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Outboard Studio Processors

Eight Excellent Choices on the High End

High-quality outboard processing continues to be a notable part of what defines a professional recording rig, despite the fact that nearly all basic processing tools now reside within even the most affordable (or free) DAW on the market.

Here are eight units that I’ve found incredibly useful: true facility-defining pieces any competitive engineer couldn’t go wrong with in their racks. While there are many more in the marketplace than listed below, these units well represent the range of pro-grade rackmount processing available in this product category. Most importantly, these processors are “evergreen,” unlike most CPU-based plug-ins operating at the mercy of a chosen CPU and DAW, though many are regularly improved via continued firmware updates, where applicable. All prices are what buyers can expect to pay at retail.

Bricasti Model 7 (M7) Digital Reverb Processor

Though reverbs abound within DAWs, there’s arguably no better reverberation source on the market than Bricasti’s Model 7 ($3,695). Designed by former Lexicon personnel, the stereo M7 delivers truly realistic, lush and adjustable reverberant acoustic environments. Built within a rigid 1U chassis, the unit includes 100 factory presets and 100 user registers with Favorites, accessible by the unit’s front panel or optional M10 Remote Console. Its presets use three independently adjustable reverb engines: the first covers early reflections, the second covers late decay tail, and the third handles early reverberation below 80 Hz. Together, they comprise a very realistic acoustic space, yet one completely sculpted by the end user’s taste.

Years ago I worked with Nashville-based engineer Russ Long on a review of the M7, and it remains largely unchanged due to its appeal among top mixing engineers around the world. Russ found it intuitive, diving right in, “only occasionally having to refer to the manual,” he explains. “After several days of use, the first thing I noticed about the M7 is that it doesn’t have an obvious sound of its own, like other reverbs; rather, it puts sound sources in controllable and realistic-sounding spaces.”

Russ also noted its “amazingly real” characteristics. “The parameters can be tweaked from one extreme to another, and the result is always a truthful-sounding space. Other reverbs have a margin of realism, but once a parameter is adjusted in either direction beyond that margin, the result is an artificial-sounding space.”

Even as a predominantly in-the-box mixer, Russ typically digitally loops the M7 into his Pro Tools rig. “While it’s a bit pricey by project studio standards, the M7 is built to last for decades and is a worthwhile investment for any studio, engineer or post-production facility.”

Empirical Labs EL8X Distressor

While compression isn’t exactly an “effect,” legions of Distressor ($1,499) fans depend on the unit for just that. The production effects of using excessive, stylized compression on drums, guitars, vocals and even entire stereo mixes continues to be a signature tool of many engineers, especially those within rock, pop and hip-hop genres.

The digitally controlled analog Distressor utilizes harmonic distortion for flavor and classic knee compression for a wide variety of edgy, attention-getting tonalities. Its second-order harmonics setting adds tube-esque characteristics to the signal, while its third-order harmonics settings closely resemble the sounds of tape saturation.

Today, most tracking facilities have at least one Distressor in their racks, and preferably a pair. I could quote engineers’ ravings about the Distressor into the tens of thousands of words, but I’ll just sum it up like this: if there’s any essential rackmount outboard, it’s the Distressor.

Eventide Eclipse V4 Effects Processor

Eventide has long been a premium source of digital multieffects, and the Eclipse ($1,995) is a most affordable entry into the Eventide world, offering the same effects algorithms as the company’s most expensive Harmonizer processors. The fact that the Eclipse is now on its fourth version and has been available since the turn of the century speaks volumes on its longevity. It not only features Eventide pitch change, reverb and special effects patches, but V4 provides all TimeFactor and ModFactor Stompboxes effects, too—making it an ideal multiprocessing tool for true pros. The fact that all these Eventide algorithms are built within a bullet-proof chassis for even less cost than V1 makes it a no-brainer, in my opinion.

Focusrite Liquid Channel

If you can find an increasingly scarce Liquid Channel ($1,995), it’s a truly unique front-end processing unit packed full of desirable microphone preamps and compressors gleaned by dynamic convolution techniques. It comes complete with 40 classic microphone preamp settings, as well as 40 classic compressors, giving users an out-of-box experience with digital emulation of analog front-end processing. Also included is digital EQ, allowing the unit to be a complete front-end solution for recording and post-recording processing.

Across the board, the Liquid Channel has generally taken end users within 95 percent of the original units it emulates, making it a great processor for those who may lack stacks of often requested (and expensive) outboard microphone preamps and compressors. Used deftly, the client likely won’t even know the real deal wasn’t in the signal chain.

Kush Audio Clariphonic Parallel Equalizer

Kush Audio is becoming a well-recognized source of high-end analog processing goodness, and the 2-channel Clariphonic EQ ($1,599) is an ideal example of the company’s appeal. Built primarily for mastering purposes, the Clariphonic is a unique shelving EQ matrix that lifts both the top and the bottom of any signal’s frequency spectrum. As explained by its inventor, Gregory Scott, it is “artistic and right-brain in nature, to get you to think about sound in terms of textures and colors rather than numbers.”

The Clariphonic provides two “engines” per channel, the Focus Engine and the Clarity Engine. “I call them engines because they work on both ends of the spectrum despite being a single band,” Scott says. “Essentially it’s a dual-channel 2-band EQ that behaves like a 4-band hi/low EQ, with eight available filter shapes per channel, which, because of the switching network, can be configured in 16 possible combinations.” Reported results are a smoothed, lifted and open top end with a tightened, defined low end on whatever the Clariphonic touches.

Lexicon PCM92 Reverb and Effects Processor

The Lexicon LARC has long been the effects user interface found atop large-format consoles, and for good reason: Lexicon has been the go-to source for fine reverbs for decades. Nurtured from the attributes of the PCM81 and PCM91 effects units, the PCM92 ($1,799) offers 28 mono and stereo reverbs, delays and modulations with useful routing features centered on 1,200-plus presets incorporating time-proven classic patches from the Lexicon library. Its Hall, Concert Hall and Random Hall algorithms have reportedly been used on “more than 80 percent of all recorded music,” offers Lexicon promotional materials. Other features include multivoice pitch shift, HiQnet System Architect compatibility, and foot-controlled preset/parameter adjustment for live sound use, and much more.

SPL Transient Designer

Though it’s now available as a plug-in, SPL’s venerable Transient Designer ($699 or $1,299; 2- and 4-channel versions, respectively), whether in its 4-channel or stereo version, remains an invaluable tool to shape the dynamic response of any signal—notably useful on percussive sound sources, acoustic guitars and pianos.

How does it work? Well, the Transient Designer processes dynamic characteristics, emphasizing or smoothing attack and/or extending or shortening sustain times. Its processing is not dictated by signal level, so all material is processed equally, whether loud, soft or somewhere in between. With its simple two-knob user interface per channel—attack and sustain adjustments—the Transient Designer is the tweak-happy kind of outboard processor that you just have to use to understand its appeal. I’ve rarely run drum sound sources through it without receiving something more desirable than what was originally there.

TC Electronic Finalizer 96K

Since the early aughts, I’ve often used some incarnation of TC Electronic’s Finalizer ($2,550 for 96K version) to bring a mastered-like sheen to self-recorded projects. I found the unit in many studios, from project/home facilities to commercial spaces, surely purchased for its easily applied mastering and multiband compression tools best described as “magic” on most modern pop mixes. I’d guess that many of today’s “instant” in-the-box mastering processes (and even those cheap online mastering services) employ a Finalizer or something closely resembling it. Features include 5-band, 24-bit stereo digital EQ for signal shaping; dynamic EQ, stereo adjust, Lexicon’s own Digital Radiance Generator, and spectral stereo image enhancements; real-time Gain Maximizer for normalization; variable slope multiband expander; multiband compression; multiband variable ceiling limiter; a manual or auto-fade tool; and more.

Strother Bullins is Technology Editor for NewBay Media’s AV/Pro Audio Group. [email protected]