Gregory Scott of Kush Audio is not your run-of-the-mill, audio-gear-making man. Everything he builds seems to be conceived out of a need to satisfy some aspiration that he himself is chasing. Sure, the Empirical Labs FATSO Jr [Tape Op #24] is great, but his UBK mod makes it even better [#79]. His Clariphonic parallel equalizer [#88] re-imagined how an EQ is supposed to behave, with controls like "Clarity" and "Focus" hinting at its capabilities. And what about Tweaker [#107], his tone-shaping, groove-bending sonics-toolbox of a dynamics processor? Mine gets used on everything I do. The point is, Kush Audio is among a handful of gear designers who are unsatisfied with making the next high-quality recreation of a classic design, but instead, are always looking forward. In the case of Kush, this search has yielded some stellar results. Needless to say, when the opportunity arose to review Gregory's latest offering, the Omega mic preamp system, I jumped at the opportunity. I soon discovered that, ironically, the Omega system both looks forward and takes serious inspiration from the past.
The Omega is billed as an ultra-clean and transparent mic preamp, that can be paired with Transformer plug-ins that "transform" its tone. Currently, two plug-ins are available — Model N for Neve, and Model A for API — but more will be coming in the future. (Kush plans to release at least two new Models annually.) The hardware preamp and the software plug-ins can be used independently of each other, and the plug-ins are sold separately.
There are many flavors of mic preamp out there, but no two are more famous than the Neve 1073 and API 312 — and with good reason. The one from England is thick and creamy, with loads of beautiful harmonic distortion, and the other from the good old USA is a punchy, harmonically rich beast. Between the two, you are pretty well covered in terms of saturation and color. On the other side of the spectrum are preamps like those from Grace Design and Millennia Media. These are ultra-clean and have close to zero coloration. Many orchestral and jazz engineers seem to love and use them regularly, if not exclusively. Omega enters the scene, and with the addition of the Transformer plug-ins, planks itself across this spectrum in terms of tone, flexibility, and functionality.
The Omega's front panel is simple in layout. It sports one big, fat knob for gain level, right in the middle of the unit. Above it is a simple, five-step LED meter; and below are pushbuttons for phantom power, polarity, and input pad. One conspicuously missing feature is a 1/4'' DI jack on the front panel. I assumed this was a cost-saving measure, but I hate to make assumptions, so I asked Gregory about it:
"I wanted this thing to be as affordable as humanly possible, but have all the things it needed to function as the system I envisioned. The meter almost didn't make the cut either, but after using a meter-less Omega prototype side-by-side with a metered one, the right call was blindingly obvious. Aside from the fact that I loved having that meter on my preamps, I wanted newbies to have a clear idea of how to set their levels, in order to get a clean signal to the Transformer plug-ins.
"Regarding a DI, it's a relatively simple add-on, but it still involves a handful of parts that still cost something. Then there's the cost of inserting and soldering those parts. And the front panel needs an extra punch, which adds cost. And then there's extra time required to test and QC the functionality. All that ‘annoying expense' crap accumulates and jacks up the street price faster than people realize!"
With that said, I think it's easy enough to use your favorite DI box via your 500-series frame's standard input connection, if you want to use the Omega Transformer system for bass, synths, and other direct sources. Moving on to the sound of Omega, it is as advertised — clean and pristine. For my personal setup, I have typically gone for units that have their own tonal personality — API, Burl, Daking, Altec, Neve. But I have often used Grace and Millennia in other studios on sources like acoustic guitar, piano, or strings, when an uncolored sound was appropriate.
One nice benefit to a super-clean preamp is that you can more honestly hear your mics. Of course, just as is true with preamps, mics too have their own personalities and voices. Having this amount of clarity on the preamp side allowed me to evaluate my mics in a new light, and with confidence that the mic personalities I was hearing were not actually the preamps'. I used Omega preamps (without the plug-ins yet) on the same sort of sources as I did in the past with the Grace and Millennia — acoustic guitar, percussion, some background vocals, and my acoustic upright bass as well. All sounded like they should, and honestly, as I expected them to. The resultant tracks came out clean, clear, and well recorded.
I especially appreciated the Omega on acoustic guitar, using a Schoeps CMC 6 cardioid SDC. It was a big sound that was tonally balanced. The Omega has plenty of headroom, and it was as simple as pointing the mic at the twelfth fret and turning the big knob to get the proper level. I was off and running. For variety sake, I swapped the Schoeps for a Royer R-122 MKII active ribbon [Tape Op #113]. It was also a pleasure to hear a beautifully unadorned sound from this mic, in all its glory. The clean and clear option of the Omega really let me hear the mics and the differences that each one brought to the table.
Don't get me wrong — finding that great pairing of mic and preamp for a particular source is one of the most satisfying things about recording. But having an uncolored option is also a great thing. Another value of this type of preamp is that it presents a new level of detail, especially when partnered with a mic in the same league (such as the aforementioned Schoeps).
So, now we have clean and pristine covered. But what happens when you get to, "Wow, I wish that guitar was a bit bolder in the color department." That's when I magically pull out of my hat, two Transformer plug-ins.
Like other Kush Audio products, the Transformer plug-ins are capable of serious tone-shaping. The two Models — N and A — are distinct flavors that are artfully captured here. From subtle harmonic-glow, to blown-out blaze-of-glory, these plug-in companions to Omega really open a door of sonic possibility, despite their deceptively simple UIs. Audio enthusiasts without the cash to purchase original Neve and API modules can now access these famous tones, and on every channel if desired.
The main feature of both Transformer plug-ins is a knob for "Intensity." Flanking the knob are polarity and pad buttons. At the default setting of 50% Intensity, there is a real, noticeable tonal shift imparted on the track. At first, I was unsure that starting there was the right choice, but it does give you a sense of what each plug-in is capable of doing — and then you can make your adjustments from there.
Model N adds quite a bit of Neve-like fatness to the sound, and as you can imagine, it will be a benefit to some sources, but not to all. I first tried it on a piano track and found myself wanting to dial it back quite a bit, as it brought out the tubbiness I was inclined to reduce. So, a little went a long way in giving the track just the right amount of extra glow and richness. I then tried Model A, and I found that it was a little crispier when pushed hard, and overall, it provided a more "forward" tone. After this first test, it quickly became evident that this realm of Transformer-enabled tonal-shaping is an open playground, and you are certain to find some character "enhancement" within the turn of the knob.
Recording an electric guitar direct (with a Radial Engineering DI plugged into an Omega), and using the Transformer plug-ins for tone-shaping, was also pretty cool. I was able to achieve the John Lennon, DI fuzzy sound with some success. Adding some compression took the sound the extra mile. I am sure with more time, I will find all sorts of ways to utilize this preamp and plug-in system to great ends.
Even if you don't have the expectation that the Transformer plug-ins sound exactly like a Neve or API, the plug-ins are just great tone-shaping tools anyway. Does Model N go completely head-to-head with a vintage 1073? I don't know. I don't own one to make a scoped A/B comparison — and, does it matter? Most vintage gear sounds a little different unit-to-unit anyway. If these plug-ins do not nail it 100%, they are certainly damn close, and being in the ballpark is close enough for me. Oh yeah, and they're $29 bucks each — a no brainer. They sound really good.
One advantage of this two-part system is that, if you are feeling wishy-washy, you can use Omega preamps to capture a pure recording, and then you can make the call on tonal personality with the Transformer plug-ins at a later time. Or, you can plug in, crank up some classic British or American preamp flavor, and commit to a vibe that will inform the next step of your tracking. No matter your method, the partnership of the Omega 500-series preamp and Transformer plug-ins is going to provide you with great quality and flexibility in a very affordable package.