There are audio interfaces and then there are audio preamps. They might sound similar, but these two pieces of equipment do not serve the same purpose.
What is a preamp? Should I just get a new audio interface instead of a preamp? What’s better - an audio interface or a preamp? These are all questions we answer in this article!
What Is The Difference Between Audio Interface Vs Preamp?
Audio interfaces and audio preamps serve different purposes.
An audio interface is used to send audio signals from one device to another (like a microphone or instrument), while an audio preamp amplifies the signal before sending it out of your mixer or audio interface’s input jacks.
Most audio interfaces include audio preamps as well, so you don’t need to buy both audio interfaces and audio preamps.
A good way to think about it is that an audio interface turns your computer into a mixer or studio with multiple inputs while an audio preamp adds functionality inside the mixer or audio interface for instruments requiring additional gain, like vocals for example.
What Is An Audio Interface?
First, let’s take a look at what audio interfaces are.
These devices help mixers and audio engineers send their recordings to sound systems or digital audio workstations (DAWs).
They use high-quality converters that provide excellent signal quality while sending audio signals from one device to another.
So basically, they allow you to take audio inputs from a microphone or instrument and then send the audio output to a speaker, sound system, digital audio workstation (DAW), etc.
What Is An Audio Preamp?
What is an audio preamp? Preamps are used to amplify audio signals before they are sent out of your mixer or audio interface’s input jacks. They can help boost audio signals to the desired level before sending audio out of an audio interface or mixer.
When Should You Use Audio Preamps?
As noted above, mixers, audio interfaces, some studio equipment, and many others contain an included preamp. So by extension, we can find preamps used in many different situations.
Audio engineers and mixers typically use them on instruments that need additional gain, which includes vocals, electric guitars with piezoelectric pickups (since they are often used at very high volumes), acoustic guitar amplifiers (especially when set to a higher volume than normal) as well keyboards.
Even if your instrument does not require any extra amplification power from these devices - such as drums or basses for example- it can still be helpful in boosting the signal before sending it to an amp/mixing console since this will reduce background noise during live performances.
The design of a preamplifier varies from system to system. Some systems use the preamplifier in a single box, while others use separate components for different tasks.
Preamplifiers can be used in various parts of an audio setup, including at the tape output and record player, powered monitor, or power amplifier connections for bass and guitar amps, before splitting off to more inputs for keyboards or other instrument-level signals.
When adding lots of effects pedals or switching between instruments (i.e., from rhythm guitar to lead guitar), it's helpful if the signal is boosted both before and after running through all those pedals so that there's no loss in volume when going back up through the system on its way into your amp.
If so many devices have preamps already, why have a dedicated preamp out there?
One of the main reasons is that these devices usually output to a relatively low impedance.
This can cause low gain and trouble-free performance in interfacing with typical home appliances.
High-performance audio equipment, on the other hand, may require highish input impedance and more amplification than usual levels or it's not reproduced faithfully.
But many people want the best performance available from decks, radios, etc., so I think most folks would find preamps helpful when they are used in lower-level applications where there will be less noise and interference at any signal path point (it helps avoid microphonic feedback problems).
Moreover, you're protected against distortion from dirty power or drives that could overload the output circuitry of your decks, radios, etc.
A dedicated preamp will prove beneficial in case of a low output microphone.
If you wish to reduce or eliminate all the noise from your recordings, then you need to get a dedicated preamp for your interface.
Preamplifiers multiply weak signals so they reach line level. To perform the task effectively, some microphones require quite a bit of gain.
Another reason why dedicated preamps are used in high-end studios is so that recordings sound as good as possible.
Furthermore, audio coloration is another key reason to use a preamp. This might be the ideal choice for you, especially if you prefer tube preamplifiers.
It is important to know that preamplifiers are expensive and only one part of what goes into producing high-quality audio.
All of this doesn't mean the built-in preamp isn't good. It's just that depending on your own requirements, you have to ask for a higher level to get a clearer and clearer signal.
How Many Types Of Preamp Are There?
Based on circuit design, we can divide preamp into the following 3 main types: Solid-State Preamps, Digital Preamps and Tube Preamps.
Solid-State preamps are the most common type of audio amplifiers. They can be used for both audio and video signals, but they do not have as much warmth in their sound quality as tube preamps.
These amps use transistors to amplify audio frequencies with no need for vacuum tubes or transformers (which is what gives them a "solid" state). Plus, these types usually cost less than tube models.
Technological advances have led to the development of transistors that are used in solid-state preamps to gain more power.
Transistors produce less heat, which makes it possible for gains to be made with higher efficiency.
Their performance at high gains is optimal and minimally distorted. With their gain raised, transistors exhibit low distortion even they reach their maximum gain.
Transparent devices in large part are solid-state devices due to their ability to tolerate significant gains without distortion.
A Digital preamp is quite different from a another one. Basically, analog signals are converted into digital signals using this sort of preamp.
Before sending the signal to a digital audio workstation (DAW), digital preamps ensure the signature of the signal is added along the way.
Computers can even be equipped with digital output sound cards when using digital preamps. Some preamps, however, integrate the conversion and processing directly into the device.
Since analog signals are converted into digital signals by digital preamps, they can also be considered digital interfaces. In spite of the fact that the units look just like preamplifiers, converting the audio signal is simply a byproduct of the primary function - a preamp.
Tube preamps are more expensive than solid-state and digital ones, but they have warmer sound quality.
These types of audio amplifiers use vacuum tubes to amplify audio frequencies with no need for transistors or transformers (which is what gives them their "tube" state).
This type of audio amplifier has been used since before World War II because it provides great amplification at low distortion rates. However, if you're going for cleanliness then this might not be the best option for you.
Moreover, tube units require regular maintenance so the audio signal is not compromised.
When the signal level is increased, the tube will display mild distortion, which causes body and depth described by the term "warmth".
A pleasing effect is produced because of the gradual transformation and measured amount of distortion.
A tube preamp can also add color to recordings due to its tube circuit design, and not just by adding distortion. Natural compression features are provided by the preamp's design.
A normal listener can't differentiate between the subtle difference in tube compression, but producers and engineers would certainly choose it.
An audio mix would not be complete without a connection that binds everything together.
Tube preamplifiers can also be used as low-pass filters, which reduce high-frequency content and smooth out high distortion.
This article, I hope it has given you a different perspective on the technique and use of preamps. At the same time, there is a difference between the audio interface and the preamp.
During the music production process, there will be times when you will have questions about the equipment you use.
The more you know and experience, the more you will be able to set a standard for your home studio and the equipment there.
Hope you will make the right choices when using these devices.