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Best Preamps for Snare Drum

Monday July 17, 2017. 06:00 PM , from Sweetwater inSync
As much as I enjoy comparing mics on snare, as discussed in Best Mics for Recording Snare Drums, I love exploring the differences a preamp can make. While the preamp has far less impact than the choice of mic or positioning, it is still significant. I’ve compared the sounds of multiple preamps on lots of sources (even comparing 34 preamps on snare alone), since the preamp can have such a drastic effect on the sound. With the same mic, same drummer, same drum, it is fascinating to hear how one preamp emphasizes a faster attack, while another offers a fuller, thicker tone. One may emphasize the overtones, while another seems like it is all impact. One preamp can really make the snare pop, while another might just sound blah. It’s hard to know exactly which preamp you’ll like the best, but when you hear it in the track, you will know.
Popular preamps for recording snare (or any drums, for that matter) include API 512c and Neve/Neve-style preamps such as the BAE 1073D or the Great River MP-500NV: all are great, all are very different. Among my favorites are the Trident A-Range, echoed in the Daking designs such as the Mic Pre IV, or the Millennia Media HV35, which is very fast, offering lots of top end and attack.

Preamp Considerations
Amplifier design — Does the amplifier use integrated circuits (ICs, or chips as they are sometimes called), or discrete op amps? There’s a distinct sound to consoles that use discrete components, such as early Neve or Trident A-Range consoles, compared with the IC consoles that were popular in the ’80s and ’90s, like the MCI 528 or Trident 80B.
Solid-state or tube — Is the amplifier stage solid-state or tube? This is a big deal, as any engineer knows, because the harmonic distortion differs between solid-state and tubes. And the sound of the circuit as it is driven harder drastically distinguishes these two circuit topographies.
There’s a noticeable difference (in weight and sound) between the Great River MP-500NV (left), with its huge input and output transformers, and the transformerless AEA RPQ500 (right).
Transformer or Transformerless — The inclusion or exclusion of transformers is one of the biggest factors in a preamp design. Transformers impart their own coloration, and different transformers each impart something different. The choice of the composition of the transformer (core, windings) has a huge influence on the sound.
Input impedance — Some preamps offer various switchable input impedances (Z), such as the Focusrite ISA828, which allows you to taper the mic preamp to the mic and offers more sonic flavors for engineers who want lots of options.
Input pad — For recording snare or other loud instruments, this is always a nice feature to have to avoid distortion at the input stage. Depending on the output level of the mic or the gain staging of the preamp, a pad may be a requirement when recording snare even with a low output mic like a Shure SM57.
Output trim — If you want to drive the input stage harder, then being able to turn down the output is very handy to keep from overloading the following devices or inputs to your console or interface.
Polarity reverse — Frequently called phase reverse, this is a critical feature when recording drums, because you’ll need to make sure all the drum mics work together in uniform polarity.
Optional settings — Some preamps offer options that can greatly enhance the number of sounds you are able to achieve, such as the Silk setting on the Rupert Neve Designs RND 511 or Shelford Channel, or different selectable transformers (steel or nickel) on the Shadow Hills Mono Gama.

Preamp Technique
One common technique for making a snare recording sound big is to push (overload) the amplifier stage to create distortion, which gives the snare a bite or edge, and because distorted sounds are perceived as louder than non-distorted sounds, it is easier to get the snare to pop through in a mix. Here’s a visual example of what I’m talking about. The two waveforms below are simultaneous recordings of a crescendo (swell) on the snare that starts soft and becomes loud, with each strike being louder than the one before. The top waveform is a Universal Audio Apollo 8p preamp that is operating within its normal linear range. You can see that each strike increases in volume. The bottom waveform is the LaChapell 583S mk2 tube preamp being overdriven on its input stage with the output stage pulled back so that the increasing volume of the snare drum begins clipping by the time the swell is only halfway finished. Because of the amplifier design, this doesn’t sound like distortion, and the increase in volume is still clearly communicated even to the end.

Here’s how that sounds.
NOTE: These two clips are of the exact same performance.
Swell through UA Apollo 8p preamp operating in linear range (top waveform above)
Swell through LaChapell 583S tube preamp pushed beyond linear range (bottom waveform above)
This is what the clipped waveform looks like when zoomed in to see a single strike (below).

This technique can also be accomplished with a solid-state amplifier design, but with a different sonic result due to the different distortion characteristics. The top waveform is a swell through the UA Apollo 8p pre and the bottom waveform is the Great River MP-500NV with the input cranked up far above its normal range, with the output turned down by the inverse amount so that the output level is the same. Note as you listen that the final strike is just as loud on the second sample as the first, even though there’s a drastic difference in peak energy (the height of the waveform’s peak).

Here’s how that sounds.
NOTE: These two clips are of the exact same performance.
Swell through UA Apollo 8p preamp operating in linear range (top waveform above)
Swell through GreatRiver MP-500NV with input set 20 dB hotter (bottom waveform above)

Let’s Listen

I wanted to give you the chance to hear some preamps so I grabbed a snare drum and a bunch of great preamps and locked myself in a room for several hours and created these samples.
For these recordings, I used a DW Collector’s Series Exotic Snare Drum miked with a Shure SM57 into a variety of preamps routed into a Universal Apollo 8p interface (internally clocked at 96k) connected via Thunderbolt to a MacBook Pro running Pro Tools 12.8. I was recording in an acoustically treated room that measures 12′ by 18.5′. All the 500 Series modules were mounted in a Rupert Neve Designs R10 10-slot rack. Polarity was confirmed using the Galaxy Audio CPTS Cricket. Because we used a single mic straight into one preamp at a time, these are not identical performances, so you will hear variations. If there are sonic options available on the preamp, I recorded different samples so you can hear those. For preamps with no options, there is only a single sound clip.
NOTE: Anyone who has a large collection of preamps and is familiar with their unique strengths will tell you that preamp designs sound very different. Unless you’ve compared mic preamps in person and on multiple sources, the sometimes-subtle differences can be challenging to distinguish. This is especially true when it comes to a single snare hit outside of a track with no context. So if you have difficulty discerning differences, do not dismay. Listen for differences in tonality, attack, the body, the snares, the brilliance, and the beef.
The Preamps
API 512C
BAE 1073D
BAE 1073D set to 1200 ohm input impedance
BAE 1073D set to 300 ohm input impedance
BAE 1073D set to 1200 ohm input impedance with input cranked up 10dB
Chandler TG2-500
Chandler TG2-500 set to 1200 ohm input impedance
Chandler TG2-500 set to 300 ohm input impedance
Daking Mic Pre IV
Focusrite ISA828
Focusrite ISA828 set to Low impedance setting
Focusrite ISA828 set to ISA110 impedance setting
Focusrite ISA828 set to Medium impedance setting
Focusrite ISA828 set to High impedance setting
Great River MP-500NV
Great River MP-500NV set to 1200 ohm impedance setting
Great River MP-500NV set to 300 ohm impedance setting
Great River MP-500NV with Loading turned on
LaChapell Audio 583S mk2
LaChapell Audio 583S mk2 in normal operating range
LaChapell Audio 583S mk2 with input driven hard and output low
LaChapell Audio 583S mk2 with input level low and output high
Millennia Media HV35
Rupert Neve Designs 511
Rupert Neve Designs 511
Rupert Neve Designs 511 with Red Silk texture at max
Shadow Hills Mono Gama
Shadow Hills Mono Gama
Shadow Hills Mono Gama with Nickel transformer
Shadow Hills Mono Gama with Steel transformer
Rupert Neve Designs Shelford Channel
Shelford Channel
Shelford Channel with Blue Silk texture at max
Shelford Channel with Red Silk texture at max
Shelford Channel from the -6 output

If you want to read more about all the considerations when selecting a mic preamp, check out our extensive Mic Preamp Buying Guide. If you have any more questions about mic preamps or drum recording, call your Sweetwater Sales Engineer at (800) 222-4700.
Also check out these other articles about recording snare:
Best Mics for Recording Snare Drums
How to Mic a Snare Drum
The post Best Preamps for Snare Drum appeared first on inSync.
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