Adventures In Audio

Add real tube magic to your DAW with the Freqtube FT-1

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So you want 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 Well, surely this very old technology is massively out of date, superseded across the course of the 1960s by transistors, and then integrated circuits.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 newer technologies 'solid state' because there is no need for the not-so-handy 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 by the technology and in the design process. Digital audio takes this further and no-one can hear any problems whatsoever, even in the tiniest, most minuscule degree, in 24-bit digital audio. OK, just to be sure make that 96 kHz 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.

Tubes better?

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.

Up until the end of the 1960s, 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, ramalama and dingdong.

What sounds good to us is the sound that we're used to. And also, to a significant extent, recorded music from the old days was designed to sound good through tubes.

So tubes sound better. Simple as that.

OK, I'm going to make a U-turn. Or I can call it just a uey - 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 of 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 plug-in. Or use EQs and compressors that emulate real tube circuitry. Things are sounding good and therefore they are good.

But what if I mention FUD? Fear, uncertainty, and doubt - a concept used by marketers and salespeople 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 gives results that everyone will find 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 plug-ins 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 disc.

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.

Use tubes

Now, no-one is going to be crazy enough to say you need a tube mixing console, tube multitrack, and tube stereo machine, as well as all those lovely, and pricy, 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. Job done.

One way to do this would be to use the re-amping technique that is 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 specialized reamping box if you want to feel a bit more like a pro.

You could do this to any mono track. For a stereo track you would split it into mono (good luck with that Logic users) 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 have 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 Analog Processing Box by McDSP and Analog Heat by Elektron, and the device I'd like to focus on today, which is the Freqport Freqtube FT-1.

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 tube processing without the frills, just the tubes. Tubes and nothing, or hardly anything, but the tubes.

Let me describe the FT-1 briefly...

Audio examples

No, let me give you an example first. Here's a dry drum track...

And now the same track processed through the Freqtube...

OK, it's not the best example in the world, but it's available among several others on Freqport's website. If Freqport would like to send me a unit for evaluation, I'll post much better examples on a range of vocals and instruments.

Moving on with my description, 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 plug-in that you'll need to use to send signals to the FT-1 and also to control its functions and assign its knobs.

I think I did that reasonably quickly. But what does the FT-1 actually do inside?

OK, so you'll insert the plug-in into the track you want to process. This will send signal to one of the channels of the FT-1 (or two if it's a stereo track, but I'll stick to mono for now). Inside the FT-1 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, high-pass, band-pass and parametric, pretty much all you could ever need.

The wet signal then passes through a drive control, with an optional 18 dB 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 for subtle enhancement, or use only the wet signal for high-calorie tube nourishment.

What I like about this is, as I said, its purity. It's everything you'd want to do with a tube processor with no distracting novelty features.

And knobs. Well who doesn't like knobs? Fine-tuning the tubiness of a vocal or instrument is something where you want your whole brain engaged without worrying whether your tiny mouse cursor is a few pixels off the mark. Close your eyes if you want to and just listen as you tubify.

That's enough to get you started. You can learn more about the Freqtube FT-1 in the 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.

Wednesday February 1, 2023

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David Mellor

David Mellor

David Mellor is CEO and Course Director of Audio Masterclass. David has designed courses in audio education and training since 1986 and is the publisher and principal writer of Adventures In Audio.

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