Once in a great while you come across a piece of gear that challenges not only your experience with its main function, but also its user interface design. The Kush Tweaker is such, taking liberties in both how it delivers compression, but also how you set the various buttons and pots to get there.
It’s a single-channel/rackspace hardware compressor that brings a lot to the table. The input stage, sidechain, release and ratio/knee are all dressed up in new clothes, allowing you to shape the output in many different ways. I had a pair for this review that I was able to use on many different sessions and applications with varying degrees of success and pleasure. Fit, finish and electronics are top-notch with solid, detented rotaries (a must on this unit), and bright LEDs and switches that you can bet will last.
The best way to learn the Tweaker is to forget about anything else you know about setting up a compressor. That sounds ridiculous, but if you start with a fresh mind and no expectations, or at least try, you’ll save yourself hours of frustration. This is because nothing is as it seems. For example, the manual states: “It is critically important to understand that the Output control does not adjust the overall output level of the compressor.” Instead, Output controls the amount of wet signal being fed to the Mix knob, which sets the wet/dry balance. From there, Mix and Output work together in a seesaw relationship, providing the only way to adjust overall output. Throughout my time with the unit, I found myself wishing for one more knob at the end of the signal flow for adjusting level.
Much like Empirical Labs Fatso Jr. or Doc Derr, the Tweaker can be used as a saturator/warmer without having the compressor active. I achieved this by setting the Sidechain control to XLR Insert (with nothing patched to the insert), which negates the compressor. Then, by boosting the drive and playing with the Mix v. Output controls, I was able to blend varying levels of VCA grease (distortion) to the signal at varying output levels. Fun and useful for sure.
The Sidechain section is my favorite part of the Tweaker and is like nothing I’ve seen elsewhere. Threshold is as you would expect; no surprises there. Hard left sets the threshold to the dB roof (less compression), while hard right brings it to the basement (more compression). The sidechain control has six positions; XLR-Insert ports any OB gear patched at the back into the detector. The onboard sidechain is so powerful I don’t know why you’d want to use this feature.
Next is Edge Contouring, which engages a dual-shelving EQ, one low and one high, which move in opposition to one another. As one goes up, the other goes down. Moving left gives you more low-end compression and the opposite happens when the control is moved to the right. Treble Smash reduces the top end of any signal. I used this to tame an annoying tambourine that needed to be smoothed and set down in the mix. The next two stops are more standard settings putting either a 300Hz or 60Hz HPF across the signal. I successfully used this for removing plosives on a lead vocal. Last on the dial is Flat, which bypasses the sidechain features completely.
The meters are novel, with input and output feedback offered by a range of LEDs arranged in a circle, while gain reduction is displayed by six vertical LEDs right up the middle. While I can see these being useful in this array, I found myself not using them after a while. Input and output fill up too fast for my taste, and there is no reference to anything in the outside world (aka dB). I understand this is by design but I found my ear to be a better guide of what’s going on than the meters.
My opinion of the meters was cemented when I strapped two Tweakers together using a TRS cable and put them across a stereo bus I was using for parallel drum compression. The Tweaker’s meters showed absolutely even I/O level and reduction across both units, which was not apparent to my ears or proved by the console’s analog meters. By the way, the Tweaker sounded excellent in this application. I was able to almost infinitely change the flavor of the parallel crush by using the Sidechain, Threshold and Mix functions along with the Attack, Release and Dual v. Fast buttons.
The last section is Attack, Release and Curve. Attack ranges from 20 microseconds to 70 milliseconds, allowing you to top off the most aggressive transient or to open the door wide and let even the longest attack through. The Release control is dependent on the Fast v. Dual button just above. With the button down, the release is linear, while the Dual mode introduces a second release stage at one-tenth the speed of the first. The first half of the gain reduction is released quickly while the second half is let go more slowly, emulating an LA-2A’s release behavior. Curve offers control over ratio and knee at the same time. All the way left is 2:1 at a soft knee, with the ratio and knee increasing to 30:1 and hard at the right-most setting.
How It Works
To fully understand the Tweaker, it’s important to grasp how the VCA applies compression and distortion to the signal at the same time. This is helpful when dealing with high-transient material that you wish to add some grit to, without it sounding so. For example, you can drive a snare hard into the Tweaker to the point where it’s lightly breaking up, then by adding a touch of compression, you can reduce the grit at the peak while still maintaining thickness. I found this useful when compressing a strong male vocalist who had a habit of riding the mic close when he sang hard. By setting up the Tweaker in the way described above, the distortion became less apparent as the compression was applied. This is a great feature that caused me to think differently about how I applied compression to more dynamic material.
After a month with my review Tweakers, I was able to meet up with Gregory Scott at a trade show where I saw him quickly go through a range of setups like no one but the creator could muster. Before meeting Gregory, I’d been frustrated by the manual and controls. Just watching him take the Tweaker through its paces helped put it into perspective.
The Kush Tweaker is a piece of gear you will grow into. It offers new and nontraditional approaches to adjusting many of the usual compression parameters you’re used to. This is all good. Any gripes I have about the Tweaker are minor. I didn’t find the meters to be useful at all and gave up on them after a time. The manual meanders between self-congratulation, Truth v. Hype, and unnecessary Tweaker back story, where it should spend more time schooling users on how to get what you want out of the Tweaker. But not to worry, Tweaker creator Gregory Scott does an excellent job at this in his Vimeo videos and downloadable presets on the Kush website.
While the Tweaker can sound like some other compressors, it is not an emulator—even the manual cops to the fact that the Tweaker clones behavior more than tone. I found the tone to be useful over a range of applications, including electric guitar, dynamic vocals, parallel drum crush and percussion. Because most controls have a relationship with others, or a function not readily apparent in the name (Edge Contour, Dual), expect to spend some time getting to know the Tweaker. If you buy one, bring lunch; this one will keep you occupied for hours, in a good way.
Kevin Becka is Mix’s technical editor
PROS: Versatile, groundbreaking, and great-sounding personality compressor and saturator.
CONS: Steep learning curve, poor documentation.
Set the Tweaker’s sidechain control to Flat and play with the Drive v. Mix v. Output controls. These three give you the ability to add gritty distortion to any signal. After you have this set, engage the compressor’s sidechain using any of the four other functions like Treble Smash, Edge Contour and more.