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Get better vocals with the best vocal preamps money can buy right now
Our Top Picks
Best for home studios: Focusrite ISA One
“The transformer-based ISA One isn't cheap, but for the price, you can't get warmer, richer audio than this”
Best for pro studios: RME OCTAMICXTC
“For serious producers and engineers, this RME preamp is one of the best preamps money can buy”
Most affordable: ART TubeMPSTV3
“While the performance is average, the exceptionally low price makes this a handy choice for beginners”
Best preamp + FX unit: BOSS VE-8
“Less a preamp and more a FX unit, the VE-8 is a great pick for live performers”
How do you get better vocals?
The first step would be to get a better vocalist. But that's not always feasible. In that case, the next step would be to get a better mic. A good vocal mic can add breadth and thickness to vocals that a cheap $50 mic can never capture.
If that doesn't work either, you need a better vocal preamp.
A “preamp” essentially boosts any audio signal before it's fed into an audio processing unit (such as an audio interface). In most studio setups, the processing path looks like this:
Nearly every audio interface already has a preamp built-in. This is what allows the interface to capture mic input. However, the quality of the preamp can vary greatly. After all, the job of the audio interface is to, well, create an interface between your computer and outside audio sources.
This is why in any semi-serious setup, you'll find that the vocal amplification job is offloaded to a dedicated preamp. This unit sits outside the audio interface and usually has dedicated circuitry (analog or digital) to process audio better.
A good, dedicated preamp has a marked improvement on audio quality. If you've ever thought that your vocals lack space or warmth or clarity, you can usually blame the preamp (provided the mic is good enough).
Picking the best vocal preamps isn't easy. Which is why I put together this detailed guide to help you choose the preamp that works for your needs. Below, I'll look at different preamps for home and pro studios, as well as dediated/mixed units with built-in effects and audio interfaces.
The Best Vocal Preamps for Every Need
Let's take a closer look at our favorite vocal preamps for different budgets and needs:
Focusrite ISA One
The ISA One isn't cheap, but for the price, it offers one of the best transformer-based preamps. Throw it onto your audio interface and you'll see a marked improvement in overall audio quality and clarity. For small studios or hobby producers, the ISA One is easily one of the best vocal preamps around.
Some will think of the Focusrite ISA One as “just” another PreAmp. Meanwhile, a few others know which production legends are hidden behind the abbreviation, ISA. Because what the Beetle is to Volkswagen, ISA is to Focusrite. Without it, it will only be half as famous.
As the smallest offshoot of the series, Focusrite offers the ISA One. With a rather modest retail price – for a preamp – , the ISA model is suddenly affordable.
Instead of an inconspicuous cardboard box as is usual, the Focusrite ISA One is delivered in a blue flight case with solid metal edges and corners. It even has two locks.
With a size of around 38 x 32 x 15 cm, you don't really need a hand truck for transport.
The ISA One is not a rack device. It's a table-top device with a beveled front panel. With its sober technical design, at first glance, it looks more like a physical measuring device. The central, large-format VU advertisement, in particular, contributes to this impression. This is supported by two six-stage peak LED meters. These show the level of the main input and that of the instrument input. They also show the external mono signal that is fed in for monitoring or conversion to digital.
In addition to microphone recordings, instrument recordings are of course also possible. The guitar signal can also be forwarded to an external recorder or an audio interface via the DI OUT on the back. You can even make two-channel recordings with a microphone and guitar: the microphone is plugged into the XLR input on the back and led to the main output, the guitar goes to the DI output via the DI input.
What I don't like
Two-channel recordings are unfortunately not via normal line-in.
Recommended for: Small studio owners and serious home producers. It's a great pick if you record your vocals at home. It's also ideal for a small studio that wants competent and consistently warm recordings without spending thousands on tube preamps.
Best for Pro Studios: RME OCTAMICXTC
RME Octamic XTC is an eight-fold mic preamp with a wealth of digital connection options. First of all, the analog preamps in the RME Octamic XTC are the same as in the Octamic II. Eight analog sources can also be recorded simultaneously. And this is where the similarities almost stop because not even the AES/EBU interface is assigned the same.
So to what circumstances does the Octamic owe the name XTC? What is so exciting that the interface got that nickname? As a first impression, one can say that the RME Octamic XTC makes all settings digitally and can therefore also save them.
But that also means the hands-on controls for each channel are gone. Instead, a channel pair (1/2, 3/4, 5/6, and 7/8) is selected and the settings are made using the two-click encoders on the color display.
The outputs can be used as headphone outputs as well as line outputs, but then only with a Y-cable.
Another possibility that digital control of the device opens up is the AutoSet Gain. As the name suggests, the RME Octamic XTC can independently control the gain of a channel. The device tries to set a headroom of at least 6 dBFs. For example, if the recording is at the clip limit with a gain of 30 dB, AutoSet Gain will reset the gain to around 24 dB. And although digital overload actually occurs at first, this gain monitor is more than suitable in practice. Better a little clip than messing up the whole recording.
Of course, there is also a PAD switch (-20 dB) and one for the 48-volt phantom power for each channel. All settings can then be saved in one of the six device-internal presets.
The analog technology, eight preamps, the possibilities of digital assignments, its storability, remote control, and especially the 24-channel connection to a computer make the RME Octamic XTC a completely different beast. For that, the surcharge when compared to the other Octamic is absolutely justified.
What I don't like
The MIDI remote software is not scalable. It only shows input channels. The outputs are not balanced. Finally, Y-cable for line outputs is not included.
Recommended for: The price of this RME makes it prohibitively expensive for all but the most serious of producers. If this describes you (or if you run a studio), the RME Octamix is one of the best preamps around – and certainly one of our favorite picks.
Most Affordable Preamp: ART TubeMPSTV3
The ART Tube MP Studio Version 3 can be called a real classic. Coming at around the same cost as a smartwatch, it costs a real bargain, I think.
The inputs are both balanced as XLR and unbalanced with jack connections. There is also the mini-jack for the external power supply.
You can primarily use it to amplify microphone signals. That is why it has a switchable phantom power supply of 48 volts for condenser microphones.
With the additional controller, the functionality has been expanded to include different sound variants and can also serve as a limiter. Using the controller to the right of the VU meter, various presets can now be called up. According to the manufacturer, they have been optimized for recordings of certain instruments.
You can choose from acoustic or electric guitar, but also keyboard, bass, or vocals. The middle position down is called FLAT and dispenses with any pre-programmed sound setting.
The Art TUBE MP Studio V3, when compared to the Art Tube MP, is an “I'll try my luck” thing. Above all, there is not the slightest description in the manual what exactly the 15 presets actually do. The only thing that helps is to open your ears and listen.
What I don't like
The use of the ART Tube MP Studio V3 did not really convince me. Presets are nice, but in this case not having to readjust anything is too rudimentary for me.
Recommended for: The low price makes the MP Studio the preferred preamp for home recordings. It won't dramatically improve your recordings, but it will add a distinct warmth that home audio interfaces can't offer. For beginners and budget buyers, the MP Studio V3 is one of the best vocal preamps on the market.
Best Rackmounted Preamp: dbx 286s
The entry-level market for studio equipment is highly competitive and with the dbx 286s, dbx has a single-channel preamp/processor in its range. The dbx brand is from the audio and pro audio sector, which belongs to HARMAN, which in turn belongs to Samsung. In times of globalization, there is often a larger brand behind a brand. The customer advantage is obvious. This means that production and supply can be carried out cheaply.
The device, manufactured as a single-channel design, specifies the processing of a mono signal. This can be a microphone signal, an instrument line signal, or a signal that has already been recorded and passes through the dbx 286s preamp/processor.
The dbx 286s preamp can process signals from the condenser or dynamic microphones. The XLR input feeds the former with 48 V phantom power. The gain control, to which an LED level display is assigned, ensures that the input is adjusted accordingly. Also, a high-pass filter can be activated by pressing a button, which means that bass frequencies are reduced. This is best equated with an impact sound filter.
That was it for the first task the dbx 286s was supposed to perform. The processor series, which consists of four different components, can be switched to active or passive via a push button. When the red light is on, this unit is off.
Recordings, mixes, and mastering are possible without compression. The dbx 286s offers 2 controllers and the associated LED display. The drive control determines the degree of compression, and the density control, the release time. Short, hard signal sources such as a kick drum or snare are compressed differently than soft signals such as vocals or bass.
If you would like to incorporate other effects into the dxb 286s, you can do this via an insert. A Y-cable is required for this. A stereo jack in the 286s sends the signal out and receives the signal back. At the other end of the cable, you logically have to use two mono jacks. A reverberation device could be looped in here, for example.
I can't complain about the sound. Of course, more expensive equipment sounds better and shows more details and depth. But you always have to consider budget and area of application.
What I don't like
The lack of an on/off switch is really a shame. If you want to use the dbx 286s in the live area, you are limited to just one signal source. The Chanel strip is mono, regardless of whether vocals or an instrument are connected.
Recommended for: Anyone who has set up their home studio and records to an SD card with a computer or portable recording device must inevitably convert the AD (analog-digital) signal. This is where the 286s comes in. With a round sound, the single-channel preamp is a much better choice than relying directly on a mediocre preamp in the interface. Get it if you want the best vocal preamp that can also be mounted on a rack.
Best Preamp + Audio Interface: Apogee ELEMENT 88
Apogee is known for its stylish, high-quality solutions for audio interfaces on the Mac. The portable Duet and Quartet systems are still very popular, as are the flagships Ensemble and Symphony. But they are not all cheap.
This is where the new Element series with new control software comes in. This means that all interfaces can be combined and used together. The highlight: the hardware is reduced to the bare essentials and does not need any operating elements.
This not only makes the whole thing cheaper, but it can also be used remotely. The roughly comparable element 88 costs around a third less than the quartet and is operated on the computer using the software. The device can be controlled with remote control, directly from the Logic channel strips or wirelessly via iPad and iPhone.
First things first: Apogee remains “Mac only”. The new, hardware-reduced, and Thunderbolt-based Element series includes our current review candidate, the large Element 88. In this series are also included the smaller versions: the Element 46 and the Element 24 as well as the remote control called Element Control Remote. The numbers in the product names refer to the number of inputs and outputs. The element 46 thus has four inputs and six outputs. While element 88 has 16 optical/ADAT inputs and outputs.
Also, you have four inputs with microphone preamps. The four preamplifiers have combo jacks for mic, instrument, and line signals as well as line outs. The outputs are divided into a balanced XLR main-out (2×1) and two independent headphone outputs (2×2). There is also an optical I/O for ADAT, S/PDIF, and SMUX as well as a BNC word clock I/O.
In the typical Apogee tradition, the preamps are extremely potent and deliver plenty of amplification power with up to 75 dB gain. The gain can be set precisely and digitally. The preamps also offer a low-cut, phase reversal, 48V phantom power, impedance adjustment for instruments, and a stereo link (G) as well as the well-known Apogee soft limiter.
The whole thing is fired by a supplied 100 V to 240 V power supply, which, however, has no locking. The connection to the computer is via Thunderbolt 2 and with a maximum resolution of 24 bits and 192 kHz.
What I don't like
The Apogee Element 88 only works for Macs and it has no power supply latch.
Recommended for: If you want one of the best vocal preamps and audio interfaces built into a single combo unit, look no further than the Apogee Element. It's expensive, but the combo unit excels at everything from latency and I/O options to preamp and build quality.
Best Preamp + FX Unit: BOSS VE-8
Externally, the VE8 is rock solid and looks extremely robust after unpacking. The three unmistakable foot switches underline this impression again.
If you look at the vocal preamp, you can intuitively recognize the logically designed structure of the sound-shaping modules. The guitar area on the left, vocals in the middle, and the mix and preset area on the right. All controls and buttons are labeled and you can get started without instructions.
Depending on the function, the buttons are multi-colored in red, yellow, and green. However, there is also a lot to discover under the hood of the Boss VE8. For example, you can fine-tune the effects or adjust the two 3-band equalizers for guitar and vocals. This is usually done by holding the relevant button for a longer period of time.
Most acoustic guitars in the live segment are now equipped with piezo pickups. The advantage is obvious, relatively high, constant volumes can be achieved without a microphone and thus position-related. The disadvantage, depending on the instrument, is sometimes the somewhat harsh, cold piezo sound. In the VE8, the “Acoustic resonance” control tastefully counteracts this behavior. For me, this is actually the most important parameter for transmitting an acoustic guitar on stage.
The VE8's guitar effects are divided into two sections. On the one hand, there are modulation or delay effects and then a dedicated reverb unit. Both effect chains are of very high quality. Already, BOSS has a long history of guitar effects. Also, many so-called “sub-parameters” can be accessed and changed by holding down various keys.
As a bonus, there is the “slow gear” effect, which changes the transient response of the strings, and an “octaver”.
Conclusively, the Boss VE8 convinces me all along the line. It is by no means a “niche product” for singers/songwriters who play guitar. What I liked best was the guitar preamp with its qualities for enhancing the “naked” piezo signal and the really useful and melodious effects. Plug and play is not just a phrase here, it is implemented in a practical manner for the needs of the stage. The vocal effects as well as looper and built-in tuner do the rest.
On the connection side, nothing is left to be desired. Even if you don't need the vocal effects, the purchase is worthwhile for the practicing “only” acoustic guitarist. If you were to buy the components individually plus the power supply, the price of the VE8 can only be classified as extremely attractive.
What I don't like
What I don't like is the looper. With it, there's no way you can undo the last loop you had. You can only start over again.
Recommended for:The Boss VE8 is aimed at acoustic guitarists and singer-songwriters. Think of it as less of a preamp and more of a performance tool that has preamp + basic effects built into the same unit. For performers, especially singer-songwriters, it's easily one of the best vocal preamps around.
Over to You
The best vocal preamps can add a whole new dimension to your vocals. If you want clarity, depth, and breadth in your vocals, choose one of the preamps listed above.
For more suggestions and recommendations, email us using this contact form.
Check our other recommendations
- Need a good audio interface? Here are our choices for home producers
- See our recommendations for the best tube preamps
- For our list of the best mic preamps, see this page
- Focusrite (Official website)
- Apogee Audio (Official website)
- RME Audio (Official website)
- BOSS Audio (Official website)
- November 7, 2020: Article first published