Home recordists! Lend me your opinion on mic preamps and compressors.

I know we have several musicians around who range from low-end ghetto bedroom studio setups (like me) to professionals who have really nice studios. Knowing how many different ways there are to get music into a recorded format, and how many ways there are to get good-quality recordings there are, I’d like to solicit informed opinions. I have kind of a gearhead question re: mic preamps and compressors.

Assuming I’m miking a vocal in a relatively acoustically-controlled space, how necessary is it to have a nice mic preamp and/or hardware compression? Is hardware compression necessary, or can I get a reasonable sound by running the vocals through onboard software compression (ftr, I have Sonar 4 Producer)? If hardware compression is vital, which models are good?

How about preamps? Should I invest in a nice mic/line preamp to get some of that tube softening? If so, what do you recommend?

Should I start filling a rack, or just make do with Sonar? I know that if I spend tons of money, I can get a great sound (all other things being equal,) but I guess I want to know if a small investment in select units can get me large gains in production value.

Any input?

Oh, and one other thing - in one of these past threads, someone recommended buying a unit like the BBE Sonic Maximizer or the Aphex 204 Aural Exciter to add sparkle to the sound and make it more professional. Is it worth it?

I’m running decent (but not great) condenser mics into a fairly standard Behringer mixer, and into the computer from there. I’m using an Audigy 2 soundcard, so although I still have to do track-at-a-time recording, it’s possible to get some good recordings. One of the first upgrades I ought to make is a multi-input soundcard.

For your setup I would suggest picking up a fairly general compressor. For around $100 you can buy a two channel 3630 Compressor. For the price it makes a good work horse. I have 5 of these things I use for old keyboards and drum machines but I’ve also used them on voice, bass and guitar. They do a pretty good job.

Learn how to use it. Don’t over compress. The idea of a compressor is to NOT hear it. Use it to control the levels and smoothness of a sound. If you sound like a morning DJ, you’re using too much compression.

I’ve been happy with the amps in my console so I’ve never bothered with preamps. I have two utility Behringer mixers (the UB 1002 and the MX 2642A) and the mic amps aren’t that bad. I think for now you can pass on them until you invest in a highend mic.

A good input card is always a good thing. That will improve the overall sound a great deal. Even picking up an old PCI Darla card is money well spent.

The next thing I tell people is to focus on the studio space. Just using some basic rules in a dirt cheap home studio can improve the sound a geat deal. I wrote up a general how-to on setting up simple studio spaces. i’ll see if I can find a place that still has it on-line.

As for the Maximizers and Exciters,… they used to be a cool tool for home studios until digital came along. They’d put some sparkle to the mix on 4-track cassette tapes. I wouldn’t bother with them now. (I’ve a BBE in my rack that hasn’t been powered on for 7-8 years)

Instead of BBE type things I’d look into some mastering software plugins. One time I was sent a mix to master and when I got the file it sounded like ass. Muddy, muffled ass. I dropped it into Sound Forge and went to work on it. I used a hadfull of different plugins to clean it up and finished it off with a product by Ozone called Isotope. I guess it sounded ok because that track made it to number 18 in the Irish top 40.

I found a copy of that article.


Just some general tips on setting up project studio space.

I’m sorry, I just have to interject. I have owned the 3630 Compressor and I tell you it is one of the most reviled pieces of crap that ever was. I wouldn’t want the bad karma from selling it to you let alone recommending it.

If I was you, I would ask the people on the newsgroup rec.audio.pro this very bunch of questions. These cats know what is up as this where the professional sound engineers hang. Trust me, they are aware that we cannot all afford Neve preamps and Neumann mics.

My suggestion to you is (remember, I know nothing of what you are doing on this project) would be to grab an RNC Compressor for about 200 bucks. From what I understand this is the best hardware compressor that you can buy under 2000 dollars. After that, it’s all Focusrite Red.

As far as mics are concerned, I think that if you spent the money and bought a Neumann TLM 103 you might be pleased. Trust me, 1000 bucks is cheap for the Neumann sound.

Pre Amps are another story. Not really sure that you can buy good mic pres for cheap. Everything is rather suspicious and a lot of hearsay is involved. I think that if you bought a decent console that would be the best bet. Or you can opt to record as transparently as possible and use the computer to add all the fancy crap. I would not waste my money on any “aural exciters” or anything else that sounds like a name for a dildo. From what I have been told, either spend the big bucks on this or do not at all because it really wont make up for a shitty recording. None of us have money to burn.

But seriously, I’ll give you this advice. Nothing, and I repeat, NOTHING, makes up for a vocalist that knows his or her craft. Overdubbing is often a technique that needs to be mastered as well, as is projection, and vocal dynamics on the vocalists part. Take some time to get this all together and see how good you can get it with the crappy equipment and then go and buy the better stuff. Spend your time and money on things that are going to advance your career and not be one of those things you look back on as something that helped very little for the trouble it was worth. Million dollar equipment will not help a bad song or singer. As the sound engineers say, “you cannot polish a turd… You only end up with the shiny turd…” And one last thing, whatever you do, I hope things work out for you and good luck.

I had a guy once tell me that when buying electronics, if you can’t afford the top of the line, don’t bother with mid-range products, because there’s no appreciable difference between the low-mid range products apart from cost.

Just what I’ve been told by someone who used to make his own circut boards and Frankenstien equipment all the time.

Great article, Seven. Thanks.

I appreciate the input, guys. I’m at the low end of the learning curve on all this production stuff, so I appreciate all opinions.

Re: mic preamps - the folks over at the homerecording.com BBS seem pretty committed to the M-Audio DMP3 as the best pre under $300. Any experience with this one?

Orge: Taking into consideration of what you’re running, I would point you away from the mic pre-amp at the moment. I think the first on your list (as you mentioned) would be a better input device. Next I would suggest a compressor, then perhaps a good EQ. If you consider the overall use in a studio you might want to consider some of the no-frills staple food gear first. You might find a good EQ will bring out what your mics lack. Plus you can use a compressor and EQ with everything.

What kinds of music or production are you working on?

The highwayman: I’ll be the first to admit the 3630 is far from top of the line. But for the price ($50 a channel) they make a fairly good utility compressor and gate. Like I said I have five I’ve bought to route old keyboards through and I’ve found them to be fairly flavourless in other uses as well. The really nice thing is they hold their value. Buy one at $100 and you can still sell it for $75 years later.

(Of course with this sort of thing I ALWAYS run into arguments about which hardware is better then others. Sometimes it’s as bad as a PC vs Mac thing)

I do have to ask (without getting snippy) why you would recommend a Neumann Mic in a self described “low-end ghetto bedroom studio” hooked to a Behringer mixer?

Here’s an example of what SONAR can do…

The Piece - a solo “unplugged” version of “The Rain Song” by Led Zeppelin

The Guitar - a 1967 Gibson Hummingbird

The Microphone - a 1965 Neumann U67 with matching valve pre-amp

The track was recorded totally raw, with no hardware compression or limiting whatsoever. The output goes through the WAVES L2 Limiter - easily the best software limiter/compressor available for SONAR (but VERY pricey at least when I bought it).

First off, you are right about them holding their value, as I sold mine to some guy who was doing video post production for about 80% of what it was worth. I can’t quite understand why someone would want such a pile when a compressor that costs 80 bucks more is a whole order of magnitude better. But this isn’t what you asked and I agree with your summation of the 3630.

As far as the Neumann is concerned I will simply state that he wanted to get a mic to record a killer vocal track. As far as this is concerned, he would have to spend over 200 bucks away. Why not get the best thing under 3000 dollars for 700-1000 bucks? Shit, get one used if you have to. This is what is at the heart of the debate. No amount of equipment is going to help crappy music. I mean, if good production means that much to you, do it, but do it right. What I’m trying to pass on is pro sound within a somewhat limited budget.

You like Irish music right? Do you think that Enya would sound the way she would singing into anything less than what I expect is a Neumann through an SSL or Neve console? If she doesn’t please let me know what that mic chain is! Sometimes the great equipment benefits the incredible talent but usually it will not. It’s like the cherry on top of what should be a well constructed and performed song. It doesn’t really help as much as the trouble and money it costs to put it together.

The Beringer is basically a copy of a Mackie. Should serve him well enough. Mic pres are a mystery to me. I would go with transparency as opposed to any flattering effect but that is just me.

Oh, you know. Life’s work, and all that. I’m always working on something, from a “concept album” some friends and I are doing in a couple months, to demos for for some other project. Right now, I’m trying to maximize my sound quality for a minimum amount of money for the concept album project, without permanently modifying my rental house. :slight_smile:

Boo Boo Foo, great song. Nice sound. So you use software compression as you recorded, or did you process after the fact? I dunno, guys. From this example, maybe I do need a mic pre.

Oh, and while we’re talking about Mackie mixers, can you guys explain to me what the difference between an insert jack and a mic/line input is? I know that Mackies all have insert jacks, and for some (thus far to me) impenetrable reason, that’s considered good.

Told you I was a n00b.

Highwayman: Ok. I follow on the mic suggestion now.

Irish music? Me? No sir. I was just doing a job. It was rock/pop music and not one would call “Irish” anyway.

I’ve never really listened to Enya, but I understand your point.

I tend to recommend people get an array of mid-line gear first before they start plunking down huge sums on single items. There is a learning curve involved in using this stuff and one high end piece matched with only a couple lower end items won’t do the high end piece justice. Once you learn how to work the equipment, then start replacing pieces. I’ve heard some outstanding production on low end equipment from people who know what they’re doing.

The nice thing about going that route is you can resell OR stockpile the equipment for a later day. You never know when a simple gate, delay or extra EQ will come in handy - esp. if you like to play around with sounds.

I was asked to put down a vocal track for a band on a release that was already sold and ready for press. The vocal track required a more gritty sound. Instead of using a nice mic and a bucketful of effects I opted for a $10 battery powered mic from Radio Shack. I ended up having to manually clean the noise from the track but it sounded great (if I do say so myself).

That said I agree at least one good soild mic is always a must in any studio.

An insert is just what it sounds like. It’s a way to put a audio loop within the track itself.

Let’s say you have a keyboard plugged into line in on a track and you want to add an effect to it -let’s say distortion. You can hook up a distortion to the Insert of the channel and it will only effect that channel. The path would be

Line in --> out the insert --> through distortion --> back into insert --> into board.

It would have the same effect if you plugged the output of the distortion into the Line In on the board.

I have many of my inserts going to a patchbay. From there I can move effects around to different tracks without the mess of climbing behind the console and rack and recabling

Well now, the insert jack lets you insert an effect, like reverb, onto that single channel. Basically, it an input and an output, much like a loop. The clean signal goes out from it into whatever processor you hook up to it and comes back to the channel modified by that processor.

Sorry guys, the above (Sau. Creature) poster is my wife and I accidentally wrote that on her account. I admit, it was me. :smack:

Thank you sir. In answer to your question, I applied the Waves L2 software to the raw wave recording during mixdown (after the fact).

My attitude is this - learn your basics, and set your mics and levels as near as possible to perfect BEFORE recording your true analog input. You can process the shit out of it later if you want but NOTHING beats a good original recording. And everyone here would agree that that’s been the case for a 100 years now.

Also, just as a bit of trivia regarding my U67… that sucker takes at least 15 minutes to really warm up. I have no idea what I’m gonna do if I ever need to replace the steel vacuum tubes in the pre-amp. I’ve found that the closer your mouth can get to it, the warmer your vocal. Sinatra used to positively breathe on his (albeit his was branded a TeleFunken but it was still a U67).

Obviously, a windsock comes in very handy but there’s no denying that with large diaphragm mics in particular, the closer your mouth is to the diaphragm, the more sensational your vocal tracks are.

In my opinion, assuming your signal to noise ratio on your PC’s soundcard is sufficiently impressive, a “mic pre” with bonus functions like compression etc isn’t strictly necessary - but certainly, a good quality microphone is. You can do all the compression and limiting that you want during mixing.

Remember, you can always buy PC soundcards with 48 volt Phantom Power built in - they work wonderfully well if you’re inventive about how you go about your work. One thing which is very true however - the moment you start getting ambitious about multiple microphone inputs being recorded simultaneously (for example, a 6 piece band in real time) you simply HAVE to consider dedicated equipment. No way a serious producer would risk that “perfect track” being wasted on a digital setup which might hang at any time due to processor overload. Yes, I know… I know… Macs which run mutli-input Pro Tools are very, VERY close to being able to achieve such things, but a STUDER 48 track reel to reel is still champ when it comes to 20 + microphones in real time.

OK, guys. I had several of my songs as posts on a blog-like format, but I haven’t messed around with the site for a while, and when I checked up on it last night, I had 12 total entries, and 15,425 (no, I’m not making that number up) spam comments from well-meaning souls who are vitally concerned about my ability to achieve and maintain an erection without the help of “HerBaL ViAgRa.”

So I deleted the whole damn thing.

Not to worry, though. I’ll just link you to the songs directly. The one thing that was lost in the deal was my rather extensive explanations and production notes. I’ll try to duplicate that here to an extent.

I feel a little silly, since neither of the songs I’m about to link have lyrics or a vocal track at all…and that’s the subject about which I started this thread. However, I hope you’ll be able to tell a bit about my (exceptionally limited, from a professional standpoint) production capabilities.

[li]Ship Is Sailing - Please for the love of God, try to ignore the annoying MIDI track that pervades the background of this. A friend wrote the song, sequenced the drums, laid a badass bassline on it, then sent me the whole thing to punch up with guitar. Therefore, the MIDI track is what it is…which is “irritating.” The little pianoesque melody parts wouldn’t be bad if they were performed live and not panned hard right, but eh. Overall, I’m not displeased with the overall sound of this track. I have three acoustic tracks on it, and various and sundry electric rhythm and lead tracks.[/li][li]A Waltz - This was an attempt to make a very atmospheric, tone-y, warmly organic sounding track. I think I mostly got there on it. There are some improvements I’d make, but I’m pretty happy with the slide guitar and the lead guitar sounds. The acoustic track could use some work, and the plainly sequenced drum loop is cornball.[/li][/ul]

But critique me, guys. Give me the business. I’d love to hear your most detailed, honest criticisms of the above efforts. Maybe next time I can make it all sound better.

Not necessarily. Increased bass response due to closer proximity can definitely be a problem. Just gotta have a singer that knows how to “play” a mic.

Sure, someday. But I’ve no room or money for dedicated equipment right now. I’ll just have to trust the vagaries of Microsoft for now. :slight_smile:

Whew. I know Sausage Creature is good-lookin’, and if it had been her giving the musical gearhead lecture, I might have fallen in love. :slight_smile:

Anyway, so an insert jack is an effects loop, only applied per channel instead of for the whole mixer. Got it. Thanks.

Wait wait wait. And just to ground this thread in the OP again, the consensus seems to be what…that I definitely need hardware compression, but not necessarily mic preamps (yet?) You guys suggesting that if I invest in rack hardware (not the soundcard…that’s an obvious priority,) it should probably be a compressor for vocal tracks?

Also, in case it wasn’t clear about the inserts, you need to use a TRS cable for the inserts, as you need to have signal traveling in both directions through the one cable.

Yeah. That little bit of info DOES help.

*Pictures Orge banging his head on the console shouting “You told me this would work! DAMN YOU SDMB!”

Also, your insert in/out on the back of the console may not match with the insert ins/outs on the FX. I forget which machines of mine are like that but if I use a straight TRS cable and try to insert it doesn’t work. I have to use a stereo “Y” adapter to flip channels on one end.