Until the introduction of transistor amplifiers in the 1940s, tube circuits were the gold standard in audio amplification. Tubes are still commonly found today in high-end stereo receivers, instrument amplifiers, and microphone preamps largely because of both their prevalence in recorded musical history as well as the pleasing warmth and depth that they impart to otherwise plain audio signals. If you work with audio in any capacity, from live to studio and in between, a tube preamp is a quick ticket to getting bold, natural sounds that are pleasing to the ear.
Here’s a list of our favorite tube preamps for live and studio use.
This single-channel preamp from Universal Audio is a modern, cost-effective version of the legendary 610 preamp from the late 1950s, designed to bring a timeless tone that’s since been used on everything from Frank Sinatra to Arcade Fire into your own studio. Plug a bass or synth directly into the front panel or use it to add depth to any vocal or drum microphone signal you please. It’s mighty portable, too, thanks to its rubber handle and rugged metal casing.
If you want to go a little further with your project and try out something really special, the Avalon VT-700 is a one-stop channel strip unit designed to save time and get you a finished sound the moment your signal passes through it. Wrapped in an insanely sturdy rack mountable metal chassis and stylish to boot, this preamp-EQ-compressor combo excels on any source and is great for bringing life to otherwise dull-sounding material. If you want access to full control over your audio that will last for years, this is the ultimate channel strip.
Impart tube warmth on up to eight channels of audio at once with the ART TubeOpto 8. It’s a multi-channel preamp that doubles as an ADAT interface, and is by far the most versatile choice on this list for expanding your recording or live sound setup thanks to the sheer number of tracks it can handle. Each channel comes with its own phase flip, pad, and low cut buttons, too—and phantom power runs on two banks of four channels at a time.
The ART TubeMPSTV3 is a quick fix for single-channel applications where you want to quickly apply some warmth to a synth, keyboard or other digital signal. Its small, portable frame allows for easy storage and keeps it out of the way even when it’s in use. It even comes with a host of switchable presets that are fine-tuned for each different vocal or instrument you might pass through.