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Why Microphones Are More Important Than Preamps
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MJE "Hulk 990" Microphone set - Hear it vs. U 87ai
MJE "Hulk 990" Microphone set - Hear it vs. U 87ai
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Why Microphones Are More Important Than Preamps - Short Answer

* Microphones introduce far more amplitude, phase and distortion artifacts compared to preamps. These artifacts can be used to good effect to color the source.

* Microphones operate in 3D space. Moving a mic relative to its source and room boundaries offers far more control over recorded sound than a preamp which operates in 2D space (no spatial control over amplitude vs. frequency artifacts).

* Microphones share an important attribute with their human users - energy transformation. Preamps simply amplify and do not change input energy type into another form.

Michael Joly Engineering Hulk 990

Why Microphones Are More Important Than Preamps - Long Answer

The microphone vs. preamp debate has raged online for years. In 2004 a really entertaining thread (400+ posts and 40,000 views) appeared at Gearslutz. The original poster asked "do some preamps add a significant and noticeable improvement to the sound? Or are the differences too subtle”? (see: https://www.gearslutz.com/board/low-end-theory/542898-truth-about-preamps.html)

What follows is a refined version of my posts to that thread. I hope you’ll find this to be a compelling and conclusive argument that explains why microphones are more important than preamps.

To answer the original GearSlutz poster’s question - switching amongst preamps does not add a significant and noticeable improvement to the sound relative to switching mics or mic position.

The differences between preamps, compared to the differences between mics and their placement, are far more subtle. To quote SOS Magazine "...there are bigger hurdles to overcome than choosing between preamps”. (see: http://www.soundonsound.com/sos/jul04/articles/focusriteliquid.htm)

In my opinion, the biggest hurdle facing recordists is alchemical - the hurdle of modulating electro-acoustic tools to convey the Intention of the composer and elicit emotions in the listener.

“Intention”, capitalized -

You’ll notice I’ve capitalized “Intention”. A short definition - “Intention” is a concentration of personal Will just prior to its active expression. Intention is type of potential energy as opposed to kinetic, “active” or expended energy. Intention can be thought of as an intelligent, activating force. Capitalization is used to recognize that the indwelling Spirit of Intention is distinct from either physical, or mental capabilities and expressions - which lie in the material domain and not spiritual domain.

Tools of Transformation -

Some tools are more easily imbued with Intention than others. For example, a guitar can be more expressive than a wooden plank. It can be more effectively modulated to carry, impart and elicit emotions in the listener compared to “dumb” tools like a wooden plank or even a preamp (more on this in moment).

Microphones, at their metaphysical essence, are Energy Transformers. They accept the Intentions of the musician / recordist and transform these Intentions into electrical energy which can be recorded and conveyed to listeners. Microphones are much more powerful at conveying Intention than preamps. Here’s why …

Energy transformation involves losses and artifact generation - this is simple thermodynamics. There is no energy transformation process that is 100% efficient or linear. Microphones offer profound control over energy transformation that preamps do not. This is because inefficiencies and distortions are inherent in the transformation of physical sound energy to electrical energy in microphones (impedance matching one energy system to another and non-linear energy losses in the capsule are just two examples). These inefficiencies and distortions can be contribute to a microphone’s personality or character, and can be used by recordists to help convey Intent.

As a side note - microphones share with an attribute in common with their users - an ability to transform energy from one form to another. For example, the energy expended by our muscles (kinetic energy) acts upon stretched strings (potential energy) to produce sound (acoustical wave particle energy) from a guitar. Microphones are like siblings in this regard. We have a fondness for microphones akin to sibling love because of this shared ability to transform energy from one form to another. Preamps do not possess this trait and we don’t have the same emotional resonance with them as a result.

Preamps Are Energy Amplifiers, Not Energy Transformers -

A preamplifier on the other hand, is a an energy amplification device. The primary job of a preamp is to raise electrical energy from a low level to a higher level. A preamplifier does not change energy from one form to another as does a microphone. Preamps, even the most humble Behringer unit, have frequency response variations that are only a tiny fraction of 1dB. Expressed as a percentage, perhaps only 0.01% amplitude variation from a flat frequent response. But frequency response variations across the operating range in well-loved, classic mics can reach 6dB or more. Expressed as a percentage this is a 100% deviation from a flat frequency response.

Similarly, in the realm of distortion artifacts, preamps generate only tiny fractions of 0.01% THD and IM distortion at normal operating level. But the distortions created in the energy transformation process in a microphone often reach 3%.

Microphones Operate in 3D Space. Preamps Operate in 2D Space

Because a microphone operates in three dimensional acoustic space, the transformation of sound energy into electrical energy can be quite varied depending on the microphone’s physical relationship to the sound source and room boundaries. A recordist operating with Intent can choose to position the microphone anywhere within the three dimensional sound field of the acoustical source and thus inscribe Intention upon the energy transformation process. Let’s contrast this to the use of a preamp …

… a preamp has far more restricted user-access to its fundamental operating parameters. One can operating the preamp in its distortion-free linear zone or choose to overdrive it. That's it. There is no way for the user of a microphone preamp to modulate its amplification function and thus impress Intent. A preamplifier is largely unresponsive to user Intent compared to the use of microphone in 3D space.

Simple Experiment Proves Mics Are More Important Than Preamps - Limit your recording chain to one mic and preamp at a time. Listen for yourself how much more variation in recorded sound is possible through microphone selection and placement compared to swapping preamps.

Spend Your Money Where It Matters Most -

Recording music faces a return-on-investment problem - declining recorded music sales don’t offset recording costs to the extent they once did. In light of this, it seems more prudent to allocate financial resources to the tools that will most affectively allow the musician and recordist to jump the Alchemical hurdle of conveying and eliciting emotion. In my mind this means allocating resources mainly to instruments, room acoustics and microphones - and to a far lesser degree, preamps and converters.

And that my friends, is why microphones are more important than preamps.

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