George Shilling reviews
AnaMod was founded in 2006 by two industry veterans, Dave Amels (formerly of Bomb Factory, Voce and others) and Greg Gualtieri who is currently president of Pendulum Audio. The company has a unique ethos, with a fascinating approach to design. Products are entirely analogue, yet use similar modelling techniques to those used for developing digital plugins. Analogue ‘building blocks’ are created to model specific aspects of audio processes using mathematical procedures – much like early analogue computers.
The ATS-1 models the effects of analogue tape, with two channels sharing all controls apart from level. Interestingly, Amels developed Digidesign’s Reel Tape plugin. But Amels claims that as no digital processing is used here, any inherent problems with digital audio conversion and processing are circumvented entirely.
Others have developed tape simulation hardware, for example Rupert Neve Designs’ Portico unit and Empirical Labs’ Fatso, the latter of which I own. However, as great as the Fatso is, it is arguably rather removed from the experience of tape both sonically and operationally, having little in common with the tape machine experience. By contrast, the (stereo) ATS-1 copies some of the controls of a tape recorder, with Record and Stop buttons serving as bypass selectors, and controls for Speed, Bias, LF Record and HF Repro curve adjustments. The retro look of the front panel (with two very brightly lit circular VUs) creates something of an impression of a long lost tape machine.
One important aspect to point out is the provision for expansion and customisation by virtue of plug-in circuits for the modelling of both differing Machine Types and Tape Formulations. There are four possible settings for each, with corresponding slots on the main circuit board when you take the top off. As standard, it seems the unit comes with settings for Ampex GP9 and 456 tapes, and M79 and A800 recorders. The review unit also had a card for the Ampex 351, an early 60s mono machine.
The largest controls are (sensibly) Input and Output levels. Input acts as a ‘drive’ control, governing the amount of effect, in a similar way to recording at differing levels onto analogue tape, while the Output knob allows you to compensate. It would have been marvellous for the unit to somehow separate ‘drive’ from ‘gain’, so that unity gain was always possible, to make meaningful comparisons easier (Reel Tape offers this). The two large VUs indicate level, and there are five different reference levels switchable for the meters, allowing for increased drive and accommodation of real world digital levels.
Top centre is the Speed control with settings for 7.5, 15 and 30ips, with accurate modelling of the EQ curves pertaining to the relevant setting, including the LF bump. The Bias, LF Rec and HF Repro add and subtract equivalent effectively, and for broad adjustments these are extremely useful. Zero is at the centre of each knob, but there are no détentes. The Hiss knob allows addition of tape hiss, and this adds to the authenticity and sometimes really does make things sound a little sweeter – not something I have found with the digital equivalent – it often seems like a good idea but I end up winding it back down, which was not the case here. I was pleasantly surprised by the remarkable airyness this added.
In use the difference between this and the Fatso are immediately apparent. This is a far more realistic experience of what a tape machine sounds like and how it behaves in action. The sonic changes are generally rather more subtle – across the mix, flipping from Record to Stop mode is much more like flipping between repro from a half inch machine and input signal. The M79 and A800 are obviously quite different from each other, with the M79 a little warmer and thicker. However, the Ampex 351 is another world, with some wonderful valve-type warmth and juice really enhancing a mix, but rapidly becoming too much in some circumstances. Turning the input gain up starts to impart a softening of the transients and pretty much exactly the sound you’d expect from pushing the level onto tape.
The juicier 456 tends to warm things and round off the transients more than the more modern GP9, and tape speed selection is critical also, affecting high frequency response and the low frequency bump as one would encounter with a real machine. At 7.5 program material is often a little too dulled, but for low end enhancement of certain signals this setting is useful. Of course, in the real world, sometimes the intended or input sound is better than what comes back from tape, and that still applies here for some signals. Initially I got carried away with what seemed like subtle enhancement during noisy tracking and overdubbing with a band, only to find things just a tiny bit more squashed than I would have liked when soloing them during mixing! But the low-end shaping and tightening imparted was most welcome. Tweaking the tiny Bias and EQ knobs adds to the tape experience, and the knobs are nicely damped. There is something very convincing about the meter ballistics too, although I’d like to have seen more meaningful and accurate calibration of levels in terms of recording level reference with nWb/m figures, even though the input and output level knobs are vaguely calibrated. In practice the empirical approach works fine.
With general consensus on internet fora that the ATS-1’s audio processing was subtle, I half expected there to be some ‘emperor’s new clothes’ aspect to this device. But this is absolutely not the case. Of course, using a tape machine is not just about the sonics – you can turn tape backwards, have fun with razor blades, and multitrack recording limited you to a certain number of tracks. But sonically, I think AnaMod have achieved a terrific balance of features, omitting wow & flutter and ‘bias rocks’, adding convincing hiss, and offering useful ranges of adjustment in all of the knobs to create a sometimes magical enhancement with a big sound. The build is excellent and the knobs are a joy to twiddle.
It’s difficult to know what kind of importance to lend to a device like this – it’s probably more vital to have great mics, preamps, EQs, compressors, monitors and so on, but for icing on the cake this is difficult to beat. It genuinely reminded me of the sound ‘off-tape’, and that is a remarkable achievement.
Pros: Very convincing tape machine sonics; Enhancement is generally desirable and enjoyable; All analogue (in the best possible way)
Cons: Expensive; No razor blades or varispeed and doesn’t stop you recording 164 tracks of ‘ideas’!
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