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June 2017 Giveaway

Empirical Labs Fatso Jr. Review

...this unit provides master quality compression and analog tape simulation that can tame the chiliest digital sounds.

I love analog sound. I’m a guitar player, and I love all those old grungy-sounding pedals. I love the whallop of John Bonham’s kick drum fed through tube recording equipment. I love the “give” of analog tape when you hit it hard with a signal and it saturates with warm, smooth mids and rich low end. Any time I hear a good analog recording come on the radio, I turn it up to enjoy that sound even if I don’t particularly like the song (and yes, my wife thinks I’m crazy!)

I don’t like that modern “spikey” sound that is the trademark of digital recording equipment. I do, however, love the flexibility of digital recording systems, and I acknowledge that they are here to stay. And no matter what anybody tells you, defragmenting a hard drive and dealing with the occasional Mac crash is a lot less time consuming and frustrating than calibrating a 24 track analog tape machine or a Dolby encoding/decoding system. However, I have yet to hear a digital system that sounds particularly musical out of the box.

Enter the Fatso – this unit provides master quality compression and analog tape simulation that can tame the chiliest digital sounds. No, it’s not cheap, but in terms of relative value it’s one of the best buys out there today. If it only did the analog tape compression/saturation thing it would be worth the price, but this unit is really more like a pro “Swiss Army knife” compressor that’s actually good at everything it does.

The Fatso is all about subtlety. It probably won’t blow you away on first listen; you have to spend some time with it, tune your ears with A/B tests, etc. Repeated use draws your attention away from “where’s the wow factor?” and towards an appreciation of the smoothing out of the mids & highs. Most importantly, the warming effect is logorithmic (and you can hear this), so it’s not the same thing as simply cutting highs with EQ. Also (and this is really really important), the compressor presets are absolutely killer; 1176, 160, and bus/general program compression all sound phenomenal – definitely not afterthoughts even though the manufacturer kind of markets
it as such.

Intuitive, simple controls cater to the preferences of those who dislike complex programming schemes and steep learning curves (e.g. to make it sound good, fiddle with the knobs until it sounds good!). Deeper level control is possible, though, for those who want to experiment with tweaky stuff. The user interface is designed to steer you away from extreme settings; this helps to avoid allowing the unit to “run away” with you and commiting to a mix that you’ll regret in two weeks.

And, because the processor can be strapped across the stereo bus, monitoring of analog warmth is possible in real time! This wasn’t even possible with analog tape systems where tape saturation could only be monitored on playback; having dedicated hardware alleviates taxing DSP power in a computer with analog warmth plug-ins. With a patchbay, the Fatso can quickly and easily be routed to any number of stereo destinations (monitoring, mixdown, mastering, etc.)

I took the Fatso home for a week and used it both as a tracking compressor and strapped across a stereo mix. For tracking direct bass, I don’t think I’ve ever heard a better bass sound; the notes “spread out” and, more importantly, I could feel the unit doing this as I played. This was incredibly inspiring and expressive, and I instantly felt myself adjusting my technique to produce a better overall tone (not bad for a guitarist who plays only passable bass!) Here is where an entry-level compressor would never do in a pro environment; the performer doesn’t need to feel themselves fighting to regain dynamic control or they’ll quickly become frustrated, and their performance will suffer as a result. I’ve experienced this myself, and while inexpensive compressors can be handy in a wide variety of situations, the Fatso is in a whole different league. And this was just with a preset compression setting! I didn’t have to do any tweaking save input gain.

I also used the Fatso to try to “rescue” one of my favorite recordings that was unfortunately tracked, mixed, and mastered all-digitally before the technology was truly ready for professional sound quality – George Michael’s “Freedom 90”. Great song, great arrangement, great talent, but the mix sounds harsh and thin. I warmed up the signal with some input gain and “saturation” controls, then engaged the “tranny” (tape head/transformer emulation) for that warm low end. No, it didn’t make the recording sound like Boston, but that wasn’t a realistic goal given the difference in tracking methodologies; I wanted to preserve the clarity and “air” of the original digital signal while adding a midrange smoothness and low end warmth that allows you to listen to a recording significantly louder without ear fatigue. The Fatso delivered with no more than fifteen minutes of tweaking; after an hour or so of A/B-ing, the unprocessed mix sounded pretty good, but then I kicked in the Fatso and thought, “Whoa!” – the difference was pretty astounding (this is what I was talking about above; the unit is designed to stay subtle so you don’t overdo it while you’re frying your ears on multiple A/B’s).

I burned a mix to CD, popped in my car stereo, and drove around Fort Wayne for an hour enjoying a recording that I have always liked as it should be heard.

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