Preamp plugins look to imitate the sound of hardware preamps, the first step in an audio chain after the microphone. The sound travels from the mic to the pre, boosting the signal. From here, the engineer can make changes to the sound using the different parameters, usually EQ, compression, and saturation.
The plugin versions of preamps aim to do the same thing. They simulate the hardware tone that is naturally present in electronic gear. This tone gives tracks in a Digital Audio Workstation (DAW), which can be a bit bland and lifeless, a richer analog feel.
How To Use Preamp Plugins?
To get started with preamp plugins, select one and add it to your track’s chain. The interface will open, and you will be able to see all the parameters. The most basic preamps should have input and output gain knobs (sometimes called drive and trim knobs), while more advanced ones have EQ, compression, etc.
Let’s start with a basic preamp plugin that only has input and output gain. Both of these will be set to 0 as a default. The more you boost the input gain, the more saturated the signal will become. For example, rock guitars are usually quite saturated, so if you have a clean guitar sound and want to make it heavier, turn up the input gain.
You should notice that the track is getting a lot louder. If you add too much gain, you can damage your speakers, so now it’s time to turn it down. You can do this using the output gain knob. Doing this won’t reduce the amount of saturation you added; it will just make the total signal lower. You want to aim for the level it was at before turning up the input gain.
Before moving on, it’s important to remember that gain isn’t the same as volume. Turning up the input gain on the plugin and then turning down the volume on your track won’t give you the same results as turning down the output gain. Although it might sound the same in terms of loudness, the amount of gain will influence how the following plugins in the chain will react to the signal.
In the digital world, aiming for a signal level between -18dB and -12dB is best, so set your level here before adding any plugins. After adding the preamp, if you turn up the input gain and the level gets to, for example, -6dB, use the output gain to bring it back down to its original level. You’ll still have that great saturated sound the preamp gave you, the track will still fit into your mix, and it will be ready for some more plugins.
Using Preamp Plugins On Guitar, Vocals, Bass & Drums
Now that you know how to use a preamplifier plugin, let’s understand how they work on different instruments. We’ll take a look at guitars, vocals, bass guitar, and drums, and some suggestions for using the gain, EQ, and compression parameters on each one.
- Preamp Plugins On Guitar
Running your guitar signal through a preamp plugin can give you a clearer sound that will bring this instrument through in the mix. Adding some harmonic content, removing some lower, rumbling frequencies, and lightly compressing the signal can give you great results.
Whether your guitar is recorded using an amp, a direct input, or just mics near the body (in the case of an acoustic guitar), it will have some low frequencies that it doesn’t need. They can make the sound muddy and overlap with the low frequencies you want present on the bass and kick drum. Using the preamp’s hi-pass filter or low-shelf is the best way to remove some of these unwanted frequencies.
The low-mids also reduce the clarity of the signal, so using a bell curve cut can be a good idea. There’s no definite spot, but it’s usually between 200 and 500Hz. However, different guitars, amps, and microphones will yield varied results. The only way to really know is by listening carefully and trying different cuts.
The high-shelf can add more space to your guitar sound, and the high-mids can give more presence. However, these frequencies might also clash with other instruments, like snare and vocals.
After EQing, bring the guitar closer to the mix using the compression options and the input gain to add some more saturation. For genres like folk, lightly compressed and saturated guitars usually work best. On the other hand, heavier styles like rock and metal tend to have highly compressed guitars with lots of saturation and distortion.
- Preamp Plugins On Vocals
Vocals tend to be the most important instrument in a mix. They can be very dynamic, so they need to be controlled more using compression. A good preamp plugin will easily set your vocals in the mix by adding harmonic content that will make them stick out and compression that will bring them to the front.
Using EQ on vocals can be challenging. You need to ensure that there isn’t too much low-end to make the signal rumble or not enough high-end so that the voice sounds muffled. Compression can bring its own problems. Not enough, and the vocal will be covered by the other instruments; too much, and it will sound unnatural.
When starting your vocal mix with a preamp, it’s best to use light touches. Avoid big EQ boosts or cuts, and high-ratio and slow-release compression. Using the input and output gain will give you some nice saturation. Further down the chain, you can use more extreme EQing and compression.
Analog Obsession PreBOX (Free Preamp Plugin – Great For Vocals)
- Preamp Plugins On Bass Guitar
It’s very common to record bass guitar using an amp and a DI. Here is where the polarity switch is going to come in handy. The low end can also easily be canceled out by the kick drum’s lower frequencies, so checking the polarity between these two instruments is very important.
The bass is another instrument that can lack clarity if the low-mids take over and there aren’t many high-mids. Adding saturation can give it some attack, especially if it’s played without a pick, and using the equalizer options can give it more clarity. This way, it won’t be just a rumble with no definition.
If your preamp has a tube option, trying the different sounds can get you a great tone. The bass, for the most part, should have a thick low-end. Certain tube parameters can give you the best tone, so your bass doesn’t sound too thin.
- Preamp Plugins On Drums
One of the instruments that a preamp plugin will make the most difference on is the drums. Using one on each part of the kit can give you better-defined sounds that can stick out in the mix. But what works incredibly well is inserting the preamp on the drum bus. It will shape the whole kit’s sound quickly and easily.
Mixing the drums is one of the essential parts of the whole process because this one instrument is spread across the whole frequency spectrum. The kick handles the low end, the toms and snare are focused mainly in the mids, and the highs are concentrated on the cymbals. Starting with a preamp on the drum bus/group can help control the high-end if it’s too strident and make the kick drum low yet punchy.
When focusing on the individual parts of the kit, it’s important to remember what their sonic tone is, where they need to sit in the mix, and how they might interact with the other instruments.
The kick drum needs to be low yet present, so it needs some attack in the mids. The snare can get muddy in the low mids, but this can also be where its presence lurks. It’s unusual to want a thin-sounding snare. And the cymbals might have some lower rumble and be too harsh in the highs.
How To Use EQ On A Preamp Plugin?
If you have a more advanced preamp plugin, you should have the possibility to use EQ. Some plugins use the basic system with bass and treble parameters. Some might have a mid option as well. These options are the easiest way to cut or boost these intervals of frequencies, so you can easily get a good sound.
As the plugins get more advanced, you’ll notice more EQ options, like a hi-pass filter, low and high shelves, and bell curves, among others. The hi-pass filter allows you to remove frequencies below a certain level. It’s common to have preamps that can be set to 50, 80, 120, or 300Hz. Any frequency below this level will be reduced.
The shelves and bell curves usually allow you to pick a certain frequency, then choose if you want to boost or cut the gain. A snare drum is a good example of better understanding these cuts and boosts. It’s common to cut some of the low mids, as they can make the overall sound a bit muddy and unclear, and to boost the high mids to get some clarity and a good “snap” from the drumstick.
How To Use Compression On A Preamp Plugin?
Another great feature of a more advanced preamp is compression. Using the input and output gain parameters already gives your signal some compression, but preamps with dedicated compressors give you more control. You should be able to regulate the threshold, makeup (or output gain), ratio, attack, and release.
Compressing the signal using the preamp plugin allows you to shape the sound right from the start. Sometimes, it’s best to begin with light compression, making the track stick out better in the mix. Then later, you could use a specific compressor to control the sound further.
However, if you’re sure you want a drastically compressed sound right from the beginning, go for it. The only problem with this is that if you want to lighten the compression later on after you’ve used more plugins in the chain, it will influence the signal going into them. These changes can bring you further from the tone you’re looking for.
What Other Options Are On Preamp Plugins?
Aside from the gain, EQ, and compression options, you might have a preamp that includes other parameters like tube sounds or polarity. These will influence the sound in different ways, so it’s best to know what each one does. Let’s look at these two examples:
- Tube Sounds
As hardware units can be powered by tubes, some plugins give you the option to change between different ones, bringing a distinct sound to the signal because of the harmonic range and frequency response. A good example is Black Rooster’s OmniTec-67A, which has three tube sounds to choose from.
Many of the best-known preamplifiers have switches so that you can quickly and easily flip the polarity of your track. This is useful if you have two signals recorded together that might have opposite polarities, for example, a bass recorded using a DI and an amp. The Neve Preamp by UAD is a good example. Its polarity switch is right in the middle of the interface.
Preamp plugins can be extremely useful tools when mixing. They can give your lifeless digital sound an analog vibe that is more similar to the music you listen to. The presets can get you closer to the mix you want, and now, after reading this article, you should be able to tweak them and make your music sound as good as it can.
If you start with a basic input/output gain plugin, you can learn how to add some saturation to your tracks. Once you’re comfortable with that, move on to a more advanced preamp with EQ and compression capabilities. Practice using these on guitars, vocals, bass, drums, and any other instrument you want to use. You’ll find that in no time at all, your mixes will be at the next level.
Irish-Portuguese writer and musician. Experience in producing, recording, and mixing, as well as writing reviews and how-tos on plugins, gear, and software.