Can you tell a $4000 preamp from a $100 preamp? Here's how I did it

Can you tell a $4000 preamp from a $100 preamp? Here's how I did it
0

#1

I took on this preamp challenge for my own training purposes…and because I do these things once in a while to keep my ears in check. I didn’t really care if I got the answer right or wrong, but at least I learned something in doing it.

https://www.soundonsound.com/reviews/pick-preamp-media

What I did was download the files. I put them in Pro Tools. I isolated one pass from the Brauner mic of about 2 beats which cycled on the same 3-4 notes and put it on a continuous loop. I chose a two beat passage that was spread between several octaves. Then I made comments on each preamp.

They are indeed different. After close careful listening, anyone that tells you they’re indistinguishable, (hence the argument that preamps don’t really matter) either doesn’t have sharp enough ears to hear what the rest of us are hearing or they haven’t invested the time to make an informed judgment on this.

What I learned was they not only color the tone and react to transients differently, they also alter the stereo image that the mics are produce. I took screenshots, then cleared the analyzer, because I was curious how the same four notes would read out among the preamps. The difference is subtle and requires close attentive repeated listening, but once you start to hear the subtle differences, they are indeed present.

I earmarked the Mackie immediately on the first pass. But I could not tell the Art from the Neve. Interesting!!


#2

I’ve had a couple Art boxes in the past that I’ve been rather happy with actually.


#3
Results from the SOS testing:

Round 1: Preamp letter codes for the Brauner mic files: 

A - ART Pro MPA II Rating: 7.5 Chosen as Favourite: 5 times
Comments: Smooth tubey top end, neutral and rich, especially roasty, more warmth and body

B - AMS Neve 1073LB Rating: 3.4 Chosen as Favourite: 1 times
Comments: Classy vintage sound, too strident in midrange, veiled top end, rich mids and lows, brittle, sounded grainy

C - API 3124+ Rating: 2.9 Chosen as Favourite: 0 times
Comments: Vague, dreamy, a touch boxy, slightly harsh midrange, disliked, clean but smooth, strident

D - Mackie VLZ Pro Rating: 6.8 Chosen as Favourite: 2 times
Comments: Not much character, big bottom end

E - SSL XLogic VHD Pre Rating: 6.5 Chosen as Favourite: 4 times
Comments: Clean, accurate, neutral, more transparent, warm lows, more depth and evenness, brittle, less solid, little dull, most information and naturalness

F - GP Electronics PML200E Rating: 4.2 Chosen as Favourite: 1 times
Comments: Dark, slightly plasticky, close and intimate

G - Maselec MMX-4XR Rating: 6.4 Chosen as Favourite: 2 times
Comments: Clean, accurate and neutral, muffled top end, slightly distant, smooth character, sharper transients

H - Prism Sound Orpheus Rating: 6 Chosen as Favourite: 4 times
Comments: Sounds more stereo, zingy, closed in, veiled or murky, prominent low end, smooth
character, more clarity and separation, smooth without sounding dull, disliked and would
avoid

Round 2: preamp letter codes for Sennheiser MKH20s

A - GP Electronics PML200E Rating: 5 Chosen as Favourite: 2 times
Comments: No particular sound, warm clean and detailed, on the dull side, probably txfm-less

B - ART Pro MPA II Rating: 7.4 Chosen as Favourite: 3 times
Comments: Intimate, can hear further in, more depth and ambience, sounds more musical and dynamic (same preamp as Brauner A and Royer D?), most information and naturalness

C - Maselec MMA-4XR Rating: 3.5 Chosen as Favourite: 1 times
Comments: Slightly hard midrange, Mackie/ART?, slightly dull 

D - AMS Neve 1073LB Rating: 5 Chosen as Favourite: 1 times
Comments: Neutral, natural, rich quality

E - SSL XLogic VHD Rating: 5.5 Chosen as Favourite: 1 times
Comments: Intimate, great clarity, nothing objectionable

F - Prism Sound Orpheus Rating: 7 Chosen as Favourite: 1 times
Comments: Warm, close and detailed, best overall balance, slightly dull

G - Mackie VLZ Pro Rating: 5.6 Chosen as Favourite: 0 times
Comments: Warm and intimate, detailed, ART/Mackie?, sharp in the mids, probably txfr-less

H - API 3124+ Rating: 5.5 Chosen as Favourite: 1 times
Comments: Rich mids, nice frequency balance, not as detailed, possibly Mackie?

Round 3: Preamp letter codes for Royer SF12

A - Mackie VLZ Pro Rating: 3.8 Chosen as Favourite: 0 times
Comments: Less detailed, slight edge, not as detailed, slightly dull, Neve/API?

B - Maselec MMA-4XR Rating: 3.5 Chosen as Favourite: 0 times
Comments: Shrill top notes, slightly dull, bad!

C - Prism Sound Orpheus Rating: 6.8 Chosen as Favourite: 2 times
Comments: Warmer bottom end, delicacy, nicest so far, very accurate and fast, deep and tight lows, neutral, Maselec?

D - SSL XLogic VHD Rating: 6.6 Chosen as Favourite: 3 times
Comments: Delicate, Intimate, Richness, more detail, least natural (same preamp as Brauner A and MKH B?), delicate, precise, detailed and warm

E - API 3124+ Rating: 3.8 Chosen as Favourite: 1 times
Comments: Less detailed, slightly dull, nice colour, valve preamp?

F - GP Electronics PML200E Rating: 5.6 Chosen as Favourite: 1 times
Comments: Detailed yet neutral, midrange richness, slight edge, slightly dull

G - AMS Neve 1073LB Rating: 6.4 Chosen as Favourite: 3 times
Comments: Less detailed, slight edge, clearer, bright and clean with more dynamics, Neve/API?

H - ART Pro MPA II Rating: 5.6 Chosen as Favourite: 2 times
Comments: Shrill and slightly harsh, bright clear and dynamic

So it looks like each preamp performed quite differently depending on which mics were used.
In my opinion, it had to more with impedance matching of preamp inputs to mics than it did with the circuitry design of the preamps themselves.

Edit:
Interestingly the ART preamp which had the highest rating in 2 of the 3 mic tests has a variable impedance matching knob which may have helped in matching it to the varying microphones.


#4

Man , I must be really tired today…I thought the thread title was …

"Can You Tell a 4000 year old preamp from a 100 year old preamp? Here’s How I Did It

I had to do a double take! :astonished:


#5

From my upcoming book Musician’s Survival Guide to a Killer Record:

"The distortion properties of a vintage preamp is probably the single biggest factor in their value. If you wonder to yourself how a preamp could be worth $4000, it’s because no other preamp distorts like that one, and there are enough people who have benefited from that distortion over the years to justify the expense.

It’s not just the overt distortion that occurs from pushing the gain all the way. It’s the subtle thickening that occurs moments before breakup that is often so desirable. And while this is technically distorting the signal, it’s not necessarily heard as distortion."

What any of it looks like is irrelevant. What matters is how it performs, and one instance of comparison with no real context isn’t enough to determine that.

I wouldn’t pay $4000 for a Neve 1073. But if price was no object I’d buy 20.

There are plenty of great preamps out there that haven’t captured the imagination of trust funders just yet. Enjoy, @Mixerman


#6

Wouldn’t it be easier to just look at the price tag?

S


#7

I 100% agree. I feel this entire response is a VERY healthy, logical, and balanced view on the value of specialized gear.

Eric…got a quick question for ya. Ever since I first saw this, I’ve thought of it every time I see a shootout. When I download the files on this experiment I was simply interested in observing a result and noting apparent differences. I wasn’t attempting to draw any deeper conclusions. What was wondering is how much time it takes you with a really good preamp before you’ve used it enough to be confident in your understand its unique strengths and weaknesses in your own workflow?

5:36


#8

Not long at all if you’re in your own environment. For starters you can hear the source for yourself, because you’re there, and you can compare it, and judge it in context on a project for which you have a stake.

The stake is important, because when you have a stake in the outcome of a project, and your name is to appear on the record in some capacity, then and only then can you can judge the emotional impact of an unfinished work.

When you judge sound outside of the context of the music and the emotional impact for that music, you are judging all the wrong things, and if you aren’t part of the music, and you aren’t part of the team that’s making the music, then you can’t judge it until it’s done. Because it’s not art until it’s finished. I can’t rightly insist that your production doesn’t move me if it’s not done. It’s a work in progress, and as such, you are the soul arbiter of what improves or detracts from it. You are the one with the vision. Once you finish it, once you put it out there, then the rest of us get the opportunity to react to it. That reaction will be based on how you touched us emotionally with your music. Not on whether you used the right mic preamp in the process. Not based on the sound.

Sound is irrelevant. Only the music is relevant, it’s just that sound and frequency are the building blocks of music, and so that’s what we deal with as producers and musicians, just as a painter deals with color. But the color does not make the art, it’s just a means to an end. And the sound isn’t the art, the music is, and we know that there’s all sorts of things that we can do with music that will affect our emotions which are produced by sound. But sound in and of itself is completely relative. A vocal could sound downright strident in isolation but if the track is dark and overly dense, that might be precisely the tone that works musically with the production.

Even A/B tests in which you compare sounds in quick succession are useless. And although this does provide you with a basis of comparison between A and B, you are completely separating the music from the process. It’s actually difficult for most people to hear the difference between an MP3 and a full .wav mostly because the comparisons rarely include emotional impact. Were you to take your favorite record of all time and play the wave file of that record from the top through the first chorus, immediately followed by playback of the MP3 of that record, the difference in how those playbacks make you feel will be obvious.

To judge a mic pre, or a converter, or a microphone, outside of the context of the music, is to judge all the wrong things. To judge them outside of the context of a performance is to also judge all the wrong things. Because you could pick the most atrocious mic pre there is, and it’s going to pick up that performance with 100% fidelity. An amazing performer will sound amazing. A shit performer will sound shit. And if it’s the kind of performance that leaves me gobsmacked, and it’s the kind of song that hits me emotionally, then it’s the kind of song I will want to play repeatedly until I’m just about sick of it. And if I have that reaction to your song as a consumer? Even as a professional producer, I will never, not once, ever question what you used to record it.

If you want to judge gear, you need to do it in your room, or at the studio, and on a project for which you have a stake. And if you gave me the most atrocious sounding preamp on earth, it would stay in my rack for years until I find something, anything that it works for, whatever that is. Then, I usually give it away. Every piece of gear has its magical moment if you’re willing to wait it out. But so long as it’s not getting in your way on your project at this time? You’re good.

I want to thank you for the question, Jonathan, because I’ve been struggling to find a close to the book, and this will serve as the basis for it as it perfectly brings home the overall argument I’m trying to make to recording musicians. Don’t think about sound. Think about the music.

Enjoy, Mixerman


#9

Absolutely no problem! Its truly my honor to contribute :slight_smile:

@holster, we need to sticky that excerpt and archive it as an article.

To me this is really a game changing way of understanding the relationship between the tools, the craft, and the ultimate purpose. Once again, I completely agree with everything here but for years I’ve struggled to articulate it this concisely. And I think if people would hold this framework in mind when discussing the value of our tools (and most importantly our art) then it would end of a lot of senseless babble about which piece of gear wins in a pissing contest shootout against another.

Here’s something I noticed immediately while reading through what Eric just wrote:

I’ve grown increasingly frustrated lately when people who have zero experience using certain tools (namely expensive ones) trying to convince the world that they’re unnecessary, wasteful, and indulgent. Take this statement:

It follows that if can NOT hear the source, because you are NOT there, and can NOT compare, it, THEN you can NOT judge it [in any sort of meaningful capacity]. So if someone asserts: “No need to rent a meticulously tuned room with a breathtaking live sound to record guitars in - because I can do that in my bedroom closet”…is it not fitting to ask that someone how many live rooms with breathtaking sonics they’ve ever worked in? I’m still struggling to wrap my mind around the validity of a statement in which someone criticizes a potentially positive result they’ve never attempted to achieve.

We often hear the counterargument that because golden eared engineers A, B, and C can’t consistently pick the high dollar preamp out of a blind test, then A surely isn’t worth 10x more than B and C. And likewise, we hear the counterargument that because the ‘consumer’ can not identify the difference, same logic same conclusion. It seems to me that if one is willing to accept this…

…then the both counterarguments are completely irrelevant. Those two counterarguments are not ‘stupid’ questions per se, but factually irrelevant to the person in the artistic drivers seat of the project.

I can’t believe I’ve NEVER heard someone point this out before, but wow does it turn a lightbulb on reading it. Particularly the last part. Its really easy to say “always pancetta instead of bacon in Carbonara” when you’re not the one cooking OR eating it!

Before I get trounced for writing this, keep one thing in mind. I’m not here to ‘defend’ high end gear. From here on out, I’m all about defending this:


#11

I told you that the other day and you argued against it. High end gear is great and all, but all that matters is how whatever you’re doing works within the context of the project. If a modest preamp or cheap mic gets the results you want and no one cares, if the ultimate end result is what you want, then it does not matter what you used to get it.


#13

i dont think the man Brando knew it but that Rane preamp he liked as much as his Martech was also used by the guy doing Steely Dan …who are known for a bit above average in the pro circuits in their day.


#14

I think this is brilliant as well! When you remove either of those things, (listening environment or music you care about) it totally throws off your impression of the gear.


#15

yeah the application of the gear can drive a lot of needs…recording a quartet or a screaming death metal band…or rap… movie score…

I think theres a lot of good stuff out there that leads one into the OTB vs ITB too.
Been a few that have hung in there through the forum decades like Daking, ISA One, GreatRiver, GraceDesign, Millenia, without going into the $1000 realm and the used stuff becomes older and a little cheaper usually.

In hindsight a lot of the pressure for choosing 1qty is the home hobbyist only has cash for 1qty preamp and they really want the $100 preamp to work. Recently I went through some >$1000 in the house and now a ART TPS and got the old Rane out for the clean and also have a clean interface preamp… with plugins.

having some month or two to chill out…there is something to having at least one killer channel strip for even HR that can lay about every track down with some quality and shine…and confidence. I think theres a psychology to using a U87 or a 6176 or a Sony C800 into a 1176 blue stripe…

I think the ego likes to pretend the name brand doesnt matter but in extreme example, someone hands the guitarist a Hello Kitty guitar thats souped up custom…vs a US STandard strat or Gibson SG…theres going to be some mental sht going on.

I was into some new music and the video has them singing in a taped up old SM58…but delving into the engineer and the recording of the Billboard hit singles…the vocal track that I was like wow, really good pop-rap was done with the old classics Sony C800 and 610UApre into a 1176 blue stripe…and there you go. that old stuff still sounds great man.

my point was the 610 is only $500 used- $600…and its on Billboard with a bullet etc…as for gear. and this $100 vs $400. SM7b>610> 1176…theres $1grand + 1176 clone $1800?