If you have a microphone to record your vocals, you need a preamp.
The reason is simple: a microphone produces a very low voltage output that is between 50dB and 80dB quieter than the line-level output from electronic instruments.
The preamplifier boosts the mic-level signal up to the same strength of a line-level signal, i.e. it ensures the sound the mic picks up is just as loud as the other sounds.
If you try to record the signal directly from a microphone, without running it through a preamplifier, it will be very quiet. You can boost the volume, of course, but it will sound horrible, because you will also be turning up every other sound, like all of the environmental noise, the electrical hum and any sound from the mic itself. The preamp boosts only the mic signal and none of the other sounds.
What To Look For In A Preamp
We will briefly cover the main features you need to consider when buying a preamp and give the best models that have each feature. If you already know what you need, you can jump directly down to our comparison of the 5 best vocal preamplifiers.
Transparency vs. Coloration
Transparency refers to how naturally a preamp transmits the input. A transparent preamp does not change the tone at all, while one that colors the sound, changes the tone and gives it a rich, warm, vintage feel.
Best Preamp For Coloration
Without a doubt, it is the Golden Age Project Pre73. It perfectly recreates the classic sound of the Neve 1073 and does it at a much lower price.
Number of Channels
Both recommendations above only have one channel, which is all you need if you are just recording your vocals. But if you want to record several inputs, like another singer or some instruments, you would need another preamp for each mic or one that has multiple channels. Ones with multiple channels usually aren't as good as single-channel models, but there is an exception.
Best 8-Channel Preamp
The Focusrite OctoPre MkII is the clear winner here. It features incredible sound quality at a very good price. That said, not everyone can afford it, so we included a more budget minded 8-channel option: the Behringer ADA8200. It offers good sound quality, especially considering the price, but can't match the OctoPre.
There are a few other features that might be important to you, like form factor. The main options are rackmount, lunchbox and desktop. If you have other equipment, a rackmount or lunchbox form factor makes sense. If not, desktop is probably the easiest, but just because a preamp is made to mount in a rack, that doesn't mean you have to. You can just as easily leave a rackmount or lunchbox style unit sitting on its own.
Apart from that, every model we recommend below has all the standard features you would want for recording vocals. The main decisions you need to make are whether you want transparency or coloration and whether you need multiple channels.
Best Vocal Mic Preamp Comparison Table
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|DBX 286s||Dimensions: 19" x 5.8" x 1.8"|
Weight: 6.2 lbs.
|1||$||8.8 / 10|
|Behringer ADA8200||Dimensions: 19" x 8.5" x 1.8"|
Weight: 6.8 lbs.
|8||$||8.5 / 10|
|Golden Age Project Pre73||Dimensions: 13" x 10" x 4"|
Weight: 4.3 lbs.
|1||$$||9 / 10|
|Focusrite OctoPre MkII||Dimensions: 24" x 14.2" x 5.2"|
Weight: 11.3 lbs.
|8||$$$||9.4 / 10|
|Avalon VT-737sp||Dimensions: 23" x 18.6" x 8.2"|
Weight: 18 lbs.
|1||$$$$$||10 / 10|
The 5 Best Mic Preamps For Vocals
DBX 286s Microphone Pre-amp Processor
The DBX 286 is one of the most affordable studio quality mic preamps/channel strip processors on the market. It is solid state and single channel.
If you plan on using it for live performances, the Enhancer allows you to control the definition and detail of high and low frequencies separately, so you can really crisp up your tracks and add fullness to the vocals (or the deeper instruments). It also has a gate that can reduce headphone leakage or handle noisy guitar amps.
The DBX 286 has a built-in tunable de-esser that eliminates vocal sibilance (i.g. from 's' sounds) or high-frequency distortion from instruments like cymbals. It also has a compressor, which allows you to avoid accidental clipping and distortion and get smoother acoustic tracks and more powerful vocals.
This rack-mount unit also has a wide-ranging input gain control, switchable +48V phantom power, and a 80Hz high-pass filter (to remove low frequency hum, rumble or wind). It features a floating balanced XLR mic input that can take both balanced or unbalanced inputs. In short, it has all the basic features a vocalist needs and sells for a very low price.
Behringer ADA8200 Ultragain Digital
Externally, the ADA8200 from Behringer looks just like the previous version, the ADA8000. And that's not a bad thing, as long as they've made some upgrades internally. The good news is: they have.
The main issue with the older model was overheating. A new universal switched-mode power-supply module has fixed that problem. It accepts any input from 100 to 240V(AC) and it only consumes 15 watts, instead of the 25 watts the old unit needed. Plus, it runs much cooler, so there are no more issues with overheating.
The ADA8200 has eight microphone preamps and individual analog outputs for each channel. They can also accept line-level signals through a TRS jack socket. The input connectors are on the front, the outputs on the back. Phantom power can be switched globally only.
The Behringer ADA8200 is a solid unit that provides everything most vocalists need at a low cost. It does not have any flashy extras and the sound quality is good, but not exceptional. If you want a solid preamp with more than one channel and don't want to pay a small fortune, this is the best option.
Golden Age Project Pre73 JR
The PRE-73 Jr from Golden Age Project is the little brother of the PRE-73 and as such, it is big on sound, but low on features. It has everything most of us need, though, unless you need multiple channels
The main thing to note is that this is not a transparent or neutral preamp. It imparts a big, warm, vintage sound to your vocals. This is something people pay a lot of money for and here you get it for an unbelievably low price. But if you're looking for your vocals to be transmitted faithfully, this is not the unit for you.
In addition to the sound quality, the build quality is the other standout feature. Every component is high quality. You really start to wonder how they can sell this preamp at such a low price, but the answer is in the features. It only has the basics and nothing more. That said, most vocalists don't need additional features. And again, the price is astonishingly low, given the quality.
The Golden Age Project Pre73 JR Compact Vintage Style Microphone Preamp allows you to enjoy the classic sound of the Neve 1073 at a fraction of the cost. The build quality matches the incredible sound quality, but the feature set is basic and you only get one channel. If you're looking for the classic 1073 sound, this is your preamp. If you want a neutral sound, look elsewhere.
Focusrite OctoPre MkII 8-Channel Microphone Preamplifier
The OctoPre MkII is one of Focusrite's budget preamps, though it is still the second most expensive on this list. But the quality you get for that price is outstanding, with 8 channels, each outfitted with a very high-quality preamp. They pass through a completely neutral sound that will have you forgetting the unit is even there.
The Octopre Mark 2 is incredibly well constructed, making it sturdy and durable. It has both analog and ADAT digital outputs (up to 96 kHz), so it can easily connect to most DAW environments. This microphone preamplifier is especially strong with drums and electronic music, but does an excellent job with vocals and all other inputs as well.
One thing this model lacks is compressors, but the more expensive Octopre MkII Dynamic has them. Another issue is that phantom power is supplied in banks of four, not to each channel individually. This won't be a problem in most cases, since dynamic mics generally ignore power on the line, but could become an issue when miking a drum kit. Finally, the first two inputs are only on the front of the unit, which could lead to some messy cabling.
Overall, the Octopre is about as good as it gets, without venturing into stratospheric price ranges. The few drawbacks aren't a problem at all for vocalists and the sound quality from this preamplifier is incredible. Your vocals pass through completely unchanged. This is the preamp we recommend, if you want multiple channels and have the budget.
Avalon VT-737sp Class A Mono Tube Channel Strip
The choice of numerous professional musicians the Avalon VT-737sp is as good as it gets and easily the best mic preamp for home studio use. Unfortunately, it has a price to match.
The VT-737sp basically has three main stages: first the preamp, then the compressor and finally a 4-band equalizer (bass, low mid, high mid and treble). It is outfitted with four vacuum triode tubes that ensure maximum sonic integrity through all three stages. The unit has XLR inputs that work with both mic and balanced line signals and a balanced XLR output and jack.
The first time you use the Avalon VT737sp, you immediately notice the smooth and warm, but still completely neutral, tone. It doesn't modify your natural tone, but works with it to make it sound its best. No matter what you run into this preamp (vocals, guitar, drums, etc.), the sound is reproduced faithfully and made to shine.
For most of us, this unit is out of our price range and definitely more preamp than we need, but if you are outfitting a professional-level studio or are lucky enough to not have to worry about money at all, this is the microphone preamp to get. Countless professional musicians agree (it was even used by Steve Hodge to track Michael Jackson's vocals: story here).