At some stage or another, anyone who records in a humble home studio might want to move beyond the sound of an economy microphone and audio interface. There’s nothing wrong with the sound for most purposes but if you’ve ever wanted to place your vocal, drums or guitar recording in a different era, or breathe life into an otherwise lifeless, flat take, then cooking up that signal path with some sexy seventies hardware might have been something you’ve considered.
However, if you’ve ever seen the prices classic EQs, compressors and channel strips are going for you’ll know they’re enough to bankrupt the average project studio. There are a plethora of companies cloning our favourite bits of kit but I want to focus on the alternatives for those of you who want to keep it in-the-box.
Logic’s 10.4 update saw the introduction of Apple’s first proper foray into analog EQ emulation with their Vintage Collection. Coupled with the already well-modelled compression circuits and some other cheap and cheerful third party plug-ins, I wanted to take a look at achieving some of those sought-after channel strip sounds in your DAW without having to venture into the myriad of analog hardware or remortgage.
So, let’s take a look at some of our favourite channel strips and how we can approximate them within the box:
But First… What is a Preamp?
Something that alluded (and many others) for years – I thought preamps were some magical “make it sound better” box. In reality, all they do is convert an instrument or microphone level signal (quiet) into a line level one (louder), ideally without boosting the noise floor. That’s it really! Here’s a handy diagram that also includes a typical amplifier that would take that line level signal and boost it to speaker level, ready for a PA or monitor.
Most any audio interface will have some preamps included and they mostly sound fine. However, with many aspects of music technology, while there are bargains out there to be had, generally speaking, the more you spend the better quality you get.
While preamps all do the same thing they don’t all sound the same; companies may use different component or even different technology to boost the sound, it could be solid state or tube, some add colour while others are transparent, some are single or multiple channels and even have some extra bundled features such as phantom power, polarity inversion, basic parametric equalisation or even compression and gating in some instances.
The top-dogs over at Sweetwater have done a fantastic guide to buying hardware preamps, which I’d certainly recommend checking out.
…And EQ and Compression?
As with my elevator pitch as to what a preamp is, I’ll try and do the same with EQ and compression. Equalisation (or EQ to its buddies) is a process of balancing the audio spectrum by boosting or attenuating certain frequency bands.
There are different types of filters including low and high cut, low and high shelf, bell and notch. EQ can be used correctively to fix some issue with the recording, such as an unpleasant resonance, or creatively to colour to the sound to better fit your mix, such as brightening or darkening a sound.
You can read more about it in my hand guide here.
Compression is a little harder to explain without demonstration or visual aid. Compression is a process whereby we can automatically attenuate in the incoming signal. The sound passes into the compressor and anything over the specified threshold is compressed by some amount, determined by the ratio. You can see this a glorified, automated volume control.
Recently I stumbled across this fantastic visual representation of what compression does to an audio signal.
Here’s a handy list of my favourite cheap and free compressors.
What EQs and compressors share in common with microphone preamps is that the way they operate can differ. EQs can be digital or analog, use tubes or passive circuits, be parametric, graphic or stepped console-style.
Compressors can be optical, voltage controlled or FET circuit based as well as a host of other options. This means that while they all perform the same function as each other, they can colour the sound differently. Let’s take a look at some of the more famous pre-amp, EQ and compression combinations and see how we can achieve a cheaper software alternative:
Automated Processes, Inc, or API as they are more familiarly known as producers of preamps, EQs and compressors, and a particular one, if not the founding fathers of 500 series modules. You can read more about API here.
Their gritty, powerful sound is more often associated with rock and metal and seen as the de facto mic-pre for and edgier drum sound compared to some smoother pre-amps.
The trouble with talking about analog hardware is it can quickly collapse into subjective territories, with seemingly confusing descriptions. The best way to hear the difference between any of these is to listen to them yourself, crank them up and push them to their limits – that’s how you can truly hear what something is designed to do.
Let’s start off with some of my favourite plug-ins, the Omega range from Kush Audio, in particular, their Ωmega Model A, which they say:
…vibes like a mic plugged straight into an API console from 1976. Adding a hint of sparkle and sheen, it slowly breaks up into a gritty white cloud of antique saturation.
As you can see the Omega series plug-ins have very limited control – just input gain. This is the payoff for their phenomenally cheap price of $29 (~£22).
For added authenticity we’ll need to pair this with an API-style graphic EQ – step forward some of Logic’s newest additions, the Vintage EQ Collection, added in version 10.4:
This models API’s famed 560 lunchbox module, a 10-band graphic EQ… What’s neat about Logic’s Graphic EQ is that the bands aren’t fixed.
While they loosely approximate octaves, the handy “tune” control on the left allows you to, well, tune your graphic eq to fit the source material. This can allow you to fit any preset you like more closely to the key of your music, a feature not found on the original module. Topped off with some handy “drive” control this is a great EQ for drum overheads, electric guitars, drum close mics and most anything else. Versatile and unsubtle.
Lastly, we’ll need an API 2500-style compressor to top off the chain. All the usual candidates (Waves, UAD) offer fantastic sounding emulations but as we’re penny-pinching I’ve opted for the free Tokyo Dawn Records Kotelnikov.
While this isn’t a strict 2500-clone it does offer the famed feed-forward compression that is synonymous with the ‘2500. The API-2500 wasn’t a dedicated mastering compressor but has curried favour with mastering engineers, partly because of the feed-forward compression.
Feed-forward compression for uninitiated feeds the input of the compressor directly from the output. It’d fiddly to grasp and subtle to hear but has a fantastically smooth response. Talking about the Portico 5043, Rupert Neve’s website has this to say on feed-forward:
If the V.C.A. control voltage is taken from the input (i.e. before the V.C.A.), the V.C.A. knows right away that a gain change is required and there is an almost immediate response. This is known, logically, as a “Feed-Forward” compressor.
Most compression circuits use the more common feed-back style compression, which Rupert describes:
If the V.C.A. control voltage is taken from the 5043 output, (i.e. after the V.C.A.) it cannot act immediately on the V.C.A. because it has already been modified by the compressor circuit through which it has passed. This is known as a “Feed-Back” compressor. The two compression characteristics are quite different; there is more “Overshoot” and both the attack and recovery ramps are changed, providing the user with powerful choices.
Neve is the sound of the 70s in a box. While not all Neves are created equal, they are broadly known for having a softer, more homogenous top-end, without the same aggression or harsh edges API consoles offer, instead their sound is more rich, thick sound with a beautiful sheen.
The 1073s and 1081s are perhaps the two better known Neve pres. They’re both classic vocal preamps of choice and can add that certain je ne c’est quoi to a sterile mix.
Again I’m going to start our chain out with Kush Audio’s contribution to the genre, this time their Ωmega Model N, which they say:
…nails the sound of the coveted vintage Neve pre it’s modelled after. Dark, thick, and round, just a kiss imparts a dusty patina, pushed hard it gets downright fuzzy and soft.
Like the Model-A it has basically one control, but that’s all we need! Logic’s Console EQ is on sculpting duties, this is a fairly obvious homage to the legendary Neve 1073 console EQ.
Unlike the API this is a graphic EQ which some basic bell filters, a low-cut and high shelf. All the Logic Vintage EQs have a handy Drive dial which adds that little extra warmth.
Original Neve EQs have stepped bands, meaning you had to fix the boost/cut at a certain point. Users of digital EQs might find this concept baffling but lots of parametric EQs worked in this way. Both Neve, API and Pultec (to name but a few) were known for their “musical” sounding EQ band choice.
Lastly, I tried to find a Neve compressor, similar to either the 33609 or Portico 5043.
That leaves us with the Waves V-series – a clone of the 2254 rack compressor. Normally this retails at $159 but at the time of writing this is on sale at just $39, and Waves love their discounts.
I’ve not personally used the real 2254, and certainly, it’s not as renowned as some of the other classic compressors later down in this article, but the Waves V-Comp has a certain sound to it that I love on mix busses, sax and brass.
While researching this article I came across this all-in-one solution from Sknote, modelling the preamp, EQ and compressor, which at $40 is hard to argue with! They also off a single console/EQ unit but I’ve tried neither so can’t endorse them in any way.
60s Tube Sound
Next, let’s move way back to the 60s with that unmistakable creamy valve character we all so love. Tube saturation tends to bring a certain unquantifiable magic to sound source – whether it’s a lead vocal, bass guitar or kick drum.
60s consoles are associated with attitude, warmth, fatness and all things nice to be expected. Pushing tube pre-amps to their limit breaks up the sound in a pleasant way, softening while adding bite.
Kush Audio has done it once again! Their Ωmega 458a transformer modelling plugin is a fairly blatant head-nod to the Altec 458A and is according them:
…rarefied tube emulation has a fat tone that breaks up in delicious ways, growing increasingly crusty but never harsh, turning cymbals from brass to gold, and gluing bass into a molten fiery blob of love.
Of all the Ωmega range I find myself reaching for this one the most, for percussion, cymbals, synth bass, vocals, electric guitar, the list goes on. I wouldn’t go so far as to say it’s instant psychedelic or Motown, but it’s an unmistakably classic sound regardless.
Now we’ve got some tube mic-pre action, let’s run it through one of my favourite EQs going, a Pultec clone.
I’m lucky enough to have access to not only a Warm Audio Pultec clone but a reissued AND original Pultec in the studio I work at, but of course, these are out of the question here.
I’d previously used Waves PuigTec EQs but I found they didn’t handle distortion too well and could often overdrive in a slightly unpleasant way compared to the originals. Great if you keep the input gain low though.
The hardware options are great for tracking but when it comes to mixing, the Logic’s new Tube EQ has nearly replaced that in my workflow.
Pultec-style EQs are both simple and complex. Their controls seem unintuitive as you can both boost and attenuate the same frequency band. One way I found it easier to think about them is a simple bass/treble adjuster (top) and midrange tweaking (bottom). They are not designed to be as customise-able as the Neve or API EQs, more added warmth or sheen.
I love the top Pultec (EQP) on kick drums, vocals and bass, and the bottom is (MEQ) on snares, electric guitar, vocals and anything needing some mid-range control.
If you’re not a Logic user don’t worry, there are other options on the market including this free alternative from Analog Obsession.
Last in our tube-saturation-tastic signal chain is a Fairchild clone. Like most classic gear the UADs and Waves of this world have had a crack. I’ve only tried the Waves one and I love it on my master bus or drum bus.
However, we’re keeping our wallet closed for now so the Klanghelm’s MJUCjr will handle our Fairchild duties.
Its feature list is incredibly limited, there’s something about this that I keep coming back to, and best of all it’s free. The compression control feels slewed so the response is incredibly slow and soft, you almost don’t realise how much it’s working until you disable it.
The Fairchild is synonymous with the sound of the 60s but has been popular as a bus compressor throughout the 70s until now, popular in rock and anything else seeking that classic crunch tube compressors offer.
Trevor Horn loves them and Steve Albini hates them*, if you know who either of those two is, that analogises Solid State Logic, (or SSL for short) quite nicely. While no two SSLs are the same, their sound is distinct – precise, edgy and responsive.
*I’m sure he doesn’t hate them.
SSLs and other British consoles are often renowned in the mixing world. While the APIs and Neves add character, SSLs are arguably more transparent, which is why some prefer them for mixing compared to tracking.
I failed to find a dedicated SSL preamp other than the Waves all-in-one, but as that’s not in the spirit of this article I’ve avoided it. That said Waves are always offering HEAVY discounts on their stuff so the chances are you can find it a knock-off price when they do their fairly regular sales.
SSL EQ is parametric and highly useful. It seems you can push the EQ much harder than some digital counterparts. There are a number of vst options for the muso-on-a-budget but again Tokyo Dawn Records have something to offer with their Slick EQ.
This has four EQ algorithms including America, German, Soviet and of course… British. Unlike real SSL EQs this only contains three bands, as opposed to the customary four with added high and low-pass filters. That said it’s more than capable of slotting into any mix and performing its task.
Logic’s stock EQ has some phenomenal analog modelled circuits (more on these below) but if you turn your attention to the Vintage VCA mode you’ll see a familiar looking SSL console compressor starting back at you.
The notorious SSL bus compressor is staple 80s mix-sheen tool. This slow, light and transparent compressor is added to glue everything together and add that extra bit of weight to a finished mix. The world and their dog have emulated this so Logic are certainly not alone, but my familiarity with the interface just edges it over anything else.
For authenticity, the original SSL compressor had fixed ratios of 2:1, 4:1 and 10:1 as well as fixed attack and release times too. Logic adds a built in limiter, clipping/saturation options and a highly useful sidechain analysis section with added filter. What more can you ask for?
Ableton users – don’t despair. Cytomic’s contribution Glue Compressor is bundled as standard and is a perfectly capable copy of the classic compressor we all know and love.
FET, Optical and VCA Compressors
As alluded to above, Logic’s workhorse compressor has some other classic emulations hidden away in there. Let’s start off with the studio FET and Vintage FET – both emulation of the UREI 1176.
FET (or Field Effect Transistor) compressors have a super-fast response, making them great on drums, acoustic guitar, vocals, anything! I’m lucky enough to have access to several different hardware ’76 clones and find them all very versatile.
The 1176 had some idiosyncrasies, such as the the infamous all buttons in mode, or the fact the attack and release knobs are in reverse. You could even bypass the compression entirely and use it as a pre-amp, heard on Led Zepplin’s Black Dog.
N.B Logic offers a Studio FET (above) and Vintage FET. Having never used the grey-faced 1176 or clone of it, I felt it it fitting to include the black panelled version. I’m led to believe there are differences but I’m not experienced enough to divulge them with any authority!
Next there’s the Classic VCA, which is a pastiche of the dBX 160. This, unlike the SSL bus compressor is renown for its faster response and harder sound, which has made it a go-to for drum compression, particularly snares.
Staying with VCA compressors we have the Studio VCA, modelled on the more modern sounding Focusrite Red 3 Dual Compressor/Limiter. The is one compressor I’ve not used I’m going to lift a reliable quote from the excellent Icon Collective:
…famous for its ability to maintain a natural sound, even when pushing the compression hard. This emulation is fully discrete and balanced, meaning it’s very clean sounding and doesn’t colour the sound like other analog compressors.
The Studio VCA model works great on the mix bus as well as bass, vocals, and guitars because of its fast and tight response. Both compression and limiting also offer peak response rather than averaging RMS which ensures a superb transient response.
Non Logic users can also have fun with this modern classic purchasing the plug-in directly from Focusrite themselves.
Lastly there’s the Vintage Opto, an LA-2A clone. Optical compressors works using a light-bulb in the circuit path, giving a uniquely slow and smooth attenuation. Hitting them hard can produce a richness and fatness out of a source while rarely sounding over compressed.
Optical compression doesn’t offer the hyperactive response times of FET and VCA compressors, hitting the compressor harder almost seems to elongate the envelope settings. I’ve been particularly found of it on vocals, bass guitar and overheads.
The LA-2A is surely the king of the classic-sounding optical compressor but for a more modern and flexible sound, the Empiral Labs Distressor is hard to look past.
This is a compressor that just appears in every studio. It can offer a smooth, snug and warm optical compression while also offering classic British mode 1176-like envelope shapes.
Additionally, like our famed FET compressor, there’s no threshold, so obtaining the right amount of compression is handled juggling the input gain and ratio.
My favourite clone of the Distressor is the SOR8 – an extremely versatile, cheap and aggressive compressor I can’t stop using at the moment.
Big thanks also go to Kush Audio for not only being top dudes but their ubk TV series and podcast has been a big help in understanding their plug-ins.