What is the difference between a Preamp vs. Interface? Glad you asked.. It’s not a question that gets asked a lot, but it is important in determining which gear you decide to buy for your home studio! Before we get started though..
Grab a snack, sit back and relax because..
You’ve come to the right place!!
What I will bring you in this article
What do interfaces do?
Now without further ado, let’s get rolling!
You may have been shopping around for an audio interface when the term “Preamp” came up. Now you’re wondering what the difference is, and do I need both or just one? Do interfaces come with built in preamps? All of these are great questions that I’ve had to deal with in buying gear myself. It can be confusing and frustrating when starting out. There are so many options available to us and I’ve been overwhelmed on more than one occasion. Today I’ll make it crystal clear!
This is a stand alone unit with no direct computer connection. External preamps are often used to make the sound of an audio interface even better. They will change and alter the sound (color it if you will). External preamps have their own sound, and have the ability to add a lot of flavor to your recordings. Another benefit with having a separate preamp is better gain. This makes it so you can be farther away from the mic but still get a really strong signal. A lot of times you’ll notice in youtube videos, as soon as the vocalist or speaker pulls away, the sound is diminished significantly. A standalone external preamp helps out with this quite a bit. The proximity effect is what it’s called.
The components in an external preamp are also usually of a higher quality, and the power isn’t shared with other components. It isn’t night and day, but does make a difference in the grand scheme. Once your ear starts to develop more, you’ll notice these small nuances in sound that can really make or break a recording.
How to hook up an external preamp?
A great question! There’s really just 2 steps:
Plug your microphone (using XLR cable) into the external preamps mic input.
Run a 1/4 inch cable (TRS), from the output of the external preamp, into an available line input on your audio interface.
Since you’re using an external preamp to bring the mic signal to line level, you don’t need the gain on the audio interface anymore.
Turn the interface gain knob all the way down.
Adjust the gain on the external preamp from now on if you need more.
A lot of the newer audio interfaces have preamps built in, and are a really popular and affordable option when starting out. Also convenient, these will work with a bunch of different microphones, and come with USB capability. The Scarlett 2i2 is a good example. It works like a charm and is really easy to set up. The drivers are flawless, and it also looks great in studio. It powers studio monitors, and also uses 48v phantom power for any microphone I may be using. Lately I have been using it with the fantastic entry level AT2020. Learn more:Audio Technica AT2020 condenser microphone review!
What do interfaces do?
Well I’m glad you asked that! They provide a Digital to analog conversion, sending information to your computer for it to process. Your CPU actually makes sense of this in the form of 1’s and 0’s. When you speak into your mic (analog), it gets sent across the motherboard of your computer, is processed, and then the recording is played back digitally for your ears. The conversion happens in less than a second!
Preamps also boost the signal on your microphone to a listenable level (called line level). That’s it! Just think of it as a giant volume knob turned all the way up. The great news about audio interfaces is that the preamps used are clean and clear, and will do a fine job replaying back the recording at a loud enough level. If you plan on using an interface, you will most likely have to color the sound in a different way (separate from the stand alone preamp mentioned above).
This could mean using different mics, experimenting with mic placement, or using plugins that add different effects to the sound. A great example of an effects rack (or channel strip) that’s simple and effective is the DBX 286s. This baby allows you to edit the sound of your voice essentially in real time, by providing features like an on-board Compressor, De-Esser, Enhancer, and Expander/Gate. It’s great for folks who are more hands on.
Built in preamps that come with interfaces really get a bad time of it. In reality, there’s nothing wrong with them. In fact, they are really the way to go in my opinion when starting out. They work perfectly in many small bedroom studio setups or otherwise, and ooze quality. Engineers 30 years ago would have killed to have the kind of equipment us spoiled producers have these days!
My Top recommendation
If you’re just starting out, I would go with an audio interface that has built in mic preamps. You can always add a separate one later if you want. I did a lot of research before purchasing the Scarlett 2i2, and I’ve seldom been happier with a piece of gear. This baby really shines, and leaves such a small footprint on my desk. I literally plugged it in, and within seconds it had recognized the device and was ready to use. Simple as pie, and I’ve had it since December of 2014. Interested in learning more?
Stu is determined to provide the truth about all things audio, and strives to deliver excellent content to you the reader! In his spare time, he likes to fish, paint, play guitar, attend church, take photos, record videos, graphic design, and more. His attention to detail and perfectionist attitude are what allow him to excel, but it can be both a blessing and a hindrance at times.