Sunday, July 31, 2011

SPL Kultube (Cunt-Tube) Review

I’m back beeetches! With a load of new toys in the toybox and my ever so interesting opinions about them…

To start with, the most expensive and ever so elite new box in my filthy little living room, my SPL Kultube.

Simply to get this off my chest and explain the picture, at first I thought the name was pronounced similar to ‘kull-tube’ (turns out it is pronounced like ‘cool-tube’, which is kind of lame imho…). I’m phonetically retarded. In in my heart of hearts I still think ‘Lube’ ought to rhyme with ‘Moog’, but do my best to do the ‘Vogue’ pronunciation at social events so as to not look like an ignorant ass. Anyway, the first friend I talked to about this unit was Thai. For Thai’s (though, I’m no expert), “L” sounds are sometimes interchangeable with “N”, so via a combination of that and my mispronunciation, it became something more like “Cunt-Tube”. I like it, and henceforth I will refer to this baby as my Cunt-Tube for the remainder of this review. How can you resist phrases like “the Cunt’s hot sticky tube adds an extra layer of thick cream to the mix’? Now that I have thoroughly made sure SPL won’t be linking to this, maybe Metasonix will give me a PR job.

I bought this unit as a last minute addition to final production stages of “This World Erase”. We already had a TLAudio Ivory Parametric Eq (an analogue tube eq, which I will review later), and Pete and I had been talking about the extra weight and grain pushing the tubes in it was adding. We came to the conclusion it would be worth running the most important parts of each track through it, not for the EQ, but simply to get that tube sound. Since the tracks were more or less finished and Eq-ing wasn’t especially needed, we started to think more along the lines of adding that extra magic to the overall mixes, and hence the, the Cunt-Tube concept was born.

For the sake of the lowdown, this is a stereo (two channel, but with only one set of permanently linked controls) analogue compressor with a variable tube drive stage for each channel as the final step of the unit. As you would expect, there is a threshold knob, a ratio knob, an attack knob, a release knob, a makeup gain knob, and tube drive knob. There is also the choice between hard and soft knee compression and a side-chain input. Bored yet? The average compressor parts are just as you would expect. The also behave exactly as you would expect, so those parts of the box don’t need to be described.

I think the only worthwhile point to make here is that it does all normal compression-ish things in an exceptionally clean and unobtrusive way. This isn’t what I would call a ‘character’ compressor. The man I bought it through tried explaining to me some kind of electrical engineering voodoo witchcraft along the lines of the voltage levels within system running exceptionally high, hence the cleanliness, and also some kind of revolutionary Deathstar based gain cell VCA thingy (why can’t electrical engineers get through their thick foreheads that we do not understand what they are talking about, nor do we care for the ‘why’ of why something sounds good). While you can certainly mangle highly transient sounds with extreme settings, for the most part the beauty of it is that you can get quite extreme compression, and therefore headroom and extra volume, without the material actually sounding compressed. That could be good or bad, depending on what you want and how you intend to use it. If you are after an extreme bitch-slapping compression effect that will turn you pussy little MicroKorg bassline into jack-hammering neighbour-molesting monster, this is not really the one for you. This is good for something completely different, and a clue is in a quirky little function SPL have called “Progressive Time Control”.

“PTC” is SPL’s fancy way of saying you have an automated attack/release time function. This is hardly new in compressors, but in case you haven’t come across it before, this is when you relinquish manual control over the attack and release time and instead free up the compressor to continually adjust the times according to the input signal through whatever voodoo witchcraft AI the thick foreheaded engineers blessed it with. This kind of function is best suited to dealing with summed material, like running all your percussive sounds into one sub-group and compressing it all together. The special thing about the Cunt-Tube is that rather than just rolling over like a bitch and handing over your free-will to a machine, you are met half way. When Progressive Time Control is active, the attack and release knobs take on completely new functions. The manual does a terrible job of explaining what exactly is happening and I won’t pretend to understand it. From what my ears tell me, the attack and release knobs influence how the automated times react to the input signal. Musically, it is almost like you can control the overall ‘thickness’ and ‘punch’ of the summed material in a artistically pleasing way, and I believe this is the only box on the market offering this kind of control.

There is your clue as to where my Cunt-Tube earns her place at the dinner table… as the broadband compressor you NEED when processing summed layers. In this context you can actually appreciate the cleanliness and unobtrusive style. You can get detailed dynamic control and even massive amounts of gain reduction without screwing up your mix or making it sound too messy, distorted or obviously compressed. It is also where the PTC function bears fruit. If you were processing you a single layer, chances are you will be happy with static attack and release times, and in this regard the Cunt-Tube takes care of business in the high-end way you would expect with its nasty price-tag. However, when it comes to compressing sub-groups or complete mixes with inherently variable transients, automated attack and release times make a lot more sense. Automated attack and release times with the additional control given by the PTC is just the creamy icing on the cake. This is probably why you see more of these units sitting in mastering labs than any other place, because it is at that side of the production business that it is in a league of its own.

Enough with the pleasantries, it is time to get my bitch on, though I have very complaints about this one.

First of all, the left and right channels run through separate tubes. This might not sound like a problem, but the beauty of tubes is also their downfall. Tubes are inherently unstable, non-linear, bi-polar, self-harming bitches with daddy issues. This means no two tubes are going to behave in exactly the same way, especially when combined with room temperature, direction of the wind or which side the tube got out of bed that morning. In a practical sense, if you run a mono sound into it, crank up the tube harmonics, the left and right channel outputs don’t react in exactly the same way. The most obvious misbehavior is that the left and right output volume becomes unbalanced. Worse, they don’t even behave unbalanced in a consistent way, with the lean to left or right changing depending on the frequency content of the material. It isn’t a major issue. It isn’t audible, and I only noticed because of the anally accurate digital VU meters back in the DAW. Fortunately, I have another unit in the chain with separate right and left level controls to compensate with. Having separate tube drive controls for each channel on the Cunt-Tube could have avoided the problem completely, and since this experience I have developed an inherent distrust of any stereo analogue gear with a single set of controls.

Second, all the pots on the unit feel gorgeously smooth and solid, except for the tube harmonics pot which is dented in small increments for no apparent reason. I would say it has the nicest pots I have ever had the pleasure to twiddle, except for this damn dented pot screwing up the experience. Seriously, I FUCKING HATE DENTED POTS. Dented pots are for clumsy brain-damaged autistic monkeys with limited fine motor skills.

Finally, in regards to compression in general. Before getting my Cunt-Tube, I was adamantly anti-compression. There are two ways two think of compression. One is that you are doing it to make things big and loud, and the world’s best scientists (radio Djs) have proven that subjectively loud music is better received by the unwashed masses than subjectively quiet music. The other is to think of it as a tool that reduces material with too much dynamic individuality into something more socially acceptable with the rest of your mixes conservative social dynamic. Both schools of thought are kind of fucked. Big and loud? Steroid freak football loving gym going jarhead jocks are ‘big and loud’. Socially acceptable? leave that to the nine-to-five suit-and-tie wearing cocksuckers. I would like my sounds to be a little different…

However, I have since learned many a life-lesson. The first is that if you are not big and loud, you tend to be ignored. Forget that blessed are the meek thing you mum told you. Perhaps the meek will inherit the earth, but only after they get out their lunchbox and go columbine style on the rest of us, ie., after they get awfully loud. The second is, to quote Patrick Bateman “…the pleasures of conformity…”, or perhaps better thought of as, the displeasures of non-conformity. Everyone uses compression, and your music will be perceived as weak or badly produced in comparison if you avoid it, so you had better conform to the status quo. I still hold on to my anti-compression ideals in theory, just like I still wish I didn’t have to wear a suit and tie at work. However, the reality is I need money for food and rent, and I need compression to be sonically competitive. If I am going to give up on my ideals, I’m not going to do a half assed job of it. I could have just fired up my old software compressors, but instead I went for top of the market. Just like I could just go for a mundane office job, but instead became an eager-beaver diehard company man that I am.

My final thought is about walking the path of investing a lot of money in professional audio processing equipment. I’m sure a lot of people would love to own something like this unit because when you hear something like “analogue stereo tube compressor”, it is thoughts of that elusive 3% magic touch that come to mind. However, please take a moment to think about who actually uses this kind of equipment and what it really sounds like. Pop music is produced by excellent engineers using excellent equipment, and chances are you don’t like pop music, otherwise you wouldn’t be on this blog. This compressor sounds professional and expensive; the question is whether that is necessarily a good thing.

To make the point, the first job I used mine for was to process the vocals for “This World Erase”. We did two things vocals. The first was processing the dry vocals with the Cunt-Tube and eq. the second was to add subtle wet FX layers using various units and plugins.

I was an excited little man. I ran the Cunt-Tube hard with plenty of both compression and tube harmonics for the dry layers. For the wet vocals I mostly used a set of very old cracked digital plugins (which will remain nameless, as they are a ninja secret) and then messed them up completely with a Sherman Filterbank. The word I got back from Pete (the man of the vocals for those who somehow found this page without knowing Shiv-r) was surprising…

The wet vocals fit in perfectly, the Cunt-Tube layers did not. The Sherman processed layers added a creepy edge to the vocal sound, which is exactly what we wanted. However, the dry Cunt-Tubed layers were sounding too polished and too pop. In the end, we actually decided to roll back on the compression and tube distortion to make the sound a little less “Hollywood”. To our ears, a more obscure, boutique and cheaper box was giving us better results than more famous and significantly more expensive box. The concept behind Shiv-r is that it should sound raw and violent, not polished and pop. The Cunt-Tube was actually taking away something from how we wanted the music to sound.

I still think, even after reducing the level of processing, the Cunt-Tube still added something special to the vocals that we could not have found with your average digital compressor. Other musical layers on the album had a much heavier hand when running through the compressor, and the results were great. However, it still illustrates the point. If you using the same equipment as top 40 pop acts, that is the kind of sound you will get, and that isn’t necessarily the right choice.