If you are in the market for a Cloudlifter you will no doubt have noticed the phrase mic activator, mic booster, and preamp being used interchangeably. But what do these words actually mean? And more importantly, is the Cloudlifter a Preamp, or not? Well, today we will be answering all of your burning questions.
Yes, a Cloudlifter is a preamp but while a Cloudlifter is designed with the exact same function as any other preamp on the market – to increase signal gain – the way it achieves this task sets it apart and is where the distinction is made.
But if you’ve got a preamp why would you ever need a mic-activator? Well, the clue is in the name, for microphones. Specifically, those microphones that are lacking in the signal department. All microphones output incredibly low-level signals conveniently named mic-level. And while condensers rectify this issue with the assistance of phantom power to boost amplify level, dynamic and ribbon mics are left barely audible.
Enter mic activators (or mic boosters). These devices bring the low-output dynamic and ribbon microphones of the world back in the race in terms of the output signal and the way they do so makes them preferable to preamps in most circumstances.
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A Bit About the Cloudlifter
Cloudlifters are arguably the benchmark product in the mic activation market. This small blue box is placed between your woefully quiet microphone and your mixing desk, audio interface, or digital recorder. With a simple click of the phantom power button, your signal receives a 25dB increase with little to no coloration.
It is really that simple, the device requires no setting up or tweaking, in fact, the Cloudlifter C series has no controls at all! This means the gain boost is fixed at 25dB which is more than enough of a bump in signal to hear your output load and clear.
This bit of kit does exactly what it says on the tin, no more no less. The robust chassis, small footprint, and the fact that it takes little to no setup time required means that if you are podcasting on the road with dynamic microphones (for instance the Shure SM58) and are in any doubt about sufficient output levels, there are no downsides to having a few Cloudlifters in your gear bag.
What is a Preamp?
As mentioned previously, the function of a preamp is to boost the signal. You will find these in the form of gain knobs on your mixing desk or audio interface. Unlike a mic activator, however, a preamp is constructed for a wide variety of use cases. From line to mic level output, a preamp may be necessary. Inevitably the amount of gain required will vary so most preamps will have a gain control pot or slider.
One of the major downsides to using a preamp is the resulting coloration. When boosting a signal, typically the closer to the original signal it sounds, the better it is. When the sound is modified in the process of gain boosting this is known as coloration. Coloration becomes more noticeable the higher you boost the signal. As the preamp works harder, the circuitry (or tubes if using older hardware) will begin to alter the sound profile more significantly.
What is a Mic Activator and How is it Different from a Preamp?
Built specifically for boosting microphone output, a mic activator has the advantage of being tailor-made to get the best sound out of a microphone.
The first notable difference is how the device is powered. Unlike a preamp, which usually runs on an external DC power source, a mic activator utilizes phantom power. What this means is that there is no additional plugging in to do, and the powered device boosts signal output with no phantom power transmitted to the microphone itself. This is incredibly useful when working with passive dynamic and ribbon microphones.
One of the major upsides to using a mic activator rather than a preamp is the ultra-transparent gain it offers. This links back to the aforementioned coloring that plagues every producer at some point or another. By swapping to a mic activator like the Cloudlifter rather than any old preamp, your vocals will ring through loud and clear while retaining its original tone.
Hopefully, by reading this far you should have a better understanding of what a preamp is, what a mic activator is, and how they differ from one another. These devices have the potential to bring your audio quality to the next level if used properly, and luckily for those switching to mic activators, there is little to no room for error. It really is as simple as plug and play.
Cloudlifters are the industry standard in mic activation hardware and for good reason. They are rugged, small, and get the job done. That being said they aren’t for everyone, and if you are looking for an alternative, look no further than our article on Cloudlifter alternatives.