The same day the TB12 Tone Beast arrived, I received a long email from Bryce Young, the mother and father of the Warm Audio WA12 mic preamp [Tape Op #91], explaining his new baby. I was busy and only glanced at the email, but when I opened the box and saw that the honking orange, 1RU-height TB12 is festooned with more knobs and buttons than you could shake a snake at, I went back to the email to figure out what I had on hand. The TB12 is basically a WA12 "Plus" - and the WA12 is Bryce's take on the classic API 312. But a lot goes into making the TB12 a whole new Beast.
The left half of the unit's front panel looks pretty much like the WA12's, with the addition of a front mic input and buttons to choose between mic, instrument, and line inputs, as well as a new high-pass filter. Like the WA12, the Tone Beast retains the instrument input on the front panel, and mic and line inputs in back. Also up front is the indented gain knob of the WA12 and the infamous Tone button. But the rest of the front panel is all new stuff.
First, there's a two-position knob for your choice of op-amps: Melcor 1731, same as in the WA12; or the "cleaner" Jensen-style 918. Bryce had tried other op-amps in his prototypes and ultimately settled on these two. But wait - as they say on late-night TV - there's more. These op-amps are standard 6-pins, so you can switch one out for a 2520 or any other op-amp that shares a 6-pin configuration - no soldering necessary.
Second, a Capacitors button switches between electrolytic caps or the same tantalum caps that are used in the WA12. The API 312 didn't use tantalum caps, but Neve did, according to Bryce. He liked their sound and put them in the WA12.
Next in line is another two-position knob, this one to choose between output transformers: the same, custom- wound, steel CineMag found in the WA12; or a new, half-nickel CineMag. The latter provides an extended frequency range, both on top and bottom. And if this isn't enough, how about no transformer? A bypass button removes both transformers from the output, accompanied by a -8 dB drop in signal.
Following the stepped gain knob is the continuous output knob, here called Saturation, and a 6-LED meter, which ranges from power-on at the bottom to a skull-and-crossbones at top to signify overdrive (which I surmised from use).
This first TB12 I received was actually a preproduction unit that Bryce was using to test op-amps, but right before the deadline for this review, Bryce sent me a production unit, which I was able to use to double-check all of my impressions. More on that later.
There are plenty of knobs and buttons, but how does the Tone Beast sound? Well, with a $100 ribbon mic I was also testing, the electric guitar signal through the TB12 sounded like... an electric guitar. Even though the guitar amp was in a small, well-damped room, the guitar sounded very much alive in the recordings. In fact, it sounded outstanding, with no apology needed for the cheap mic. The two guitar tracks that were recorded slid like finished product into a slow, heavy version of "This Is Love" by PJ Harvey. The WA12 is perfect for such guitars, and the Tone Beast matched the sound of the WA12 I have at home.
At The Kitchen Studios in Dallas, I ran a series of more "scientific" tests. Studio head John Painter played while we went through the Tone Beast's buttons and knobs sequentially. First, a tame DI'd bass. Huh? We couldn't hear much difference between any of the settings. Something was different when switching output transformers, but we were tilting our heads, bird-like, trying to convince ourselves. Then we switched to acoustic guitar and discovered that driving the unit hard makes it easier to hear the different circuit choices. Duh. When we cranked up both Gain and Saturation, we got distortion - nice analog distortion. Backing off the knobs gave us more guitar and variable saturation instead of distortion. Now the transformer choices were clear. The Nickel setting provided extended range as advertised, while the Steel felt... smoother. We could also hear the tantalum capacitors working when switched in. When we moved on to a classic electric guitar setup - a Shure SM57 on a Marshall - these variables became even more pronounced. The more complex the input, the easier it was to hear the transformer and capacitor variances. However, we still couldn't hear any real difference between the op-amps. Bryce wrote back that my preproduction unit had a 2520 op-amp, not the 918, which explained why he decided on using the 918 in production models. Even with the 2520, the clean setting sans tantalum caps and output transformer gives a more "modern" sound than the WA12 does. Once I received the production TB12, the 918 sounded even cleaner, working well with acoustic guitar and brighter material, adding one more variable to the equation.
That being said, there isn't a night and day difference between all of these settings. John and I were listening in a tuned room to big ADAMs cranked up. Still, I could hear the same thing at home in a less ideal environment; so however subtle, it is real. Such sonic texturing helps separate out tracks when mixing and results in a song with more depth to it, like varnish bringing out the fine grain in good wood.
The Tone Beast also did an admirable job warming up mono soft synths, where the gain structure and circuitry options of the TB12 let me fine tune the saturation, providing an analog patina. It's equally as powerful as a mix bus processor; and the balanced, dual-line outputs, as well as inserts, mean you can hook up a mean channel strip or two, with or without a patchbay.
Moreover, not only does the Tone Beast sound right, ergonomically everything about it feels right too. The metering might be basic, but the rest of the unit's controls will be appreciated by engineers. Instrument and mic inputs on the front for easy access; I/O for permanent routing on the back. Plenty of clearance between the knobs and buttons for even generously-wide fingers. Plus, it's easy as pie to switch out op-amps if you are into that.
About the only flaw I can find in the TB12 Tone Beast is the surfeit of choices; if you are into tone-shaping, it is way too easy to burn up time getting the sound just right. But I say that like it is a bad thing. ($599.99 street; www.warmaudio.com)