Microphone preamplifiers

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Microphone preamplifiers

How many of us would argue that the quality of a phono preamplifier doesn't matter? That we would hear little difference between an Amazon special and a Stellar Phono Preamplifier?

Hard to imagine, especially on a high resolution audio system. Phono preamplifiers are essential components to get your turntable cartridge setup to sing.

The same is true for microphones. In many of today's proliferating explosion of home studios, USB powered microphones and cheap knock offs of microphone classics abound (as do the growing number of sub standard recordings). And to think they don't sound different or their differences can be EQ'd out?

Not happening.

But then why would we be surprised? 99.9% of all consumer electronics, like 99.9% of all do-it-yourself studio kits have average sound quality. In fact, they define average. Which is what they are supposed to do and, they do it well.

We're audiophiles and, by definition, we are anything but mainstream average. We invest in better, above average, systems. The same can be said for the rare handful of (dwindling) high-end recording studios and beautifully recorded media.

It's one of the reasons we started and continue to support Octave Records. We, along with the handful of others like Blue Coast, Native DSD, Chesky, and Reference, pay attention to every aspect in the recording chain—just like we audiophiles pay attention to every aspect in the playback chain.

As I described in yesterday's post, all microphones must run through a preamplifier to have enough output signal level to feed the A/D converter. Just like in high-end audio reproduction, the design and quality of that preamplifier has HUGE impacts on sound quality.

At Octave, we have multiple types of preamplifiers we have invested in, including both solid state and vacuum tube (and a long term project of building our own based on Darren Myers and Bob Stadtherr's design ideas).

Having worked with all these preamplifiers over the years I have settled on one type of preamplifier that for me makes magic. Vacuum tubes. In particular, the Manley vacuum tube preamplifiers from our good friend Eve Ana Manley.

While vacuum tubes are fun and interesting in the playback chain (like in our BHK series or Stellar M1200 amps), they can have far more impact on recording than they do in playback. Why? Because in playback we have more "control" in the expected dynamics. Once you buy a SACD or download from us, it has been mastered to ensure dynamic levels never exceed 0 dBfs. The same is not true with microphones.

And there is more.

In the playback chain our goal is to accurately reproduce what is on offer from the recording. Here, we don't want to color or in any way change what is being given to us. When we design our equipment, we don't choose vacuum tubes because of their colorations. We choose them because in that circuit, they make audio magic—magic that can be designed using multiple technologies. The same is not always true in a recording.

That is because the goals of a recording differ from those of playback.

A recording is more like a work of art. You're painting a picture and you want to capture as best you can the rich musical notes and voices. You're actually shaping them to make magic.

I am reminded of a recent recording session for an upcoming Octave release of wonderful cover songs. One of our excellent artists, Alicia, is a beautiful singer and she was working on her version of a few classic Ella tracks. Alicia's gorgeous voice was captured on the Neuman U67 and amplified through our wonderful Manley vacuum tube preamplifiers. A fully vacuum tube chain of rich sound. Only, Alicia's voice hadn't that lovely intimate quality the track cried out for.

What to do?

Work the microphone. You see, in the same way we might adjust VTA on a cartridge, or reposition our speakers to accommodate the room, the distance a performer is from the microphone has huge impacts on how it sounds (same is true for loudspeakers). Closer to the microphone and we get what's known as "the proximity effect" where the sound is richer with more midbass. Intimate. Sensual. So, on the soft notes, Alicia moves in close and "makes love" to the microphone. When she gets louder, she moves away (you've no doubt seen singers doing this on stage).

In the end, as we shape the sound, it is the combination of the recording chain electronics and technique that creates the recordings that we love.

The preamplifier is a key in that chain. 

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Paul McGowan

Founder & CEO

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