When I have a new piece of gear in my hands for review I always ask myself some questions. Do I need it? How simply will it integrate into my workflow? Will it improve my process, mixes, or creativity? I am always looking to streamline and have tools in the studio that will get used every day. The Studio-Nugget Vacuum Tube Analog Delay is a new offering from Crucial Audio, until now known for their guitar effects pedals. This delay ticks off many, if not all, of my criteria for a new piece of gear coming into the studio.

I love time-based effects such as reverb and echo. I have always enjoyed creating space, or suspending reality in some cases, by using these tools. Many of my favorite producers, and the records they make, incorporate these effects as well – Lee “Scratch” Perry [Tape Op #136], Daniel Lanois [#37], and Brian Eno [#85] are some who immediately come to mind.

The Studio-Nugget I received is a single rack space, mono BBD (Bucket Brigade Delay) unit with a sturdy gold-colored metal faceplate with burly switches for ON/OFF and IN/OUT (bypass). A simple layout from left to right includes a DELAY TIME LED display and controls for TIME COARSE, TIME FINE, REPEATS, MOD RATE (modulation rate), MOD DEPTH (modulation depth), DRY LEVEL, DELAY LEVEL, and DELAY TONE. A round, lighted ballistic VU meter finishes off the faceplate. Other noteworthy mentions are that the Studio-Nugget uses RIAA Equalization (reducing low frequencies while boosting highs at the input, then the opposite at output) to achieve a “vintage vinyl sound” with a transformer-balanced I/O circuit, and provides for insert and bus functionality.

For those that have used a delay before, the controls are self-explanatory. The Studio-Nugget has no tap tempo feature, and aside from the digital display readout for the delay time in milliseconds, you’ll have to use your ears, hands, and the chickenhead-style knobs to dial in your settings. “Oh no! Will it be exactly tempo locked to my track?” Nope. Remember those fleshy orbs on the side of your dome? You’ll have to use them to listen, dig deep into your primal emotional bank, and then set it to what feels good. You start with the TIME COARSE control and then adjust with the TIME FINE knob to dial in the right delay tempo. It may sound daunting, but it’s not. It’s actually fun – and there’s a small light that flashes to indicate tempo, so don’t totally despair. The REPEATS knob simply controls how many regenerations of the echo you get. MOD RATE and MOD DEPTH give you the wow and flutter effect of a tape machine and can be very gentle or extreme depending on settings. The DRY LEVEL versus DELAY LEVEL controls are useful if you use the Studio-Nugget directly inserted on a channel or instrument. I place it on a bus, fully wet for mixing, adjusting to taste using a send/return.

My favorite control on the unit is TONE. Like a simple tone knob on your stereo (fully counterclockwise being darkest and fully clockwise brightest), you can adjust the timbre of the Studio-Nugget to taste. I found that once I had the delay time set on the Studio-Nugget, I could play with the TONE control in conjunction with the REPEAT knob to add a variance to the track and delay performance – especially in dub style mixes. I’d forgotten how fun this was! It’s one thing to use a mouse on a plug-in or write automation, and another thing altogether to roll up your sleeves then get down and dirty with a hands-on echo performance. As my Aussie friends would say, it’s “pure filth,” meaning the best!

There are currently some incredible plug-in options in the world of delay, but for all they are capable of, they never quite seem to match the magic and sometimes unpredictable nature of their analog counterparts. Also, my rack mount delays will never be affected by a software update or operating system upgrade. I still have the DigiTech rack mount digital delay I bought when I was 13, and although it is missing a few knob caps, it still works fine. I cannot stress enough the value of having something that is not automatable or recallable in your mixes. If you can “perform” even one element of a mix, you are that much closer to something unique unto itself. Almost everybody has Soundtoys’ EchoBoy. I get it! It’s affordable, easy to use, and in most cases gets the job done. But I will say that the real magic on old dub records happens with old tube and tape echo units. Daniel Lanois often uses the Lexicon Prime Time digital delay, which brings me to my next point. Why do prime numbers in a delay unit matter? Are they better? Steve Kollander from Crucial called me up and dropped a rant on the subject that I wish I had recorded so I could relay it to you. Still, there is this from the Crucial Audio website: “Professional Producers & Recording Engineers have known that Delay Times/Echoes set to Prime Numbers deliver a sonic difference in overall Echo clarity & level in the Mix. It can be an effective technique at any song tempo. A prime number can only be divided by 1 and itself. Thus less likely to create phase cancellations of fundamental frequencies during audible intermodulation events.” Interesting stuff.

Primarily, I use this unit on vocals – and it’s unlikely I will use it anywhere else. It made the vocal more interesting and added a “human” element that you’ll struggle to get from a plug-in. Sometimes I like to “feel” the delay more than hear it, and by using the TONE control to reduce the brightness, it helped the track settle right into the mix without being too distracting. You can get gnarly and psychedelic with the Studio-Nugget as well – love this delay! It also looks fantastic, with a small Lion of Judah image that looks at home with the monitors in my studio that were decorated by Lee “Scratch” Perry. To answer the questions that you want to ask; No, the Studio-Nugget is not just for dub applications; and yes, I like to work in that Lee “Scratch” Perry story wherever I can.

I know I sound like a bloody curmudgeon when I say it, but I have come to value my hardware devices more as time goes by. No updates, no compatibility issues, no authorizations, no iLok, blah, blah, blah. I know that digital audio and the endless stream of plug-in emulations of legacy hardware units is not going away – I use it too. I appreciate that it’s a convenience, and some are quite good! But there is an undeniable benefit to hands-on analog processing and what it brings to the table in terms of creativity and process. This device takes 20 minutes to warm up to a stable state, thus giving me time for a coffee and contemplation before I work; that’s worth the price of admission alone. A stereo version is also available.

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

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