I bought my first Empirical Labs FATSO Jr (Tape Op #24) almost ten years ago, soon after purchasing my first digital multitrack recorder, a TASCAM MX–2424, (#22). Since then, I’ve purchased four more FATSOs, and I do almost all of my tracking through them. I love how the four processors in each of the FATSO’s two channels add all sorts of analog goodness to my digital recordings. Harmonic distortion, high-frequency saturation, transformer-induced density, and several types of compression all contribute to a consolidating texture across everything I track, and I believe this is one of the reasons why I’ve been told by a number of mix engineers that my tracks combine together very easily.
Admittedly, I use the FATSO with a very light hand, and I rarely depart from the Buss setting of the compressor, with at most 3 dB of gain reduction (GR) and Warmth in the middle settings. Used in this manner on individual tracks, I find that the instruments start to coalesce into a mix before I finish overdubbing. But I rarely use the FATSO as a compressor in itself. Although it’s a “preset” compressor with four settings (and three more which are combinations of the last setting with the first three), I find it too finicky to set up, despite (or perhaps because of) its abridged set of controls. Even with a simple gain stage patched into the unit’s sidechain insert to control the compression threshold, I can never seem to find the perfect preset and levels for the job at hand. Instead, if I need to actually affect the character and dynamics of a track beyond making it sound FATSO-style analog, I patch in one of my many other compressors ahead of the FATSO. And I never process an already-recorded track through the FATSO while mixing.
On the other hand, the UBK FATSO, which is Gregory Scott’s modification of the FATSO, is an incredible compressor that you can use for tracking and mixing. It handles pretty much anything you throw at it with poise and authority — while never lacking in spirit or vitality.
Other than the new faceplate and the modified compression stage, the UBK FATSO is still a FATSO. The input stage can still be overdriven for soft clipping and generation of musically-pleasing harmonics. The dynamic, high-frequency limiter can still be adjusted to bring Warmth to your sound. And the transformer circuit is still available if you want to add some character to the mids and tighten the lows by lightly filtering power-robbing frequencies while adding a nice rise in level and harmonics above 70 Hz. Which means the UBK FATSO is still capable of doing the magic analog FATSO thing. But Gregory Scott’s mod makes the compressor section far more useful, to the point that the unit becomes an extremely capable dynamics processor.
The four compressor settings on the UBK FATSO are labeled Splat, Smooth, Glue, and Spank. Spank is the only holdover from the original FATSO, and its operation has not changed. (Its limiter-like behavior is based on the SSL talkback compressor.) Spank can be used by itself or in combination with the other settings, giving the UBK FATSO a total of seven presets.
Splat is incredible on snare drum. It really clamps down on the initial transient but then gives the remainder of the attack a nice, just-long-enough crunch. As you turn up the input to go further into gain reduction, the tone of the snare body blooms. Likewise, on kick drum, this setting really evens out the playing and makes an overall bigger-sounding drum with more “booooom” as the input level is increased. I like 3–5 dB GR best, with one channel on a premixed snare stem (top and shell mics) and another on a premixed kick stem (e.g., inside, front head, front of kit — all time-aligned), but Splat also sounds great with snare, kick, and snare reverb premixed to a single stem.I can also make the kick drum “phoof” at 15 dB GR, smoothing the attack into a pillowy sound and bringing up a beautiful resonance bloom. On toms, I can turn up absolute insanity hitting 15 dB GR or more — sounding like the drums are feeding back. And past 15 dB, things get really crazy, especially on a full drum bus. At moderate settings, the sound of the room comes up nicely, but as you increase GR further into the red, the room grows unruly and then suddenly drops away in a strange, non-linear way. It’s as if a second time-constant is affecting the gain makeup, or an expander is gating the sustain added by the compressor, or perhaps the compression curve relaxes suddenly when you hit a second threshold. Or maybe all of the above! In any case, with the “splat” of each hit, you hear lots of room come in big — but then quickly drop away. At this point, it’s less “splat” and more “slap”. It’s a very cool effect in itself, but it’s also something you can tuck underneath the unprocessed drums to add extra “flavor” to each hit without the drums sounding washed out. By the way, “splat” really is the right descriptive term overall for this setting (while Tape Op contributor Neil Mclellan might prefer to say “thwack” with his British accent instead).
A little bit of Splat also adds coherence and drive to chugging, electric guitar parts, while more Splat thickens the guitars. A whole lot of Splat can take too-percussive acoustic guitar tracks and tame them down so you can move them to the sides for some stereo depth without your ears being pulled back and forth with each note or strum; the Warmth control comes in handy here too.
Smooth is my favorite setting for finger-picked electric bass, DI’ed or mic’ed. It too is aptly named, and it does a fantastic job of smoothing out the attack while adding sustain. Smooth is also my favorite setting for vocals. Most of the time, I like a wicked-fast attack and release on vocals, and that’s what Smooth seems to deliver. I was surprised that this setting had a fast enough release to recover transparently from vocal consonants without chattering on long bass guitar notes (unless pushed to more than 15 dB GR). Maybe the release time is program dependent?
On stereo drum bus, Smooth was perhaps too smooth —or more likely, too fast. It softens the transients to the point that the drums can sound weak. But where it does excel is on drum bus reverb. Putting Smooth on the reverb feed with some predelay can really add “3D depth” to the drums without smearing the stick hits when you turn up the reverb returns; in this situation, don’t be afraid to hit Smooth much harder than you normally would. Moreover, Smooth is the setting to use if you need to open up some space in your mix. In other words, if you have a sound that’s crapping all over other instruments in the mix, clamp it down with Smooth and you’ll have plenty of space to highlight other elements of the mix. And you can enable the transformer section while clamping the offending sound so it still has some energy.
Glue, on the other hand, is perfect for stereo drum bus duty — at least on pop or rock drums. It’s both aggressive and subdued, with a slower attack (although still fast compared to the original FATSO’s Buss setting) and a noticeably softer knee than Smooth. At low GR settings, it adds character but still maintains enough dynamics to sound transparent. Glue is also nice on electric bass, especially at 10 dB or more GR — very natural sounding. And for percussive piano parts, Glue is my favorite — the right amount of strike and sustain. On whole-mix duty, just a wee bit goes a long way, and it’s very hard to make it sound bad. On the other hand, any song that benefits from rhythmic pumping is not the right candidate for Glue, unless you induce pumping by inserting a carefully-timed delay and a low-boost EQ into the sidechain insert.
If you push the Smooth+Spank preset hard, the UBK FATSO can be “nudged” with each beat, but it too needs a sidechain delay and EQ to really pump. With Splat+Spank, you can induce compression “suck”, especially with percussive sources; I find this combo useful for parallel drum compression when I want to bring up the room without clouding the attacks of the unprocessed signal. Glue+Spank is my favorite preset for 2-Bus duties. Used lightly, it not only ties the mix together with “glue”, but it also allows you to bring the overall level up. Conversely, if you hit it too hard, Glue+Spank takes away too much dynamics and adds too much character to the 2-Bus, but it does work at high GR for vocals and individual instruments that need to cut through the rest of the mix “no matter what”.
There are plenty more usage scenarios for the UBK FATSO that I could describe, but I’ll end the review here by reiterating that I love the original Empirical Labs FATSO Jr for the analog magic it adds to all my recordings. That’s why I have ten channels of FATSO, and my 2’’ 24-track has remained unused for many years. But I would never recommend the FATSO to someone who is looking for a compressor or limiter. On the other hand, I wholeheartedly recommend the UBK FATSO, whether as a first dynamics processor or as the tenth. It sounds fantastic in many different applications — you can use it transparently or you can use it to add a fistful of character — and on top of that, it still gives you that FATSO analog magic! For all of its capabilities — tracking and mixing — I think the UBK FATSO’s high price is actually a steal! And if you already own an original FATSO, purchasing the modification is a no-brainer. ($2799 MSRP, $349 mod; www.kushaudio.com) –AH
by Scott Evans
Brian Horvitz is the proprietor of Boston area-based TB Audio. Brian produces DIY-inspired analog gear, some as kits and some ready to go. His TBDD is a "modern implementation" of Roland's classic...