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Preamps | Fabulous Front Ends


Assembling the perfect digital audio workstation system used to be a fairly complex procedure—especially if you wanted to choose gear from different manufacturers. Once you settled on your DAW/platform, you needed to select your preamps, find the right interface for your software, track down drivers and hope everything worked out.

Thankfully, the situation is a lot simpler these days. Overall, the driver dilemma is far less convoluted—and many DAW combinations require no drivers at all. The native processing on most platforms—including the new open-architecture approach of Pro Tools 9—opens the field to new possibilities and opportunities for third-party suppliers of converters and interfaces.

Make no mistake—the more traditional à la carte approach of mixing/matching preamps with separate outboard A/D converter sets is most definitely a viable option. But with a number of interesting new and existing units on the market, we decided to explore the one-stop alternative—that of multichannel mic preamps with onboard digital output sections.

From those two basic prerequisites, we encountered dozens of units ranging from basic, no-frills mic amps combined with ADAT Lightpipe or AES outputs, to more complex designs that incorporate onboard DSP effects, FireWire or USB interfacing with control room monitoring, cue mixing, headphone amplifiers, software-emulation models of classic gear, mid/side mic matrixing, remote control of operational parameters and more. Most units also included the expected highpass filters, phase (polarity) reverse, input attenuation pads and onboard DI inputs for high-impedance instrument pickups.

In compiling this, we avoided mentioning the oft-quoted marketing hype of the proverbial single-rackspace box hailed as a “64×64” (or similar number) recording interface. In such cases, the manufacturer emphasizes the total number of ways a signal might enter or exit a device if all the possible permutations of inputs and outputs, including headphones, are used simultaneously. In our experience, it’s a rare session that employs every digital port at the same time—say, two 8-channel ADAT inputs, an 8-channel AES, two RCA S/PDIF stereo pairs, with eight analog mic preamps and eight analog line feeds—for an impressive-sounding 44 inputs.

That said, there are times when one might merge those same 16 analog inputs with another eight coming from a separate ADAT or AES output device into a single 24-channel FireWire output stream, but using everything at once is unlikely. With that in mind, the accompanying chart on page 58 spotlights the total number of simultaneous A/D inputs (from line and mic sources), as well as the total number of preamp channels.

We should mention that all the products surveyed here offer switchable 48VDC phantom powering, and a few featured the ability to supply 130 volts for the line-level outputs and ultrahigh-SPL handling capability of DPA’s specialized Type 4003, 4004 and 4012 Series of high-voltage condenser microphones.

All in all, we found dozens of entries featuring digital interfacing with four or more onboard mic preamps—in almost every price point, ranging from several hundred to thousands of dollars. The point in common is that all provide a simple, compact solution for many DAW requirements. Whether you go with a single one-box unit such as those listed or combine separate components is an individual decision based on your needs and requirements. But either way, you’ll find plenty of available choices for your system.

George Petersen is the director of the TECnology Hall of Fame.