Back to blog
September 9, 2020

How To Choose A Preamp | Matt Ross-Spang

If you watch Grammy-winning producer and engineer Matt Ross-Spang work, which pureMix members can do in Start to Finish with Matt Ross-Spang, you’ll see how important authenticity of performance and sound is for him.

His production aesthetic was shaped from his experience working at Sun Studio, the first Sam Phillips facility and the same place Elvis Presley made his early recordings. Phillips also produced other greats like Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis and Johnny Cash there. Matt started at Sun at age 16 and worked his way up from selling tickets for the studio’s daytime tours to becoming its chief engineer and studio manager.

Matt in the studio A control room at Sam Phillips Recording in Memphis

He made a name for himself by recording many artists with the same type of equipment that Phillips used in the 1950s. He often tracked sessions direct to 2-track, and some even direct to mono with only four microphones.

Recording with such minimalist gear in a one-room facility with no iso booths helped Matt learn techniques for making great “live in the studio” recordings. It’s a skill that’s served him well in his current role as an independent producer and engineer.

In the session featured the pureMix video series, he’s recording soul/R&B artist Eli “Paperboy” Reed along with a stellar group of veteran Memphis session musicians and singers. They’re working in Studio A at Sam Phillips Recording in Memphis (an entirely different facility from Sun Studio).

Special Spectra

Matt has a mix room at Sam Phillips Recording, down the hall from where this session takes place. It’s where he keeps his vintage Spectra Sonics console. He likes the sound from it so much that he had a sidecar built for it, which allows him to take out up to 10 of the console’s channel modules and pop them into a portable frame that he can bring anywhere.

Matt taking modules from his Spectra Sonics console to put in the sidecar.

Spectra Sonics (no relation to software-synth maker Spectrasonics) was founded in the mid-1960s. It initially manufactured components for mixers that customers could buy individually and use to build their custom consoles. Among those components was the 101 preamp, a solid-state design built the same way by Spectra 1964, the current incarnation of the company.

Spectra Sonics components were used in consoles at such studios as Muscle Shoals, Atlantic Records Studio C, Stax and others. Starting around the late 1960s, the company began building complete consoles and made about 50 of them. Some of the notable customers were The Record Plant—both in its NY and LA locations—and Michael Jackson and the Carpenters.

Putting modules into the sidecar.

The Choice

Matt says that he usually likes to use one type of preamp for a project—often his Spectra Sonics units—because it gives the sound consistency across the various tracks. But in the case of the three-person horn section for the “Paperboy” Reed sessions, he chooses to bring in another flavor. It’s the preamp section of an Ampex 351, which is the company’s reel-to-reel recorder of the same name. Ampex built that model between 1958 and 1963.

The 351 preamp offers a warm tone due to its tube-based design. It also features a prodigious amount of gain, making it perfect for use with ribbon mics. Such mics have low outputs and need preamps with plenty of gain to have enough level.

The Ampex 351 preamp.

Matt says those preamps have a unique sound to them and are like “a time machine.” He explains that Willie Mitchell used the 351 when producing classic Al Green sessions in the 1970s. Matt is going for a similar sound.

The mic he’s using for the horns—one mic to capture the entire section—is an RCA 77, a classic ribbon.

Matt is using a single mic, the RCA 77 ribbon on the far left to capture the whole session.

Which One to Use?

In addition to technical issues such as needing enough gain for a ribbon mic, different preamps can significantly impact the sound of a recording. If you’re fortunate enough to have more than one type of quality preamp available, it’s good to experiment to see which one sounds best with the microphone you’re using on a particular source. If you haven’t decided on a mic, you can try different pairings of mic and preamp to find the best combination for a particular application.

Even if you don’t have a variety of hardware preamps, you can evoke the flavor of many classic units with plug-in emulations. Because of the way most DAWs handle plug-ins, you typically have to apply software preamps in the mix rather than on input. Although such plug-ins do impart their sonic flavors to your track, you won’t get you the interaction of the mic and preamp that you would get when tracking through a hardware unit.

However, some audio interfaces, such as those by Antelope Audio and Universal Audio, feature technology that allows you to record through classic preamp plug-ins. Such a setup is as about as realistic as it gets without recording through the original hardware.

This UAD API Vision Channel Strip is one of many UAD “Unison-Enabled” plug-ins that you can use on input with a Universal Audio interface.

Check it Out

The following examples were recorded with a Fender Precision Bass through a Universal Audio Apollo interface with a variety of preamp models. The preamps were all recorded on input using UAD’s Unison technology. By comparing the various examples, you’ll hear the varied sonic characteristics you can get from different preamps. All the examples also feature the UAD Ampeg B15N plug-in and the UAD SSL G-Bus Compressor, inserted after recording.

Example 1a: Bass through UA Apollo Twin preamp, no preamp model.

Example 1b: Bass tracked through Apollo Twin preamp with UAD Helios Type 69 preamp model.

The UAD Helios Type 69

Example 1c: Bass tracked through Apollo Twin preamp with UAD Neve Preamp model.

The UAD Neve Preamp

Example 1d: Bass tracked through Apollo Twin preamp with UAD Avalon VT737sp preamp model.

The UAD Avalon VT737sp