Review: TL Audio Fat Track Tube Production Suite - EMusician

Review: TL Audio Fat Track Tube Production Suite

THE DAW TRACKING, SUMMING, PATCHING AD MONITORING SOLUTION
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Two Blue Tube Channels > Let the Fat Track''s two tube preamps with fully featured channel strips give you that analog big-desk sound in a more compact and affordable box.

As studio technologies continue to migrate “inside the box,” many manufacturers have focused attention on all things digital: designer plug-ins, licensed emulations, faster DSPs, slicker apps and virtual instruments with behemoth storage requirements — the list goes on. But what folks seem to forget is that most of what we record, patch and listen to in our studio is still analog.

Few audio hardware companies understand the more rudimentary needs of the typical DAW user quite like TL Audio. For 20 years, founder Tony Larking and ex-Neve designer David Kempson refocused the company from restoring and reselling vintage high-end equipment for the world's studio elite to a thriving boutique design firm bent on bringing tube warmth to workstations everywhere. I fondly recall testing the original Fat Man series nearly a decade ago. Brilliantly simple in both design and operation, the FAT 1 tube compressor and FAT 2 preamp set benchmarks for affordability and made valve technology accessible to more than just a few home recordists. They also set the course for things to come.

BORN TO BE

In its most basic function, the Fat Track is a premium tube summing mixer. Receiving signals directly from your audio interface, you can use it as an in-line device for adding the warming effects of a 100-percent analog signal path to digital tracks individually, or by taking DAW stems and mixing them down entirely within the analog domain, can be used to increase the headroom of your DAW.

But the Fat Track is really designed to be your studio's centerpiece — the routing hub, if you will — offering a suite of front-to-end production solutions. For starters, you can track through a pair of TL Audio's highly acclaimed tube preamps, each contained on fully featured mono channel strips with 3-band musical swept EQ. Four more stereo input channels act as 2-track inputs from your DAW or as stereo returns from outboard playback decks, hardware synths or samplers. Bring your entire mix back via the two mono channels to add EQ or final “circuit” warmth, or patch in a stereo compressor across the master inserts, and you have a tidy mastering setup. Drawing on the company's larger and highly acclaimed M-series consoles, you get that big-desk sound and performance in a more compact package. Finally, an abundance of patch connections and main output/monitoring choices really tie the studio together nicely.

FEELIN' THE BLUE

With all TL Audio gear still being handmade in the UK, the eye-pleasing Fat Track bears every resemblance to the company's flagship consoles, including the trademark raven blue. Proportioned similarly to a compact live mixer or mastering console, the main dimensions are roughly 15-by-11-by-6 inches, plus another two inches of clearance required at the back for the boxed-in transformer. (I'll take that any day over a noisy line-lump supply!) The Fat Track is hefty for its size, and the wedge-shaped build appears top-notch with an all-metal chassis, sturdy panel-fastened audio connectors, buttons with affirmative click, boldly color-coded pots and vintage-style oversize volume attenuators that have a really smooth, firm resistance to their travel. Completely upscale stuff.

The front panel is composed of three sections, not including the patch bay sprawled across the top where all 38 possible analog input and output connections are made. On the left, two mono preamp channels each accept microphone, instrument DI and line inputs, which can be connected simultaneously, and a button at the top of the strip selects the source. You also get switches for phantom power, 30 dB pad and phase reverse. Each preamp channel has an insert with individual balanced ¼-inch send and receive jacks — not the typical unbalanced TRS Y-cable setup. As another nice touch, an insert On button for each channel lets you leave a piece of outboard gear hooked up permanently and just toggle its use in or out without having to yank cables.

Moving down the strips, the input gain has a range of +16 dB to +60 dB (-14 dB to +30 dB with pad) and a detent at 12 o'clock that equates to 0 dB or line-level. A dark gray knob acts as an effects send, addressing any outboard processor you have hooked up. The EQ comes directly from the M1 console, where you get high (±15 dB @ 10 kHz), low (±15 dB @ 80 Hz) and sweepable mid (±15 dB from 150 Hz to 7 KHz, Q =0.7) bands, as well as an EQ bypass button. There's also a switchable second order highpass filter for rolling off frequencies below 90 Hz. A pan control, rotary level fader with mute button and LEDs for drive (yellow) and peak (red) complete the preamp strips. You can literally see how hard you're working the tubes, as their glow intensifies through the front-panel vents. To feed the mono channels back to your DAW, a pair of direct outputs siphon signals post-EQ and post-fader but pre-mute switch.

The four stereo inputs/returns in the top-center are all switchable between +4/-10 dB and have independent, oversize rotary level faders and routing switches to the main output bus. While not inherently tube-based, these inputs do receive a beloved warming touch as they pass through the Fat Track's tube-based Post Mix Amps at the final output.

Speaking of which, the master output and monitor section at the far right is where you'll find a Main mix rotary fader with master insert bypass button; an effects return control; left and right balanced XLR main outputs; four separate monitor selection/solo switches for the 2-track returns; alternate loudspeaker select, loudspeaker mute and oversize monitor level knob; and two headphone outputs with individual rotary control.

A pair of large, backlit “half-moon” VU meters provide stereo metering of the main output level. Accompanying these, 3-stage green/yellow/red LED meters indicate levels of 0, +6 and +12 dB, respectively. For a device of this caliber, potentially taking on crucial monitoring and mastering duties, I'd prefer a much finer scale to these LED ladders — perhaps 20 to 30 segments — for all those precise peak-hold type readings that are nearly impossible to gauge from VUs. I'd also like to see even a simple LED meter on each of the channels to show input levels and how hard each is driving the master output tube stage.

The Fat Track's back panel is completely bare. There is space for fitting the optional DO-8 ($1,249) digital interface card, which adds eight channels of ADAT I/O (to a maximum of 24-bit/96 kHz), though I find this price terribly steep for such widely available conversion technology.

INSIDE TRACK

The instant I fired up a couple of prerecorded vocals from the DAW through the mono inputs, I knew I was in for an ear-opening experience. These preamps and tube stages sound gorgeous and remarkably add new dynamic character and thicker dimension to even a mono track. The already-beautiful lead vocal jumped out of the speakers and sounded more alive and “in person” with an infused warmth and gentle sheen that wasn't over the top, yet easily discernible. With the EQ switched on, I performed some minor frequency sculpting and bounced the results back to the computer.

I repeated the process for stereo stems of the background vox, treating them to tubes and EQ on both mono input channels simultaneously, panned hard left and right for monitoring reference. I could have done this form of inline processing to all of the tracks — mimicking a big-board mix — but with the magic already happening, I opted to leave well enough alone. The vocal treatments became standouts in the song, lifting the overall production quality by leaps and bounds. Sometimes a little dab will do ya.

On another song — a punky, electro-clash number — I knew that several parts were falling short of mixing nirvana and could use that analog touch. The frequencies and dynamics of the in-the-box mix were pretty good; I liked the pockets that had been carved, and the sound stage was nicely allocated. But things were sounding too clinical; the parts weren't gelling together as a whole. I wanted them to sound as though they'd been recorded on 30 IPS tape through a classic analog console in some groovy '80s UK studio. For that, I'd typically insert a tape-saturation plug-in on the individual tracks and valve emulation plugs on group buses and across the master. But instead I put the Fat Track's analog summing to the task.

One of the big audible benefits of summing sounds together as smaller groups in the analog domain is that you're removing or reducing the chance for mathematical error and inaccuracies to crop up from algorithms in the DAW doing the large and complex calculations associated with summing hundreds of data streams in real time. That is why many top mix engineers swear by setting their DAW faders at 0 dBfs and summing externally on analog hardware. With the Fat Track's maximum capacity of five stereo return paths (two mono panned and four stereo), you're forced to work with fairly compact stems. I arranged stems as mono lead vox, mono bass, stereo drums, background vocals, guitars and synths.

I immediately noticed the tonal and spatial differences of summing in this manner. Individual instruments within the groups took on a whole new richness and clarity of sound, while the stereo information of the stems became more open and detailed. I placed my favorite high-quality outboard vocal reverb on the effects send, keeping the all-important processing in the analog domain during mixing, which made a real, audible difference. And the natural dynamics-altering analog saturation at the Fat Track's final output stage lent just enough harmonic distortion to give me that sense of tape crunch I wanted.

Even after I'd bounced the analog summed mix back to the DAW, I gave it one final pass through the preamp channels to add a touch of the musical, British EQ for warmth and sparkle.

FAT'S WHERE IT'S AT

When I made the inevitable switch from analog to digital nearly a decade ago, I knew I'd miss several aspects of the desk I gave up. While some people are just fine with an entirely in-the-box workflow, my ears have always preferred an analog signal path, and I prefer keeping both hands busy rather than mousing around one parameter at a time. Sure, you can cobble together a network of controllers, monitoring stations, preamps and a patch bay or two, but the exercise can be quite costly and always leads back to the same conclusion: All you're doing in your mix is pushing bits.

Apart from the obvious features, what makes the Fat Track worth its weight in gold is simply the character of its signal path. In every scenario, the Fat Track performed solidly and quietly. TL Audio used a patented transistor-based design throughout, for its very low signal-to-noise floor and superior attenuation qualities. Crank up the preamp stages, though, and you get that really warm and creamy sound that you expect from tubes.

Although nearly perfect in design, there are a few misses. For one, a stereo collapse function in the monitoring section would be ace for checking mono compatibility. And I consider a talkback facility a must for any seriously professional tracking and artist-monitoring solution. I'd also love to see a programmable stereo bus compressor built into the master section. While that would surely increase the cost, I'm willing to bet that most musicians looking to move from all-digital to a Fat Track world aren't also owners of any quality outboard mastering compressors.

Sometimes all your final mix needs is a little iron thrown in to warm things up and create the kind of depth that digital cannot. For that, the Fat Track makes an excellent sounding front- and back-end for your DAW, capable of putting soul and life back into your recordings.

TL AUDIO

FAT TRACK > $2,499

Pros: Big-desk sound with creamy tube preamps and 3-band EQ. Flexible monitoring section with streamlined patching matrix and alternative speaker outputs. Multitude of analog I/O, plus ADAT option. Ultraquiet and solid performance.

Cons: Metering on main outputs only. No talkback facilities. Optional DO-8 is expensive.

Contact:www.tlaudio.co.uk