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Best Mic Preamps For Home & Pro Recording Studios (Under $500)

by | Mic Preamps | 0 comments

At the beginning of the recording chain lies the two most important items: the microphone and the mic preamp.

This article on the best microphone preamps under $500 is the second in a series on the best mic preamps available today.

In a previous article, I focused on the best mic preamps under $300.  Please check it out if you’re looking for monitors in that price range.

This article is going to focus on the best microphone preamps between $300 and $500.  The extra $200 make a big difference in a mic preamp’s features, components/construction, and sound quality.

The reviews are divided into two sections:

  • Best Single-Channel Mic Preamps
  • Best Multi-Channel Mic Preamps

Under each section, I’ve categorized the best mic preamps in these types:

  • Solid-state
  • Tube
  • Hybrid solid-state/tube

NOTE: If I could not find any mic preamps under a category that fit my review criteria, then there’s no review.

Best Single-Channel Mic Preamps Under $300

Please see this review article

Best Single-Channel Mic Preamps $300-$500

Solid-State:

Warm Audio WA12
Golden Age Project Pre-73 MKIII
Focusrite ISA One

Best Multi-Channel Mic Preamps Under $300

Please see this review article

Best Multi-Channel Mic Preamps $300-$500

Solid-State:

FMR Audio RNP8380 Really Nice Preamp
Presonus Digimax D8

Tube:

Art Tube Opto 8

500 Series Mic Preamps

If you are interested in 500 series mic preamps, please see these review articles:

Review Criteria

All mic preamps included in my reviews were selected based on their widespread use and reputation in the professional music community and from personal use and knowledge.

I’ve also added my insights gained from my 25+ years of experience running a very successful music production company, plus working with dozens of composers and thousands of tracks for my Audio Addiction Music Library, a production music library with global distribution.

Ultimate Guide To Choosing The Best Microphone Preamp For Your Home Studio

If you’re new to buying microphone preamps, please check out my Ultimate Guide To Choosing The Best Microphone Preamp For Your Home Studio.  You’ll learn how mic preamps work, the types of preamps available, and how to choose a mic preamp that best fits your intended uses and, of course, your budget.

Best Single-Channel Mic Preamps:

Solid-State Mic Preamps

Warm Audio is not a household name in the music community, but it has quickly become a pro audio company to watch with its acclaimed line of mic preamps, microphones, compressors, and EQs.

The WA12, first released in 2012, was Warm Audio’s first product.  This high-quality mic pre is designed to give your tracks that pro sound you hear on records.

Features

The WA12 is a discrete single-channel solid-state mic pre with DI (direct input).

It has a very simple but functional design; the front panel has controls for Input gain and output gain, plus buttons for:

  • Impedance
  • 48V phantom power
  • 20dB pad
  • Polarity reverse
  • Tone

The rear panel has an XLR input, and XLR + ¼” outputs.

It features high gain (+71dB), lots of headroom, low noise, and is built with premium grade components.

How Does It Sound?

The WA12 is based on the classic API 312 mic pre used on countless recording sessions in the 70s.

Because of this, the WA12’s sound is on the vintage side.  If you want a mic pre with lots of character, coloration, and warmth, then this is a strong contender.

It provides a rich sound with a tight low end and a nice high-end sheen.  Vocals sit well in a mix without having to add lots of EQ.

Warm Audio WA12 Tour

The Tone button switches the input impedance between 150Ω and 600Ω.  This changes the tone of the input circuitry, giving you an alternate way to shape your mic’s sound.

Dynamic and ribbon mics will especially benefit from the Tone button, as impedance changes can significantly affect a mic’s loudness and tonal character.

The following video outlines the Tone feature:

Warm Audio WA12 Tone Switch Feature Demo

Final Thoughts

The WA12 can give your recordings warmth, depth, and size that professional recordings have, all at a very affordable price.

Highly recommended!

Warm Audio WA12

Check Price:
Amazon | Guitar Center

Features:

  • Single-channel solid-state mic preamp
  • Premium grade components
  • High impedance input for DI applications
  • Tone button to switch impedance
  • LED metering
  • 71dB of mic gain
  • 20dB pad
  • Polarity switch
  • XLR input / XLTR + ¼” outputs
  • 48v phantom power
  • Half-rack size desktop unit

As with Warm Audio featured in the previous review, Golden Age Music of Sweden is relatively unknown to the U.S. music community.

They began making their own high-quality mic preamps, compressors and acoustic foam panels in 1985, and have many studio owners as satisfied customers today.

The Pre-73 derives its name from the classic Neve 1073 mic pre on which its design is based.  The Neve 1073 is arguably the most revered mic pre in history and is highly sought after for its amazing tone.

Overview & Features

The current Mark III version boasts new features and improvements to the original which was introduced almost 10 years ago.

On the front panel, the unit’s half-rack size enclosure has input and output gain knobs, plus buttons/switches for:

  • Mic/line inputs
  • Highpass 1 and 2
  • 48V phantom power
  • Low impedance
  • Polarity invert
  • Air 1 and Air 2

The Mark III version includes the new Highpass and Air selector switches.

Highpass 1 and 2 gives you two filter settings to reduce low-end mud.

Air 1 and 2 settings give you two EQ presets that add high-frequency space and breadth to recordings.

The rear panel has balanced XLR + ¼” inputs and outputs.

The Pre-73 MK III has an impressive 80dB of gain which is very helpful when working with lower-output mics like dynamics or ribbons.

How Does It Sound?

The Pre-73 MK III delivers that vintage Neve 1073 character, with smooth highs and a strong midrange that adds depth, punch, and warmth to vocals and instruments.

The Gain control allows you to choose your tone from uncolored on the lowest settings to a highly colored vintage sound with higher settings.

The Air buttons give tracks some nice high-frequency sheen.

Finally, in numerous online reviews, users point out how the Pre-73 MK III makes their tracks overall sound more professional.

The Golden Age Audio Pre-73 MKIII In Action

Final Thoughts

The Pre-73 MK III is highly recommended if you’re looking for a warm vintage sound at a very inexpensive price point.

It’s able to hold its own with mic preamps costing much more.

The Pre-73 pairs beautifully with the Golden Age Products Comp-54 or Comp-3A compressor, and their EQ-73 or EQ-81 equalizers.

Check Price:
Amazon | zZounds | Guitar Center

Features:

  • Single-channel solid-state mic preamp
  • Discrete Class A components
  • High impedance input for DI applications
  • LED metering
  • 80dB of mic gain
  • Polarity switch
  • XLR + balanced ¼” inputs and outputs
  • Highpass 1 and 2 selector switch
  • 48V phantom power
  • Low impedance
  • Air 1 and Air 2 selector switch
  • Half-rack size desktop/ rack unit

Focusrite began in 1985 when Sir George Martin (of Beatles fame) asked Rupert Neve (of Neve mic preamp fame) to build new mic pre and EQ modules for recording consoles at AIR Studios London and Montserrat.  These modules – named the Input Signal Amplifier (ISA) – were a hit and later were sold as standalone units.

The Focusrite ISA One takes that legacy and brings it into a very affordable professional level mic pre for home recordists and studio owners everywhere.

With its stellar sound and great features, the IDSA One is a user’s favorite and top seller at many online music retailers.

Overview

The Focusrite ISA One is a transformer-based single-channel mic pre with an independent DI input module.

Its portable desktop enclosure and front panel connections make it a perfect mic pre for home studio owners who act as both engineer and artist.

Unlike most other mic pres, the ISA One allows you to record using the mic and DI inputs simultaneously.  This is very handy for recording singer-songwriters while they play, or for recording direct and miked versions of bass or electric guitar.

You can also choose a blend of the miked and Di inputs, and listen using the built-in headphone cue mix to hear your mix while you record.  These are features that you will find well worth having!

The rear panel gives you XLR and ¼” inputs and outputs, insert jacks, and digital outputs for connecting to a DAW.

The ISA One also has an a Send and Return Insert point that lets you add additional processing such as a compressor or EQ into the signal chain.

How Does It Sound?

Focusrite mic pres are known for their warm, smooth sound.  According to Focusrite, the Lundahl input transformer used in the ISA One is an integral part of its sound, giving it, “… a special character to the sound that can’t be truly emulated in any other way.”

The ISA One sounds great on vocals, guitars, and acoustic instruments.  It helps tracks sound more “pro” and sit well in the mix without having to add tons of EQ or compression.

For further tonal flexibility, the ISA One also includes 4 different input impedances that allow you to tailor the sound to your microphone.  This allows you to shape the sound from a transparent and clean tone to a warmer and rounded character.

Many users have expressed surprise at how much better their mics sound with the ISA One.

Overall, the mic pre delivers a strong, clear mid-range and low-end, smooth and glossy highs, and an overall slightly compressed‑sounding tone.

Recording Terra Grimard with the ISA One

Audio Examples

You can hear demos on guitars, bass, vocals, and more at the site below.  Just click on Preamps and then choose the Focusrite ISA One:

ZenPro Audio Clipalator

NOTE: You can also download all files as high-quality 320K mp3s for comparison against other mic preamps.

Final Thoughts

The ISA One has lots of features and, most importantly, delivers that coveted Focusrite sound.  This makes it a top buy and an incredible value for the price.

Focusrite ISA One

Check Price:
Amazon | zZounds | Guitar Center

Features:

  • Single-channel solid-state mic preamp
  • Classic Focusrite sound
  • Lundahl input transformer based design
  • 4-way mic Impedance selector
  • Independent DI channel
  • Separate headphone cue mix
  • Insert jacks
  • Analog VU + LED metering
  • 80dB gain range
  • Phase reversal button
  • XLR + balanced ¼” inputs and outputs
  • Highpass filter
  • 48V phantom power
  • impedance selector
  • All metal desktop unit

An optional stereo 192kHz A-D converter card is available that allows you to connect directly to your DAW/interface through AES/EBU, S/PDIF or ADAT outputs.

Best Multi-Channel Mic Preamps:

Solid-State Mic Preamps

FMR Audio is a boutique manufacturer of mic preamps and compressor.  All products are designed and assembled at their Texas-based facilities.

The RNP8380 is a high-fidelity dual-channel solid-state mic pre that delivers clean, detailed audio without a lot of hype.

Features

The FMR RNP8380 is housed in a small 1/3 rack enclosure that can either be put on a rack shelf or placed on a desktop.

The unit’s look is pretty utilitarian and does not offer a lot of bells and whistles – just the controls and features needed to produce pro-quality recordings.

And ultimately, isn’t that what you are looking for in a mic pre?

Despite its simple appearance, FMR Audio does include some nice “behind-the-scenes” features that add tons of value:

Stepped Gain Control – The input Gain control is stepped at 6dB intervals, allowing for repeatable settings.  This is something that many mic preamps lack, and without precise gain control it can be hard to get the exact same sound on subsequent recording sessions.

48V Phantom Power Ramp-Up – This feature is designed to protect mics that should not be connected to phantom power from damage.

EMI Resistance – An EMI (electromagnetic interference) filter helps prevent RF (radio frequency) interference, especially at higher gain settings.

Output Mutes – Muting the outputs during phantom power engagement and DI/mic switching eliminates pops that can damage your studio monitors.

How Does It Sound?

Though quite inexpensive, the RNP8380 is highly sought after by both home studio and pro studio users for its sound.

It’s designed as a neutral sounding mic pre, producing a clear transparent sound without coloration.

It has excellent headroom which allows it to produce clear and detailed results at higher gain levels without distorting.

Though it is not the quietest mic pre by lab spec measurements (FMR even states this in the manual), they state that making a pro-quality mic pre that delivers outstanding tonal quality at this price point was more important than trying to achieve the lowest noise floor.

But that said, they also state that its noise level is actually no worse than many tube mic preamps and should not give most users any problems.

Final Thoughts

Overall, the RNP 8380 delivers clean and clear professional quality audio for vocals and instruments.

If you are using the built-in mic preamps on your mixing board or audio interface, you will find the RNP 8380 will substantially elevate your recordings’ quality and sound.

Plus, having 2 channels makes it ideal for recording stereo instruments like acoustic guitar or piano.

FMR Audio RNP8380 Really Nice Preamp

Check Price:
Amazon

Features:

  • Single-channel solid-state mic preamp
  • Discrete Class A components
  • High impedance input for DI applications
  • TRS Insert jacks
  • LED metering
  • 66dB of mic gain
  • 20dB pad
  • Phase Invert switches
  • Balanced XLR + ¼” inputs and outputs
  • 48v phantom power
  • 1/3 rack size desktop unit

The Presonus Digimax D8 is an 8-channel solid-state mic preamp that is widely used in both home and professional studios.

Its mic pre design is based on PreSonus’ highly acclaimed XMAX preamp, and its rich overall sound helps bring out the highest quality results from your microphones.

With 8 mic preamps and ADAT optical connectivity, the D8 is an incredibly cost-effective solution for recording multiple sound sources simultaneously like drum kits or live bands.

Features

The Digimax 8 is a model of simplicity.

On the front panel, each of the eight channels has a Gain controls knob and a Pad switch.

Channels 1 and 2 include front-panel ¼” input jacks for connecting instruments.  Channel 1 and 2 mic inputs are bypassed if the instrument jacks are connected.

A LED meter matrix lets users check each channel’s level.

The rear panel has an XLR Input jack and ¼” TRS balanced Output jack for each channel.

48V phantom power is switchable in even/odd pairs.

NOTE: Having the phantom power switches on the rear is a gripe with some users who rack mount the unit, saying they then don’t have easy access to the switches.

Also included on the rear panel are a 24-bit, 44.1K/48 kHz ADAT optical (Lightpipe) output, plus a BNC word clock input that lets you slave the unit to an external word clock generator, audio interface, or mixer.

How Does It Sound?

At around $50 a mic pre, you’re getting eight solid mic pres that sound much better than the price would lead you to believe.

The Digimax D8’s sound is best described as smooth and round, with good detail and solid imaging.

The unit doesn’t add a lot of character; it just gives you a very usable sound for capturing the sound of your mics.

The XMAX preamp design runs at a higher voltage than most units, giving it plenty of headroom to accommodate mics with lower output like ribbon mics or some dynamic mics.  Though these mics tend to need higher input gain levels, noise levels should not be a problem.

Wrap Up

All in all, the Digimax D8 delivers excellent sound that exceeds what you would expect from a moderately priced 8-channel mic preamp.

The ADAT Lightpipe connection is a major bonus for connecting the Digimax D8 to your studio seamlessly and without hassle.

Is it the best-sounding mic pre out there?  No, but for recording multiple sound sources simultaneously, and with great connectively, the Digimax D8 is hard to beat at this price point.

Presonus Digimax D8

Check Price:
Amazon | zZounds | Guitar Center

Features:

  • 8-channel solid-state mic preamp
  • Based on Prosonus’ acclaimed XMAX mic pre
  • 2 High impedance inputs for recording instruments
  • LED metering/ Clip Indicator matrix
  • LED Clock indicators
  • -20dB pad
  • Eight XLR input jacks
  • Eight ¼” TRS balanced output jacks
  • 24-Bit ADAT Lightpipe optical output
  • BNC Sync/Wordclock In jack
  • 48v phantom power
  • 1U single space rack unit

Tube Mic Preamps

The ART Tube Opto 8 is an 8-channel Class A vacuum tube mic preamp.  It also has 8 channels of ADAT Lightpipe 24-bit audio at either 44.1kHz or 48kHz.

It’s an ideal match for an ADAT Lightpipe equipped audio interface, mixer, or direct-to-disk recorder.

Features

On the front panel, the Tube Opto 8 is divided into 8 channels.  Each channel has input and output gain controls, a LED/Clip meter, a -20dB pad switch, a low-frequency roll off switch to remove rumble, pops, and wind noise, and a phase reversal switch.

Channels 1 and 2 also have ¼” instrument input jacks.

48V phantom power can be switched on/off for channels 1-4 or 5-8.  Care must be taken that you don’t connect a mic that cannot handle phantom power!

The rear panel has an XLR input jack and a ¼” TRS balanced output jack for each channel.

The output level can be switch between +4dBu and -10 dBV to accommodate both pro and consumer level connections.

There is also a 24-bit, 44.1K/48 kHz ADAT optical (Lightpipe) input and output, plus a BNC word clock input and Thru jack that, respectively, let you slave the unit to an external word clock generator (like an audio interface) or pass the word clock signal to another device.

How Does It Sound?

As opposed to the clean non-colored sound of the similarly priced solid-state Presonus Digimax D8, the Tube Opto 8 provides a warm yet detailed “vintage” sound.  It will liven up drum kits, acoustic guitars, acoustic piano, or any instrument or vocal track you send to it.

The general consensus is that the mic preamps sound best when not driven too hard.  When pushed, the sound tended to get a little too clipped and fuzzy for most recording applications.

Audio Examples

You can hear demos on guitars, bass, vocals, and more at the site below.  Just click on Preamps and then choose the ART Tube Opto 8:

ZenPro Audio Clipalator

NOTE: You can also download all files as high-quality 320K mp3s for comparison against other mic preamps.

Final Thoughts

The ART Tube Opto 8 is solidly built and is a strong contender in the 8 mic preamps in a box marketplace.  It delivers a solid analog “tube” sound that helps warm up digital recordings, especially on lower-priced gear.

At about $50 a mic pre, plus the ADAT Lightpipe connectivity, the Opto 8 a great value for the money.

ART Tube Opto 8

Check Price:
Amazon

Features:

  • 8-channel Class A vacuum tube mic preamp
  • Industry standard 12AX7 vacuum tubes
  • 70dB of gain
  • 2 High impedance inputs for recording instruments
  • LED metering/ Clip Indicator per channel
  • LED Clock indicators
  • -10dB pad per channel
  • 80Hz low-frequency roll off per channel
  • Eight XLR input jacks
  • Eight ¼” TRS balanced output jacks
  • 24-Bit ADAT Lightpipe optical output
  • BNC Sync/Wordclock In jack + Thru jack
  • 48v phantom power
  • 1U single space rack unit
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