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Cheap access to quiet mic preamps?


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Hello.

 

I have a Zoom H4N Pro. It has served me well, but it’s tiring to work around its noisy microphone preamps and lowish input impedance (1 kΩ). For example, a couple of years ago I had to get a FetHead to make a Rode Procaster dynamic mic sound better (which it duly sure did).

 

But the FetHead doesn’t support phantom power. Oh, there’s another FetHead model that does, but would a fleet of FetHeads be throwing good money after bad? Instead I could put the money toward a better mixer or recorder, maybe selling the H4N Pro and first FetHead to partially fund it.

 

I’m on a very tight budget and want quiet preamps. Two or three would be fine. I need XLR inputs with phantom power, low risk of sudden death (e.g. from ancient electronics), and great portability. Line-level out would be useful. Otherwise I’m willing to put up with considerable inconveniences. For example, I’m fine with giving up 32-bit float although I love the concept. Weird old memory cards are fine. High power consumption is fine. A clumsy interface is fine.

 

Suggestions?

 

Thanks!

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3 hours ago, Samuel Dilworth said:

be throwing good money after bad? 

Yes.

Mucking around with Fetheads or whatever made sense a decade ago when "cheap" but tolerably "good-ish" options didn't really exist in the numbers and range we've got now.  We're so lucky we're spoiled now in 2021!

 

 

3 hours ago, Samuel Dilworth said:

I’m on a very tight budget and want quiet preamps. Two or three would be fine. I need XLR inputs with phantom power, low risk of sudden death (e.g. from ancient electronics), and great portability. Line-level out would be useful. Otherwise I’m willing to put up with considerable inconveniences. For example, I’m fine with giving up 32-bit float although I love the concept.

Get a secondhand Zoom F4 / F8 or a Sound Devices MixPre3 Gen1, would be your two cheapest paths at the ultra low budget level. 
If you can spend a little more a Zoom F8n or Sound Devices MixPre10/10T would still be extremely affordable, but even better, giving yourself for instance line level out and more. 

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1 hour ago, Rick Reineke said:

'Cheap' as a subjective term. How much are looking to spend (aside from as little as possible)? How many mic inputs and tracks do you need?

It’s hard to say how cheap without knowing what I’d be giving up or gaining.

 

Can a significant improvement be made for €300, used? I see tatty Sound Devices 302s at that kind of price (specs claim EIN of –126 dB and 2.5 kΩ mic input impedance, but I’m far from certain what those mean in practice compared to what I’ve got).

 

A FetHead Phantom would be €80. Two would be €160. Meanwhile, I could probably sell my H4N Pro and FetHead for nearly €200 if I got a recorder that made them unnecessary. So let’s say ‘cheap’ can be a bit more than €300 if necessary.

 

Two XLR mic inputs minimum, three seldom useful, four never.

 

I’m trying to learn the layout of the land. What’s out there that’s a bargain for sound quality with weak signals? Probably a boring question for you people but I’m hoping for a starting point for my own research.

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36 minutes ago, IronFilm said:

Get a secondhand Zoom F4 / F8 or a Sound Devices MixPre3 Gen1, would be your two cheapest paths at the ultra low budget level.
If you can spend a little more a Zoom F8n or Sound Devices MixPre10/10T would still be extremely affordable, but even better, giving yourself for instance line level out and more.

Great. Thanks for the tips. Some of those look very attractive at first glance. I’ll have to look for a bargain on one of the cheaper models though (that MixPre-3 looks great! But no line-level out then, even via the headphone port or something?).

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3 hours ago, Samuel Dilworth said:

Great. Thanks for the tips. Some of those look very attractive at first glance. I’ll have to look for a bargain on one of the cheaper models though (that MixPre-3 looks great! But no line-level out then, even via the headphone port or something?).

The MixPre-3 does have an 1/8" stereo line level output. When first released, it was consumer line level but a later firmware update allowed gain adjustment for the output so you can bump it up to pro line level or even hotter.

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Thanks, Patrick. The MixPre-3 looks great, but it’s still a fair bit more expensive than a Sound Devices 302, for example. Would the 302 be at all viable for what I want? It’s not a recorder, but I could use its preamps and record with something else, e.g. the Zoom or my camera (Panasonic GH5S). Is the 302 generally reliable? I see one available locally for just €200, but it has heavily worn paint suggesting many hours of use in the field. Risky?

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In my experience, the 302 is built like a tank and very reliable. I bought mine second hand and there were a couple controls that were scratchy; I opened up the unit and cleaned them, they've been fine ever since. I wouldn't recommend doing the labor yourself unless you're very comfortable dealing with compact electronic circuits. Your best option would be to send it to Sound Devices for a checkup and overhaul.

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19 minutes ago, Samuel Dilworth said:

Thanks, Patrick. The MixPre-3 looks great, but it’s still a fair bit more expensive than a Sound Devices 302, for example. Would the 302 be at all viable for what I want? It’s not a recorder, but I could use its preamps and record with something else, e.g. the Zoom or my camera (Panasonic GH5S). Is the 302 generally reliable? I see one available locally for just €200, but it has heavily worn paint suggesting many hours of use in the field. Risky?

My 302 and my original version MixPre have many paint dings and even bent front "ears" from being dropped.  They still work great, and I've owned them since they were first released by SD (in the case of the original Mix Pre that's the early 1990s).  SD will still repair them.  Great Lundahl trafo mic pres, similar to those in 442 and 552, really good limiters.   If you read the manual for the 302 you will discover that it can work as a 5-input mixer (the returns become line inputs): I used mine that way on many many jobs for many years.  Extremely versatile box.

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So if you just get a mixer, such as a 302 (I still use mine), how will you record your sounds? Into your H4N? That can work, but if you go for a Zoom F4 or MixPre 3 or 6 (you could look for used ones of those), you'll have a recorder built in. That's handy. 

 

Are you planning on mainly recording voice for podcasts or other stuff? Do you want to be able to use the mixer/recorder in a bag over your shoulder, or have a transportable setup that you'd carry in a case and set up on location, or will it always or almost always be in your studio? And what mics are you planning on using? Mainly your Rode Procaster or others?

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The 302 is great, I doubt I will ever sell mine despite the fact do not use it much.

It only has left and right outputs though, it you are feeding ISOs to a H4n recorder and they still go through the 'less than stellar' H series preamps even in line level. The F series Zooms are good and have lots of quiet gain, same for the 1st gen MixPre.

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2 hours ago, Jim Feeley said:

So if you just get a mixer, such as a 302 (I still use mine), how will you record your sounds? Into your H4N?

That was the hope, yes. I guess it would be a pain compared to recording directly on something modern like the MixPre-3 or Zoom F4 … but I’ve never used one of those so don’t know what I’m missing.

 

Alternatively, my camera has line-level audio-in via a 3.5 mm jack and there’s an XLR adaptor available for it (though I don’t have it). But I want this for more than camera work.

 

Shoulder bag or attached to a camera rig somehow.

 

I’m trying to do a variety of things including voiceovers for video, interviews, sound effects for tutorial videos (e.g. the noises made by a bicycle component in operation), recording prolonged experiences such as riding a metro train, etc. Of note: no music. I also want to record the sound of landscapes, e.g. rural Romania where my wife’s parents have a summer house. The sounds there are distinctive and amazing, but at a low SPL despite seeming very present when you’re standing in a field in the middle of the night.

 

I want cleaner preamps in part so I can choose new mics without undue concern about their sensitivity. Mics I want to use are various low-cost lavs, the Procaster, the Audio-Technica AT4053b, some shotgun that I’m currently trying to choose (has to sound good for voice and quiet sound effects for someone who doesn’t know what they’re doing in post … probably impossible), and hopefully a BP4025 in the future. I’ll probably end up with a reporter-style microphone too at some point.

 

Interestingly, a 302 would open up other options like this MKH 416 – just €200 because it’s a P12 that no-one wants. (Anyone know if that could be converted to a P48, by the way?)

 

https://www.leboncoin.fr/image_son/1908249509.htm

1 hour ago, Rick Reineke said:

The 302 is great, I doubt I will ever sell mine despite the fact do not use it much.

It only has left and right outputs though, it you are feeding ISOs to a H4n recorder and they still go through the 'less than stellar' H series preamps even in line level. The F series Zooms are good and have lots of quiet gain, same for the 1st gen MixPre.

“ISOs”?

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7 hours ago, Samuel Dilworth said:

Thanks, Patrick. The MixPre-3 looks great, but it’s still a fair bit more expensive than a Sound Devices 302, for example. Would the 302 be at all viable for what I want? It’s not a recorder, but I could use its preamps and record with something else, e.g. the Zoom or my camera (Panasonic GH5S). Is the 302 generally reliable? I see one available locally for just €200, but it has heavily worn paint suggesting many hours of use in the field. Risky?

If you're mainly using it with your GH5S, then either get a Panasonic DMW-XLR1 or Sound Devices MixPre3. 
Those two are clearly by far your best options. 

Only if you have bit higher aspirations, like perhaps you want to be the sound mixer for an indie feature film, then would I say take the next step up to a Zoom F8n / MixPre10 / etc as those offer a lot more at still amazing bargain prices. 


 

48 minutes ago, Samuel Dilworth said:

That was the hope, yes. I guess it would be a pain compared to recording directly on something modern like the MixPre-3 or Zoom F4 … but I’ve never used one of those so don’t know what I’m missing.

It's definitely a massively inferior experience to be juggling a 302/H4n combo vs using a MixPre3/6 or F4/F6/F8
 

 

49 minutes ago, Samuel Dilworth said:

Interestingly, a 302 would open up other options like this MKH 416 – just €200 because it’s a P12 that no-one wants. (Anyone know if that could be converted to a P48, by the way?)

You could get this instead of a 302 if you just want it for the T Power:
https://www.bhphotovideo.com/c/product/275819-REG/PSC_FPSC0010A_A4812_48V_to_12T.html

51 minutes ago, Samuel Dilworth said:

“ISOs”?

"Isolated tracks"

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2 hours ago, Rick Reineke said:

The 302 is great, I doubt I will ever sell mine despite the fact do not use it much.

It only has left and right outputs though, it you are feeding ISOs to a H4n recorder and they still go through the 'less than stellar' H series preamps even in line level. The F series Zooms are good and have lots of quiet gain, same for the 1st gen MixPre.

 

Don't forget the TA3M tape out. Working from memory, but 15+ years ago, I would sometimes send the tape out to a little Marantz PDM620 set to MP3 for transcription or 24/48 WAV for backup (the master outs were either cabled to the camera or Lectro TX for a hop). Sounded pretty good and I'm =pretty sure= that I was bypassing the 620's preamps. However, I was using Sennheiser 416, Schoeps 541, and Sanken CS3e mics and Lectro wireless. Rick, is there no way to bypass the preamps on the Zoom H recorders?

 

But that's all mists-of-time trivia and today if I were looking to record the sorts of stuff as Samuel is, I'd buy a MixPre II 3 or 6 or Zoom F4 (or bigger as Dave/IronFilm suggests) before buying a used 302.

 

And Samuel, that 416P12 must be pretty old. As much as I like to save money, I'd probably not buy it (that said, my 416T still works, though I need to send it to Pete Verrando in Texas USA to get it modified to 48V phantom http://www.416tupgrade.com/416Tupgrade.com.html).

 

 

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On 1/13/2021 at 5:07 AM, Niels said:

The Centrance Mixerface R4D is a high quality compact solution at $400 new. I think it would fulfil your requirements except does not deliver P12. - but get that 416 converted to 48.

Based on the original posters input source the Centrance may not have enough gain based on its published spec of ~54 dB maximum gain. That is suitable for many applications like music, but not enough for dynamic microphones and speech at any subject-to-microphone distance beyond a few inches. A preamp with a minimum of 65 dB of gain, and more like 70+ dB, should be considered. 

 

 

 

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I tried to buy that Sound Devices 302 for €200, plus another one for slightly more, but I was too late for one and the other seller flaked out.

 

Used Zoom F4s and MixPre-3s are thin on the ground here. Haven’t seen any.

 

I could buy a new MixPre-3 (the discontinued model) for €530. More than I really wanted to spend but maybe worth it? New MixPre-3 IIs are about €800 by comparison – more than I can spend (remember, I have no professional aspirations).

 

Would anyone explain the practical timecode differences between the -3 and -3 II? For reference, I have a Panasonic GH5S camera. It has some sort of limited timecode support, but the technical details elude me. I have been synching audio manually (and might just keep doing that).
 

Alternative left-field idea: Wendt X3? Has Wendt gone bust? No website that I can find.

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I have a FilmTech LSP4 that has been sitting unused since integrated mixer/recorders came into being. If that spikes your interest DM me.

It is large-ish and doesn't have a recorder. It's a 4 channel mixer with phantom (even T-power!). 

 

Quiet preamps x 4.

XLR inputs with phantom power.

Low risk of sudden death (e.g. from ancient electronics) -- it's not that ancient -- depends on your age I suppose.

Great portability. ???

Line-level out.

 

Shipping costs to Paris alone might kill this "just a preamp" idea if not some of your other criteria.

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4 minutes ago, Eric said:

I have a FilmTech LSP4 that has been sitting unused since integrated mixer/recorders came into being. If that spikes your interest DM me.

It is large-ish and doesn't have a recorder. It's a 4 channel mixer with phantom (even T-power!). 

 

Quiet preamps x 4.

XLR inputs with phantom power.

Low risk of sudden death (e.g. from ancient electronics) -- it's not that ancient -- depends on your age I suppose.

Great portability. ???

Line-level out.

 

Shipping costs to Paris alone might kill this "just a preamp" idea if not some of your other criteria.

 

The Filmtech LSP4 was my first mixer and indeed sounded great with a few advanced (for its time) options such as the linear fader module. Doesn't it have direct outs on the 4 channel inputs? maybe unbalanced? 

Martyn of Filmtech now runs the Soundkit.co.uk dealership here in Cardiff, Wales. 

43 minutes ago, Samuel Dilworth said:

I tried to buy that Sound Devices 302 for €200, plus another one for slightly more, but I was too late for one and the other seller flaked out.

 

I found this 302 for sale at a reasonable price on BBlist .. for what it's worth.

 

https://www.bblist.co.uk/item.php?item=75331

 

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2 hours ago, Samuel Dilworth said:

I could buy a new MixPre-3 (the discontinued model) for €530. More than I really wanted to spend but maybe worth it? New MixPre-3 IIs are about €800 by comparison – more than I can spend (remember, I have no professional aspirations).

You could get a Zoom F6 for less:
https://www.thomann.de/gb/zoom_f6.htm

But either would be a good choice. 
A quick overview at the difference between Gen1 and Gen2 of MixPre3 are: gains USB mirrorring, internal TC generator, and access to newer plugins for purchase (NoiseAssist). 
For your purposes, it probably wouldn't be a big deal if you got the older Gen1 instead. 

2 hours ago, Samuel Dilworth said:

Would anyone explain the practical timecode differences between the -3 and -3 II? For reference, I have a Panasonic GH5S camera. It has some sort of limited timecode support, but the technical details elude me. I have been synching audio manually (and might just keep doing that).

You can either:
1) connect the GH5S HDMI to the MixPre3 to keep them on the same time
*OR*
2) attached a Tentacle Syc E (or Ultrasync ONE, etc) to the GH5S (and to the MixPre3 too, if you get a Gen1)

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