Zen of Recording

Plugging Into Better

Plugging Into Better
In what can only be described as some sort of grand irony, the very first musical recordings couldn’t even be played back and listened to.

The Phonautograph, developed and patented in Paris, France by Édouard-Léon Scott de Martinville, circa 1857, was intended for “visual study.” The recordings, called phonautograms, were cut away from soot-coated sheets of paper by a vibrating stylus. In essence, they were carved away like so much clay from a sculpture, rather than rendered as from a pencil or brush. It would be nearly 140 years before the first of these recordings, an 1860 phonautogram of a French folk song called “Au Clair De La Lune, could actually be played back as sound. In true Chicken vs. Egg fashion, one could posit that recordists have spent more time looking at audio waveforms than listening to tangible recordings!

Certainly in this digitized modern era, we spend a great deal of time strategizing our way around a multitude of audio glitches, snags, and hitches, and/or just plain trying to make things sound better. A big part of this column’s aim is the deploying of techniques and employing of tools meant to do just that, in the hope that the actual music we make is that much more successful in making its way through our listeners’ ears and into their hearts.

It is in this interest that I sometimes try to steal away a little time to explore the internet for little gadgets and thingamajigs that might just solve a problem, soften an edge, or bring a whole to world of dimension to elements within a song’s arrangement.

A compressor isn’t necessarily the sexiest of devices, but it can certainly make a huge difference when trying to set something into a mix like a bass part, a guitar line, or a lead vocal. By taming the loudest notes and, by doing so, ostensibly bringing the weakest ones up in volume, it smooths over any potentially jarring variances, allowing one to place it where it can be heard in proper context to the other instruments. It can even change its personality, as with the pumping, whooshing sound of Ringo’s drums on the Beatles’ “Tomorrow Never Knows.”

Digital versions can have difficulty attaining the same results of their hardware counterparts though, and much time can be lost trying to so. The Urei 1176 LN Peak Limiter is a de facto standard model, but very few plug-ins can accurately capture the indescribable magic that is imparted by running a signal through it. Even set to a virtually neutral setting, with no appreciable effect on the signal, just running something through it makes it sound notably better. Maybe it’s the copper windings or the transistors or the solder or some other components or materials. Perhaps it’s just the random effects of external influences like heat or humidity, but something’s always missing in the digital version and in the case of the 1176 particularly, there are a lot more misses than hits in the software realm.

Sometimes, the road to effectively mimicking a hardware unit’s best traits is to start by making a real world analog reproduction, or at least a similarly featured product that sounds equally great. That’s what the folks at Lindell Audio (www.lindellplugins.com) did when they made a digital version of their 500 Series Rack Format FET Compressor/Limiter, the 7X-500 FET Feedback Compressor ($99—VST, VST3, AAX, RTAS, AudioUnits—32 and 64 bit).

Even in the ephemeral ”real world,” truthfully reproducing or even paying homage to the singularly iconic sonic fingerprint of one of the recording world’s most distinctive audio processing units is a formidable undertaking. Lindell was obviously undaunted, because they not only did so admirably, but in creating a digital plug-in version of their own design they’ve brazenly added a few twists as well.

Perhaps the most recognizable and sought-after of the 1176’s characteristics is its unmistakable presence. Just about anything run through it instantly moves forward in the mix. There is an aggressive coloring added by the amplifiers that is readily apparent before you even begin to apply gain reduction.

The 1176’s gain reduction itself is its own legend. 4:1 ratios have been a bread-and-butter setting for guitars for decades and the 8:1 or 12:1 buttons serve drums, bass, and vocals in an equally wonderful way. The 20:1 button brings things more in the realm of limiting, rather than compression when needed.

The biggest “secret sauce” of all its settings is the “All-In” trick, also known as “British Mode.” It takes a little practice, but if you press all four of the gain reduction selector buttons in at the same time, things get really nasty. This was often used for room mics, drums and most noticeably vocals, as evidenced by the Strokes, Foo Fighters, and the Beastie Boys.

This is a review about the Lindell Audio 7X-500 FET Feedback Compressor digital plug-in, though.

Rather making unfair comparisons, I’ve been setting things up for a jumping off point; that is to say that the 7X-500 carries off a remarkably effective simulation of the established standard, but adds in additional functionality previously unavailable to this unit.

Stereo linking and the ability to variably compress the left and right channels in values from 0% (totally independent) to 100% (an average of both) is a trick the mono only 1176 can definitely not do.

The Comp Mix feature allows for parallel compression effects precisely controlled within plug-in itself and a Side Chain High Pass Filter allows you to cutoff frequencies below either 100 Hz or 300 Hz to avoid unwanted pumping effects.

The three-position Attack and Release switches can swiftly bring you great results, or you can activate the Continuous Compression Timings control instead, using knobs like the original unit.

The Ratio switch has three settings 4:1, 12:1, and 100:1, the latter of which mimics the All-In mode quite effectively and there’s even an Analog On that lets you choose between very clean and neutral or a warm analog circuit that emulates output transformer saturation, noise and even power supply unit hum!

I have found this to be a constant go-to for snare drums, where it excels in bringing out all of those wonderful ghost notes. It also keeps electric guitars right “in the pocket” mix-wise and it really helps bass parts sing and support simultaneously. Lead vocals hold a solid focus as well, seeming to lean forward and speak to the listener directly. Experimenting with all of the switch setting combinations reveals a broad pallet of tones, colors and control.
Given its great (and much sought after) sound, advanced feature set and a price tag under a hundred bucks, there’s obviously a lot of value in this plug-in and yes, it definitely makes things sound…better!

Sven-Erik Seaholm is a singer, songwriter and record producer with nearly 600 recording credits. (www.kaspro.com)

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