If your read the article about mic preamp options, then you know that while various audio interfaces and mixers exist that also have the mic preamp added in, your best bet is to go for a standalone mic preamp that does what you need it to do, provide phantom power and gain to boost the microphone signal to line level. If you want to have the best mic preamps under $500 and still get a quality sound that is noticeably better than that provided by interfaces and mixers with preamp added in, then you’re going to have to limit yourself to either a single or dual mic preamp. In this article I share some models that really fit the bill in terms of getting the best combination of price and quality. And remember this point: Just because a mic preamp costs more than the ones listed here doesn’t mean it’s going to be better. I’ve specifically chosen models that have managed to achieve a high quality at an affordable price.
The FMR Really Nice Preamp
The FMR Really Nice Preamp (FMR RNP). Right now this dual-channel preamp is retailing on Amazon.com for $475, and it’s a beauty. The product only has 12 reviews on Amazon, but they are all either 4 or 5 stars, which is pretty amazing in and of itself. In the world of audio geeks, this unit gets high praise, not just from home recording DIY-types, but even from studio professionals! You’ve got two channels to plug in whatever you want, along with 48v of phantom power if you need it for condenser microphones (which you can read more about in articles on this site located here and here). This powerful mic preamp can deliver a full 66db of pure gain – which is quite a bit more than many other mic preamps, audio interfaces or multi-track recorders can offer. Sure, if you crank it all the way up to 66db you’re going to hear some noise, but only an amount of noise you would get on other equipment at only 50db, so it does quite well on that account. If simple, clean gain is what you’re after, this is the unit that can deliver at an affordable price.
Golden Age Project Pre73 MKII Microphone Preamp
The Golden Age Project Pre73 MKII Microphone Preamp. This is another unit that has achieved near-cult status in the audio world. Currently retailing on Amazon.com for just $349.99, this is a high-quality affordable solution for those who only need a single-channel mic preamp. It also follows the simple philosophy of supplying phantom power and pure gain. The manufacturer describes the color of the sound as “a warm and punchy character with a sweet musical tone reminiscent of that classic, versatile sound perfect for any genre of music.” On Amazon, this one also only has 12 customer reviews, and 9 of them are either 4 or 5 stars. Maximum gain setting is 80db, which is more than enough for most purposes. Basically, everyone is astounded at the quality of the unit’s construction and performance at such a budget price.
Focusrite ISA One Classic Single-channel Mic Pre-Amplifier
The Focusrite ISA One Classic Single-channel Mic Pre-Amplifier with Independent D.I. is a somewhat odd-looking unit compared to the others listed here, but it is a powerhouse single-channel mic preamp that can also be used with instruments, making it very versatile. It retails on Amazon for $499, so it just makes the cut for inclusion here. There are four customer reviews, all of which are at the 5-star level. The gain range on this unit is 0dB to 60dB in 10dB steps. It includes a switch for 48V phantom power, a phase inversion switch as well as a high-pass filter. It also allows for switching between four different microphone impedance settings, though just why you’d want to do that is a rather complex technical affair beyond the scope of this article. Just know that it’s there if you need it.
These first three mic preamps are “old-school” in the sense that they are analog systems. If you’re interested in digital processing, then the final unit will be of interest to you. Why would you want digital processing? If, for example, you’re going to record a liver performance where you have one shot to get it “on tape” and can’t treat it later, then you need to have a compressor somewhere in your signal path because you can’t compress later. Compression, by the way, reduces any loud sounds over a certain threshold while leaving the quitter sounds unaffected, thereby preventing distorting spikes in volume of particular sounds.
PreSonus Studio Channel Single Channel Vacuum Tube Channel Strip
The PreSonus Studio Channel Single Channel Vacuum Tube Channel Strip is a great choice if you want to make the move into digital processing rather than analog. This one will be especially appealing to anyone who is a fan of using vacuum tube technology in their audio activities. It includes the typical 48V of phantom power, includes an 80Hz high-pass filter, a polarity-reverse switch and offers a total gain control ranging from +10dB to +54dB, which is plenty for most purposes. This unit currently retails on Amazon for $299.95, although there are no customer reviews to examine. It’s designed to handle a wide range of sounds and includes compression to tame down anything that gets to be too much.
If you’re in the market for the best mic preamp you can buy for less than $500, the above four options represent the right mix of quality and affordability that will greatly improve your audio engineering capabilities.