With most pro audio gear, there's never enough control right where the gain-staging starts to get interesting. The upper range of the operating levels of a circuit is often where full-bodied lusciousness lives. As harmonics get more complex, sounds start to reveal their internal architecture in lovely detail, and overtones begin to rise, fall, and intersect in wonderfully desirable ways. Right around the breaking point of defined waves losing their shape, things get wonderfully rich and gnarly, as we struggle to surf that spot, hoping to keep ourselves centered — without losing the motion and natural rhythm of the music. It's a bummer when dialing up the perfect sound feels like picking a lock. You have to be very deliberate with smaller and smaller turns of the knob, or you'll shoot right past the sweet-spot — winding up in a place where the signal distorts unpleasantly and loses transient definition and focus.

Loosely speaking, the Overstayer Modular Channel is a 2RU-height, stereo channel-strip that's all about shaping signals with fine-grained control at the edges of headroom. Part classic recording channel, part exploratory processing system — it's easily the most powerful tone-shaping box I've ever encountered. I think it's a future-classic. Its look is timeless — the grey/blue scheme feeling traditionally British, and the knobs/markings referencing American stalwarts like MCI, Quad Eight, and Moog — but it possesses its own unique and modern identity. It's definitely the conversation-starter in the room.

The Modular Channel Model 8755DS features line and instrument–level inputs, while the 8755DM version adds a third option of transformer-coupled mic inputs. High and low–pass filters with resonance, three-band EQ, compression, and saturation sections all cascade into a matrix that mixes one main signal feed with two additional parallel signal paths, all with their own level controls and mutes. Their basic routing can be changed by switches on the front panel, allowing some reconfiguration of each feed's source. This provides for a level of complexity rarely seen in hardware, and it feels entirely modern. It's a transformerless design (except for the optional Jensen mic input transformers) that is capable of everything from transparent dynamics-control, to subtle tone-sculpting, and all the way to glorious chaos. When used for straightforward EQ and compression duties, the Modular Channel can be musical and open, with a tonality that is even and pure. It's smooth as a lake when you need it to be, but a whole world of breaking waves and sonic freakout is just offshore. Its parallel configuration provides massive flexibility for signal tailoring and extreme manipulation — everything from standard console-like workflow to radical reshaping with overload and beyond.

If devices with a lot of knobs scare you off, the Modular Channel may not be right for you — but hang in there. The amount of control available can be a bit daunting, but it breaks down pretty easily into easier-to-digest signal blocks that flow left to right: input, filters, EQ, compression, saturation, and feed matrix.

Starting on the far left, you have two knobs for L/R gain, and a switch for instrument, mic, or line inputs. My unit does not have the optional mic preamps installed, but even without them, the mic setting activates the gain controls and adds a second line-amp stage to the line input. Overdriving this extra amp sounds fantastic, with rich saturation to be found right at the front end. There's so much to be done further along, and as bottlenecking the gain is definitely possible, I'd suggest leaving this stage clean at first. But higher levels here sound so good, it really is a crucial way to add more chewiness to a signal at any time. The signal is then passed to a single input-level knob to keep precise control of the stereo image once L/R gain has been set. This level knob can definitely become your "Get Out of Jail Free" card, when things get a little too overloaded further down the line.

Next is the filter block with high and low–pass filters and their corresponding frequency and resonance knobs. These filters are definitely more Korg MS–20 than console–like. The resonance goes into complete self-oscillation and, with careful dialing, can be used to add synth-like lower octaves to bass instruments and drums. It's positively massive on kicks and easily adds deep subs to the slightest of signals. Filter self-oscillation here rings more than squeals, and it's immensely musical. But take my advice and print what you're doing, because recall for this section can be difficult. Also located in this section is the Curve control. This is a global control that deactivates the internal pre/de–emphasis circuit. Turning this off gives the Modular Channel a totally different response to energy in the lows, and with Curve on, the subs rarely feel distorted, even with large amounts of drive and compression. When deactivated, low-end saturation begins sooner, and the Modular Channel takes on a different, looser fidelity. At lower gain, it's not a drastic change, but as gain increases, it's an incredibly useful "second nature" to the entire unit.

The EQ block follows, with a deceptively powerful three-band EQ. The high and low shelves, each with three frequency selections, feel very "active" rather than static in their cuts and boosts. The midrange Presence control is a semi-parametric, proportional-Q band that sweeps so wide from bottom to top that it's addictive in every sense. Its Q is really dialed — just wide enough for detail boosting, but not so wide that it can't be used for corrective smoothing. This one midrange band feels like the heart and soul of the Modular Channel, and I often implement my overall tone-shaping strategies from the sound of this one control. I use it to bring out all kinds of desirable detail in drums, guitars, and vocals, and also in high-gain situations to radically influence how the downstream saturation block reacts. It's flat-out incredible sounding.

The compressor block has controls for threshold, makeup gain, attack/release, sidechain source/filter, feed-forward/back operation, and Behavior. The compressor has a definite Overstayer sound, familiar to anyone who has used the Overstayer Stereo Voltage Control [Tape Op #123]. It's clean and punchy, very active, and clear — but with a bit of teeth, especially when the Behavior knob is turned up. The Behavior control is a building block of the Overstayer DNA, as it's present on other units in the currently available line. It changes the amount of compression, but in a way unlike simply lowering the threshold. Turning up Behavior changes the character of the compression, making it more "active," as if the signal has an inertia that bounces around the threshold level with more ease. High Behavior settings begin to over-compress in interesting ways, introducing a very usable musical modulation to the signal, especially in parallel mode. Of course, you can keep going and pass into extreme inverted-ratio overmodulation that can begin to sound like some kind of LFO resynthesis.

Coming out of the compressor block is the Drive control. This sets the level of the signal passing into the saturation block, which consists of three circuits: MAS second/third-order harmonics, Sat saturation, and Hex higher-order harmonics. These can be enabled in any combination for a wide range of saturation/overdrive/distortion/fuzz effects. MAS is based around the same saturation circuit as the Overstayer MAS, and you can use it for a light dusting of overdrive, or wind it up for some serious clipping. It seems to stay centered on the upper-mids for most of the throw of the Drive knob. SAT begins to clip sooner but also ranges further into the lower-mids than MAS. It's a fairly tight distortion that tends not to add much murk to the signal, even at higher settings. It pairs well with MAS, as the two definitely seem to break up in different areas. HEX is a bit more all-bets-are-off fuzz that doesn't clean up at all, grinds the top end like a hi-fi version of TASCAM 4-track circuit overload, and cuts lines of breakup clearly through the lows. When all three circuits are combined, MAS and SAT seem to flow past HEX's stern grating, resulting in textures that feel modern and old all at once.

The last block is the mixer matrix with three feeds. The Sat Feed is the full signal path, post-saturation. The Dry/EQ Feed is a parallel path that can be switched pre-filter or post-EQ. The Comp Feed is a parallel path that's post-compressor and pre-saturation. There are also switches to disengage the filter, EQ, and compressor blocks from the main Sat Feed. The ability to create sounds from these parallel chains is truly the nature of the Modular Channel. You can be as technical as you'd like, but just feeding a signal in, randomly twisting knobs, and blending the results will get you amazing sounds quickly. Also, using the kill switches for the three feeds to quickly highlight what each feed is doing is incredibly insightful.

The Modular Channel is usually the first thing I want to plug any signal into — from simple EQ and dynamics control during tracking, to complete creative destruction of signals during mixing. This is a device that can carefully shepherd your audio with high fidelity and measured sensibility; but it's also obviously ready to turn sounds inside out. You can pull off all sorts of tricks beyond what you'd expect from a channel-strip, like tuning the resonant filters to add octave effects, or cranking the EQ into high-Behavior compression for great faux, multiband dynamics processing. The Modular Channel is also the perfect box to fit that last overdub into a song. With careful manipulation, it can squeeze just about any instrument into that last available frequency range while still retaining the character of the original signal.

Using the Modular Channel to dive deep into a sound in search of usable motion and spectral content is wonderful. You can isolate a layer of desirable frequencies with the filters and EQ, add movement with the compressor, saturate or blow it out, then mix into the dry signal. Importantly, the amount of control for low-gain settings is just as impressive as for freakier high-gain blowouts. Barely there tape-like tonality, or velvety friction on the low mids without harshness in the highs, or organized purring across chords and sustained lows — all of these are easy to attain by dialing in just the right amount of pressure and grit. Conversely, opening up for the whole width of the signal and engaging the more active saturation blocks brings surprising-for-pro-audio levels of full-throated stompbox-like overload. Fuzz can be dialed up right to the edge of power starvation, or propelled even further through some sort of fuzz event horizon to Velcro-gated negative space. The Modular Channel surfs this headroom gnarl with focus, staying in control, even as the sound waves are about to crash. This distortion and mayhem would be too much to utilize alone, but as the dry signal is always available, and with the parallel compressor sturdily framing out the positive space, there always seems to be a place for it.

As one can easily imagine, drums are incredible through the unit. The parallel compression and resonant high-pass filter, blended with saturation to taste, provides depth and motion for days and days. The Modular Channel has already saved several badly focused recordings that came through my room during mixing. Because it can add clarity and musicality to the lows, while emphasizing the backbeat and presence of the overall groove, this is a dream box for rhythm processing. Likewise, guitars, pianos, synths, vocals, and other sound sources can all benefit from the Modular Channel's parallel processing. Needless to say, it rules on basses and easily turns any small keyboard into raging Aphex Twin–level madness. I routinely run the Modular Channel in parallel on the whole mix — pulling FM radio broadcast compression, smashed cassette vibes, pop sheen, and warm lush organic tonality into my mixes.

This may not be the device for everyone. Some people don't want this kind of complexity just to record and mix music, and rightly so. But for those with a head for synthesis, looking for a device that can handle low-fi, mid-fi, hi-fi, and no-fi — all with exceptional focus — this is going to be a benchmark. It's possible you could use a stack of plug-ins to do what's happening here (and woe to the coder in the future trying to emulate this device), but it would be way more time consuming. You'd miss out on the tactile joy of hearing parameters affecting each other in real-time as you use both hands to turn knobs in search of sounds that are truly your own.

Tape Op is a bi-monthly magazine devoted to the art of record making.

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