The Difference Between A Pre-amp And A Recording Interface: Why It Matters? 2021


This week our friend and mix master extraordinaire Mike White of Music-Production-Guide.com comments on another common question that our customers ask. It’s especially common for musicians who are used to using an analog mixer but thinking about starting a computer-based home studio. Mike does a great job of explaining the difference!

What’s The Difference Between A Pre-amp And A Recording Interface?

Mike White- A preamp, which is short for pre-amplification, is an analog gain stage for microphones and direct boxes that allows you to get the signal level up to “line level” where it can be converted to digital and recorded onto a hard drive. What you are trying to do with a preamp is to get the gain up enough so that your peak signals are landing somewhere in the 0 to -6 range on your digital meter without clipping. This is important because the higher those peaks come up without distorting, the better the bit depth, and the higher the quality will be of the recording.

The purpose of an interface is to convert line-level signals from analog to digital so that they can be recorded and manipulated through your computer software. Generally, professional-quality interfaces only have line-level inputs and outputs. You will need to use a separate mic preamp stage to get the microphone up to the required line level. You then patch that into the interface to record. This keeps the conversion quality at a premium for the interface.

Most home studio interfaces, on the other hand, have mic preamps, direct inputs, and line inputs built into them. This allows you to plug in a variety of different audio sources and get them through to the digital conversion stage all in one box. Many also have additional options such as headphones and monitor output controls allowing you to listen to what you’ve just recorded. As a result of all the extra features, the quality of mic pre-amp and digital conversion can be compromised.

A great way to determine the quality of an interface is to divide the number of features into the retail price of the unit. While there are always exceptions, this is a good guide. As your skills and need grow, you will find yourself purchasing pre-amps separately from your recording interface to increase the quality at every stage of the recording chain.

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