Ok so lately on the production blog we have been sharing some thoughts on some super useful bits of kit we use and we have decided to make it official and launch a Reviews section on the site which I will be adding too regularly from now onwards. These wont be your ordinary reviews but often a more in depth and sometimes wider ranging look at some company’s and bits of kit that we think you would love as much as we do. Sharing some ways to use them and tips and techniques as always. So we kick off the new review sections official launch with this look into UAD-2, and there Fairchild Compressor model mk2. So what’s it all about? Read on.
A Brief History
Universal Audio was originally founded in 1958 by Bill Putnam Sr., a man who had set up three separate companies of note:Universal Audio, Studio Electronics, and UREI. Each of these companies were mega successful in their own right and responsible for producing some legendary equipment. The new incarnation of Universal Audio was re-founded in 1999 by Bill’s sons, James Putnam and Bill Putnam Jr., with two main goals: to faithfully reproduce classic analogue recording equipment in the tradition of their father, and to design new digital recording tools with the sound and in the spirit of vintage analogue technology. This was an interesting proposition back in 1999, a noble goal, and one that was going to take some time and technological advancement for them to achieve. This is why in this article we are taking a look at one of their very latest plugins – the Fairchild compressor collection – mk-2.
What is the UAD system?
The UAD system has been around for a long time. Originally, when CPU power was the most restricting element in a DAW, they offered you a load of extra DSP processing to enable you to get your projects finished. No longer did you have to skimp on what was effected or have to pass on using your favourite reverb on things. This was a godsend in the professional market, backed up by the quality of the plug-ins on the system being up there with the best if not better than the rest and for a long long time. This really allowed Universal Audio to establish a strong market and loyal customer base for the UAD system.
UAD is a system based on a PCI card or Firewire box filled with a load (1-8) of SHARC DSP chips. When it comes to using UAD in your DAW they act just like standard VST or AU plug-ins. You get all the benefits of that system without any hit on your CPU as all the processing is done on the card. It’s a neat little system and has been popular over the years despite the fact that with the investment on the card and the cost of the plug-ins it can be quite pricey. Despite this premium it has proved most definitely worth the outlay for professionals who want the best in the box experience. That said – does that still stand up today when cpu power is abundant?
There are some amazing native plug-ins now and everyone is really pushing ahead in the engineering and sonic quality of plug-ins. Alongside that you have the incredible power of the CPU in most computers now making it so there are longer really any restrictions except in the most demanding mix downs.
So does UAD still make sense? Well, yes, but not in the way it originally did! One thing UAD have done over the years is continue to work on their analogue emulation adding more and more quality and expertise into the sound of their plug-ins. The net effect of UADs evolution is to have the net effect of changing the UAD proposition as far as I see it – now the plug-ins are better than 99% of the stuff out there and with their Mk2 plug-in collections coming out you have some of the most analogue sounding plug-ins available in the market today.
Universal Audio have a great history when it comes to great sounding equipment and we are now starting to see that come through in an authentic manner with the latest UAD plug-ins. So there is still life in the UAD system concept and in some ways even more reason to be interested in UADs system if your interested in the sound more than the convenience.
Universal Audio’s History of Analogue
Before we look at the Fairchild plug-in let’s have a look at the Universal Audio history with the hardware equipment in their earlier years. Pretty early on we have the tube based 610 Console, this thing was a beast. Fantastic sounding board and one of the first “modern” recording consoles! Mr Putnam Sr. was behind quite a few useful innovations in his time. In the latest software update to the UAD platform they have actually released their own recreation of its pre-amps – something I think will be worth taking a look at in the future.
Another innovation, and probably for me the most notable entry in Universal Audios history of gear is the 1176 compressor. Based on a FET circuit this was one of the first compressors that started to use solid state internals as opposed to tubes. So along with the change in sound you got changes in possible operation. This was a pretty big deal amongst engineers at the time, boasting “true peak limiter with all-transistor circuitry and superior performance on all types of program material”. After years and years in service on many hit records it shows the company pedigree for getting the sonics of the designs right.
Universal Audio went through various iterations of this unit each improving on and offering slightly different functionality. As years went by they became must-haves for most recording engineers because they sounded great, got the job done and had the most flexibility.
A plug-in Mk2 of the 1176 is also on the UAD platform, but we will look at that another time. As you can see from this history, this company has great tradition and expertise in creating great sounding equipment, repeatedly making useful units that stand the test of time. Does that expertise translate over into the software plug-in world? Emulating the Fairchild which is a bit of Tube based equipment is quite a tough job. The non-linearities and other quirks of tube gear was always a lot more complex and thats one of the main reasons people still love its sound to this day.
Their History of Analogue Emulation
Since their rebirth in 1999, UA has aimed to be at the forefront emulating analogue sounds in the box. They have been steadily working to develop this concept and it has surprised me that modelling components of an analogue circuit individually has taken so long to become the way to do things with plug-ins. I suppose there is the CPU/DSP cost to take into consideration, and if you are to ship a product that enough people are able to use to make you a profit then things become easier to understand. There would have been no point releasing a UAD card that could only run 1 plugin. Nevertheless, it’s a good thing this is the route a lot of developers are choosing now. When you directly compare the Mk1 Fairchild with the new Mk2 the difference in musicality and movement towards authenticity is quite something. Their original Fairchild attempt has been around for a long time – you could say it was of the standard that has been the norm for plug-ins for a long time. Its emulation of the hardware was pretty basic in terms of emulating the functionality of the compressor rather than digging into the nitty-gritty of the way it behaved and starting to mirror the more complex and nuanced elements that make analogue so appealing to people. I think with the Mk2 plug-ins – especially the Fairchild we’re looking at here today – we can see that the ever onwards march towards closer emulation of perceived musicality is progressing well.
History of the original unit
If ever there was a legendary piece of equipment – the Fairchild would count as one. Featuring over 20 tubes, keeping one of these beasts in tip top condition is not for the faint of heart nor wallet. It’s this uncompromising design which made this thing stick out in terms of its pure audio bliss. You can really slap this thing over your buss and things really gain a musicality that’s hard to find elsewhere. It also gives incredibly low distortion levels whilst still offering a very vibey sound. Designed as a buss compressor initially but with so much scope for usage and options to change the way you’re using it, mid side operation is included as each limiter acts independently and can be used for stereo or m/s. The original is a high voltage beast of a piece of kit.
Comparing UAD Fairchild 670 Mk1 to Mk2
So if we compare UAD’s Mk-1 and Mk-2 directly, the differences aren’t as subtle as you would imagine, whether this shows the new model has a vastly different approach to the emulation, I am not sure. What makes this difference is a more complete view on what’s included in this emulation. They are not just emulating the function of the unit any more, but the operation and the various non-linearity’s of it. This thing sounds as far from “digital” as anything I have heard in the box. To test this out: just instantiate the plug-in on one of your tracks. It’s clear, with the tube emulations and transformer emulations and all the other internal working immediately colouring the sound on the mk2. Whereas on the mk1 you get a level increase as soon as you instantiate the plug-in, even on the default patch there is quite a lot of action going on with the basic patch. One other thing of note is as you push the mk2 it retains balance and a well-defined but soft and musical sound for a lot longer as it works the transients. The mk1 started to become harsher and more obviously pushed and distorted the harder you hit it – there is a definite difference here.
Before we dig in a little deeper I’d like to make a point about all of UAD’s Mk2 range and what they represent. Finally we have some good sounding software compression that’s getting it right on a musical level! All the small details are in check and working for me and as you push them they don’t fall apart and sound unmusical. I have always found that in the digital age, when working with VST’s often they do the basic function really well and really sound great when you use them softly, but never have I had the urge to push them and abuse them as much. So it’s clear to me that it is the emulation of the non linearities and the smaller behaviours of the units that have made this change in their usefulness. This is a repeating theme for me on the blog as I look at different things; we need to look at the small things to get the great musical tools we all deserve – in the box.
How to use this?
Although I would definitely say the magic of this tool is as a buss compressor you can use the 670 all over your mix. The 660 plugin is of course designed more specifically for use on mono tracks rather than busses, but once again I think both have slightly different sounds so it’s worth trying them both out in both situations given the flexibility of the plugin format.
What this compressor brings to your sounds is an incredibly soft and musical kind of compression – those are not the most quantifiable and non-subjective words to explain a compressor but actually that’s the point. The Fairchild is all about an action that has more nuances and small things going on than most other compressors – it is very smooth and feels natural and musical because of what it adds to the sound through the emulation of the components in its design. Based on the vary-mu action of the original, this gives you a variable ratio which is based on the input audio. It is flexible enough to use in many applications with a wide variety of attack and release settings available through the Time Constraint control, with its subtle distortions and drive it’s very useful for giving a sound more weight and bringing up the harmonics of your sounds in the mix. The attack time on this unit can be very very quick, so it’s good when you want to catch percussive transients in the compressor and bed things into a mix, you can look to this to make things thicker and add a musical edge to them, and for when you might need to control peaks much more than usual but still need a pleasing sounding result.
In Mid / Side mode this thing also is great for widening or narrowing sounds, and can really help sort out any stereo issues you may have. Universal Audio put together this brilliant tips video themselves, only 5 minutes – but it includes some great tips on how to get some good usage of this gear.
You can run these things hot, and it’s going to sound good. My tip would be if you’re planning to do this make sure your sound has a bit of dirt and a bit of background going on in it. I really found this can gel and merge a sound with its background and body in a lovely way, really adding fullness to the musicality of the sound and the mix. It’s important to think as much about what you’re putting into this as what you want to get out.
If you’re looking for a bit more dirt on your track, and want to add it with this plugin you can also use the handy Headroom control, lowering this will bring up any distortion and lower the threshold to allow you to really punish a sound. This is really good on bass.
So looking at the 660, this was the mono version of the plug-in, but both are suitable for use on your individual tracks. There are small differences in sound between the two versions, but both plug-ins are supplied in mono and stereo versions with Universal Audio describing the 660 as the “Aggressive little brother” but it’s safe to say you can pretty much use them as you see fit. You may find the 660s lack of mid side operation makes it a little less useful on your buss but there’s a lot of flexibility with the mix and filter controls to make them both pretty useful.
Using this on the mix buss
The original intent of the 670 was as a stereo mix buss limiter so there is definitely a couple of extra tricks in its bag, and this is really where this thing comes to life. There is something unique about the way it can lightly control a mix giving it a nice warmth and balance. Even when you hammer the mix it can stand up really well with liberal application of the wet/dry and sidechain filter.
Of course, all the new wet dry mix controls the plugin has added are great for those who are into that sound of parallel compression, but I found the most useful feature was keeping it 100% and letting a bit of bottom through the sidechain filter. Say stuff below 100-120 Hz. Try to be subtle with this – it does have a tendency to become a little too much and chew up all your bass. I wouldn’t say it’s moreish like hammering your mix into a reel to reel is, but it is very easy to overdo it but also more forgiving on the sonics when you do.
If in doubt back it off, aim for 3-6ish dBs of reduction on your mix as a whole with maybe the bigger sounds peaking it a little harder and you will be fine. That’s just one idea, of course the rule of “whatever sounds good is good” still remains and one of the characteristics of this kind of compressor is that it sounds good in virtually any setting so please, take the time to mess about. When you take into account the controls you have for the internal headroom and so on – the flexibility in this relatively simple plugin is quite full.
My final words on the mix buss: be mindful of your bottom end – it chews it up quickly. That said the original units were famed for the “glow” they can add to your mix, a side effect of the multitude of tubes and transistors inside the unit, and for that alone it can be worth slapping this emulation across your master buss even on lighter settings.
So how does it stack up?
Often, when you get a software compressor that is said to emulate a hardware classic, you are just getting a taste of it. This may only be the basic function of the hardware together with the look. It is fair to say UAD’s Mk1 Fairchild was just that.
This has been true for a long time in the digital world but started to change in the last few years. Until recently, the one thing you never got in software recreation is the magic of the original unit and the intricacy of its sound. It’s this intricacy that is the reason the original units were classic & depended upon by engineers far and wide.
The secret to this magic is how it behaves in use and that it is musically useful for a producer. Often this magic ISN’T in the basic operation of the unit but the WAY it goes about that basic operation. It goes beyond a simple compression algorithm and inhabits the smaller and more non-linear aspects of the sound. In the past few years, with the proliferation of CPU power / DSP power, we’ve started to see glimpses of that magic and underlying musicality which is coming into our VST’s through the effort of diligent coders doing component by component modelling and all sorts of other super clever tricks.
So we stand at a precipice of truly great sound in the DAW. So how does the Fairchild stack against its contemporaries in 2013/2014?
For me there is a noticeable difference! The basic function is all there and comparable between all the emulations around nowadays but you could even say the basic function is comparable between the old Mk1 and the new Mk2.
That is an incomplete view because the devil is in the details and how this compressor acts when its doing what it’s expected to do is what makes it stand head and shoulders above the rest, the results with this are more pleasing, and because of that a lot more useful when making a track. There are some things about digital VSTs and especially compressors that have always been unfulfilling or uninspiring. Compared to their hardware cousins – who are really great – you use them less, and when you do use them you use them more subtly so as not to ruin your sound as you push them.
If there is something not right when you start to squish, something you’re looking for isn’t present or something is raw digital sounding and falls apart, then you are going to stop before that point. Comparing the Mk2 to waves or one of the others, you can push it further and still enjoy the outcome… and enjoy what it does to the sound at lighter settings more as well. The UAD mk2 is easily the best software Fairchild on the market right now.
How does this stack up against other hardware compressors in general?
UA say this is indistinguishable from the hardware, do I agree? Not completely but in many ways it’s fair comment. There is still a small difference that makes this compressor sound a little bit more towards digital compared to my outboard, the way it grabs the sound, the shape and the feeling of the tone is still slightly different, but it definitely doesn’t sound digital. Maybe this is down to A/D/A? I am not sure.
The top hardware compressors are still a nose ahead in terms of sheer sound quality for me, and that’s neither surprise, nor a criticism of the work on show here in UADs mk2 Fairchild. To say this was the pinnacle of software compressors wouldn’t be correct as I am sure there is much more to come on the road Universal Audio are travelling. Nonetheless, the MK2 Fairchild is thoroughly useful. It is a characterful and musical sounding software compressor. These positive superlatives have been missing for a long time in software compressor land.
Can you push this as much as hardware and still enjoy the outcome? Not quite, but it’s a massive step forward. Like I said, this is progress. I am really enjoying giving this thing a little bit of abuse, if you compensate after with EQ and maybe some nebula use, as I discuss below, the results can be extremely pleasing.
Compared against the real Fairchild?
How does this stack against a real Fairchild? Probably quite well – unfortunately I haven’t been fortunate enough to be able to get one in to do some good side-by-sides. I imagine the differences now between the real and the vst are more the small effects – which can be the most important. What we use the original for is its musical mojo and often that can come from wear and tear as much as the original design. I am not sure if UAD modelled a refurbished unit or one that was as is, but it’s food for thought. I have heard many stories of people buying the old Roland tape delays – first thing they would do is check it out and go “WOW – this is great, I’ll get it serviced and a new tape put in”. When they get it back, almost invariably, they are disappointed. Half of the myth / magic is the history of the unit. So its always going to be hard to compare old v new, and better to judge new on its own merits even when its directly copying old.
With all the above said, it’s nice to see this kind of progress. In normal operation a lot of the vst stuff is really good now. Impeccable, the main improvements now are in the smaller tone and shape differences of the sound and also how things stand up and change when you abuse the unit. The Hardware still takes more abuse and stays on its feet longer.
One last idea…
Try this plugin alongside Henry Olongas sampling of the original Fairchild 670s tone on the nebula system, this could be a way to get a supercharged hardware sound, possibly even too much? but boy it does sound good.
This is the best emulation yet. Without wanting to bang on about this, in audio people are often quick to discount small differences BUT it’s those very small differences that some people say are meaningless that are the most important thing when it comes to the very best sound. Attention to detail is vitally important – anyone who tells you otherwise or says it doesn’t matter, don’t listen. You have to applaud UAD in continuing to create some of the best emulations of top gear in the business and their plug-ins are starting to catch some of that hard to describe analogousness that people love. Outside of Nebula’s more static dynamic sampling approach to capturing this tone, the new Fairchild is one of the very best plug-ins for this, and most definitely one of the best plug-in compressors out there today.