In the past decade there has been a huge surge of microphone pre-amps, everything from simple tube driven to all discrete Class A circuitry. This being an obvious reaction to the development of hard disc recording the market place feels it needs to fulfill. During the analog days, all studios had Preamps built in their respective recording consoles, so no one really ever gave outboard mic pres a second thought, unless they were looking for a particular flavor occasionally. In today’s age, it seems that more and more people are becoming “in the box” warriors and finding the perfect solid mic pre is detrimental to the recording quality. Despite all of the hype, most of the preamps built into the various digital audio workstations (DAW) on the market don’t cut it. Especially for guitar recording, you want a preamp to capture the tone of the instrument, not a thin digital replica that does not give the guitar tone justice. Below are some guitar heroes’ set-ups explaining how they record monster tones.

Zakk Wylde
“We recorded all analog on a SSL 4000 G/G+, 72 inputs, 16 E modules and Neve 1081 Mic pre/EQ. We didn’t rehearse; we just went into the studio and wrote the record – that’s where all the magic happens. We record the whole album in one shot, and then dumped it down digitally. Back in the day, when we recorded everything on analog, if you had to edit something you had to cut tape and if you made a mistake you were screwed.”

Neal Schon
“Revelation was recorded at The Plant in Studio B in Sausalito (CA) which has an Neve 8068 – Customized 64 input with a GML automation and a couple of 24-track analog Studer recording machines, A800 and A827. We also used the new HD ProTools, which has some really impressive converter sounds. I was amazed with the fidelity and how much ProTools had improved. The old ProTools sounds used to leave me cold, because everything got squashed in the middle and it didn’t have that giant spectrum of fidelity that you get out from using analog tape.”

James Ryan (Men at Work)
“I used an Ibanez seven string, RG760 for all of the guitar tracks. That guitar has a fantastic phat sound, but also had that funky single coil twang in the 2nd and 4th pickup positions. The amp was a Line 6 Flextone HD. It was one of the earliest Line 6 amps and it had great sounding direct. The clean/arpeggiated tracks were close mic’d with a Shure 57 on a 2X12 Line 6 cab. I recorded through a Focusrite ISA 430 Preamp into Cubase, using the built in high quality converters.”

Obviously, there are different approaches to recording, but for Zakk and Neal they prefer to record through the mic pres in a classic analog desk. I know that is how I record all guitars 9 times out of 10, but having a 32-channel classic Trident console at my fingertips tends to spoil me. However, I’ve done many sessions using the Universal Audio 2-610 and the LA-610 directly into Pro-Tools and Logic with terrific results. But James Ryan, guitarists from Men At Work, utilizes a good signal chain, bypassing any analog mixer through one of the Focasrite pres into Cubase. Whatever you choose as a mic pre, I think it is important to get something that is not too colored and retains the analog warmth of the guitar, which counter balances the cold digital signal of DAW. I’ll go over some of the more popularly used mic pres and see how they stack up for the shredder in you.

Neve 1081
Rupert Neve needs no introduction, but for those of you who are not familiar with the 1081, it is the probably one of the most desirable mic pres in the recording world. It was originally designed in 1972 as the mic/line preamp and equalizer section for the Neve modular console. These consoles are still being used today on platinum-selling albums and for good reason. Rupert himself won a technical GRAMMY from the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences for his contributions to outstanding technical significance in the recording field. The 1081 modules are still built by hand in Burnley, UK under its mother company AMS in much of the same manner as the original modules, using the original components, hand-wound transformers, and time-honed construction methods. The 1081’s magic is in its Neve equalization, which features effective high and low pass filters designed to separate unwanted signals. The flexibility of shaping your sound is so intuitive that creating curves and slopes can be achieved at such a high artistic level. This explains the long time love affair with Neve recording console for the past 40 years. It is still an exceptional choice for record guitars and is the original rock-n-roll preamps made to rock!

SSL 4000
Many consider this to be the holy grail of consoles, because of its clarity and ground breaking automation. Virtually all SSL’s have been used on every pop album since the 80’s. Outside of the big name studios who own one of these babys, purchasing one will certainly break the bank. At close to $100,000 brand new and a vintage one costing a fortune to repair, you may want to just go the cost effective route and purchase a SSL Mynx with 9K Series Mic Pre and Dynamics Modules. For a fraction of the price you can still have the SSL legendary technology that is perfect as an interface with your favorite DAW. SSL Mynx uses the identical circuit design and manufacturing of Duality and AWS 900+ consoles. The Mynx is a desktop mini X-Rack that allows you to load various X-Rack modules into two slots. Now the SSL Mic Pre Module is designed especially for the DAW user with its compact size. The Mic Amp module has a great Mic Pre with 75db of gain, variable impedance control, phantom power and phase reverse line input with level control, front panel instrument input and high and low pass filters. This is perfect for the guitarist who has a small home studio set-up. SSL has always been known for a non-coloring sound, with audio file clarity.

Universal Audio LA-610
One of my favorite mic pres out there is the UA 610, because of its tube warmth it adds to the guitar. It especially shines when used in recording guitar directly to hard disc and you have to dig those huge rotary knobs it sports. The genius behind the 610 was Bill Putman the man who has been called, “the father of modern recording” and making it one of the first modular recording consoles in the world. Interestingly enough Putnam had several studios, including Universal Recording in Chicago and United/Western in Los Angeles, which used his early Universal Audio console designs. The 610 was famous for its prominent preamplifier, featured on a plethorea of classic recordings from Frank Sinatra to Van Halen. The 610 Modular features variable gain and output levels, multiple impendence settings mic, balanced line/Hi-Z inputs and my favorite high and low shelving EQ. I find the EQ very useful in particular. It is subtle, yet extremely musical and can shape a guitar tone nicely to sit in a track.

Focusrite ISA 430
Now the 25-year-old British company, Focusrite manufactures our last preamp. The shred king James Ryan’s approach utilizes the ISA 430 MkII, which has analogue channel strip technology, bringing together all the classic designs in one rack unit. The mic preamp section has an impedance switching and “mic air” effect (a wire-wound inductor for increased spaciousness), three compressor options (VCA, Vintage Opto, and Opto Limit) combined with the compressed/uncompressed and even a Blend feature. Routing and monitoring are important features on the ISA 430, which allows you to listen (hone in on the frequency you wish to affect) on compressor, gate, and expander circuits. To round things off the ISA 430 has a unique phase cancellation-based de-esser circuit and an optional 24bit-192kHz high performance stereo A-D converter, allowing you to retain your analogue guitar signal into the digital domain. Focusrite has always been very well known for its digital clarity and multi dynamic rack units.

Outside of the Neve 1081, these mic preamps are not terribly expensive, when considering the high priced boutique options out there in the recording retail world. Don’t feel that you have to use some sort of guitar pod or a lame amp simulator plug-in to get your sound recorded. Purchase a good mic pre and a basic Shure 57 mic and you’ll be in business to record true guitar tone to your DAW. Believe me, there is nothing worse than hearing guitar parts recorded purely digitally, thin & very sterile; much like hearing drums recorded direct to hard disc. Take your time and get your sound together in the room before you record down. Sometimes I see guitarists’ record both ways, which have very good results. On one track they record a direct signal with a line 6 and on another track they record a miked amp signal. One way to be sure of picking the right mic pre for you is to call a local rental company, like SIR in NY, and rent a few pres for a day and see what floats your boat. This way you know what to buy and you don’t have to commit until you’re positive. Either way, get that guitar tone recorded and shred on!

About the author
Brian Tarquin is a Multi Emmy Award winning composer/guitarist and owner of Jungle Room Studios. Some of his accomplishments include, writing the theme music for MTV’s Road Rules, as well as producing music for many other TV shows such as CSI, ABC’s Making The Band, Extra, Alias and the Keanu Reeves film, The Watcher. In 2006, Tarquin opened his own boutique record label called BHP MUSIC, specializing in instrumental guitar music. Brian is also a featured music writer and has been published in magazines such as EQ, Guitar Player, Premier Guitar & Recording.