Preamp or Mixer – Which Is Better? (ANSWERED)

preamp or mixer, preamp vs mixer

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So . . . preamp or mixer? But, first of all, which is which? There’s a lot of terminology in the audio recording world that can be difficult to sift through if you’re a newcomer to the scene. Even before you learn how to use the equipment you can get stuck figuring out what you should buy. Should you use an external pre-amp or just run your signal through a mixer? Do all mixers come with? What does a preamp even do for your sound?

The first step is to understand what a preamp is. Different audio sources send signals at different levels. Signals from microphones are the weakest, while line-level signals from recording equipment have the highest voltage. A higher voltage equals more volume. This means your mix is naturally unbalanced. A preamp equalizes the signal strengths before they hit your speaker, amp, or mixer.

Preamps are built into most mixers, and you may find them included in other equipment, like electronic instruments, amplifiers, and even some microphones. You can also buy external preamps, such as the two models below.

Check them out to get a better idea what a preamp can do for your sound, and only then will you know whether to buy a preamp or mixer.

DBX 286s Microphone Preamp / Channel Strip Processor

Since mic signals are the weakest, most external preamps you find will be targeted at getting the best sound from microphones. The DBX 286s has a built-in studio-quality mic preamp on its XLR input, along with two ¼” line inputs for other signals. The sonic clarity of the preamp is impressive, giving you a natural, authentic signal in every situation.

The DBX 286s (see full specs) does have some tone-shaping controls as well. You’ll get control over the signal gain and frequency threshold, along with high- and low-pass filters for basic tone shaping. The LED displays on the face of the preamp strip let you keep a close eye on your levels at a glance, keeping you in control of your tone.

Tech Review & Unboxing: DBX 286s by Harman Mic Preamp/Processor (2016)

Cloud Microphones Cloudlifter CL-1 Microphone Activator/Preamplifier

If you only have one microphone you need to get up to line level, you can save yourself some money with something like this Cloud Microphones Cloudlifter Preamplifier. It’s incredibly easy to use and works with all dynamic microphones. It’s also self-contained, requiring only phantom power to operate.

The compact design of the Cloudlifter CL-1 is one of its best features. You can take it anywhere for great sound on the go. The aluminum chassis is durable and resists damage from regular wear and tear. It’s also convenient that it’s built to be easily mounted to a mic stand, or adhered directly to the stage. As for its performance, it can boost signals up to +25db, and do it cleanly, for truly transparent gain that gets the most out of the natural sound from the source.

Preamp or Mixer – How Are They Different?

Like a preamp, a mixer is a piece of recording equipment that allows you to bring together multiple audio signals for processing into a single cohesive and balanced sonic picture. The biggest difference is that a mixer gives you a wider array of on-board controls, with knobs and faders to adjust the level and EQ, add high- or low-pass filters, or enhance the signal with effects like reverb and delay.

Most mixers have a preamp of some kind built in—typically a mic preamp, although DJ mixers may also include phono preamps for signals from turntables. You’ll get a better idea how this works in practice checking out the mixers below.

Mackie PROFX30V2 30-Channel 4-Bus Mixer

When you picture a mixing board, you’re probably thinking of something like the Mackie ProFX with its banks of knobs and faders. It certainly looks like it has it all—and in this case, looks are not deceiving. With 24 Mackie Vita mic preamps, a 7-band graphic EQ, a suite of 16 natural-sounding effects, and an impressive array of inputs and outputs, this mixer has everything you need for professional-level recording.

A mixer like this (see full specs) can be pretty intimidating to a first-timer. The knobs layout is intuitive for a recording engineer, and the color coding on the knobs certainly helps, but it’ll take the average layperson a lot longer to master this mixer than it would for any preamp.

Once you do master it, though, the Mackie ProFX30v2 mixer is a one-device answer to all your recording woes. With 30 fully-independent inputs, it can handle anything from a jazz trio to a full symphony with ease.

Review the Features of the Mackie ProFX30v2 How to Setup 4 bus and 3 monitors on the Audio Mixer

Behringer Xenyx 502 Premium Mixer

Not all mixers are massive, expensive pieces of equipment. Some of them, like the Behringer Xenyx 502, are both very portable and very affordable. Like the Mackie above, the Xenyx has a built-in mic preamp and an on-board British EQ. With only 5 inputs, though, the Xenyx is significantly smaller.

The other advantage of a smaller mixer is that the interface is less intimidating. This is the perfect option for a band that wants to do their own pro-level recordings. You won’t get the on-board effects and detailed signal manipulation you’d find on more expensive mixers, so you will have to pay a bit more if you need those. What it will give you is an affordable way to blend signals from multiple sources into one cohesive sonic package.

Tech Review: Behringer Xenyx 502 Mixer

Do I Want a Preamp or Mixer?

The big difference between a mixer with preamps and an external preamp is how much on-board control of the sound you have. Both will equalize your signals and give you individual level control, but only a mixer will let you boost or cut specific frequencies. Many mixers also include effects like reverb and chorus that can help you further enhance your sound.

You may hear some people say that external preamps give you a better sound. It is true that a $300 preamp will sound better than the preamps in a $300 mixer. If you plan to send the signal to your computer for mixing and don’t need the physical knobs and faders, a preamp will be the most economical way to get the best sound.

With both mixers and preamps, the biggest impact on cost is how many inputs it offers. Also keep in mind that some mixers only include preamps on a portion of their inputs, so think about how many microphones you’ll be using in addition to how many total inputs you’ll need.

Also consider what kind of signals you’re mixing. Are you only using microphones, or will you also be recording line-level signals, say from an electric guitar or bass? If you’ll be working with a variety of audio sources, a mixer is a far more efficient option.

If you’re mixing and recording signals from a microphone, you need a preamp. The only question is what form you want that preamp to take. Hopefully this article has helped you figure out some of your options and pick out the right solution for your set-up. Goo luck!

  • Micah Johnson started playing music in high school, when he taught himself the bass to join his friend’s band. He added guitar and drums during his twenties playing in local clubs, and along the way, he picked up unique, hands-on experience from hand drums to studio mixers. On Song Simian, he aims to share this knowledge from 20+ years playing and recording music. When not in gearhead mode, he enjoys photography and travel.

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