There's a really strange little song that's been stuck in my head for most of my life - "The Means Are The End" by Noel Paul Stookey (of Peter, Paul and Mary fame). It was released when I was about 5 years old. I assume my dad played it around the house. I have no idea why I remember the lyric, but the second verse says this:
Form follows function
As every architect knows.
What you are is what you do,
And it's what you do that shows.
So this little tune is flying around my head as I sit and play around with this massive gold monolith of a limiter by Fredenstein. This thing looks expensive. Their website claims, "Legendary fully balanced Fairchild 660/670 signal path," and looking inside, there are definitely tubes and transformers. It's heavy. There are great meters on the front panel, as well as a large monochrome LCD display... and one knob - we'll come back to that. Plug-and-power gets you a bit of screen action, and then the LCD asks you to push the one knob to boot the limiter. Yes, I just typed "boot." Welcome to 2012! Kinda.
The first supercool thing (other than the Goldfinger chassis) is that, as the unit warms up, it displays the voltages across the tubes as they power on. Apparently, the innards employ a solid-state section that controls the tube voltages in order to remove the legendary Fairchild penchant for power-supply aberrations that throw the frequency response and threshold control to the winds. This is an exceedingly brilliant approach to what has always been a major weakness in the old units, and I think it's genius.
All the parameters of the F660 are controlled by the one knob. So to tweak the main three controls you find on every Fairchild - Input Gain, Threshold, and Time Constant - you scroll first to Input Gain, press the knob to select, turn the knob to change, press again to accept, scroll to Time Constant, press to accept, turn to change, press to accept, scroll to Threshold, press to accept, turn to change, maybe decide that the Gain needs to come down, press to accept, scroll to Gain, press to accept, turn to set, press to accept, now maybe the Thresh... oh, forget this. This is slow and frustrating. But... it's digital control, right? Hook this baby up to a computer via USB/Ethernet and tweak via a plug-in or control screen right in your session. Vintage tube limiter, instant recall - best of both worlds, right?
Wrong. This feature does not exist!
I'm sure that I'm imagining this, so I check the back. XLR for main I/O and sidechain I/O and two RJ11 telephone jacks for link. Hmm, okay - at least I can link two of these together for stereo operation, and they'll track each other. One set of controls, stereo Fredensteins on the mix bus - should be rad, right? Wait. THE CONTROLS DON'T LINK?!?! Only the sidechain?!?! Why? Whywhywhywhywhy did someone design a digitally-controlled Fairchild clone that, when linked in stereo (and selected as master/slave in the third page of advanced options), doesn't link the controls?
At this point, I'm as frustrated as someone who has one minute to dial up a vocal sound and spends 10 minutes scrolling through parameters one at a time as opposed to doing what I'd normally do with a Fairchild 660, which involves exactly 5 seconds of turning three knobs to all sorts of extremes and finding the sound quickly.
Do you still care how it sounds? You should, because the F660 sounds good. Really good. Rich and thick and expensive. Running a stereo mix through a pair of these sounds great. I used the F660 on multiple vocals, and it gave them that extra doneness. You know, when you're playing with a close-to-final vocal, and everything you put on it makes it sound worse? This makes it sound better. It's the sonic equivalent of taking off your totally fine jacket and slipping on a perfectly broken-in vintage leather jacket that feels like it was made just for you. It's luxurious.
But does it sound better than an actual Fairchild 660? Well, I am fortunate to live less than a mile from the mecca of gear known to the world as Blackbird Studios [Tape Op #82], easily the finest recording studio complex on the planet. I hopped over with the F660 and set it up next to a real Fairchild 660. The staff assistant patched them blind, we aligned the levels, ran a killer Bronze Radio Return vocal (cut by Chad Copelin - thanks Chad!) through both boxes, and had a blind listen. It took 3 seconds for multiple people to pick the easy winner... and it wasn't the Fredenstein.
You didn't really expect it to be, did you? Fairchilds are legendary for a reason. However, if Fredenstein's going to flaunt the "Fairchild 660/670 signal path" and claim to be the "new 'King' of compressors" then they need to be ready for this comparison. Don't misunderstand; the F660 sounds great and has that nice, thick low-mid character. But the impeccably- maintained Fairchild at Blackbird sounded equally thick plus amazingly euphonic in the high-end, and just overall clearer, and... well, better.
Nobody expects a new piece of kit to sound like one so venerated. And I'd hazard a guess that the F660 is probably far more consistent and reliable than the vintage. Plus - no small matter - a stereo pair of Fairchildren is north of $30,000. That's four times the cost of a pair of Fredensteins. And even at $3999 a channel, the F660 is still thousands less than a number of tube-based Fairchild re-creations out there. And, again, the F660 does sound good.
No less a master than Chuck Ainlay told me, "In the midst of mixing an album that was very important to me, I tried the F660s on my 2-mix bus and had to go back and remix all the songs I'd mixed previously." This is a huge compliment. Chuck is an ace, and his taste is impeccable. He also mentioned that Fredenstein's new 500-series modules are really great. I'm sure they are - and thankfully, they have more than one knob.
Let's return to that song - form follows function. Truth is, I'm not going to use this box unless (and until) it has the three main knobs on the front, or computer-based control (with optional ganged stereo for all parameters). Knobs would allow this great-sounding box to function fast, familiar, and fun. Plug-in recall? 21st century, baby. Click-wheel menus? So 2001. I can get an LA-2A, 1176, or even a Distressor rocking in less than 10 seconds. I can't even get started on this thing in double or triple that. Easy is great. Good-sounding is better. Easy and good-sounding is what I want to own. This is one without the other; its form impedes its function, enough to get in the way of the music. If you are considering the Fredenstein F660 for its rich, thick, and expensive sound - and for its relative affordability compared to a vintage Fairchild or other contemporary clones - make sure to demo it first to see if you can live with its frustrating interface.