Today’s audio interfaces have amazing sound quality, with great mic preamps in many cases, but they’re usually tend to be 'clean' sounding (some would even say 'a bit boring') and there’s also a few high-end interfaces with no preamps whatsoever. We’ve gone through many threads and have also consulted with our membership on how to address this issue - we've come up with a list of ten preamps (in alphabetical order by model name) to add some flavours (besides 'vanilla') to your recording setup.

Black Lion Audio Auteur MkII

Black Lion Audio is well-known for their audio interface modifications that seek to improve their sound by replacing critical components in the signal path, but they’re also building some interesting outboard equipment of their own and one of their most talked-about pieces is the Auteur MKII. This two-channel preamp is based on a classic American recording console design, delivering up to 65 dB of gain via its Edcor output transformer. The Auteur is a very straightforward to use unit - all you have to do is plug in the mic, set the input gain and start recording, but it also features buttons for the output attenuation pad (10 dB), phase switch, and +48V phantom power - all packed into a half rack unit, which means you can have four channels of fine pre-amplification on a single 19” slot. Definitely a great choice that delivers a big bang for a relatively small buck. Also available as a 500-series module.

Cloud Microphones Cloudlifter CL-1

The Cloudlifter CL1 is not exactly a traditional preamp - it’s a “in-line” preamp that sits between the microphone and the actual mic preamp to simply deliver +25dB of pure, noiseless gain. Our members frequently recommend the CL1 as a handy device that can give your current mics a little boost and thus it earns a spot on our list. Here’s how the CL1 might come into play: you have an interface with a great monitoring section and good line-level inputs, but the pres are kind of faint when you need more gain for a ribbon mic, a hungry dynamic mic (I’m looking at you, SM7!) - or if you just feel like the preamp is struggling under higher input gains. That’s when Cloudlifter enters the game - it boosts the signal before it reaches your preamp so the preamp can work within its optimal range. It’s also relatively affordable, so it's a worthy addition to any studio dealing with dynamic or ribbon microphones as mentioned. Also available as a two-channel (CL2) version.

Focusrite ISA One Analogue

The ISA One is widely appreciated on and a rare consensus when it comes to somewhat affordable mic preamps. This single-channel unit is basically a channel strip (minus the dynamics and EQ) taken from the Focusrite Studio Console, the acclaimed AIR Studios console from the 1980s designed by none other than Mr. Rupert Neve himself. The ISA One is a feature-rich unit with more than a few tricks up its sleeve: XLR/TRS connectors for input/output, a quality front-panel DI with an 'Amp' output, +48V phantom power, switchable impedance to correctly match any source input (or mismatch for creative effect), an insert point for external effects, a stereo cue mix input for monitoring, a headphone output, a VU meter with variable calibration + 6-LED input/output peak meters and also an optional analog-to-digital converter card. Everything is mounted in a sturdy metal chassis that’s built to last a lifetime - and is also nicely portable. If you want an extra channel still and have a bit more to spare Focusrite also offers the ISA Two, a two-channel unit with slightly fewer features but assembled in a rack-friendly (1U/19”) format.

Daking Audio Mic Pre One

According to Daking, the Mic Pre One was designed especially with the home recording crowd in mind, but on offer is a single-channel preamp that’s so well built that many professionals have adopted it as their “go-to” pre. The One delivers up to 70 dB of gain with top notch electronics, it’s equipped with variable input gain, a variable high-pass filter up to 200 Hz, high-resolution input metering on 20 LEDs, buttons for a gain pad (-20 dB), phase flip, +48V and input selection (via rear XLR or front TRS). It’s also a very sturdy unit, with a steel housing that’s strong and portable enough for the road. The Mic Pre One will very likely outclass the pre on your current interface and there’s a good chance that it will 'survive' your future upgrades to serve you for a lifetime. Also available as a 19” rack format with 4-band EQ.

Seventh Circle Audio PC01

Seventh Circle Audio (SCA) has garnered quite a reputation among our users, with high quality and affordable preamps. Pictured above is the PC01, which is a single-channel chassis that can house four different preamp designs which are all based on reputable industry-proven designs. All four share the same set of controls, with input gain, output trim, frontal DI input, rear XLR input/output, switches for +48V, input pad, polarity flip and input impedance. If you’re up for some basic soldering and assembly, SCA also offer a number of different preamp kits which come "unbuilt", and as such can be a very cost-effective alternative, so make sure to check them out if you’re willing to put in a little work yourself. A bigger rack with up to eight slots is also offered, which might be great for those with higher input channel requirements.

Golden Age Project Pre-73 MKIII

The Golden Age Project (GAP) Pre-73 MKIII is a single-channel preamp based on a vintage British recording console. This unit offers a line/mic switch with input gain control (up to 80 dB of gain), two impedance options (300 and 1200 ohms), a Hi-Z TS input for instruments on the front panel, an insert point for external processors, a polarity flip button and a ubiquitous +48V phantom power button. GAP offers two variations of the Pre-73, so if your budget is tight you might consider the PRE-73 JR, which is a bare-bones preamp at a lower price, or if the funds allows there’s the PRE-73 DLX, which adds a high-pass filter with variable frequency selection and an output attenuator that makes driving the input signal for extra color a bit easier. All great choices to add some classic tones to your setup without breaking the bank.

ART Pro Audio Pro MPA II

Art’s Pro MPA II is the second iteration of this popular dual-channel 19” two rack space mic preamp, with an improved circuit, a reworked faceplate and previously unavailable features such as variable input impedance (150 to 2400 ohms), two options for plate voltage, a frontal Hi-Z instrument input and interestingly, a mid-side matrix control. The MPA II is equipped with two big VU input meters, eight LEDs to indicate tube warmth, a variable high-pass filter from 7.5 to 300 Hz, dedicated gain/output controls, XLR inputs and XLR/TRS outputs on the rear side. The MPA II is a tube preamp, which means you can swap out the tubes to your liking too, and with the variable impedance and plate voltage it opens up a surprising amount of flexibility for the price-point. Definitely worth-considering alternative in the low budget department.

Warm Audio TB12 Tone Beast

The Tone Beast is all about getting good colour and rich-sounding tones. It packs two Cinemag transformers and two op-amps that can be swapped out for even more sonic variation. Even if you stick to the default configuration you’re set for lots of flexibility via the set of parameters provided by the “Tone Control” section of the front panel, which allows for a number of useful tweaks in the signal path to control the distortion. The TB12 also features convenient XLR/TRS inputs on both the front and rear side, a balanced TRS/XLR output, an insert for external processors, and buttons for +48V, polarity flip, HP filter (80 Hz), -20 dB pad, and Hi-Z for the instrument input and mic/line input selection. This box is definitely a solid pick if you’re after a preamp with a lot of tricks up its sleeve.

Warm Audio WA12

Warm Audio has delivered an almost ridiculous value proposal with the WA12, a single channel unit that's also based on mic preamps from a revered American console. The WA12 features a combo XLR/TRS input and XLR output on the rear panel, front panel Hi-Z instrument input, +48V phantom power, output gain pad, polarity flip and a “tone” button that switches the input impedance from 150 to 600 ohms. This distinctively orange unit has a small footprint (half 19” rack) but it packs a lot of gain (up to 71dB) and comes equipped with acclaimed USA Cinemag input/output transformers for a pleasantly coloured tone. A great choice for an exciting preamp that won’t shred your savings account.

Universal Audio 710 Twin-Finity

This single-channel preamp has an interesting combination of tube and solid-state signal paths, and the coolest part is that it can do anything 'in between' those two paths with the knob at its centre. The 710 “Twin-Finity” delivers up to 70 dB of gain and comes with input gain/output level controls, a front instrument input, a rear XLR line/mic input & XLR line output, a VU meter that can be set to measure the output or the input’s drive, switches for the 15 dB pad, high-pass filter (75 Hz), mic/line input selection and phase inversion. It’s housed on an elegant steel chassis that allows for two units to be assembled side by side on two 19” rack slots. The Twin-Finity is made by none other than Universal Audio, so it’s assured to be built with premium components for great quality through and through. If money is not a problem and you really want the authentic Bill Putnam tube preamp sound then also consider the UA SOLO 610, which is widely regarded as one of the best tube preamps out there.

We know that the choice of a preamp is a very personal one and that it goes hand in hand with the choice of microphone, so please share your setup with us. What interfaces are you expanding and improving with external preamps?

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