I was looking around for a decent stereo equalizer to combine with my stereo compressor across the mix bus. I found quite a few choices that would serve my purposes, mostly in the $2000 to $4000 range, but I thought, let me look into what my old mentor Malcolm Toft is up to these days. He taught me a great deal about engineering during my Tyrannosaurus Rex days and inadvertently got me going on a second career as a recording engineer. When Malcolm started designing great Trident gear, I soon became a client of his. When I built my first home studio in the 70's, my console of choice was the Trident B range, and it served me well. I mixed Diamond Dogs and Young Americans (both by David Bowie) on it. When I outgrew my home studio and moved to commercial premises in SOHO, London, my next console was a Trident TSM. It too served me well, and I mixed Scary Monsters and Live and Dangerous on this one (David Bowie and Thin Lizzy, respectively). A quick Google search showed me that Malcolm is manufacturing cool stuff again. After I spoke to Malcolm, I had to have an ATC-2, even though it has more functions than I was originally wanting. When mine arrived, I was so excited I slashed a finger on the rackmount ear of the unit when I was extracting it from the well-packed box. I found the first-aid kit (always hard to find in an emergency) and took care of business; the ATC-2 was up and running five minutes later. This was the first day of tracking a new album for vocalist/keyboardist Kristeen Young. I was tracking to 2'' tape at 15 IPS on EMTEC 900. In the 70's, we rarely ran multi-tracks at 30 IPS-that was an 80's thing. All of my Bowie and T. Rex albums of that decade were recorded at 15 IPS, mostly on 16-track machines with no noise reduction, or some... but I digress.
Before I describe my delightful honeymoon with this new baby, let me give some ATC-2 quick specs. It is in a 2U chassis. It has two high-quality mic preamps and line amps, with both XLR and 1/4'' ins and outs in the rear and two high-impedance instrument inputs on the front panel. The mic preamps also have phantom power, and claimed frequency response is up to 40 kHz. The mic input gain has a 60 dB range, ideal for all types of mics, including low-output ribbons. The compression controls are above the EQ controls, and they are the usual attack, release, variable ratio and make-up gain. The EQ section has a 50 Hz high pass filter (where hum lives in England), a -15 to +15 low end (60 or 120 Hz switchable), a low- mid sweep (100 Hz to 1.5 kHz), a high-mid sweep (1 kHz to 15 kHz) and finally a -15 to +15 high end (8 kHz or 12 kHz switchable). There are no Q controls for the EQ stages. The two meters are switchable between gain reduction and output levels. There are switches to insert EQ and compression, to enable phantom power and to couple the two independent compressors. This unit is solidly built, and it looks great. I must add that the instruction manual is a brilliant, short discourse on how to make great recordings while it also shows you what the knobs can do.
The first chore for the ATC-2 was to act as a preamp for a stereo pair of PZM's mounted high on the drum booth wall. I tweaked the EQ just a little, and the entire kit sounded great-the kick drum too! But the icing on the cake was switching in the stereo compression stage and getting the drums to sound louder and more aggressive. (Jeff White, the drummer, was very, very happy.) I used these two tracks for 50% of the drum sound in the final mix. Having three functions in one stereo unit saved a lot of time and patching.
After the drums were tracked, I recorded Kristeen's keyboard through her Peavey rig. Her cabinet houses two 10'' speakers and a whopping 18'' low-end driver. I put an SM57 on the best sounding 10'' and an Audix D6 on the 18''. I was able to EQ each mic independently and then use the stereo compressor in its coupled mode. I wanted each mic to influence the other without independent level changes. I was amazed with the results. I'm also the bass player on this album, so I used my amp head through Kristeen's cab with good results. I didn't need to compress either the keyboard or bass tracks in the mix, but I did record them on separate tracks to rebalance later. I must point out that this is a very aggressive rock album.
Kristeen sang her lead vocals on an SM58, and it was processed simultaneously through an Avalon VT737sp and an ART Tube EQ and Tube Preamp/Compressor half- rack combination (by splitting the mic signal and recording the outputs of the two units on separate tracks). I wanted the choice of a clean sound or an overblown sound in the mix. But I recorded Kristeen's backup vocals on an ADK A-51TL mic going through one channel of the ATC-2 to get a distinctly different sound. The ATC-2 and ADK combination was smooth as silk and made Kristeen's normally bright voice much warmer, which helped when she sang very low parts. Recordings of both electric and acoustic guitar sounded great due to the wide range of all the ATC-2's controls. It has the ability to record ultra-hi-fi or as gritty as you want.
The concept behind the ATC-2 is a return to solid-state circuitry as an alternative to the current proliferation of outboard gear turbo-charged with tubes. I remember that tape in the 70's was truly warm and noisy (not as good as present day formulas), and you had to fight to preserve clarity. So many recordings in the 70's were made through equalizers, preamps and compressors that Toft's new ATC-2 emulates. Although the unit is solid- state, the low-end EQ is sweet and warm, and the high end is clean and shimmering. The compressor can be transparent or very punchy.
Have I tried it across the stereo buss yet? Well, just yesterday I did, and it widened the sonic spectrum just the right amount for one problematic, dull-sounding mix. Whereas the ATC-2 isn't exactly a fully-fledged parametric EQ with variable-Q control, it is both clear and sweet sounding, and it works well. Presently, the compression comes only after the EQ stage, but Malcolm told me that future upgrades will have a pre/post-EQ switch for the compression stage. Not one piece of gear can do everything, but this one comes close. I am going to record much more through this lovely piece of outboard gear, and I highly recommend it for its sonic quality, versatility and low price. ($1299 MSRP; www.toftaudiodesigns.com)