Mic preamps for vocals.

In the past, I've liked adding a little bit of distortion to the vocals when I really get yelling. This means that as a louder sound is introduced to the microphone, it pipes a higher voltage signal to the preamplifier, which then begins to change the sound in a way that I like. The mic pre I've relied on for this is the Hamptone HJFP2, which has a JFE transistor (AKA, JFET) that starts to distort when driven hard.

The Hamptone has been good but never exactly what I've hoped. I hate terms like this, but I can only describe the distortion sound as "wooly" - emphasizing the midrange and rolling off the high frequency part of the sound. I'd like to find something that has a bit more crispness to the break-up.

Fortunately I live about a mile away from one of the best audio rental houses in the world: Dreamhire. I went down there on a Saturday and rented four very expensive preamps and one expensive compressor for about 8 hours. I tested all of them and the Hamptone, the dbx 786 and the Sytek MPX-4A. The mic here is the Josephson e22s, a low impedance large-diaphragm condenser that has a frequency response bump around 8khz.

1. Tubetech MP1A
2. Neve 1272
3. Hamptone HFPJ2
4. GML 8302
5. Sytek MPX-4A (Burr Brown)
6. Focusrite ISA 215
7. dbx 786
8. Sytek MPX-4A stock > Empirical Labs Distressor
9. Sytek MPX-4A stock > Valley People Dynamite

This was a difficult test to control. While each of these is supposed to sound nice as it breaks up, it was pretty hard on very short notice to dial in the "same" amount of distortion for each of the different options.

So hard, in fact, that I wasn't able to do it in time. Instead, I've got a kind-of comparable set of samples. The first two have way more distortion than the others (I didn't even dial up the gain on the Hamptone high enough), the rest have about the same, the last two are actual compressors (instead of using the overload of the preamps to compress the signal). What can I say? It's a bit of a mess. The first of these is more of a yell-y part of a song.

The first two do sound distorted and, honestly, pretty neat. While the other preamps could maybe get up to this level of break-up, these two were particularly easy to drive into overload. They both have more of the desired sharpness. The Hamptone does have less treble to the sound and I kind of miss it. The GML is compressing but not breaking up very much as it does. I do like the sound of the Focusrite and the dbx; they both sound similar with a bit of treble emphasis that the Sytek doesn't put through. Both the compressors are fine. (The Valley People, a recent purchase of mine, has more a pinched sound.)

Here's a more strong singing part.

You can really hear the sound start to distort on some of the notes here - the sustained "land" and "full". With the rest of the music playing, it's really only the first two that you can hear the vocals as clearly distorted. For most of the rest of them, you only hear the vocals as vocals. So as much as I did like the breakup of the Tubetech and Neve, I don't need to go rent them again. We're not trying to put through an obvious distorted sound - just something more subtle and occasional.

On the other side, I didn't hear anything in the two compressors that sounded better than the preamps. So we can drop those. Of the five left, the Hamptone's too dull, the GML doesn't break up enough and then there's the other three. The Focusrite and the dbx are both about the same level of better than the Sytek. They've got a slightly different tone but are similar enough. And one I don't have to rent if I want to use it. Problem solved.

Whew. That was a lot of work.


I'll be using the dbx 786 for vocals, cranked up pretty high to introduce some distortion to the signal.

That preamp is getting a lot of use on this record. Too bad no one bought them and dbx stopped production.

Next up: Vocal Mics



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* For most of these, I had to keep singing the same part over and over again. If you're wondering what it is I'm screaming, the first song ("Song 30") is "You beg him, plead him, scream until you bleed, but he keeps coming around. He will keep coming around. There is no love for you." The second ("Song 33") is "All accounts are settled when the water takes the land. Like tidal modulation when the moon is full." They both make more sense when you hear the rest of the song.i>

The rental rig. I had to put $15 grand on my credit card for 8 hours to put all this in the back of my car. Top to bottom: Distressor, GML, Neve, Focusrite, Tubetech.

Add in the dbx (top), Hamptone (middle), Sytek (bottom). The Valley People compressor was off getting a drink when these photos were taken and so isn't pictured.


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