Preamp Pedals 101

The electric guitar comes with its advantages and disadvantages. While it's kind of subjective to say what's the "best" instrument, the electric guitars provide you with some very expressive qualities compared to many other instruments. On the other hand, the big downside is that you need a lot of gear (and usually expensive stuff) if you want to sound good. There are so many amps, pedals, and other devices that you need to go through in order to get the full potential out of this great instrument. And this requires a lot of learning. In fact, there's even a lot of science behind getting a good tone.

But while we're not going to get into science stuff here (at least not this time), there are a few things in the world of electric guitars that go under the radar. Despite being pretty useful in many settings, you don't often see preamp pedals being used that much. These more or less compact devices enable you to go straight to the PA system, the mixing board, or even the power amp section of a regular guitar amplifier. This could probably be due to the fact that many people are either going with regular amps and pedals or with digital modeling units and processors. So the preamp pedals are kind of left somewhere "in-between" despite having a great tone and being really practical.

Anyhow, we're going to get into this topic and explain what guitar preamp pedals are and how you can implement them in your signal chain.

What are preamp pedals?

While we're all used to regular guitar pedals, preamps are a bit different. Let's first look into the preamps of a regular guitar amp. This section is the first one that takes the signal, amplifies it a little, and does the main tone-shaping processes. Whatever is the amp that you're playing, it's the preamp section that's doing most of the tone-shaping here.

While all this sounds a lot like any distortion pedal, there's a significant difference here. A preamp pedal has a special output that lets you plug in straight into the mixer while also making it sound as if you're playing through a guitar amp. At the same time, there's also a special output that lets you go straight into a power amp section of a regular guitar amplifier. This setting can open up new possibilities in tone-shaping processes and can also make things a lot simpler in some settings.

In many cases, preamp pedals come with two or more channels, just like preamp sections on your average guitar amp. You can have a clean or distorted tone, and you can usually switch between the two. However, there are also examples of preamp pedals that are also EQs, compressors, or even reverbs. Whatever effects there may be on it, a preamp pedal does the main tone shaping in your signal path.

How can I use preamp pedals?

Just like any other device that you're used to, a preamp pedal has its inputs and outputs. The outputs, however, are either accommodated for guitar power amps or mixing boards. A pretty common way is to go directly into a power amp section of your guitar amplifier and just skip its preamp section. To do this, you'll need to connect the output of the preamp pedal with the "return" input of your amp's effects loop. If you don't have the "return" input, you can also plug it in directly into the input and not bypass the preamp section of your amplifier. However, you'll need to do some additional tweaking in order to make it sound good, but it's not impossible.

The other way is to go through its specialized output for the mixing board. This can come in handy both in the studio and in live settings, where your guitar will go directly into the mix and will sound like it's a mic'd up amp. This is why this output is often referred to as a "speaker cabinet emulator."

You can also plug them directly into your audio interface and record music from it. For this, you can use the output you'd use for a mixer. But if you're using the output designated for a guitar power amp, it will start clipping and will sound completely messy. However, by using it this way, you can also add a digital emulation of a guitar cabinet and get some realistic guitar amp tones.

What are some great guitar preamp pedals?

Although not so common, there are some great preamp pedals that are worth checking out. For instance, Hughes & Kettner has their Tubeman MK2 that's really versatile. Then there's also a piece like AMT Electronics SS-11 that not only sounds great but also offers plenty of functionalities. Other examples also include Strymon Iridium, DSM & Humboldt Simplifier, and Diezel Herbert just to name a few.

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