A few years back a friend of mine was recording at Capitol Studios in Los Angeles [Tape Op #114], and he told me there was a tech on staff there building some special compressors that I needed to hear. So, when I spotted one making the rounds at Electric Lady Studios, I jumped at the chance to take it for a spin. After a few days of use, it was pretty clear that I would not be returning this unit to its creator, so I set about finding out who that was, and how I could keep it in New York. Through a series of emails and phone calls, I got to know Ian Sefchick [#134], a musician turned studio tech and mastering engineer, who hand-builds his own designs in Burbank, California, under the moniker Magic Death Eye.
The Model Future is clearly inspired by the Fairchild 660, but its ambitions go far beyond cloning a legend. The 660 was devised in the '50s, for use with cutting lathes and radio transmitters with available "off the shelf" parts of its day. Sefchick set out to create a variable mu compressor built from improved, modern-day components, and where he couldn't find them, he fabricated his own. The compressor he offers today is the result of years of research, revisions, and collecting feedback on earlier editions tested by engineers visiting Capitol Studios.
The first thing to strike me about this unit is its outstanding build quality. The chassis feels indestructible, and bolting this 23-pound compressor into the rack is massively satisfying. The faceplate is bold but uncomplicated. The gain reduction meter is from Simpson Electric, who by no small coincidence developed meters for NASA's Apollo program. This speaks to the uncompromising attitude behind the Model Future's design. Elma Electronics stepped attenuators and NKK toggle switches make for solid and repeatable controls. Sefchick chose to use eight 6BA6 tubes (these might be best known as the tubes Manley Labs turned to for their Variable-Mu compressor "T-Bar Modification" once the 6386s became difficult to source) and then set about the painstaking task of hand winding his own transformers to achieve optimum performance from both.
I use this compressor on just about everything, and it's been on some element of every mix I've done since its arrival. The most telling testimony I can share is that after a few months I invested in a second unit. The Model Future actually performs how I'd always hoped a 660 would. I love how large the sweet spot in the gain reduction is. I can be subtle or brutal, and the compression responds in kind – always deep and detailed, never collapsing or clouding the signal. The curve feels very smooth, allowing you to dip your toes into gentle compression or gradually wade in deeper before provoking a more violent reaction. In addition to the six familiar time-constant presets, there is a three-position Attack selector to help you further dial in the timing behavior to can ride the tempo or bend it to your will. The optional 150 Hz high-pass Filter for the detector offers a whole other set of characteristics beyond just preserving your lows.
Yes, it works well on any instrument or voice you can pipe down it, but it also performs brilliantly on a bus. I regularly find myself stereo linking my pair across a bus, and feeding them a whole group of instruments that need to be welded together into something greater than the sum of their parts. Think strings, brass, or an entire orchestra. I'm constantly changing my mix bus setup to suit the program I'm working with, but I have tried my Model Future compressors there on occasion, and was impressed not just by the tone and cohesion, but also by the imaging and detail. There is also now a stereo version available, which is essentially two mono units with one set of controls and a two-band shelving EQ onboard. I imagine this would be ideal for dedicated mix bus compression or mastering.
As time moves on, I'm happy to let all of my "rudimentary devices" disappear into the computer, but I still find a need to keep some inspirational hardware pieces in my new room. These compressors lend me far more than just gain control. When working with such finely crafted tools, I become compelled to realize those same standards in my own work.
When John Baccigaluppi first approached me to review the Magic Death Eye Model Future Mono Compressor, I was very excited. He had an early unit at his Panoramic House Studio where I've frequently worked, and it had become one of my go-to compressors. For those unfamiliar with John's studio, he's had every compressor ever made at some point, including a Frankenstein Fairchild 660 that Bryce Gonzales of Highland Dynamics had built about ten years ago from salvaged parts, like NOS tubes, an old Fairchild tone generator, plus a Conax 602 de-esser, which shared the same transformers as a 660. Up until the arrival of the Model Future Compressor, that "Fairchild" was the unit I would reach for most of the time to use on a lead vocal or classic Beatles-style single overhead mic. It had that familiar Fairchild characteristic of setting the lead vocal forward in the mix, or slamming the drums like a Nigel Godrich record.
I was getting set up to work on the second record for the Chris Robinson Brotherhood I had done with them at Panoramic; Servants of the Sun. My signal chain for tracking lead vocal had been a Shure SM7 [Tape Op #36] mic to API 1608 console/mic pre [#81] to the Bryce Gonzales modded 660. Chris loves the feel of the SM7 on his voice, and has excellent command over his own proximity while performing, but I still ended up doing quite a bit of gain reduction going in. I'm always one to try a new toy in the studio, so I patched in my same chain, substituting the Model Future in place of the modified 660. I was instantly stoked, and it pulled off the job with flying colors. Even with a slow attack speed, it was able to keep up and hold the vocal in place perfectly. With the Model Future, you can easily dial in -10 dB of compression or more without losing any high-end fidelity. The unit truly shined, and I heard a palpable difference from the sound I had grown to love and expect with the Bryce 660. It's not to say that the compressor doesn't impart a tone or character, but the tone it does impart sounds incredible.
Unfortunately, at the time John asked me to do this review he wasn't aware that John O'Mahony had beat me to the punch. So, instead, he asked me to throw in my two cents on the new plug-in version developed by Christian Siedschlag of DDMF, and compare it with the Model Future hardware. Reassuringly, the UI is gorgeous, and looks just like the real unit. I decided to try it on lead vocal for a mix I was working on. I've used the hardware version on a lot of different instruments with great success, but I felt most familiar with its effect on vocals. The ability of this plug-in to set the vocal forward and get -10 dB (and beyond) worth of gain reduction without any loss in top end was just as good as my experiences with the hardware unit. I often use parallel compression on drums and bass, but rarely ever on vocals, so I decided to play around with the plug-in's wet/dry function. I slammed the reduction needle into the red, then brought the wet/dry blend down to 50%, and it sounded awesome. I could hear some of the dynamics of the original source poking through with a very consistent tone in the back helping keep it forward. For this particular mix, it wasn't what I was looking for, however it's a super useful feature and I know I'll use it in the future. Next, I put the Model Future Plug-In on an overhead track. Typically, when I've used the hardware, I've used a mono Neumann U 47, but for the purposes of reviewing the plug-in, I picked a stereo overhead channel that I felt had the best mix of the drums. It sounded absolutely phenomenal through the Model Future Plug-In, and once I got the attack and release settings to work rhythmically with the song, I felt like I could almost use just the one mic! The toms were showcased nicely, and the kick and snare were evened out. It should be noted that Magic Death Eye has just released a stereo plug-in version (with EQ, oversampling, variable harmonic distortion, and other features) geared for use in mastering or on a bus).
I hadn't used the hardware unit on bass, and thought it would be an adventurous exercise with the plug-in. Both the hardware and digital versions of the Model Future have a 150 Hz Filter that I was excited to experiment with. I was able to get the high and low notes of the fretboard to sit evenly with very little work, and the Filter proved quite useful.
I would be lying if I told you that I thought the plug-in had the exact same sonic character as the hardware. It didn't seem to have the same pizzazz of the real tube unit. I'll be honest though; I found the differences to be very subtle, if not made up in my head. Both the hardware unit and plug-in can give you that rad Fairchild character, plus huge gain reduction without loss of fidelity. The hardware just has that indescribable three percent of extra magic. Call it intuition or superstition, but that undeniable difference is real. At a reasonable price point of $99, I think the plug-in should be in every studio. It would also be a wonderful tool for the home recordist who wants a $5000 plus compressor on their laptop!