It’s no secret that production quality has a considerable impact on the enjoyment of a music track. It’s hard to enjoy beautiful music if there is noise or crackling that distracts you. As musicians, we aim to produce the best quality versions of our music possible. For this, we need a good preamp (or preamplifier).
The Universal Audio Interface is widely are regarded as the best in class for the quality of their preamps. This accolade is due to the superior design and components of the preamp itself and because they are one of the only companies to manufacture both the hardware and the compatible software plugins.
When looking at what preamp is most suitable for your particular musical application, there is quite a lot to consider. While the Universal Audio seems to be widely regarded as the best, there are some other, more cost-effective options that may suit both your pocket and your requirements a little better.
Universal Audio Apollo Twin MkII Heritage Edition
This is arguably one of the best preamps around. A 2-in/6-out Unison-enabled audio interface whose main attraction is to enable you to use UA’s range of excellent DSP-powered plugins. Universal is one of the only companies to both manufacture their own preamps and design their own plugins. This is a considerable advantage as Unison-enabled preamps communicate directly with specific Universal Audio plugins, narrowing the gap between analog & digital and resulting in better quality, more realistic sound. The downside is that you will need to buy the Universal Audio plugins to take full advantage of your preamp.
Another significant advantage that Universal has over its competitors is its impedance matching. Many instruments, such as bass guitars, require a DI box to decrease their high-output signal to make it compatible with the audio interface. A DI box helps you create a better sound by controlling several variables that affect how your sound will enter the audio interface. Universal preamps do all of this automatically for you and allow you to find the perfect setting for any instrument or input. This makes the recording process more or less effortless.
The Unison-enabled preamp allows you to run one Unison-enabled plugin per channel. This means you can record your bass guitar through Universal Audio’s Ampeg SVT-VR Classic (model of the Ampeg SVT Pro). When you insert that plugin into your Unison-enabled preamp, it allows your UAD audio interface to “become” that plugin. This Unison-enabled preamp takes on the characteristics of the plugin, meaning that the first effect in your signal chain will be the Unison-enabled plugin. Everything after that first gain stage happens inside the software and sounds 100% better.
Universal Audio’s plugin technology also brings you “gain-staging” sweet spots. The Unison technology allows you to achieve tube saturation without having to crank up the gain. This means that you’ll get the best possible sound from the plugin, whatever the volume or gain. The pre-sets adjust each level to its gain-staging sweet spot, kind of like having your own personal sound engineer.
What Does a Preamp Do?
A preamp is possibly one of the most underrated pieces of studio equipment; and one of the most important. If you are recording vocals via a microphone, you will notice that microphones record signals at the mic level. However, all of our recording gear, from compressors, equalizers, and analog-to-digital converters, record line-level. Mic-level is substantially lower in voltage (or lower in volume) than line-level. Thus the job of the preamp is to raise the signal of mic-level up to a line-level signal.
A preamp is designed to raise the audio signal without raising the noise floor or other audio issues such as an electrical hum. Preamps that raise the audio signal from the microphone clearly so that it more perfectly replicates the recorded sound are called transparent. Without a preamp, you would boost the noise and audio hum along with the signal, resulting in a low-quality sound.
How Does a Preamp Improve the Quality of your Sound?
A good preamp will give your recorded audio a subjectively better quality of sound that we refer to as color, tone, or texture. In other words, it makes the sound better. This is generally due to the topology of the preamp circuit and the quality of the components used in the design.
The design & component quality will dictate how transparent the preamp is (the clarity of sound at higher gains) and the tone or subjective audio sound. You would expect the more expensive audio interfaces to have better quality preamps due to their superior circuitry and components; however, there are a few hidden gems in the more affordable ranges which we will explore later on.
What is an Audio Interface?
Essentially audio interfaces convert microphone and instrument audio signals into a format your recording software recognizes. An interface may also transmit audio signals from your computer to peripherals such as headphones and studio monitors. Interfaces usually connect to your computer using USB cables or Thunderbolt if you are on an Apple Device.
Which Interface Has the Best Preamps?
There are many different preamps out there; it depends on what you are using it for and what your budget is. You need to find the best preamp for your requirements. Also, some of what makes a preamp “the best” is the tone or color. This is obviously highly subject and again dependant on what you are using it for. Luckily for you we’ve compiled a list of the best affordable and high-end preamps with USB (for PCs) and Thunderbolt (for Mac) interfaces.
Best USB Audio Interfaces
Audient iD4 MkII
This audio interface is a 2-in/2-out device that looks, sounds, and feels great. It allows you to plug in both microphones and instruments and is an excellent value for money buy.
Focusrite’s Scarlett 4i4
A third-generation USB-C audio interface that gives you 4-in/4-out and sounds excellent. The Scarlett 4i4 has two of the best performing mic preamps we’ve seen recently. This, combined with the new switchable Air mode, gives your vocal recordings a brighter and more open sound.
This is a 2-in/4-out USB-C audio interface that gives you the fantastic audio legacy of SSL’s 40 years of award-winning production at an affordable price point.
Best Thunderbolt Audio Interfaces
Mac lovers will know that any Mac device comes at a much higher premium than the equivalent android or PC. Thunderbolt audio interfaces are much the same, with the budget versions coming in at a more premium price-point than their USB counterparts.
Zoom Tac-2r 2×2 – Thunderbolt Interface
This 2-in/2-out Thunderbolt 3 audio interface is our budget pick and has some really excellent transducer sound for the price you are paying. It offers a 192kHz frequency and a super high fidelity range, making for excellent quality sound.
Universal Audio Apollo Twin Mkii 2×6 Heritage Edition – Thunderbolt 3
This Unison-enabled 2-in/6-out audio interface comes with five of Universal’s plugins plus a LUNA recording system download for Mac users. It has a 24-bit/192kHz audio conversion processor for superior sound quality.
Universal Audio Apollo Twin X Quad 2×6 Heritage Edition – Thunderbolt 3
As with its USB counterpart, the Apollo Twin X Quad features two Unison-enabled mic preamps giving you ultra high-resolution sound quality with Apollo AD & D/A converters. Unlike the MKII, it comes with a suite of Universal plugin titles from Teletronix, Pultec, and UA. This is the most expensive audio interface in the product line and, like its USB counterpart, well worth the expense. This is our pick for the best Thunderbolt Preamp.
We really like the Universal Audio interfaces for their ground-breaking Unison-enabled technology and the seamless way the hardware works with their purpose-designed plugins to create a truly superior sound quality. It does, however, come at a price, so for those just starting out, perhaps the more affordable units may end up being the best preamp for your particular needs without breaking the bank.