Standard Audio caught my attention around six years ago when I reviewed the amazing Level-Or [Tape Op #78]. With the Stretch, Standard again took the DNA of some hard-to- come-by vintage gear and built an extremely useful new processing unit out of it. This time, the inspiration was more of a class of devices — noise reduction units from the '70s and '80s. The piece of gear in this class with which I have the most experience is the Dolby A301, also known as the "S/N Stretcher" (since it was designed to increase — or "stretch" — the signal-to-noise ratio). It's expensive and heavy, takes up five rack spaces, and needs a fair amount of maintenance — all of which I can affirm as I am the proud owner of one. By pulling the various cards on the unit, you can achieve unique effects via the compression and expansion circuits that were designed to make tape recording and playback less noisy of a process. I'll let the Internet help you figure out more about the science at work in these units, and how engineers had ingeniously come to "misuse" these over the years.
The Stretch is a 500-series module with only five controls, through which you can access an extremely wide variety of change over the sound you're putting through it. There are potentiometers for Input, Output, and Mix, as well as pushbuttons for Filter and Engage. Engage enables a hard-wire bypass relay, which takes the circuit completely out of the signal path when the LED behind the switch is unlit. Mix allows you to use the unit in parallel, without mult'ing or using two faders on your console or DAW. Output sets the overall level that comes out of the Stretch, after the Mix control. This is important to note, because it allows you to set the desired blend of effect, and then back off your level to your recording device without changing the sound of the processing. Input sets your gain to the processing of the Stretch, which doesn't always correlate exactly to more volume, depending on how hard you are hitting the compression. Filter — which lights up when there's at least 2 dB of compression happening — allows you to cycle through the different filter modes of the unit. Briefly, there were filter circuits on classic noise reduction units to separate the sound into different frequency bands before the compression and expansion were applied. This allowed for much more transparent noise reduction, and also accounted for the various sound-shaping capabilities available on those processors. On the Stretch, there are four such bands, with set time constants and compression ratios tailored for each frequency range. Using the Filter switch allows you to choose any single band, or one of a few combinations of bands. The most exciting of these, at least to me, are the top band (9-20 kHz), the lowest band (20-110 Hz), and the "all bands in" setting, which in effect works like a standard (yet extreme) multiband compressor.
The top band gives you access to an "airiness" that really just can't be achieved through plain old EQ and compression. This is the sound that drives crazy engineers to buy heavy, old A301 boat anchors. It's like an aura around the sound, excited by the high frequencies of the sound itself, the effect of which works incredibly well to make a vocal pop out of a mix, or make a snare drum shimmer, or make an acoustic guitar assert itself without being actually louder.
The low band really brings out the sub frequencies in a unique and exciting way. In the first place, this can work as an analysis tool, to help identify errant instruments or accidentally recorded sounds down in that range. But it also works great at giving your bass or kick that extra octave or two of energy below the perceived fundamental of the instrument. It's really different from using low-frequency EQ or subharmonic synthesis to get more out of the low end, because it interacts with the dynamics of the material so well.
Using the "all bands in" setting adds overall juice to your mix, or whatever you choose to use it on. It's particularly useful for synths, or other instruments that take up a wide frequency range, giving them more life and sparkle across the entire spectrum. Subtly dialed in over an entire mix (if you're lucky enough to have two Stretch modules), it makes the mix sound more "finished" or "mastered." Listening to some of my favorite records — already finished and mastered — through the Stretch modules, I could hear many aspects of the mix more clearly, like a screen was being removed from between the material and my ears. Bypassing the Stretch processing was invariably disappointing — and that's on records that I already think sound amazing.
Whichever band or set of bands you choose, you have very fine control over the amount of processing. Between the Input control, which drives the material further into compression and saturation, and the Mix knob, you can really dial in just the proper amount of processing, which is really helpful when using the Stretch as an insert. However, my favorite way of using the Stretch pair I received has been to keep them set up on a stereo aux send during the mix, with the Mix knob set to fully wet. This way, I can feed whatever instruments need that sound (be it the low band, high band, or all bands) into the send, and bring the stereo pair back up on a couple of faders on the console. There's no way to link them, but I rarely link stereo compressors anyhow. If I really need one to perform a different function, I'll just borrow it for a bit and print it back in, so I can return it back to its primary function — usually adding more top end excitement for the overall mix. Really, I think I just need a couple more pairs, so I can use all three of my favorite settings at once.
The Stretch is made with very high-quality components and has a 100% analog signal path. I love the sound of this module. As a creative dynamics processor, it's way more versatile than the noise-reduction devices on which it is based. Plus, it comes with a warranty and is made by a small Southern Californian company with lots of integrity. I'm definitely buying these two, and perhaps more. You should check this thing out — no doubt about it.
Since putting a pair of these modules in the rack it is has been a struggle to choose whether or not they go on the vocal or the mix. The vocal ususally wins, but it's a tough call. It doesn't take much to give your lead or bgv's that special something. Producer/Engineer Billy Bush turned me onto these things and I am forever grateful. Also great on bass. They add either air or girth or a little of both in a way that EQ's cannot and are highly addictive.