We roam the frigid, soulless digital landscape, searching in vain for the analog mojo that was once ours. We buy expensive A/D converters, we compress everything, we emulate tape, and sometimes, we just distort the shit out of shit. I'm down. Whether it's adding subtle hair to otherwise pristine tracks, or crushing the hell out of anything that moves, I've done it before, and I'll do it again. There are dozens of solid "distorterizer" plug-ins out there, but lately, I'm seeing more and more analog saturation products as well. Sweet! I'll take that any day over yet another mic preamp, but does everything need a fancy faceplate and a $3000 price tag?
Enter DIY Recording Equipment, a two-person operation based in Philadelphia. Their new Colour is a "radically affordable" analog saturation kit, designed for subtle saturation but also capable of full-blown crunch. Colour is as much a platform as it is a product; it's based on a modular, open-source design. Moreover, Colour was designed with community input, schematics for each component are available for download, and the initial Colour production run was crowd-funded.
Colour consists of a few things. At its heart is the Colour Palette, a 500-series module that holds three small, interchangeable snap-in cards called Colours. It's like Nintendo for audio, or maybe a miniature modular rack inside your 500-series modular rack. The Palette front panel is simple — Saturation and Trim knobs to control gain and output level; three buttons to activate one or more Colours; and three corresponding LEDs. The Palette cleverly allows each card to specify a unique LED indicator color by "programming" an RGB LED with resistors.
The Palette itself doesn't do much besides power the Colour cards and pass audio through them; the cards are where the action happens. DIYRE launched the product with three Colour kits: 15IPS, JFT, and CTX. They are insanely inexpensive — the 15IPS and JFT kits are $25 each — and the three have very different saturation circuits.
DIYRE sent me a pair of Palette kits and a pair of each DIYRE Colour card kit. Everything about the kits is DIY classy — simple, colorful packaging; nice design and typography; colored PCBs; and nice front panels. The same goes for DIYRE's website, which is clean and well done.
I'm far from a tech, but I get by well enough with a soldering iron, and it took me about five hours to build everything. My units powered up and worked first try. (Yeah!) The kits themselves are just fantastic. The PCBs are beautiful and clearly labeled, and the online assembly instructions are some of the best I've seen — thorough and well-written. (They're also long, so rather than printing the instructions, I recommend working with an iPad or laptop on your kitchen table, er, "bench.")
So for experienced builders, the build is a piece of cake. If you've never built an electronics kit, these are simple enough to be good starter kits. And once they're built, it's easy to modify the circuits — swap in different diodes, remove some to try asymmetric clipping, replace resistors with pots, and see what happens. Or you can create your own audio mangler from scratch; DIYRE sells Design Your Own Colour blanks for $5 each.
With everything fully assembled, I snapped my cards into each Palette, installed the Palettes in a 500-series rack, and fired up some mixes.
The "stock" Colour cards have very simple circuits. 15IPS is just a 12-diode ladder, similar in some ways to classic overdrive pedals like the MXR Distortion+. CTX is simply a CineMag transformer that you can drive hard. It's cool to hear these very basic circuits do nice things to audio. As a tech friend remarked, "Mangling analog audio is pretty dang easy."
I like the 15IPS card; it reminds me of a low-gain overdrive pedal, but it's full range with no weird EQ. It's great on vocals and guitars, and I'm sure it'd be cool on synths and who knows what else. JFT is subtle and adds pleasing harmonic material to a number of sources. And CTX may be my favorite of the bunch. As you push the input level, it substantially "thickens" just about any source. A stereo pair across a drum bus can dramatically change the character of the drums without sounding heavy-handed.
If you loaded two Palettes with the basic Colour cards, you'd have tracking and mixing options for days. (Keep in mind that you can engage more than one Colour at a time and reorder the cards in the Palette to create different signal chains.) But the platform has taken off in the DIY community, and there are already a number of third-party Colour cards available now. DIYRE sent me a number of these to try.
The TB Audio CMOS Steezer ($25 kit) is a gnarly, fun fuzz circuit. My notes say "goes from fucked up to really fucked up." The XQP Audio Colourupter ($49 kit, $89 assembled) is a miniature version of XQP's 500-series 545 Optical Disruptor — yes, a tiny optical compressor. It's a weird one for sure, but it does cool stuff on drums. I liked it on an aux send as a mono "crush" or as a parallel processor. A stereo pair would be fun. The Eisen Audio TM79 ($59 kit, $99 assembled) was one that I kept coming back to. It does clever pre and post-emphasis filtering that results in nice, usable multiband saturation. For example, it crunches up vocals nicely but leaves sibilant esses in check.
Lastly, Louder Than Liftoff offers three ambitious and slightly more expensive Colour modules: Implode ($129) is a tiny 1176-based circuit with 4:1 and "all buttons in" modes; Pentode ($99) is designed around a subminiature 6418 tube; and Pulse ($99) is a crunchy delay with trim pots to control delay time and feedback. All three of these cards have lots of character and some quirky limitations; you probably won't pull the Colour Palette out of your rack very often to adjust the Implode release time or the Pulse delay time! Pentode is very subtle but adds a crispy sheen to certain sources. Implode is grabby and pumpy. And Pulse was a lot more fun than I expected. On vocals and drums, I loved it.
I sent my assembled Colour system to my friend Eamonn Aiken. You may have seen his Arlington, VA studio, The Bastille, in the background of the Washington, DC episode of Sonic Highways, since The Bastille is connected to the legendary Inner Ear Studios. Eamonn's recordings always have tons of character, and he just installed an API 1608 console, so I figured he had plenty of 500-series slots to fill. Here are his thoughts based on a couple of weeks with Colour:
"The 15IPS card stood out for how quickly on the dial it began to overdrive and compress transients, particularly in the lows. While touchy, I liked using 15IPS as more than a simple 'warmth box,' and it made it onto every bass guitar I worked on while the units were here. On its own or combined with the CTX CineMag card, 15IPS worked well for creating presence and growl.
For drums, 15IPS was a mixed bag — I liked it on a couple of kicks where the midrange grit helped them cut, but other times, I found it to overly suppress deep lows at anything but the mildest settings.
"The CTX and JFT options alone were far more subtle and more forgiving of the high levels at which I was running my console mixes. My time with the units was limited to active sessions, so I didn't check them out in an in-the-box setting where the subtleties may have been more apparent than when applied to audio that's already seen its share of tubes and transformers. For those working with a lot of direct or virtual instruments, tools like these can really help smooth those sources into a mix alongside mic'ed audio, and specialty modules like the Colourupter, Pulse, and Implode make the Colour system way more interesting for those of us who've got more comprehensive analog setups in place.
"For stereo bus application, I'd probably prefer the optional stepped pots, as the freely rotating ones are quite light. If stereo bus sweetening is the goal, I'd definitely consider some comparably priced colorful compressors (the ART Pro VLA II comes to mind) that could give you more utility for your money, taking into account the cost per slot of the 500-series rack."
I mentioned the low price tag — $225 will get you a Palette and three Colour cards. For that price, it's remarkable how good these units look and work. But of course, you can't have everything. The pots don't feel great. There's no metering, no stereo linking, and no guarantee that any two units match, so to run stereo signals, you'll need to use your ears. I don't see any of these as "bugs," but I want be clear that you're not magically getting a Shadow Hills or Thermionic Culture box for $200. There's one design quirk that I do consider a bug: the Palette doesn't go completely into bypass when all three Colours are disengaged. The Saturation and Trim controls are still active (and can in fact clip on their own). So to A/B against an unprocessed signal, you'll need to bypass the insert using your DAW or console.
I received killer support during my build and review. DIYRE founder Peterson Goodwyn is sharp and friendly, and he answered my questions quickly and clearly. He also made a point of explaining that my support experience wasn't special; it's standard fare for anyone who buys anything from DIYRE.
I can't say enough good things about Colour. This product embodies everything Tape Op is about. It's rooted in DIY; it sounds good; and it's inexpensive, novel, fun, and wide open for experimentation. Right on.