This could be the shortest review I've ever done. The Komit Treehouse is simple to use, sounds great, and is sensibly priced. If you must have the gory details, read on. The Komit stirred up a local buzz when Stuart Sullivan of Wire Recording in Austin wouldn't send the prototype back. He is into the old-school sound. Burgin McDaniel is a new company, but the founders-Kevin Burgin and Travis McDaniel-are old hands from Rupert Neve Designs. So I got in touch with Kevin to see if the Komit was all hat and no cattle, as they say in Texas.
The Komit is a compressor and limiter-two complete circuits. It comes as a 500-series module and slides into a lunchbox or rack, which provides common power. But Burgin McDaniel also supplies it as a Producer's Pack Treehouse-two units in a handsome, black-walnut box with a separate power supply unit. This is what I received, which is perfect for integrating into a project studio or for the engineer on the go. The Treehouse shell was a prototype and included a now redundant link switch, as well as a power light. The PSU isn't a wall wart, thankfully, but an inline brick, like laptops use. The attached 3 ft power cable connects to the rear via in a five-pin plug. The other end of the PSU connects to the wall using a standard, removable IEC power cable for easy replacement, while providing extra length for those always poorly-located wall sockets. The whole thing is amazingly light and easily one-handed via the recessed grips at the top. And if your travels take you across electrical borders, a simple change of PSUs is all that is needed to keep it happy.
Two screws fasten the cards to the Treehouse. I was warned not to pull the card out completely, in case I disconnected it from the rear, but it pulls out far enough to change between three operating-level settings via jumper pins, like on a computer hard drive. I'm no electrical engineer, but everything seemed well-spaced and cleanly built. The Komit has a balanced, floating-transformer in/out design and a discrete signal path. The compressor uses a THAT Corporation VCA like the SSL, if that gives you a hint of the sound of the unit, or lack thereof. The rear plate holds the balanced XLR I/O, and I showed more sense than I usually do since I didn't take it off to see how the card connected to the I/O.
Using the Komit itself couldn't be simpler. At the top is a scroll-type meter lit with a subtle green light. The numbering is too small to read unless you get up close, but the hammer with a red head explains all you need to know about how hard the compressor is working. I seldom needed to refer to it, anyway. Below the meter is a stepped knob for the limiter. One expects the signal to flow from top to bottom, but with a total of only three knobs, it wasn't hard to remember that sound within the Komit went up, not down. The limiter is a diode bridge set at a 20:1 ratio. The output level goes from -10 to +21 dBu in 11 solid clicks, while the off position makes it an even dozen. From -10 to +14 takes only 4 steps, while the sensitive upper range is in single-decibel increments. The limiter output is more or less set-and-forget, letting you concentrate on the sound coming in without worrying about the level going to the recorder. This is great for the singer who decides to throw in a bellow during a ballad or the guitarist who discovers 11-plus on the amp during a take, ruining your carefully calibrated levels. You'll have to find another excuse other than "we got digital distortion" to dump their inspired ad lib. Severely-limited signals look like a flat line once they get to the computer screen-with no nasty overs.
Below the limiter is a three-position compressor attack/release switch marked with musical-looking hieroglyphics. These are in keeping with Burgin McDaniel's design philosophy-keep it simple and use your ears. The left position is fast, middle is program, and right is slow. Below the switch and to the left is a link switch (not on the prototype modules-hence the switch on my box). Although the faceplate is small, there is plenty of room to grab and twist each knob without rubbing anything else-another plus for keeping it simple. All three knobs are surplus military stock, olive with a white indicator stripe that glows a phosphorescent green in the dark after exposure to light.
The compressor make-up knob is a smooth potentiometer that goes from unity to +22 dB. This knob provides most of the sonic fun, since it lets you drive the limiter into distortion. And unlike a lot of lower-cost hardware and most software, the distortion sounds good (and the limiter keeps it that way into the A-D converter). Even without compression, you can pleasingly roughen up your sound. The highs don't get harsh and the bass remains full. I was hoping for a little more resistance from this knob since I used it as a volume control at times, but it is still very smooth. Below and offset to the left is the compressor-ratio pot. This, too, is marked with hieroglyphics, but easily translated. To the left is a full circle-no compression, while a sequence of ever-squashed ovals denoting more and more compression. According to Burgin McDaniel, the ratio goes from 1:1 to 10:1-easy to understand and again forces you to use your ears, not numbers. Below that is the in/out button for both circuits. These three knobs and three switches/buttons provide all the control you have for the unit, but is it enough?
The Treehouse's arrival couldn't have been more timely, as I had a demo recording scheduled the next day in my project studio. To make sure everything was in working order, I strapped it across my interface's inserts and plugged in my Ensoniq Fizmo keyboard. It seems counterintuitive that adding more electronics sounds better than straight wire, but the old Fiz had never sounded so good. It is a wonderful synth but distinctly digital, and just running it through the Komit made it soundO^ well, bigger. A little compression really brought up the tail in its pads, which are full of delicate tinkles that usually die out too quickly. The Fiz also has a nice Rhodes sound I use, and through the Komit, I didn't need to add my usual bit of virtual analog distortion to give it some bite; the Komit provided the real thing.
During a demo recording session, I used the Komit Treehouse on the drum overheads for the rhythm section takes. One of the songs had several, surfer-style tom accents, and the Komit crushed it just like it was 1964. The same song also had an incessant high-hat part that only a drummer could love. The Komit soaked up most of the bite, meaning I could fit it into the mix with a little volume control rather than drastic EQ. A cover of PJ Harvey's "This is Love" included a great cymbal part. The Komit complemented it perfectly. Like the high-hat, it rounded off some of the brashness, while the program-setting attack eased into the sound and gave a gorgeous sustain to the body. During mixing, this sustain sat comfortably in the mix at all kinds of levels. The drummer preferred this home-brewed drum sound to that of a big studio they record at. I'd like to take credit for it, but most of the praise had to do with the Komit, I'm afraid.
I also used the Komit Treehouse for overdubs. The surfer song had a short Dick Dale guitar riff laid over one of the tom rolls. We DI'ed the guitar out of an effects box, and the Komit once again did its time-machine act. With a slow attack/release, the guitar jumped right in while the reverb died a long and slow, yet natural death. On the vocals, I used just a hint of compression (again with the slow setting). A couple of the songs had soft, almost whispered parts bracketed by loud ones and that is when I used the make-up gain knob to goose the volume level. Not the textbook way to do things, but the mic preamp had a stepped knob, and I found the pot better for the almost-instantaneous volume changes I needed to make. A little more resistance in the knob-throw would have been nice, as this technique isn't textbook but certainly not unheard of. A couple of times, I worried that I reset the makeup gain too hot, but whenever I glanced at SONAR's meters, they would peg at -6 dBFS and never higher. It was great to let the Komit worry about any overshoots rather than the less robust preamp and converters.
At the Kitchen Studios, owner JP simply pronounced the Treehouse "good goodness" on the drums. It made me wish I had another pair as well and had used more than three drum mics during the demo session. On the snare, the Komit produced a crack like it is supposed to, and the bass drum punched like a heavyweight. I also had a CD's worth of songs to master. The styles and mix levels were all over the place. It was mostly electronic stuff but included a ballad with an almost operatic vocal and some rock numbers too. I ran the 24-bit mixes through the Treehouse to see how much software I could replace. I didn't want a bunch of radio-ready compressed songs, but simply to pump them up as loud as possible without killing all the dynamics. The Treehouse couldn't be easier to use. Push the link and adjust the output of the limiters to the maximum gain you want. Compress the song to taste and use the make-up gain to get the output level right. With +22 dB, there is plenty of gain-no matter how hard you make the compressor work. Turning up the make-up also allowed me to add a hint of crushing, if not distortion, as needed. The compressor itself is rather mild-mannered, simply producing a fuller sound without any artifacts, and it is almost idiot-proof. Using both circuits you can make any radio-programmer's heart go a-flutter in today's loudness wars. If you are a lowly engineer, you can get all the volume you want in a song without absolutely killing the dynamics, almost matching rock and acoustic songs in intensity, if not absolute numbers.
Many of the boutique manufacturers model their units on the classics of yesteryear, which is great. But Burgin McDaniel seem to take their cue from Mr. Neve himself, who could sell a boatload of knockoffs by simply putting his name and the ID number of any of the many classic units he's designed. The Komit sounds classic, rather than trying to clone an already established sound. Some may find the lack of separate threshold or more attack/release times restrictive, but I always seemed to find a good setting-quickly. If I had more control, I might have been able to fiddle up a marginally-better sound. Instead, I spent that time finding a balance between the make-up gain and limiter. While the compressor itself might be well-mannered, when combined with the limiter, you can coax all kinds of texture out of the Komit.
In a professional studio, the Komit Treehouse slides right in. The Kitchen bought a pair for their 500-series rack to go along with their collection of high-end compressors. For the project studio, it is a bit pricey, but it took the quality of my home recordings up a notch. Like many project studios, I have a lot of nice software, but my
outboard gear is limited. While a quality preamp or mic might be a better investment if you do a lot acoustic work, it is hard to beat a really, really nice stereo compressor as an all-around investment, since you can use it everywhere from tracking to mastering. There is just something about high-quality transformers and an all-discrete path between you and your computer that software still can't duplicate. (Treehouse $2400 MSRP, individual Komit, $995; www.burginmcdaniel.com)
Tape Op is a bi-monthly magazine devoted to the art of record making.