Dave Raphael is one of the smartest guys I know. He's a terrific recording engineer, a great photographer, a technically-knowledgeable individual, and he has absolutely astounding ears, so when he told me several years ago that he and Jens Jungkurth were working on building an equalizer, I was curious about it. Over that period of time, the project evolved into the Awesome Transistor Amplifier Company (AwTAC) Awesome Channel Amplifier, a discrete, hand-wired, double-wide 500-series mic preamp, line amp, DI, and EQ with a mix bus and several other unique features. AwTAC took three production models to preview at the 2011 Fall AES show and then sent them to me. I've been the first person outside of the company to use them in a professional recording capacity, and they've been in use in some form or fashion on almost every single session I've done over the past year. According to the AwTAC website, "When you call two and a half years of development on a product 'Awesome Channel Amplifier,' it had better be just that." I concur.
The AwTAC Channel Amplifier is a heavy piece of machinery. It's built solidly in New York City of almost entirely US- sourced high-quality parts, some of which have been specifically manufactured for AwTAC. The front panel artwork looks quite serious, with a unique design that's been anodized into the metal (not silk-screened), so it should stand up to "a short eternity of human finger rubbing," and the macho, custom turned knobs round out the unit's solid appearance. Taken care of properly, these things will likely outlast their original owners.
The sonic and working aesthetic of the Channel Amplifier is clearly based on recording technology of the early 1970s. Audio in the unit passes through between three and seven discrete amplifiers (depending on what's engaged), two transformers, and an inductor. Each audio stage is individually designed to complement what comes before and after it, and each one sounds large and expansive. Simply engaging the EQ (set flat) sends the signal through three additional amplifiers, increasing the tonal "color" options. This is essentially how complete consoles from that era operated - with each stage designed as an individual component but meant to work within an entire "system." When people say that an individual API 312 module doesn't sound the same as it did in an original console, this is usually why.
Although there is certainly a general '70s vibe to the unit, the Channel Amplifier is pretty much unlike anything else I've ever used from that period or otherwise. It can have an aggressive, API-like character and frequency response that's useful on anything, but without the hard-sounding midrange. When driven with more gain, the fuzzy "out- front" character is somewhat similar to a Langevin AM16 [Tape Op #33] (especially with the Image switch set to Forward - more on that in a minute), but the accentuated harmonic content and apparent compression seem similar to a Telefunken V72 to me (especially on distorted electric guitar amps). The inductor-based midrange band on the EQ reminds me of the "large" size that you get from plugging into a Sphere EQ, while the high-frequency band seems to be reminiscent of many of the classic British equalizers of the period. Boost the bottom, and you start wandering into vintage Neve territory, but boost while engaging the gentle high-pass filter, and the bottom clears up in a really nicely- controlled way, allowing for an astounding array of low- frequency tone-shaping possibilities.
As a standalone amplifier, the unit sounds great. The twelve- position input-gain knob is marked with line-level unity at 12 noon, and it switches from line to mic amp at 4 o'clock. An output transformer loading switch allows for additional tonal options that are varying degrees of different and/or noticeable, depending on the source material. The line amp on the unit is a really nice surprise and sounds fantastic when used as the sole amplifier on most high-output microphones. I've been using the line amp on different instruments in a mix with great results, too. Soon after I received the units, I sent a direct bass signal through one of them with the line amp running "right at the edge" of breaking up, and the result was amazing. The recorded DI signal sounded as if I'd used a mic on an amp and a bass with extremely articulate and much newer strings. There was a "shimmery" clarity that the bass had been lacking,
and the Channel Amplifier helped situate the bass perfectly in this "big rock mix" without using any drastic EQ or outboard compression. The Channel Amplifier's mic preamp has a semi- aggressive character that, when run hot, accentuates harmonic complexities. For me, this translates into musicality, much the way that symphonic percussionists are taught to accentuate harmonics with triangle playing technique. I find it tempting to run the mic preamp right at the edge at all times, but the large- ish steps in the gain range make it so that one little surprise in level can overdrive the units easily. The EQ circuit is also highly interactive in the series of gain stages in the unit, so it's a good idea to reassess the AwTAC's other levels while applying EQ (which is usually a good idea under any circumstances). It's a great-sounding distortion too, but one that might make you think twice about being cavalier with gain.
The three-band EQ is a unique beast. Features-wise, it utilizes a Baxandall-type high and low shelf with three available frequencies each, and an inductor-based mid band with ten available frequency- selection points. Sonically, the additional amplifier stages open up the Channel Amplifier in a different way. The guys at AwTAC spent a great deal of time experimenting with the EQ during the design and testing process, until they found a collection of frequencies they thought sounded really terrific. Several months went by before they ever bothered to measure what those frequencies were. (In fact, they originally considered marking the front panel with a series of cryptic symbols for each frequency.) So, the way the EQ works is based completely and totally, 100% on "sound" - and nothing else. As a result, the AwTAC features two 1 kHz and two 3 kHz points on the mid band, each labeled as "wide" and "narrow." Generally speaking, the bands on these frequencies are all fairly wide. This is not intended to be a surgical-type equalizer at all, but it makes for an extremely effective tone-shaping tool. It's worth noting that these EQs were meant to be boosted or cut to their full potential, and turning any of those knobs pretty much all the way in either direction works well without falling apart sonically. It just sounds good. I also have no idea how they were able to get such a smooth and completely useful musical sound out of the 1 kHz selection. I'm generally frightened to death of 1k, but have found myself frequently recording tracks with the Channel Amplifier's wide 1k boosted by a considerable amount. It does something that no other equalizer I've ever used has been capable of doing in that range. With the uniqueness of the boost and cut shapes (which are different) and the overlapping bands, two Channel Amplifiers equalizing a source in series is just CRAZY.
Totally unique to the Channel Amplifier is the addition of an Image switch in the EQ circuit. This magic little switch provides additional sonic choice to the general tone of the EQ. The options are a full-range, pleasant sound that sits nicely within a mix, or a slightly more assertive sound that helps the signal "jump" to the front. In practice, one might record basic rhythm guitar tracks with Image set to Back, and then cut solos and single note lines with the switch set to Forward. At this point, the quieter single-note stuff steps out from the other guitar sounds without making any changes to guitar, amp, mic, preamp, or EQ settings. Cut lead vocals with the switch in Forward, background vocals with it Back. Make kick and snare drums jump out from the rest of the drum kit. This is a subtle but extremely useful and completely unique feature of the Awesome EQ.
As a fan of recording air movement, I don't use DIs all that often, but on occasion, circumstances require me to do so. The front-panel DI on the Channel Amplifier sounds fantastic on all the usual sources - bass guitar, keyboards, drum machines, etc. At the suggestion of the AwTAC website, I decided to make my first foray into direct pedal steel recording when one of my favorite musicians, Bob Barone, came to Old House Studio to play on a project. I decided to record pedal steel in the control room via the Channel Amplifier's DI with the idea of being able to re-amp the steel if I wasn't completely satisfied with the tone. I was shocked and amazed to hear how well the Awesome DI performed in this instance, and it just might have made me a convert to this pedal steel overdubbing method.
Also unique to the Channel Amplifier is a left/center/right-switchable passive mix bus. This allows for chaining several Awesomes together in a rack or in a console to allow for bussing of signals using simple XLR cables and a special splitter cable (supplied by AwTAC) at the end of the passive signal path. With something as simple as a pair of units, two mics can be summed to a single track. With several units, they can be used as a very good sounding summing system. Since it's a passive summing system, you can plug the output of the last unit into your choice of mic preamp (an API is my favorite pairing with the AwTAC so far) for a variety of makeup-gain options. The mix bus alone has an amazingly immense sound to it. I used the Channel Amplifiers for some tonal shaping of a live 2-track editing project for a client, and just for kicks, I decided to hear how the fairly narrow- sounding recording would fare through the Channel Amplifier's mix bus. Sending a stereo signal through the mix bus makes what comes out the other end noticeably wider and bigger-sounding, but without any phase silliness. The end result was a big improvement that far surpassed my expectations. It's frightening to think of what an entire console made of Awesome would sound like.
For whatever its worth, I was able to compare the sound of the AwTACs in three different 500- series racks: a Brent Averill lunchbox, an 11-space Old School Audio rack, and a Purple Audio Sweet Ten. While the Sweet Ten sounded best to my ears, the AwTAC sounded amazing in all three racks, and it doesn't seem like there are any issues with current draw in any normal 500-series racks, even with a completely full rack. (The Purple and OSA racks had no issue powering four Channel Amplifiers and two Buzz Elixir preamps [Tape Op #65], which draw a lot of current.)
I am completely and totally in love with the AwTAC Channel Amplifiers. I currently have two in my personal collection and am trying to figure out how to pull off buying at least two more. They stack up every bit as well as, if not better than, the other preamps and EQs I have at my disposal, which includes a large variety of all the usual suspects. With initial factory-direct pricing of $1599, the AwTACs are a steal. Pairing any other great high-quality mic preamp and equalizer in a 500- series format is likely to cost more than that - without supplying any of the Channel Amplifier's completely unique and useful features. I'm glad AwTAC is offering a piece of equipment like this in an age of questionable quality and longevity. ($1599 direct; www.awtac.com)
-Chris Garges <www.chrisgarges.com>