Good, points on all fronts guys, and thanks for the kind words about Seed.
As you can probably guess from many of my posts and my music, sound quality is very, very important to me, and as such I have spent a great deal of time "learning and experiencing" it.
Also a great deal of money over a 18 year period. I also run a professional studio with mostly rock and folk clients, so my needs and opinions may be different to your own...
Both of the last posts are right. We are in essence talking about a 5%...ok maybe more like a 20% difference, that some may hear and most will not, and even if they do, they probably wont loose sleep over it. I am glad Julio mentioned the build up, as that is really where you hear the difference, its not necessarily on one track, but on many...it is in essence the same as how a good console would have made the music sound back when every studio had a neve, ssl or api.
Yes there are some pre-amps like say a Universal Audio 610 that would be instantly recognizable in its thick warm signature, but other than that, the choice and even necessity of a good preamp is akin to choosing a fine wine.
At a certain level it becomes a matter of taste. There is also the experience needed to tell the subtle complexities apart. Then again as with sound quality, there is a whole crowd of people who are plainly satisfied with whatever is the best price, is it simply red or white? Whatever it tastes fine.
Audio has become the same way. I was recently at the national Audio Engineering Society convention and sat in at a seminar of high profile companies and engineers who feel that the time is now when we need to "take back the night" so to speak in terms of audio quality.
So in that sense the argument of "it all sounds the same on my computer speakers or little white ear buds" begins to loose water. The fact is that more people listen to music more often than any other point in history, and yet because of that in many ways music has become disposable.
The time is coming however when smaller speakers will continue to improve in sonic quality, earbuds are getting better and better, and most of all eventually music will become full resolution again, not low res MP3.
So in preparation for that time I believe that when you create music as an artist, just as a painter uses the best paints and brushes, or a printer and photographer would use acid free paper and vegetable dye inks, we need to create music with the best sound quality possible if we hope it to last through the transitions of audio formats.
The best advice I ever got was when the label owner at Mirage, encouraged Chris, John (Vir Unis) and I to track and mix down "Imaginarium" at 24 bits back when it was rare and expensive. It was a lesson for me as an engineer to not just be satisfied and conscious of now, but also of then and the future.
The sad fact is, and this is a bold statement that I am sure will tick some people off, but most of, yes most of the music recorded in our genre today is sonically mediocre at best. I am not talking about the performance of or the musical ideas, just the sonics.
I am usually not surprised when I find out it was done in a bedroom, with an all in one sub $400 box of the week. Even though many of said $400 boxes of the week sound fine. I usually tell people when I get asked advice on what gear to buy, that in this day and age, there should be no excuse for bad sound, you just need to get what accomplishes you goals, learn it inside and out and then set a new plateau of goals and repeat.
So it then comes down to the skills not the gear. Being able to plug-in a stereo quarter inch cable into a sound card and press record does not make you a good engineer or even an audio engineer at all. Just as being a wine drinker does not make you a wine connoisseur...and that's OK. Its the job of the engineers and the wine connoisseurs to help lay people figure out whats good, without getting in the way.
Skill wise while it seams like a, "you need to cut your teeth and save up and even pay to play" idealism, it is and it isn't. It is because it is a tried and true method that worked. It isn't because there are exceptions to every rule and there are some killer guys out there with just a DAW and a soundblaster, but trust me those people eat, sleep and slave away at their limited tools kust the same.
Sticking in our genre, back in the 80's and 90's just to have a home studio and do electronic music was a serious investment, and you HAD to learn about signal flow, noise floor, hooking up and maintaining gear. You had to learn what a high pass filter did and how to use EQ and Compression and effects and how to program a synth from scratch every time you turned it on...
Point being even if you were self taught, it was still a long hard road of self discovery and healthy failure that made you grow and each recording experience get better and better.
Now we plug-in, fire up the DAW and largely everything is a flat-line, it just always sounds the same (again, sonically, not musically), it just works, I have plug-ins and presets and I am good to go...no work needed, if I don't want to. And since it is easy and we are so self important to our own processes, yet so fragile to criticism and outside help that we get constant statements like: why do I need a mastering engineer, why do I need a mix engineer, why do I need an outside producer, why do I need an outside studio, why do I need better gear.
If you can ask many of those questions, you are probably the person who needs them. Even after my 20+ years of experience, I kick around the thought of using an outside engineer to mix my albums because I want to see that 10% I am missing or can still learn, and I almost never master anything which I have recorded myself. I want the perspective, damn the costs. If I have brought my art this far and painted the picture, it deserves the best frame I can afford.
Now to get back on track with why do I need a dedicated pre-amp?
Well the easy answer is, you don't.
Everything has them built in, even an M-Audio sound card or Behringer mixer, so again its like choosing and educating your self about wine.
I have even seen it go in reverse, hey I have this awesome mic pre or synth and, well I just don't need it, I can accomplish my goals with what I already have...how can I push that stuff.
Also in audio there are huge diminishing returns...try having a microphone discussion on gearslutz, the ones where, if the mic don't cost $4k - $7k its crap. That's just ridiculousness too.
Back to Jesse's original question, you may get great use out of a dedicated high-end mic pre, you may not. The fact that you are asking about one is a good sign because it shows you have that hmmm how can I make my product better and that curiosity keeps things moving forward.
Now as to your comment about "if you can afford it"... I did have to chuckle Jesse. Don't you pretty much own one of every synth produced in the past 10 years? -
I am exaggerating I know
Anyway happy hunting and decision making.
Ok, I am done...discuss or ignore at your will