they may be your best choice. Look for RME, TC Electronics, Universal Audio and Apogee. Be wary of mic preamps built into cheaper or older digital converters. And don’t assume modern preamps built into mixing desks are OK either. A mixing desk (even a mid range one) is the most expensive item in a studio, so unless they’ve invested heavily the preamps are probably not that great. So be wary of small studios with all their preamps in the desk. Ask which desk they have and do a bit of research about the quality and reputation of the desk.
4. Vintage “dull and loose” preamps
Find these in studios which use the preamps built into a vintage mixing desk. If the desk was very high quality, like a Neve for example, and it has been maintained well (expensive to do) it can sound great. On the other hand, if the desk is not of that quality or has not been maintained well you can end up with a “dull” recording which sounds loose around the edges and lacks tone and definition. Either the components have aged and some need replacing or the quality of the desk was never that good to begin with and has deteriorated further. Many vintage units sound muddy, dull and noisy. Of course some sound incredible, but they cost a huge amount to buy and maintain. At the time of writing a quick search brought up a pair of vintage Neve preamps going for £15000. That’s just two preamps, and a 48 channel mixing desk would need 24 pairs.
In general, beware the small studio that has a vintage mixing desk as a showpiece. This can seem impressive, but the quality of such desks can vary considerably. Again, old is not necessarily good. High quality vintage desks include SSLs and Neves but there was also a plethora of mediocre desks, then as now. They don’t sound better simply because they’ve been around for decades. If the desk is a good make, ask yourself whether the studio is likely to be making enough to keep it sounding great – because the older it is, the more it costs to maintain.
5. Modern “cheap and thin” preamps
Some small studios use cheap mic preamps. They tend to produce a thin sound and lack definition and detail. You commonly find these built into budget digital converters and low end mixing desks.
The best way to know
Of course a recording made in the studio is a great way to judge sound quality. If a jazz record made there sounds world-class, then you can be confident. But if the recording doesn’t stand up, or they don’t have one, you’ll need to have a close look at their mic preamps.
Mark Wingfield, Mixing and mastering engineer at Heron Island Studio
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