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Setting the Record(ing) Straight: Interfaces and Preamps

Hi. I’ve been voice acting for a few months. My coach has mentioned getting a preamp a couple times. He says it will help my sound quality. I’m using a Focusrite Solo preamp with AKG Perception microphone. Is the Solo not good enough? 
ty, Danielle

 

Hi Danielle,


I’d love to tell you this had a simple answer, but neither of us is that lucky today. 


First, let me get the easy part out of the way. Right now, you do not need to purchase a preamp. But I wouldn’t be me, if I didn’t qualify that answer with some important details. This isn’t something you really need to know right now, but it may come in handy in the future. At the risk of insulting another industry professional, which I try not to do, it sounds like your coach isn’t very well-versed in preamps and technology. That’s fine, as long as he’s helping your performance, but I’m glad you reached out to me for an answer on this one.


First, it’s important to understand the Scarlett Solo is not a preamp. A preamp is one of its parts, but the Solo, itself, is an interface. I’ll get into what that means in a moment. 


Microphones work using very, very small amounts of electricity. You can think of it like volume being very soft. That isn’t technically correct, but it illustrates the function. When you see those waveforms when you record? Without a preamp, they would be almost too small to see. When you turn up the input knob, or gain, you are increasing that electrical amount to a more usable level. The preamp circuitry is what makes that possible. In slightly more technical terms, we are taking what’s called a “mic level” signal, and turning it up to a “line-level” signal.


All mics need a preamp, and preamps come in many forms. The little 1/8” microphone jack on the back of a desktop computer? That is connected to a preamp. Some preamps cost thousands of dollars and have a huge amount of complex circuitry. Same purpose, just very different quality.


So, if you’re following, a preamp is basically a device that makes microphone signals louder. When that signal is turned up, it always impacts the sound, in some way. The cheapest designs add a lot of noise and distortion in this process. Higher-end preamps almost always amplify the signal with minimal noise and unpleasant distortion. Many great designs focus on creating a clean, transparent sound, while others impart a pleasing character onto the sound. Generally, those leaning toward the cleaner, more transparent sound are more desirable for voiceover.


Any piece of equipment designed to have a microphone plugged into it, contains a preamp. That includes an interface, like your Scarlett Solo.


An interface is a device made to connect your computer to things outside your computer. It’s the liaison in between your microphone, and your DAW software. The Scarlett Solo is an example of a common basic interface. It contains analog-to-digital converters, digital-to-analog converters, a headphone connection, line-level outputs, a USB connection, an instrument preamp (different than a mic preamp), and yes, one mic preamp, as well.


As you can see, with all of the other components, it would be incorrect to call it a preamp, though it isn’t uncommon to discuss the quality level of the preamp contained within an interface. Some people choose to place a standalone preamp before the interface, for the purpose of capturing the benefits of that particular preamp. It’s a fairly common practice with higher-end systems.


Let’s get back to your original question. The preamps in the Scarlett Solo are low-distortion, quiet preamps. They are suitable for voiceover work as-is. To do better, requires a significant step up in price. You mentioned you use something from the AKG Perception line. Like most budget-conscious mics, a higher tier preamp will not provide much benefit to the sound. In fact, I doubt you or your coach would perceive the difference. Without hearing a sample, I’m guessing, but I’d bet that money would go much further if placed into the acoustics of your space. As you grow, the interface and preamp quality will become more important. When everything else is top-notch, the quality of the preamp is something worth considering. For now, use what you have with confidence. It’s perfectly fine.


Emmett

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