While modern digital mixing can give us an infinite level of flexibility and control that analog recording can't, there is a certain vibe missing from its overall sound.
To fill the void of this so-called "vibe," producers and mixing engineers will use preamp emulations of vintage recording hardware.
Of course, if you're new to the world of preamps, you may not know where to look to find the best sound.
Some preamps have a subtle sound that only perks trained ears, while others are gritty and aggressive, perfect for adding another sonic layer to your mixes.
Today, we're going to dive in and talk about preamp plugins and what makes them such crucial mixing tools.
How Do Preamp Plugins Work?
Most preamp plugin manufacturers develop their plugins to emulate iconic hardware. While they can be used differently depending on the situation, mixing engineers will often use them to add different flavors to their recorded tracks.
In a recording chain, however, the first stage is typically mic preamp . This is placed directly after the microphone to amplify the otherwise weak signal the microphone outputs, so you can get a healthy signal going into your DAW.
The type of preamp you use can have a major impact on the overall tone and vibe.
If you have an entry-level audio interface, you most likely have a built-in preamp that was made to sound transparent and clean. While this transparency makes them versatile, they lack a lot of the character that we've come to know and love from high-end hardware preamps over the years.
Of course, a high-end hardware preamp can run you hundreds, if not thousands, of dollars. Luckily, we have preamp plugins that emulate these pieces of gear for a fraction of the price, giving you all the color and richness that you'd expect from a quality mic pre-amp.
Similar to the way major studios work using different preamps to get different sounds for different sources, you can expand your plugin arsenal with an array of preamp plugins for all your needs.
Can a Preamp Plugin Improve My Sound?
Preamp plugins offer a subtle and easy way to get the best tone out of your mixes.
Like I said before, a good preamp can add richness and color. It can alter the frequency balance of a signal and impart lovely harmonic saturation qualities. You can think of it like an EQ, except it has the ability to add frequencies and harmonics rather than simply accentuate those that are there.
Over the years, as more and more preamps came into development, producers and engineers began using certain preamps for certain styles.
For example, API preamps tend to have a punchy, forward sound, while Neve preamps have a shimmering depth.
Let's dive in and take a look at some of the best pre-amp emulations around today.
Best Preamp Plugins
1. Soundtoys Radiator
The main thing we love about Soundtoys Radiator is how easy this analog emulation is to use. You can get the gritty and warm character of the 60s in your mixes by simply running your signal through this unique plugin.
Radiator emulates the vintage drive, tone, and vibe of the legendary 1567A tube preamp. The original Altec 1567A hardware was a rack-mounted piece of gear with removable transformers, five tube inputs, an intuitive two-knob EQ, and an earth-shattering 97dB of gain.
By the standards of today, this is an ultra-gritty sound.
The 1567A was famous for its use on several Motown records during the time, and because of its popularity and accessibility at the time, it made its way into PA systems of schools and churches across the country.
You get the distinctive punch and warmth of the original piece of gear with the two EQ knobs to easily dial-in different saturation tones and harmonic effects. It really couldn't get any simpler.
Because Radiator does a fair amount of work on the CPU, it's great that Soundtoys developed a smaller and less CPU-intensive version of the plugin — Little Radiator. This simple single-stage tube preamp plugin was based on the Altec 1566A, delivering the same sound without EQ controls.
The Mix knob is one of my favorite things about this plugin. I often like to dial in a gritty, heavy tone with this preamp before dialing it back, so I can hear the original signal. It's a great way to get the best of both worlds.
2. Arturia Pre TridA
When it comes to emulations of vintage analog equipment, Arturia is one of the most renowned developers in the game. The company absolutely nailed this emulation of the prized Trident EQ and preamp.
For many years, Trident was basically synonymous with pop music. The Trident facility was in the SoHo District of London, where many famous acts, from The Beatles to David Bowie to Peter Gabriel to Tina Turner, were recorded. At the studio's heart was the Trident A console, which became well-known for its rich and full tone, as well as its musical EQ. While only 13 of these consoles were ever made, the legacy continues to live on.
The Arturia PreTrid A gives you all of the power and beautiful sonic characteristics of the old console with modern control.
For starters, you get a fantastically musical four-band EQ with high, high-mid, low-mid, and low controls, which can be linked to work in stereo or unlinked to work separately, giving you the freedom to shape your stereo mixes how you please. On the edges, you'll find high and low-pass filters for quicker sound shaping.
As you can expect from Arturia, you also get a comprehensive set of presets to get you started, though because this plugin is very subtle and doesn't have many controls to begin, we recommend taking some time to slowly move the knobs and faders around to get a true idea of what this plugin is capable of.
If the vintage sheen is what you're after, I am confident you'll be happy with the Arturia Pre TridA.
3. Waves Abbey Road EMI TG12345
Abbey Road is the famous studio where legendary bands like The Beatles and Pink Floyd undoubtedly made some of the most influential albums of all time. The TG12345 was the very first solid-state console that EMI ever produced. In a way, it was the epitome of the sound of popular music in the 1960s and 70s.
Waves was able to meticulously emulate it using their unique component modeling technology to bring producers and recording engineers everywhere the sweet, celebrated sound of years passed.
On the Waves Abbey Road EMI TG12345 , you'll find a beautiful input mic preamp with all of the same hum, noise, and harmonic distortion users got from the original piece of equipment. You'll also find treble and bass EQ bands, which were emulated based on the mic cassette, and the famous compressor/limiter section, which delivers warm and punchy dynamic processing.
Beyond the features found on the original console, Waves added a few new features to fit the needs of modern music producers, including a handy high-pass filter and a mix knob for the dynamics sections, so you can dial in heavy compression and mix in parallel.
I often like to place this plugin on the mix bus, especially in organic mixes, as it has a unique way of gluing things together and giving them that old-school sound. With that said, it works especially well as a complimentary modern music tool, giving unique life to digital genres, such as EDM.
4. NEOLD V76U73
The NEOLD V76U73 plugin may be one of the most unique preamps on this list, as it captures the vibe of a one-of-a-kind 50s German setup, which utilized the Telefunken V76 and U73. These were and still are some of the richest and most legendary pieces of preamp and compressor equipment throughout history.
The V76 preamp was originally designed with an absurd amount of funding from the German government, and many refer to it today as the "German Fairchild" with its rightfully comparable sound. The unique variable mu design made it super popular amongst European mastering engineers until it was discontinued in 1980.
The plugin may not be cheap, but it delivers rich, deep low-end, and smooth, shimmering highs, perfect for giving your mixes that additional bit of professional sheen to help them stand out. Even if you just run your mix through this VST without touching a single knob, you can get an entirely new dimension of tone.
It's clear that NEOLD painstakingly emulated this piece of hardware, perfectly mimicking the two iconic analog circuits. You get the straightforward design that came with the original module with some new and modern optimizations that you can only find in plug-in form, such as the mix knob.
I love the special filtering section, which allows you to quickly shape the high and low end of your signals. I often find myself using it on electric guitar to give when I only record my amp with an SM57, as I find it adds a fair amount of bottom end for a beefier guitar tone.
5. Audiority Pre X7
For a budget-friendly analog-emulated preamp plugin, we recommend looking at the Audiority Pre X7 . This plugin is based on a legendary vintage unit that was originally designed specifically for bass guitar. However, the plugin version is much more versatile than its hardware predecessor.
The 12AX7 tube models deliver real-time calculation to bring you the subtle, non-linear sound of quality saturation without any phase problems.
You have a high-pass filter at the beginning of the preamp chain, allowing you to get rid of any unnecessary low frequencies in your signal, which is followed by a handy tone control to shape your signal before it runs through the tube output.
The true star of the show is the brickwall clipping limiter, which helps you lock in the dynamics of your sounds while retaining a fair amount of distortion when using fairly extreme settings.
Now, while we said earlier that it is a versatile plugin, meaning you can use it on pretty much any instrument or signal to provide saturation and compression, its sonic character makes it a true champion for bass guitar. I often find myself tracking bass through this plugin and committing it as my DI sound once it's in my DAW.
With indie, folk, jazz, or soul tracks, you can dial the input pretty subtly to give you a warm, rounded form of saturation. On the other hand, if you're playing bass for a rock or metal track, you can hit the Boost and crank the input to get a forward and aggressive tone.
For a budget-friendly plugin, Audiority Pre VX7 offers relative versatility.
6. Klirrton Grindstein
If you make rock or heavy metal music, having a plugin that can deliver high levels of distortion without feeling out of control is crucial.
While the Audiority plugin above provides subtle and fat saturation, the Klirrton Grindstein plugin from Audiority provides a grindy, aggressive, and over-the-top distortion-style preamp sound, perfect for heavy rock and metal.
The plugin suite was made in collaboration with Klirrton Manufaktur and Kristian Kohle from Kohlkeller Studio. It was modeled carefully after the stompbox pedal with the same name. This beautifully antagonistic preamp plugin gives you a heavy metal pre-amp tone, a Fleisch preamp EQ section, and the cutting-edge Scnauze noise gate, perfect for when you get into the fuzz range of distortion.
Whether you're making 90s-style grunge or modern-age death metal, the chainsaw-ripping tones you get can from this plugin offer a tight sound with just a pinch of grind.
One of the things I truly love about this preamp plugin is the low end. There are many distortion plugins out there that give you a grindy tone, yet often compromise the thickness of the low-end when doing so. With Klirrton Grindstein, you get fat, modern low-end with unrivaled tightness.
I also recommend playing around with the phase switch on this plugin to get those unique out-of-phase grind metal sounds.
Overall, the tone of this preamp plugin is very true to the original hardware, from the interface to the features to the sound. If "heavy" is what you're searching for, this might just be the best choice around.
7. Lindell Audio 6X-500
The Lindell Audio 6X-500 is another budget-friendly preamp plugin for those who want to add a bit of analog punch and fatness to their mixes. The plugin was based on a mono transformer-coupled preamp with a passive two-band EQ that works with boosting exclusively.
It uses an all-discrete design, which was based on the hybrid amplifier from Lindell. The unique thing about this design is that it packs tons of punch, though the tonal character is creamy and smooth. You can run just about any instrument through this preamp and get a good sound, including vocals, electric guitar, bass, acoustic guitar, drums, etc.
On the front-end of the plugin, you'll find a handy low-pass and high-pass filter for quick frequency control, great for sculpting the tone to clean signals up before they pass tough.
These are just some of the few addition features that the hardware wouldn't allow for.
Beyond that, the original hardware unit came with a Pultec-style equalizer, which was faithfully emulated to give users musical processing.
Though I often find myself turning off the "analog" or "noise" buttons on analog emulation plugins, there is something about the Analog button on this plugin that I quite enjoy. I feel as though it thickens the tone along with the power supply unit hum and transformer saturation.
All of that and the Lindell Audio 6X-500 preamp EQ is CPU-friendly and easier than ever to use. You can use it on al of your audio tracks in your session to get a true console-style analog sound.
8. IK Multimedia T-Racks EQ 73
The original EQ 73 hardware module was one of the most iconic and sought-after pieces of British music equipment. It delivered warmth and character to the most bland and mundane of signals.
IK Multimedia released their own version of this classic preamp, dubbing it the T-Racks EQ 73 .
Anyone with slight knowledge of analog hardware history would know that it's one of the most used pieces of analog gear in music history, as it was once a major part of the large-format British music console. The hardware was first introduced back in 1970 as a rackmount unit, quickly becoming a studio staple.
With a rich and thick Class-A sound and a three-band EQ for shaping the tonal qualities of each signal passing through, it was equally versatile.
The great thing about this IK Multimedia emulation is that it is true to the original unit, all thanks to the innovative modeling technologies at IK. It has the ability to shape sounds like nothing else with its analaog-style preamp EQ and can even add distortion and grit when pushed.
Of course, as you'd expect with most preamp emulations, you get a bit more digital flexibility with this preamp in VST form than you do in real life. For example, the M/S mode allows you to manipulate the left and right sides of your mixes individually, giving you more control over the stereo spectrum than ever before.
9. UAD Neve 1073
There is nothing quite as heartwarming as an authentic Neve Preamp sound, and who better to capture it than the team of developers down at UAD ?
There's no doubt that the Neve preamp is one of the most revered preamps in history. The Neve preamp was first introduced back in 1970 as a Class-A performer. It became extremely popular as a preamp for vocals, thanks to its sheen, clarity, and bite.
Nowadays, it's easy to spend hundreds or thousands to get your hands on one of these hardware preamps, which is why I'm so grateful UAD came out with an uncanny version of the original hardware in VST form. In fact, the UAD Neve 1073 preamp is the only licensed plug-in emluation of the Neve preamp in the world.
You can take total control of your mixes with the ten unique clipping points and easy-to-use EQ section. Best of all, if you use UAD hardware, such as an Apollo interface, you can record directly through this VST as if you were recording through a hardware channel strip.
You won't find a more authentic Neve preamp sound anywhere else.
10. Analog Obsession PREDD
Want to get the sweet sound of pre-amp saturation without spending a dime?
If so, check out the PREDD plug-in from Analog Obsession. This free vintage mic preamp VST plugin works for both Windows and Mac. It has a similar vibe to the EMI TG12345, considering the fact that it was present on the EMI REDD.51 console at Abbey Road Studios in the late 1950s and early 60s.
With a valve amplifier module, the REDD.51 console was an integral part of the studio and a piece of equipment that gave all of the music coming out of the studio such a unique quality.
Even if you had the money, you'd be hard-pressed to find one of the preamps out in the wild. The good thing is that Analog Obsession made a stellar emulation that nails the tone of the original for no cost.
On the simple GUI, which looks a lot like the REDD.47 interface, you'll find a mic preamp/DI switch with a Voltage Gain knob. Keep going, and you'll see a pad (-20db), a 10dB high-shelf boost, a rumble high-pass filter that can move from 20 to 180Hz, and a pole phase invert switch.
It's probably one of the simplest plugins on this list, which is great if you have a signal that feels bland and needs a bit of saturation to stand out in the mix. It's also very light on CPU, meaning you can use it on multiple tracks without bogging down your system.
11. Shattered Glass Audio - SGA1566
Another excellent free preamp VST comes from the team over at Shattered Glass Audio. While the GUI of the SGA1566 might not necessarily look like anything special, this quality plug-in delivers authentic all-tube mic pre-amp tones with a high-performance circuit simulator.
Essentially, every small nuance that comes from your standard pre-amp circuit was carefully analyzed and built into this plugin to give you everything from overdrive to subtle coloration and beyond.
For a free preamp VST, the SGA1566 is pretty versatile. Keep the input at 12 and dial the gain back to add a bit of warmth to your tracks. When you want to drive the song home, however, you can crank the gain and input to get natural, dirty compression with a bit of tube overdrive.
The SGA1566 VST plug-in works with 4x oversampling and utilizes mono and stereo processing modes. You can even take advantage of the two-band Baxandall EQ, which you can switch to work before or after the pre-amp.
If you want to bring the warm and shimmery magic of the analog era into your digital recording setup, your first step should be to invest in some pre-amp VST plugins.
Even if you produce futuristic house music that's far removed from the standard "analog" tonality, having these plugins can add punch, warmth, and authenticity to your tracks to give them a professional sound.
Plus, you'll save thousands of dollars without having to buy pricey hardware!