About a year ago, several of my peers were involved in an audio geekfest here in Nashville centered around a shootout between several vintage Neve 1073 modules and a Vintech X73. I wasn't able to attend, but those whose ears I fully trust-namely Gary Paczoza, Kyle Lehning, and Chuck Ainlay-were present. Apparently, they went all tweaky on setup and calibration, and at the end of the day, after everything was toned and matched and double-blind tested, the results were in as to which preamps triumphed, and the Vintechs... didn't win. But neither did the Neves. No one could consistently pick out the vintage boxes from the Vintechs. Impressive. Most impressive.
As it turns out, the point wasn't which unit sounded better, but rather that they all sounded good. In my opinion, the debate over newer gear sounding like older gear is generally useless. It's been my experience that the vintage stuff usually has that certain quality that I've not been able to find in the newer copies, with certain exceptions (the new Universal Audio LA-2A is excellent, as are the aforementioned Vintech preamps). This is all to say that I came into this review pretty skeptical. I'm fortunate enough to own two old Neve stereo compressors-a 33609/A and an even older 81069-so when I was asked to review what looked to be a close facsimile of the same from Vintech, I was hesitant. But if not for the aforementioned shootout, I probably would have blown it off, but I was curious to see what this box was like and how it would perform in the studio, so here we go. All subjective buzzwords are in quotes, hope that "helps".
The 609CA is a linkable dual-mono compressor and limiter based on the venerable Neve 33609 but with an output section similar to the 2254, which, if memory serves, is essentially a Class A 1272-type output amplifier. The layout and controls are nearly identical to the 33609's, but it's not a clone of the original-just reminiscent. It's heavy (lots of iron), and the power supply is as big as the Transformers lunchbox you had in fourth grade. (Love external supplies!) The unit is built like a tank, and the controls are solid, metal affairs with great-feeling pots and toggle switches. Most of the knobs (including the threshold and attack) are swept, which is great for dialing in subtle tweaks, but I found myself wishing that they were stepped like the old Neves. The Vintech pots aren't as touchy as say, a Tube-Tech, but if someone bumps the rack they will probably move. Also, the knobs are quite tall, and a lack of a visible hash-mark running all the way down the side makes for difficult documentation of the knob positions relative to the faceplate markings. The back of our unit wasn't labeled; it's pretty obvious which I/O worked with which side, but it would be nice to have labels as well. Inside it has all the cool-sounding goodies; it's all discrete Class A, and there are three transformers in each circuit-input, inter-stage, and output. I love hearing all that but have no idea what it really means, so I just plugged it in, and since I was in the middle of a mix, I strapped it across the mix bus of the console, right before my A/D. It performed in a manner similar to the old Neve design-nice "smooth" compression, limiting that I feel is too "grabby" to be useful, and a trade-off of a little bit of "punch" for a nice "richness". I've never been a huge fan of the 33609 on the mix buss, but I could see that the 609CA would shine in certain applications. I wouldn't call on it for pop or radio rock, but on material that would benefit from it's slightly "spongy" depth, it would be great. I would certainly break it out if Spoon, the Decemberists, or Copeland called. I tried it on Trent Dabb's new solo project that was cut mostly live to my old MCI JH-16 2", and the combo was fantastic. The headroom is amazing; usually I can clip almost anything on the mix bus of the SSL J, but the 609CA handled it easily. I found myself using the compressor only in this application-the limiter follows the compressor section and gets fed by the output thereof-which limits (pun intended) the use of the two independently. When I shut off the compressor, it affected the limiter, so it's difficult to use the limiter by itself; but this is a hallmark of this particular circuit, and I found I wasn't using the limiter as much as abusing it, so subtlety goes out the window anyway. Again, I found that the lack of detented controls made setting this up on the mix bus more difficult. I also found the limiter to be "darker" sounding than the compressor. Then I shut off both the limiter and compression switches and things got interesting.
That is to say, as I was playing with the interaction of the comp and limit sections, I shut it all off and discovered that the transformers and the circuitry in this box make for an amazingly cool tone all by themselves. Just running through the unit with everything bypassed was a perfect complement to Trent's laid-back, Beatles-era vibe. On a few tunes, a tiny little bit (less than 1 dB) of compression added a nice touch, but I found myself mostly running the unit with
the compressor and limiter sections switched out. I printed a mix with and without the 609CA and sent it over to Jim Demain at Yes Master for a blind test. Jim found that the mix with the 609A had a nice "fullness" in the low mids and that the vocal "sat back a bit" compared to the mix without. It was a nice choice to have, really. I also used it on my first country record ever and found that it helped make the track sound full without poking the female vocal out too much. It was a great complement for the live rock vibe of the album.
If I were a mastering engineer, I would expect that this tonal palette would be a welcome addition to my toolkit, although the lack of recall might be an issue. I called Dallas at Vintech and asked if there might be a way to have switchable controls. He told me that it was possible, although not currently planned for a production unit, so I'm guessing that if you really needed them for mastering, you'd have some recourse.
Switching to individual tracks, I really liked the 609CA on vocals; again the "smoothness" was great and added some "magic" to u^ber-Tooled vocals. The unit also sounded great on piano, adding to midrange without "rounding out" the top end. It reminded me of the Phil Ramone-era "And So It Goes" Billy Joel piano sound. (No, I'm not that old. Know your classics kids!!!) Then I switched it over to acoustic guitars, and damn, this box sounds sweet on acoustics. I don't know if it's the transformers or what, but it was "creamy" and "smooth" and imparted something akin to "air" in the upper harmonic content which seemed to make the stereo acoustics seem "wider". I loved it and might just buy one for acoustics alone. On drums, you can do almost anything. Ultralimited snare? Check. Nicely "smoothed", yet "articulated" overheads? Yup. Brickwalled, pumping room mics? Most def. "Tight" yet "full" hi-hats? Don't be an idiot, but as an overall drum parallel compressor it's great, as long as you take the time to line up the unit with tones. This unit would be a shoe-in for that Matt Chamberlain "play softly and compress the shit out of it" sound. It also added nice "heft" to electric guitars (again, the low-mid thing). All of the above applications, save the extreme drum processing, was with the compressor alone. I almost always found the limiter section too "dark" and "grabby" to be useful for anything except an effect; when used as such, it was very unique.
All in all, it's a wonderfully versatile unit. Uncolored? Not even close. However, the range of tones, from subtle compression to obliteration, makes for a stereo compressor/limiter that can do many things well-always a welcome addition to the arsenal. My guess is that this unit would find frequent use in tracking, overdubs, and mixing on a very wide range of material. I'm very impressed. It's certainly worth a look, and it stands up well alongside its vintage Neve pater familias. ($3000 street w/ power supply; www.vintech-audio.com)
Tape Op is a bi-monthly magazine devoted to the art of record making.