Wondering what a preamp pedal does, and why you would need one? Well, you’re in the right place!
Guitar and bass amps. They’re big. They’re bulky. They’re heavy. But are they really necessary?
Not if you have a preamp pedal!
But being able to ditch your amp is only one of the many potential benefits of using one of these stompboxes. In this article, you’ll learn everything you need to know about preamp pedals, and find out 10 reasons why you should probably get one.
What is a Preamp Pedal?
A preamp pedal is a special type of guitar stompbox that allows you to plug directly into a mixer or powered PA and give the impression that you are still playing through an amplifier. We can also connect one straight into the power amp section of a guitar amplifier to introduce additional tone shaping options.
It essentially shoe-horns the preamp section of an amplifier into a stompbox-sized package, eliminating the need to use a bulky and heavy traditional amp.
There are also various other uses of a preamp pedal which we will look at below. For example, they provide a more even sound consistency when playing live, as well as the ability to use other players’ amps without messing with their settings. They are also a great backup option for those times where your amplifier fails you.
Before we delve into things in a little more detail, let’s look at what a preamp actually is. This will help you to better understand how the pedals function.
What is a Preamp?
A preamp (or preamplifier) is the first section of an amplifier that your guitar interacts with. Its purpose is to take the weak output signal from the guitar and amplify it before it is sent to the power amp, and then, finally, the speaker. It brings this weak signal up to what we call ‘line level‘.
Without a preamp boosting it, your guitar’s signal would sound weak or distorted.
It is also responsible for shaping the EQ of your sound (i.e. bass, middle, treble etc). So, essentially, a preamp is responsible for creating your guitar or bass’s fundamental tone. Pretty important, then!
After the preamp section, your signal moves to the power amp section, and finally to the speaker. But that is for another article…
How Does a Preamp Pedal Work?
A preamp pedal works by mimicking the preamp section of your amplifier.
Many amplifier preamp sections will use tubes (or valves if you’re outside the USA!) to add compression for a more consistent tone.
Preamp pedals differ as they will generally use solid-state circuitry instead. This enables the pedals to be much more reliable and rugged when compared to the amplifier sections they emulate.
That’s not to say that all preamp pedals use solid-state innards, as some higher-end options do contain tubes. With a tube preamp pedal you’ll be rewarded with more authentic sounding tones but the brittle glass valves will eventually need to be replaced.
In terms of features, you’ll find many of the traditional controls you’d usually find on a regular amplifier, such as an equalizer section, clean and overdrive channels, and master volume controls.
Why Use A Preamp Pedal? 10 Reasons
1. Additional Tone Shaping
If you cannot quite dial the tones that you have inside your head into your amp, a preamp pedal may give you the additional tools to achieve those sounds without having to buy a whole new amplifier. You may be able to obtain a range of tones that your amp wouldn’t usually be able to output.
If you require a completely different EQ to your amp’s usual settings, you can simply turn the pedal on for those songs that need those tweaked sounds.
2. Improved Sound Consistency
By keeping your ‘sound’ on a pedalboard you will be able to achieve a more consistent sound from venue to venue. Your tone will be more familiar no matter what you are plugging into.
3. Improved Recording Consistency
Through recording directly with a preamp pedal you will bypass the additional coloration that an amplifier would have added to your tone. You will only record the tone of your guitar’s pickups and the pedal itself. This should make it easier to mix your recordings later on.
4. Save Your Back!
Make your pedalboard a standalone unit by sending your signal directly to the front of house! Experience the sound and benefits of a traditional amplifier without having to lug bulky gear to the gig or recording studio.
5. Tube Amp Sounds Without A Tube Amp
Enjoy the warmth and response of a tube amp while using a cheaper (and lighter!) solid-state amplifier or similar. Simply add a tube preamp pedal to instantly upgrade the sound of your gear.
6. Easily Switch Between More Than One Instrument
When switching from one guitar to another, the EQ and levels will often need to be adjusted to compensate. Who has time for that during a set?
Simply keeping a preamp pedal ready to go with the new instrument’s settings will save a lot of time tweaking controls. Simply plug in the other guitar and switch on the preamp pedal and you’re good to go!
7. A Great Backup Option For Gigging
Maybe you are totally happy with your amp, but are worried about its reliability. What if it were to crap out one night during a live gig? In this case, a preamp pedal is a great ‘get out of jail free card‘, as you can simply run it directly into the PA and carry on with the gig.
It’s also a great option for those gigs where you are relying on other people’s equipment. If you just cannot get the sound you’re after from someone else’s amp, then a preamp pedal could save the day!
8. Cost Savings
With the exception of some of the real boutique options, the majority of preamp pedals are far less expensive than the amps that they will likely be replacing.
Couple this with the reliability of these pedals and not only will you be paying less money from the start, you’ll also be saving money in the long run!
9. Easily Use Other Players’ Amps
If you’re using other players’ amps when playing live they are probably going to become a little annoyed when you start messing around with their settings, right? By using a pedal, you can bypass the preamp section and negate the need to fiddle with their EQ settings.
10. Additional Features
Many preamp pedals will have features that your amplifier may not already possess. For example, cabinet simulators, a headphone out, an XLR out, additional EQ parameters, tubes/valves, and the list goes on. They can therefore add a lot of extra versatility to your rig.
Now, just in case you still aren’t sold, here’s a bonus video from the guys over at JHS Pedals! In this video, Josh demonstrates a few of his favorite ways of using a preamp pedal.
Preamp Pedal Disadvantages
Lack of Realism
The main downside you will see cited by guitarists is that many believe that preamp pedals lack the authenticity of a genuine amplifier. However, these pedals have come a long way in recent years, so this is generally only an issue on older pedals.
Modern pedals, especially those with cabinet emulation are lauded for their accurate feel and sound.
Unlike a traditional guitar setup using an amplifier, a rig featuring a preamp pedal will obviously lack the speaker(s) needed to fill a venue with your delicious tones.
This means that as a live musician, you will be reliant on each venue having a PA system that is compatible with your rig. However, it’s very unlikely you would come across a venue where this wouldn’t be the case!
Where to Place a Preamp Pedal in Your Signal Chain
It is commonly accepted that a preamp pedal should be placed near the start of your signal chain. In order to create the sound of a traditional amplifier it should be placed before power amp or cabinet simulator pedals if you are using those.
It is normal to place your tuner pedal before the preamp pedal, and then have all other effects afterward. When it comes to these pedals there are no concrete rules, so feel free to experiment with placement to see what works best for you.
It is also worth noting that if your amp has an effects loop, it is common to use the preamp pedal here. Doing this will bypass the preamp section of your amp and go direct to the power amp stage. This will give the benefit of ensuring that the pedal operates as cleanly as possible.
What Is The Best Preamp Pedal?
You’ll find a ton of different options available when looking at preamp pedals, so it’s difficult to recommend any single unit. Budget-friendly models which are simpler and less feature-rich will appeal to players looking to test the waters, while boutique options that include a wealth of features are going to be more suited to professional musicians.
Here are a few popular options that you might like to check out.
- Xotic Effects BB
- LR Baggs Venue DI
- JHS Clover
- Victory Amps The Kraken
- Two Notes Le Lead
- Mooer Preamp Live
What Is The Best Bass Preamp Pedal?
Here are a few popular bass preamp pedals that you can look into.
- Tech 21 SansAmp Bass Driver
- MXR M81 Bass Preamp
- Darkglass Microtubes B7K Ultra
- Aguilar Tone Hammer
Is a Boost Pedal a Preamp?
The two pedals are very similar, as both are used to add gain to the signal. However, the main difference lies in how they are used.
A boost pedal is used when required to boost the level of a guitar at certain points throughout a performance. Whereas, a preamp pedal is generally always on, being designed to bring the guitar level up to a certain point.
What Is The Difference Between A Preamp Pedal vs An Amp Head?
An amp head is usually a preamp plus a power amp in one box. If you were just to use a preamp pedal you would also need a separate power amp to drive your speakers.