Today the big pre sound (some call it “iron”) is very popular with many engineers in the context of rock/pop music. I’ve found myself perplexed in recent times by many people on forums making claims that “the Avalon 737 or Focusrite ISA (220, 430 & 428) pres are boring.” This is funny, as when the 737 came out the reviews were glowing. Why the sudden change? Well if you have someone sing through a 737, and then into a pre like the Great River or Portico, there is a huge difference — with many people preferring the bigger, fuller sound of the Great River/Portico. These newer pres are giving us the full, big sound up front while in the past, with many pres, you would need to add EQ and compression to get similar results.
For anecdotal purposes: I recently recorded a song for a client that has a several vocal parts. I found myself using my Neve Portico on the main vocal track, and my Langevin DVC on the alto, tenor, and soprano tracks. The reason? If I used the Portico on the background vocals, the tracks sounded too big, and they competed too much with the lead track. In order to allow the lead vocal track front standing, it was important to use different mic pres.
Using a 737 or ISA starts you in the middle of the tone scale. Both pres are not very clean, or very tube-y. The ISA is center right — going more towards a cleaner sound, but having a touch of smoothness. The 737 is center left — having a smoother sound over the ISA, but not as warm as a Manley or Vipre. By not having a huge sound up front, you are allowed the opportunity to mold the sound more with EQ and compression. If you have a bass guitar, for instance, you could run it through an Avalon 2022 for a clean sound and then use an 1176 compressor to add the right amount of punch to the track. If you used a fuller, bigger pre, you may need less compression and EQ to get the punch you want. Of course, a 737 or ISA pre will not get you the same sound as a Great River or Portico, but they can deliver a full sound when paired with good EQ and compression. In fact it may offer more flexibility, since your staring out with a more even-sounding pre that you can later build on.
George Massenburg has fantastic-sounding clean pres that many love. His feeling is that it’s best to get the sound right, and accurate, from the source — flavor can later be added with EQ and compression. This is sound logic, and it’s coming from one of the more successful engineers out there. On the flip side, if you know your pres, and know you can get your desired sound quickly with the bigger or more colored pres, it’s going to make your life easier. Many times you could use a big sounding pre, touch it up with a little compressor to even out the peaks, and a touch of EQ to add some sparkle and you’e done. I know I have done this many times and have obtained great results in terms of workflow. However, with recording an orchestra, or many live performances, it may be better to go with a more general sounding pre, as you will have that flexibility to alter the sound later on. With a pre that has a very strong character, you may find yourself painted into a corner, so to speak.
The point is, both schools of thought should be weighed when approaching a project. Your warm tube pre, or big pre, may be the best route to take for certain applications. However you just might find that so-called “boring” pres may just be the ticket to the right sound, by allowing you space to customize and spice things up with the right ingredients later down the line.