You may recall my review of the Safe Sound P1 Audio Processor (Tape Op #53)-a mic preamp, instrument DI, expander, compressor, limiter, and headphone monitor/mixer designed by Robert Campbell, formerly of Neve and Calrec. I lauded it for its transparent compression on vocals, its best-ever performance as a bass recording chain, its adeptness at taming acoustic guitar, and for many other strengths. Because the P1 has so much capability as a recording device (it's not quite a full-blown channel strip, only because it doesn't offer EQ), it's probably one of the least understood, most underrated engineering tools I've come across. So when I first read about Mr. Campbell's followup to the P1 a few months ago while perusing Gearslutz.com, I gave Warren Dent at Front End Audio (Safe Sound's U.S. distributor) a holler and begged him to let me try one as soon as it landed on our shores. Well, Christmas came early, and I spent the better part of December with Warren's first unit before writing this review (and subsequently purchasing my own unit from Warren in January). Before I tell you what I thought of it, let me suggest that you visit the manufacturer's website to read both the downloadable white paper and the user manual to familiarize yourself with the Dynamics Toolbox's advanced features, including Peakride triple-sidechain compression, Dynamic Tracking adjustment of attack/release times, parallel-compression blending, sidechain EQ, and brickwall limiting with dynamic attack time boost. Suffice it to say, there's a lot of unique analog technology in this audio toolbox, and it's all explained very well in the aforementioned documents.
As with the P1, the Dynamics Toolbox's Peakride compression is unbelievably smooth on vocals. Even with slower attack times and high compression ratios, sibilance was never a problem as it is with lesser compressors-a tribute to Peakride's ability to track and compress a signal without distorting the waveform, and this contributes greatly to the unit's transparency. The compressed vocal never sounded pinched, nor was it flattened so much that the emotion (in the natural dynamics of the performance) became indiscernible. With Peakride's multiple sidechains, the release time and the compression ratio are automatically adjusted to follow the signal in a musical and organic way. With lesser compressors, too fast of a release time can distort vowels, and too slow of a release will overly clamp syllables that follow big vocal transients. On vocals, I also found the limiter to be surprisingly usable for controlling sudden consonants (and some plosives) with very little scooping of the vocal (what you hear when a limiter recovers from a big hit). It was the first time that I was able to use an analog limiter on vocals in this manner successfully.
Peakride compression is also marvelous on bass. Not only was I able to level out the volume of a DI'ed bass track, adding much needed consistency to the performance with careful use of the ratio and threshold controls, but I added the right amount of life to the track by setting the attack time just right. It was like having two continuously-variable controls for "consistency" and "life". And on top of that, the sidechain EQ allowed me to dial away the detrimental effect of the deep lows pulling hard on the compressor; therefore, the track kept its balls without being overly squeezed. (Yeah, "consistency", "life", and "balls"-my vote for alternate front-panel labeling.) On the other hand, switching in the Dynamic Tracking mode instead of Peakride offered me the option to add some "chuff" to the bass by using a too-slow release time. Then by using the Blend control to mix together the compressed and uncompressed signals, I could thicken up the bass just so. In the end, because the Toolbox is a two-channel compressor, I ended up patching Channel 1 to Channel 2 and using Peakride and Dynamic Tracking modes serially.
On snare, Peakride had too long of a release time and pumped each individual snare hit on a song I was mixing. But in Dynamic Tracking mode, with control over attack and release, I could easily dial in a '70s papery/pillowy sound. As well, I got a wonderful '90s controlled sound (think "He's My Star" by Poster Children) with attack set slowest, release set to auto, and limiter dialed down just so it clamped the transient. Kick also sounded great with Dynamic Tracking and auto release.
On drum submixes, in Dynamic Tracking mode, I could set attack and release times for a squashed, pumping sound, which I could then blend with the uncompressed signal to get a nice, driving beat. Or using auto-release, I had no problem getting a subtly-thickened drum submix with very little evidence of compression. For this kind of task, the sidechain EQ is crucial in preventing the kick drum from punching holes in the mix.
What about using the Dynamics Toolbox on a whole mix? Well, engineers talk about how correct use of a well-designed bus compressor can add "glue" to the mix, bringing all the elements together in a musically meaningful way. Well, whatever that elusive "glue" is, this thing has it. While remixing a track from a resurrected Rosa Chance Well project (featuring members of Samuel and Karate), I inserted the Toolbox on the stereo bus, and after some tweaking of the controls in Dynamic Tracking mode, all the instruments sounded more like they were part of the same performance. The broader strokes of bass and guitar more congruously surrounded the drums without hampering them, there was concordance in how the various instruments sustained, and reverb tails seemed to breath with the music. To me, that's how
a good bus compressor adds "glue" to a mix. As would be expected, the Blend knob was very helpful here in letting me decide how much "glue" to bring in, and although the limiter worked very well with a good deal of transparency (if not quite brickwall), because it's an integral part of the compressor design, the limiter has no effect on the uncompressed portion of the blended signal.
By the way, my unit was equipped with Lundahl LL1539 transformers. The Dynamics Toolbox has two sets of outputs. The first are electronically balanced, and the second are reserved for optional output transformers (Lundahl, Sowter, Jenson, or Cinemag). The Lundahls certainly helped (in an extremely subtle way) with adding "glue" to the mix, but on individual instruments, my preference between the outputs depended on what I was tracking, and I appreciated having the option.
In case Mr. Campbell ever makes a Mark 2 of this compressor, I'll put in my feature requests now. First of all, I want the option to switch the filters into the pre-compressed signal chain instead of having them for sidechain use only. That way, I could squash the most important bit of a sound (e.g., "telephone range" on vocals, low mids on a chugging guitar, etc.) and blend it back to the uncompressed sound... which I'd then feed to the second channel of the compressor for very light broadband leveling... or vice versa. This is a great trick if you really need to slam a sound but you want to retain some emotion. Second, I want a second gain makeup knob that's post-Blend. The existing GMU knob is great for A/B'ing pre and post-compressed sounds, but once you start using Blend, you can't A/B the whole effect. Third, I want XLR jacks on the back instead of all TRS, as they are now. And finally, I want different colored knobs instead of all grey; it's too easy to turn the wrong knob! (The knobs are the same as those currently utilized in the Rupert Neve Portico line. Soon after making a quick call to a friend, I had a selection of knobs of different color and size that I used to replace some of the grey knobs on the Toolbox unit I purchased.)
After my month with the Dynamics Toolbox, I sent the review unit to producer/engineer and Tape Op contributor Thom Monahan (Devendra Banhart, Brightblack Morning Light, The Rosewood Thieves, Vetiver), who always seems to get amazing sounds out of the least likely pieces of gear. His take?
"Uncolored. Very neutral sounding. Seems best suited for transparent compression. A bit tweaky setting up in any mode other than Peakride, where it literally sounds like it's doing nothing. That might be the real strength of this box. When set to its sweet spot, it sounds like your signal is basically untouched, although the meters show otherwise. When Peakride was disengaged, I found it difficult to use on a number of sources, the compression needing extensive setup to avoid going from zero to squishy too quickly."
Yup-I'd have to agree with Thom. For some, the Toolbox's greatest strength may be its Achille's heel. The compressor can be so damn transparent that people expecting it to impart a "sound" on the signal will either be disappointed or be frustrated when they hit it too hard. I also asked mastering engineer and Tape Op contributor Larry DeVivo (www.silvertonemastering), who was one of the first engineers in the U.S. to try the Dynamics Toolbox, what he thought of it.
"I was originally asked to demo the Dynamics Toolbox because one of the principals in the company read that I had never heard a VCA-based compressor that I really cared for, when used in a mastering situation. I think he used the word "hate". It's not that I have anything against VCA compressors, as I enjoyed using the dbx 160, Inovonics 201, and Distressor throughout my recording career; they are all
fantastic processors for what they do, but for mastering, they always just seemed a little too heavy-handed. I could always hear them working and usually not to the benefit of the program material.
"Well, in comes the Dynamics Toolbox, and I must say the name really does apply here. It has one of the most full-featured parameter sets I've ever seen on an analog compressor. In fact, the only other compressor I've run across to have as many similar features is the all-digital Weiss DS1-MK2. I found the Toolbox to be as transparent as you want; or when pushed, you can take it to that "heavy handed" side. You hear it getting a workout, but still the sound remains very clean. I've never heard a VCA compressor that sounded this clean. I would not hesitate to use this compressor on program material. Its ability to give you several types of compression-Peakride, Dynamic Tracking, and parallel-makes for one very useful (tool) box. Over the years, I've found that parallel compression can be very useful in a mastering situation. Furthermore, the unit's sidechain EQ and fast attack/release times make it one of the more powerful analog de-esser boxes you can find. It even allows you to insert your own EQ if the built-in filters don't do it for you.
"One of the only negatives (or it could be a positive) is the lack of detailed tactile information on the front panel. It's hard to tell the exact increment of ratio, attack, release, gain-makeup, and such. What that forces you to do is use your ears to set everything (a good thing). However, in a mastering situation (which isn't this box's primary market), the lack of this information would hinder repeatability. All in all, I think Safe Sound have a real winner on their hands."
Anyway, back to me. Let me reiterate that I purchased a Dynamics Toolbox (with Lundahl transformers) for myself. I'm loving it for tracking and mixing, and it's definitely the most flexible compressor in my arsenal. This do-it-all compressor/limiter warrants a serious look, especially if you're a DAW user, not only because of its wide range of capability during all stages of recording, mixing, and even mastering, but also because its Blend feature is crucial for implementing parallel compression without an analog mixer (or two sets of converters) to circumvent latency issues. ($1999 street, transformers additional; www.safesoundaudio.com)
Tape Op is a bi-monthly magazine devoted to the art of record making.