Next on the 500-series hit parade is Shadow Hills Industries' gorgeous Dual Vandergraph! It's a stereo compressor with roots in Shadow Hills' own Mastering Compressor, a behemoth that has found its way into the hands of some of the most renowned mix and mastering engineers in the country (Michael Brauer and Greg Calbi, to name just a couple). The DV, as I'll refer to it henceforth, is more or less the discrete, class-A, VCA-style section of the Mastering Compressor (which also has an optical compressor in series with the VCA one), with a few different features.
The faceplate of the doublewide (in that it takes up two 500-series slots) chassis of the DV holds only a single large VU meter and four controls, but it is certainly not barren, as anyone familiar with Shadow Hills' design aesthetic can readily imagine. Oversized Bakelite knobs cover two Swiss-made, 24-position stepped rotary attenuators for control over compression amount and output gain. Two large, 5-position selector switches flank the edges of the DV, over which four blue bulbous lamps indicate the position of each switch. The first switch either puts the unit into hardwire bypass or determines the ratio (1.2:1, 2.5:1, 4:1, or 8:1), each of which has its own, carefully-optimized attack and release values. The second switch chooses the sidechain-filter corner frequency (none, 90 Hz, 150 Hz, 250 Hz, or "bandpass"). The first four are high-pass filters applied to the detection circuit of the compressor to prevent low frequencies from triggering gain reduction. The last one is a bandpass filter (250 Hz-6 kHz) so that neither low-end nor high-end energies trigger compression. The result is that most signals sound less compressed at higher amounts of gain reduction, since only the peaks in the midrange are triggering the VCA to clamp down on the signal.
There's only one set of controls, and there's no way to separate the sidechains of the L/R signals from each other. Therefore, the DV is always operating in a stereo-link mode, unless, of course, you're only using one of the two channels, in which case it simply functions like a mono compressor. The controls have a remarkably solid feel to them, like you're operating important, heavy machinery. I kept expecting a hatch to open up somewhere next to my desk each time I threw one of the switches.
The sound of the DV is, in a word, thick. Even just switching it into your path, at unity gain (which is curiously at position 2 on the output control of my unit), with no gain reduction, there is the subtle but discernable sound of the iron transformers, um, transforming. It's that effect where all of the frequencies across the whole spectrum seem to get juiced a little, without it being louder. Drum subgroups, overheads, and room mics are clear candidates for stereo compression, and I had a lot of success utilizing various ratios, filters, and compression amounts on different drum sets and songs. At the very low 1.2:1 ratio, it can sound quite transparent, especially with the bandpass filter engaged, and at 8:1 with the filter off, it gets super-squishy in a delicious way. Usually somewhere in between had the right amount of grab to make the drums pop into place. The excellent engineer Jay Pellicci, in playing drums for a session with Deerhoof guitarist John Dieterich and myself, was impressed with how it sounded on the room mics during tracking. He noted that he was often dubious about the usefulness of compressors with pre-determined attack and release settings, but after playing around with it for a few minutes, he admitted that it was a great drum compressor despite that lack of control. Speaking of lack of control, we also both lamented the fact that the DV doesn't give you the option of switching transformers, like other Shadow Hills gear, but then again, that would add to the quite fair price of the box.
I also ran a bunch of other things through the DV, both mono and stereo, and it made them all sound great. Bass, guitars, keys, vocals, horns - the DV handled them all deftly and mightily. Perhaps the standout non-drum moment came during a mix of Mirah's song "NOLA" (featuring Thao Nguyen), for a New Orleans benefit compilation (it being near the fifth anniversary of Katrina and all). They did this really amazing four-part vocal harmony (live in like two takes, I might add), and the DV, strapped across the stereo subgroup at 4:1 with no sidechain filtering, helped bring out the richness in each of the parts, while congealing the blend of the four female voices in a truly spine-tingling way.
It would be remiss of me to have not tested a stereo compressor on the 2-bus, and I don't want to be remiss. So I tested it on the 2-bus - of a few different mixes, in various musical styles and dynamic intensities. In short, I was quite impressed. My other two main stereo compressors are the Manley Variable Mu and the Chandler Limited TG1 (Tape Op #37), and I feel like the DV is somewhere in between in terms of "character". It's got way more of a sound than the Vari-Mu, but is more transparent than the very colored TG1. Of course, the lack of attack and release controls will keep it from being the most useful mastering compressor on the planet, but the single set of controls, gentle 1.2:1 ratio, and sidechain filtering capabilities make it more useful than you might think on full program material.
Okay, enough about the sound of the DV; a word must be said here about Shadow Hills Industries' incredible website. It is quite likely the most un-user-friendly, awesomely arcane site in pro audio. In order to view any product's information or get contact info for the company, you have to hunt for, and then type in, a 5-digit code. There are '40s-inspired fake newsreels, peppered with the ominous slogan "Victory Is Our Business". There's also a hilarious exchange between FDR and the supposed founder of the company. The artistry of the site belies the passion for detail that goes into the visual, functional, and sonic excellence of the Shadow Hills products. I am most certainly purchasing the Dual Vandergraph I received for review, partly because I respect the breadth of Shadow Hills' vision, but mostly because it just sounds really, really good. The only problem is that now I want everything in their product line - dammit.
There is no doubt that Groove Tubes understands vacuum tubes. Aspen Pittman, the owner of GT, is one of the most knowledgeable persons you could ever meet when it comes to the subject. As a follow-up...