I'm a sucker for innovative tools that allow for more efficient methods of working, especially when such tools afford you increased flexibility and therefore heighten creativity. My latest acquisition in this category is the SPL Transducer. It's a speaker-cabinet and mic emulator, all done in analog. You feed it from the power output (speaker out) of a guitar amp and in turn send the Transducer's output directly into your console or recorder. It can completely replace the speaker cabinet (it soaks up a maximum of 200 watts), or you can connect a cabinet via its speaker-thru jack. Don't confuse the Transducer with a standard power soak; these devices are designed to reduce speaker volume by absorbing some of the amp's power output when the amp is turned up. Unfortunately, the tone of the amp can change drastically with a standard power soak, not only because it affects amp-speaker interaction, but also because the speaker is no longer operating at its limits when the volume is raised. The Transducer, on the other hand, emulates the physics of the speaker-as well as the mic on it-so that the sound you get is very much that of a speaker being driven by the amp, at whatever amp settings and volumes you choose.
One obvious benefit of using the Transducer is that it simplifies setup by removing room/floor interaction and mic choice/placement as variables in the recording chain. Is this "better"? Well, no, I wouldn't say it's better or worse. It's different. And as an engineer, I like to have as many useful tools and methods at my disposal as I can. Plus, the SPL
does give you some control over the mic emulation as well as the virtual cabinet, as I'll explain later. The other obvious benefit is that you can crank your amp as "loud" as you want to get the sound that you want, without worrying about your neighbors-or the bleed into other mics. And for live work, the sound that makes it to the console can be extremely consistent night after night.
I haven't used the Transducer live on stage, but it recently came in handy when I recorded an electric guitar, soft vocal, and an accompanying acoustic guitar in a live studio performance for a Voice of America broadcast. I didn't have to resort to any trickery to erase or minimize amp bleed into the acoustic and vocal mics, and the musicians performing together in one room made for a better video image.
But my primary use of the Transducer is for re-amping. I can set up a bunch of guitar amps in my control room, and without having to run back and forth to my live room, I can feed each of the amps in turn and via the Transducer, preview the sound exactly as it will be re-amped and recorded-coming out of my monitors surrounded by the rest of the mix. Incredible. Re-amping has taken on a whole new meaning because with the Transducer, it's so dang easy to get a wide range of sounds, not only by utilizing different amps to drive the Transducer, but also by varying the Transducer's settings. And imagine if you're a guitarist (I'm not), you can do the same thing as I describe in this re-amping scenario, except actually play the guitar part in the control room without wearing headphones and without having to run back and forth between control room and iso room to mic up and tweak the guitar amps.
Soundwise, plugging in the Transducer is very much like mic'ing a real cabinet. You get speaker thump, you get speaker rasp, and there are harmonics, both low and high. You hear all the tonal shaping you'd get from a real speaker, with a knob that varies how much you're driving (or overdriving) the speaker. A cabinet switch gives you the option of an open or closed-back sound. And a speaker-type switch chooses between alnico and ceramic magnet speakers. The alnico setting is harder and brighter.
But that's not all. Don't forget there's mic emulation. A mic-level knob controls how hard you're hitting the mic. Give the virtual mic lots of volume, and it starts to compress a bit, and the midrange comes out-just like with a real mic. A switch lets you choose between a punchier dynamic or a clearer condenser mic. The condenser even gets a little bit crunchy like a real one does when you hit it really hard. There's also the option of close or ambient mic'ing. Although real airborne sounds take time to travel between source and mic, the Transducer's ambient emulation has zero delay, so if you layer an ambient track with a close track, you may or may not want to delay (or time slip) the ambient track to get the effect you want.
In practice, you get a significant range of sounds with the Transducer's controls. Multiply that by the number of guitar amps you have and the settings on those amps, and you'll have a huge palette from which to choose. The Transducer is perfect for stacking lots of guitar tracks; it's like having many different paint brushes and colors to get just the right blend, and it never sounds unnatural like some guitar processors and plug-ins can sound when overdubbing across multiple tracks. Also, if you're using a tube amp to drive the Transducer, you get to hear and record the amp's built-in reverb after its been amplified through the amp's tube stages and then wonked with speaker emulation. The result can be a much richer and denser sound than what you'd get from a plug-in or outboard reverb. Furthermore,
because the Transducer is all analog, there's no processing delay to stimy the guitarist, and you can record direct-using an actual guitar amp-without resorting to plug-ins. But then again, you don't get guitar-amp feedback unless you simultaneously drive a speaker or cabinet at the required volumes.
I also found the Transducer handy for smoothing out keyboard sounds without relying on flat-sounding plug-ins or EQ. Plug the keyboard into your favorite tube amp, add some reverb, then plug the amp into the Transducer and you get a nice thick sound. This is perfect for when you need the keyboard sounds to augment and blend in with the guitar sounds.
The Transducer was developed in conjunction with Tonehunter, a German company that specializes in guitar amp mods, whose clients include the likes of Jimmy Page. Build-quality is up to the usual SPL standards, with hand-picked components giving emphasis to the quality of the signal chain. But I have to admit that I'm not a fan of SPL's stereo-component aesthetic. The Transducer looks and feels like it should be sitting on an audiophile's shelf, despite it having rack ears. Plastic trim and oversized knobs scratch easily, the small switches feel delicate, and I think the unit would get pretty beat up after a few weeks on the road. Also, all the I/O is in the back-not very useful if you have the Transducer in a rack (fixed or mobile) and you're switching amps a lot, which I imagine is a primary use case, and you certainly don't want to be routing speaker-level signals through a patchbay. At least all the jacks and controls on the back have both right-side-up and upside-down labeling, so it's easy to see what you're changing as you peer over the top of the unit (as long as it's not rackmounted).
In the back is an 8 Ohm 1/4" speaker-level input alongside a 1/4" speaker-thru output. There's a 1/4" line-level output derived from the pre-emulation signal for driving an additional amp or effects. Post-emulation, there are both line-level and mic-level outputs on XLR jacks. I found the mic-level output useful for feeding the Transducer into my Neve and API preamps for adding more "iron" to the sound. A second line-level output with parallel 1/4" and XLR jacks can be polarity-flipped. (Be careful when you're patching an amp into the Transducer. Depending on the amp design and type, the amp can be damaged if its speaker output is either shorted or left unloaded, so it's a good idea to power down an amp whenever you fiddle with its speaker output. Also, be careful when turning off the Transducer because it outputs an awful squeal when you power it down.)
Whether your work is in the studio or on the stage, the SPL Transducer simplifies the task of capturing the sound of a guitar amp, without the hassles and inconsistencies involved in mic'ing a loud speaker cabinet. But for anyone who has a collection of guitar amps-even if it's only two or three-the Transducer is an incredible tool for auditioning and recording a wide selection of guitar sounds, especially when stacking tracks. And for the at-home recordist who wants to capture the tone of real guitar amps without bothering the neighbors, the Transducer is a no-brainer. ($1495 MSRP; www.spl-usa.com)
Tape Op is a bi-monthly magazine devoted to the art of record making.