Many pieces of audio gear have a reputation that precedes them. They’ve been heavily used for decades, reviewed, revered, copied, and cloned. Names and numbers like Neve 1073, Universal Audio LA-2A [Tape Op #26], API, Fairchild 670, Universal Audio 1176, and the list goes on. Rarely do I stumble across a piece of recording gear that I’ve heard little to nothing about.
I was scrolling Facebook and came across a post by my old friend and bandmate, drummer Michael Urbano. It was a picture of a handcrafted Soviet-era-looking box with two big VU meters and an AEA stereo ribbon mic that read, “When 90% of the drum sound is this compressor and this mic and it’s amazing. #maletomp #r88r.” I had to do some investigating.
I found my way to a website for Lisciel Equipos. Lo and behold, I laid eyes upon the Maletomp. These units are handmade by Lisciel Franco, an electrical engineer and designer in Brazil. He makes a variety of amazing-sounding (and looking) products, but the Maletomp 2-channel model caught my eye. It is a tube-based variable-mu compressor that comes with a claim of the fastest release time of any compressor of this type. They are available in mono and stereo versions. The 2-channel version (reviewed here) can be used as two mono units or is linkable for stereo use.
Before we get into the specifics of the Maletomp, I will say that I am a big fan of this style/flavor of compression. I love the way the circuit gently and musically handles dynamic range control. To my ear, they are similar to opto-compressors, like the Teletronix LA-2A, in the way they are “fast enough” to get the job done, but not so fast that they’re abrupt in their onset, and with a release that can sound nice and gooey. They present as more of a loving mother/guide than as a caffeinated dynamics cop. For certain styles of music VCA and FET compressors are just the thing – and I use them all at various times. However, my first real piece of high-end studio gear was a Manley VARIABLE MU compressor/limiter, and it still gets used daily.
I reached out to Lisciel about getting a unit, and after about a month I received shipment via DHL. My wife said, “You got a package. Looks like it should have dry ice in it.” What? Most of the gear I receive comes FedEx in standard cardboard packaging with foam inserts to secure the gear. Well, that’s not how Lisciel rolls. I got a foam cooler, and when I finally opened it up, I was treated to the sight of the unit in what appeared to be a plastic banana bag, half of a transformer sticking out, (mostly) surrounded and firmly locked into place with spray foam. It reeked of wood stain and the off-gassing of the foam. So far, awesome! I broke apart foam and cooler, then pried my way to the unit itself, which was in perfect condition. Buried treasure! I wrote to Franco to let him know I received the Maletomp and asked him what the deal was with the packaging. “It’s ugly but effective.” Fair enough!
Clearly handmade in the best way, the Maletomp is all hand-wired with no circuit boards or ICs. It’s a simple and beautiful work of art. Mine has a hand-screened seafoam green/turquoise faceplate, but I have seen versions that are gold with controls identified by old-school embossed label maker stickers. The wood panels on the sides of the unit add a nice custom touch and uniqueness to the Maletomp. This is a standalone unit, with no rack ears and honestly, why not? It certainly sets itself apart from the rest of the gear in the studio in both looks and sound.
The Maletomp employs twin-triode 6N2P and 6N1P tubes for gain control duties – I’m guessing they are Russian-made. The front sports simple controls for input gain and compression level, plus Fast switches for Attack and Release – not Fast means slow, I assume (though there is no indication for that). There is also a Bypass and stereo Link switch.
On the back, there are individual VU meters for calibration adjustments along with XLR input and output jacks, plus a universal IEC power connector with the ability to select 110 or 220 based on your location. Oh yeah, there are some whopper transformers poking out of the back of the unit. Lisciel provided me with a quick explanation of the controls: “The Comp control is just the SC (sidechain) signal amount to the grid. The first stages receive the SC signal already rectified and negative, the comp potentiometer adjusts the amount of this negative signal to the grid. Comp is the threshold as we know, but it’s inverted.”
I pinged Rob Schnapf [Tape Op #9], another Maletomp user, about any info he had on this compressor, and he sent me some notes he got from Lisciel (edited lightly for clarity and typos): “The tubes have the transfer characteristic like a curve, located in negative voltage, so when the circuit amplifier increases the gain, this gain turns into negative DC and you can adjust how negative DC feeds the first stage 6N2P (vacuum tube) so it will decrease the gain according to the amount of this DC signal. The transfer curve and the normal quiescent point have an angle; this angle is the gain, so, when the negative DC pulls the quiescent point to more negative values, decreasing the angle, it is decreasing the gain. And the tubes are so soft, by the size, the real size, like a fat man running, and it’s good to the sound.”
And the Maletomp is good to the sound indeed. I know some folks are into the tech behind the gear they use, but beyond understanding the control set, the most important things to me are, “Does it sound good?” and, “How quickly can I get it to sound good?” The more complex a piece of gear is to use, the less likely it is going to get used. The Maletomp is caveman-simple to use, plus it sounds incredible.
I first strapped the unit across the entire mix – like how I frequently use my Manley VARIABLE MU – for glue. The Maletomp provides that sonically glowing glue for the mix, with just the right amount of harmonic, rich tube warmth and fur if pushed. Generally speaking, I tend to use variable-mu compression on the mix bus for genres and styles that are less aggressive in nature, and for less dense arrangements and mixes, but because of the available fast attack and release times, I found the Maletomp suited for a variety of music types as a mix bus compressor because it could be slower and gentler, or bounce a bit if needed. As part of my conversation with pal and fantastic engineer Rob Schnapf, he said he loved the unit on piano. I had a bunch of tracks with piano on them, and Rob is right – it sounds fantastic. You can hit it a little harder for that Beatle-esque tone, or push it lightly for a gentle approach; controlling dynamics while still benefitting from the harmonic shimmer and warmth of the tubes. The fast attack and release options also made it versatile for a variety of sonic character shaping.
Initially what got me interested in this compressor was Mike Urbano’s post about a stereo mic and the Maletomp being the bulk of the drum sound. Well, he was right. This beast sounds incredible and excels at pushing forward the room ambience while still maintaining the focus and punchiness of the transients and the overall impact of the kit. You can also use it for gentler control and shaping on drums, but the excitement and life it can add to a performance is pretty addicting. I will be feeding the drummer on my next session the Maletomp processed signal through their headphones so they can dynamically “play to the sound.”
In a mix setup, I typically have a variety of compressors and EQs ready to go across channels for either compressing individual tracks or groups. You can also set up compressors on returns, then send to taste to the mix bus. I find each of these applications has their merits. On a recent project, I grouped all my keys (piano and synths) through the Maletomp and was delighted by the tone and the way the compressor handled the variety of dynamics as a group. It was lovely on acoustic guitars, and awesome on a stereo electric guitar group. The artist described the sound as “lush.” I also passed bass, lead vocals, a stereo background vocal group, percussion, and strings through the Maletomp, and with very few exceptions found it to be an excellent choice.
The only problem with the Maletomp is that I would like to have more than one around. Any box that sounds this good and helps mixes come together more quickly is a valuable asset. What I love most about this compressor is that it has a musical voice of its own. It imparts rich character and tone to the instrument or mix and just plain feels good. Let’s face it – this is what we are all going for; something that moves us emotionally. We need to find a path to get the juices flowing at the center of the heart. I don’t want to think about music; I want to feel it. I’m falling in love more deeply with the Maletomp each day I use it. It’s a compressor that has tons of vibe but is not merely a specialty tool. I use it every day and marvel at the sonic equivalent of a fat man running.