David Mellor debates on tubes, DAW and sound quality in this Audio Masterclass lecture that features FT1 freqtube!
So you want to add some tube warmth to your recordings. Great. You've just turned the calendar back half a century. Anyone who knows me will know that I see progress as a good thing. And being stuck in the past is good only for the purpose of nostalgia. Not that nostalgia is a bad thing. It's great if that's what you want. But for most of life's useful purposes, modern technology is simply better.
But tubes, or call them vacuum tubes, thermionic tubes, or in British English, valves. Well, surely this very old technology is massively out of date, superseded across the course of the 1960s by transistors and then integrated circuits.
We call these new technologies solid state because there's no need for a vacuum in a tube. But no, we like tubes and we need tubes in our lives. The reason for this is that, simply put, they sound better.
Did I say they sound better? Well, I often feel that way, but the fact is that they probably don't. Modern transistor or integrated circuitry doesn't have a sound. Any distortion, noise or frequency response problems are squished in the design process. Digital technology takes this further and no one can hear any problems whatsoever. Even in the tiniest, most minuscule degree in 24-bit digital audio.
Okay, just to be sure, make that 96khz 24-bit digital audio. It doesn't have any character of its own and it's up to you to make your music sound good. But, tubes can make your music sound better.
So, why is that?
The answer is that all of us, even millennials and generation Z, are steeped in the music of the past. It's all around, every day and we can't avoid it. Even if you don't play anything older than a year and a half on Spotify, you'll still hear old music in TV shows, movies, commercials, supermarkets and anywhere else that music is played. And up until the end of the 1960's and even into the 70s, that music was created using vacuum tubes and ask any electric guitarist whether transistors ever did anything useful for them. Nope. Tubes and guitars go together like coffee and cream, Jim and Pam, Netflix and chill, Rama Lama and Ding Dong. What sounds good to us is the sound that we are used to.
And to a significant extent, recorded music from the old days was designed to sound good through tubes. So, tubes sound better. Simple as that.
Okay, I'm going to make a U turn. Or I can call it just a UIE, a word that is actually in the dictionary.
I love the neutrality of digital audio not having a sound of its own. This is the way things should be. When I make what I like to call music, I don't have any kind of sound getting in my way. Digital audio is featureless, textureless, expressionless, soulless, if you like. And all the features, textures, expression, and hopefully a bit of soul, are in the music.
And suppose I want a bit of that old time tube gorgeousness. Well, I can throw in a tube emulation plugin or use EQs and compressors that emulate real tube circuitry. Things are sounding good and therefore they are good. But what if I mention F-U-D: fear, uncertainty and doubt?
A concept used by marketers and sales people in every industry, which are in the wrong order because clearly any reasonable person would start off being uncertain. Doubt would develop, which will then turn into stone cold fear. But no matter FUD you fear you're uncertain and you doubt. That tube emulations really do sound exactly like the genuine thing.
Now, you and I can argue this until the proverbial cows come home. And no amount of comparison and experimentation will provide a test that everyone will regard as conclusive.
Some people will say that digital emulations do sound exactly like real analog equipment. Others will say that they don't, and the difference matters. Actually, I'll sidestep that argument by saying that a DAW full of plugins offers enough range for anyone's needs to express their art, even if tubes actually do sound different or even sound better than emulations. You can do enough with digital technology to win your Grammy and your Rhodium disk.
But what's the fun in dodging a good argument?
Either you think that tubes are better, or that emulations are good enough. Or maybe you might want to use tubes just because you can, and it will remove any doubt. So, yes, use tubes.
Now, no one is going to be crazy enough to say that you need a tube mixing console, tube multitrack, and tube stereo machine, as well as all those lovely and pricey tube processors.
In practical terms, all you need are the tubes.
So, you can take audio from your DAW, pipe it through a tube, and shove it back in again.
One way to do this would be to use the reamping technique that's commonly performed with electric guitars:
You take an output from your DAW, pad it down to mic level, and reimport it through a tube preamp of which there are plenty available.
The pad doesn't need to be complicated. Two resistors will do it, or you can buy a specialised reamping box if you want to feel more pro. You could do this to any mono track.
For a stereo track, you'd split it into mono. Good luck with that logic. Uses and process left and right separately.
You could process the whole mix if you wanted. That might be a little more tricky because you wouldn't know how your mix sounds until you processed both channels, and then you might or more probably will want to adjust the settings and do it again.
Great art takes as much time as it needs…
But, there are other options, including the AnalogProcessing Box by Mac DSP and Analog Heat by Electron, and the device I'd like to focus on today, which is the Freqport’s freqtube FT1.
I've chosen this item over the other possibilities, because it seems to me very pure. I could put that in another way and say that it doesn't do much. But the truth is that what I would like, and I suspect many other people would like too, is the tube processing without the frills. Just the tubes. Tubes are nothing or hardly anything but the tubes.
Let me describe the FT1 briefly.
No, let me give you an example! First, here's a dry drum truck.
On now, the same truck processed through the freqtube.
Okay. It's not the best example in the world, but it's available among several others on Freqport’s website.
Freqtube has four channels, each with its own tube in two types. It connects to your DAW via USB. Eight knobs control its functions. There's a plugin that you'll need to use to send signals to the FT1, and also to control its functions and assign its knobs.
I think I did that reasonably quickly, but what does the ft1 actually do inside?
Okay, so you'll insert the plugin into the track you want to process. This will send signal to one of the channels of the ft1 or two if it's a stereo track. But, I'll stick to mono for now.
Inside the FT1, the signal, still in digital form, is split into dry and wet, each going through a digital filter. The digital filter can be set to low pass, highpass, bandpass and parametric.
Pretty much all you could ever need.
The wet signal then passes through a drive control with an optional 18DB boost and is then converted to analog and passed through the tube. So, you can filter the input to the tube; set how much drive you want to use; then mix the tubed signal back with the original; which you can also filter if you like.
You might want to mix the wet signal into the dry floor. Subtle enhancement.
Or use only the wet signal for high calorie tube. Nourishment.
What I like about this is, as I said, it’s purity.
It's everything you'd want to do with a tube processor, with no distracting novelty features.
Well, who doesn't like knobs?
Fine tuning the "tubeiness" of a vocal or instrument is something where you want your whole brain engaged. Without worrying if your tiny mouse cursor’s a few pixels off the mark. Close your eyes if you want to, and just listen as you "tubeify"!
That's enough to get you started.
You can learn more about the freqport FT1 in February 2023 issue of Sound On Sound magazine personally.
Although I still maintain that there's enough scope within the DAW to achieve any possible musical ambition, a neat, no-frills tube processor would be very nice to have!
In this video, Dave explains why you might, or might not, want tubes in your DAW workflow, mentioning the Freqtube FT-1 with audio examples.
Video used with permission. Copyright @AudioMasterclass