These days, my business partner Neil Mclellan spends just as much time working on the road with his laptop or on his home rig as he does in big SSL and Neve-equipped rooms-that's just the current state of the music production world. Up until recently, Neil was relying on a Mackie Big Knob and an ever-changing kit of outboard gear for all the analog duties required in his Pro Tools-equipped home studio. One late night while auditioning tracks that Neil was remixing, we got deep into gear-geeking, and I explained to Neil that the TL Audio 5021 compressor (Tape Op #63), a vastly underrated product in my opinion, is my go-to box for vocals. That's when it dawned on me that Neil would be a perfect candidate for the Fat Track.
TL Audio refer to the Fat Track as a "tube production suite"; it really wouldn't be fair to call it a mixer, as it's designed to fulfill the basic analog requirements of a small DAW-based overdub and mix room. It has two full-featured mono input channels (selectable between mic, line, and instrument jacks), each with three-band EQ (including a sweepable mid), HPF, polarity-reverse, phantom power, aux send, direct out, and switchable balanced insert. The preamp design is shared with M-series consoles (Tape Op #34, #65) and the EQ is found on the M1 console. There are also four basic stereo inputs and a stereo aux return which you can utilize along with the mono inputs for "out of the box" summing. Two VU meters (with recessed trims) are complemented by two 3-segment LED peak meters. A main stereo output with a switchable balanced insert, two headphone outputs that you can assign differently for engineer/artist, a monitor source selector/combiner, and a speaker selector round out the master section. Tube drive circuits are used in the mono inputs and the main L/R bus. All of the I/O connectors are on the top for easy patching, and an optional DO-8 ADAT interface board can be added to the rear for 8-in, 2-out digital I/O.
The morning following our geekout, I made some calls, and after a few months wait (apparently, the Fat Track is so popular we had to wait in line for one), Neil replaced the Big Knob and a bunch of his other haphazardly assembled gear with the Fat Track, neatening up his tiny NYC apartment-sized desk while gaining significant analog sound-sculpting, mixing, and routing capability. Fast forward a couple more months and a number of remixes later, and here are Neil's thoughts on the Fat Track. -AH
I was looking for a good sounding practical board for home. I had some knowledge of what was out there but did not know of the Fat Track. When Andy suggested I review this unit, I agreed as it was exactly the type of thing I was searching for. When I unpacked the box, my immediate thought was that the look of the unit is not the most sexy; indeed, its design is quite retro. Also, there is a huge, ungainly power supply sticking out of the back, although all patching is done from the top of the board so the back is not so important. Regardless, do not be put off by the unit's lack of physical charm.
The first thing of substance I noticed was the wonderful feel of the rotary knobs; the resistance is just right, which is critical when making precise moves. Moreover, the buttons feel great and sturdy. Right away, I got the impression that this baby would be working through thick and thin. I noticed that the board was made in the UK, which these days is rarer than rockin' horse shit! On patching in some music, I was impressed by how wonderful the tracks sounded flat-without EQ or any other processing-just running through the board. I love getting the "wow factor" on start up.
At first I thought the EQ was a little basic with a fixed Q. However, I have to agree with the reviewer of the TL Audio M4 console (Tape Op #65); the sound of the EQ is so wonderful! My DAW has all the dentist-pick EQs I need, so I am not worried about the basic EQ on the board. What one would use this type of EQ and channel for is to sweeten the sound overall. For example, I tend to use it to give me that extra something on my final mixes-almost like pushing the "loudness" button one used to find on old hi-fi amps. The four stereo inputs are where one's DAW or 2-track player is returned. I would have liked a dedicated 2-track return on this board because any external device, like an iPod or a mixdown deck, or even just the 2-track mixdown return of the DAW, has to get patched into one of these four stereo inputs-a bummer if you're using these inputs as your DAW mix splits. Anyway, here's how I like to use the board:
If you're like me, you want to see where "11" is, so turn up the gains and get the drive LEDs going, and then keep turning up the gains. Mate, this sounds so juicy. I love the sound of this board in overdrive; it's truly a great warm sound with the right sort of dirt. Whether you turn it up to "11" or not, there's great width, dirt if you want it, and always the warmth of the tubes. Perfect.
Split out your mix into three pairs and feed the first three stereo returns. The immediate difference is the width of the mix. Secondly, everything feels so much more cohesive. Turn up the master fader more, and notice the musical distortion that is just wicked. Now once you have your mix balanced and are loving the sound, take the XLR outputs of the main stereo bus, and using XLR to TRS cables, feed this into the mono inputs (but make sure you have their mute buttons switched in to avoid feedback). Send their direct outs to the DAW, then monitor the DAW by patching it to the last stereo input (but do not route this to the mix bus) and select it as the monitor source. Now you can EQ the mix and add more tube gain if you wish. All good fun I can assure you. The only downer is not having that separate 2-track return so you can split the mix into four stereo pairs instead of three.
I should also mention here that the headphones section has two volume knobs and outputs for producer and artist. The producer knob lets you hear what's selected as the monitor source, and the artist knob is tied to the stereo bus. In practice, this is a cool feature, but the layout is a little confusing for someone with such a small brain like me because there's no clear indication on the unit of how this routing works.
All in all, I love this board and would not hesitate to recommend it for a home studio. Its price point is very competitive, its sound is full of life, and it can add character and warmth to your mixes. The fact that one gets great mic preamps and EQs-far beyond just a summing box or monitor control-makes this is a fantastic all-round studio tool. It rocks.
($2495 MSRP, DO-8 $1249; www.tl-audio.co.uk)
Tape Op is a bi-monthly magazine devoted to the art of record making.