Joined: Oct 2004
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Recording Mag - 3 Fatso's
Recording magazine compared all 3 (UBK, ELI, and UAD), here's a reprint of the article.
The FATSO Family
Empirical Labs EL7 FATSO Jr, KuSh Audio UBK Edition FATSO, and Universal Audio FATSO Jr/Sr UAD-2 Plug-in
Reviews by Paul Vnuk Jr.
It’s not often that we review a piece of audio gear that is already an established studio staple, but this month we are looking at the Empirical Labs EL7 FATSO Jr and two of the interesting adaptations it has birthed: Universal Audio’s FATSO Jr/Sr plug-in for the UAD-2 DSP platform, and the KuSh Audio UBK Edition FATSO.
Everyone asks, “So how does the software really stack up to the hardware? And how is the UBK different from the original?” My curiosity got the better of me and with the cooperation of Empirical Labs’ Dave Derr, KuSh Audio’s Gregory Scott, and the good folks at Universal Audio, I was able to line up all three and compare them.
Ready to get started? We’ll dive in by getting acquainted with the original...
The FATSO Jr
The EL7 FATSO Jr was originally released by Empirical Labs in 2000, billed as a “Full Analog Tape Simulator and Optimizer”. Its mission: to take the edge off of harsh digital recordings and add back the “musical non-linearity” of analog gear.
As with all things Empirical, creator Dave Derr crammed a huge feature set under its hood with four distinct analog processes: Harmonic Generation with Soft Clipping for distortion and color, High Frequency Saturation for subtle to full-on global warming, Vintage Transformer and Tape Head Emulation, and Classic Knee Compression.
Look and layout
The EL7 is a single-rack-space unit dressed up in white on black, complete with 4 of Empirical’s oversized white knobs. Unlike Empirical’s Distressor and Lil Freq, however, the FATSO Jr is a dual mono/stereo unit. Each channel uses one knob for input and one for output. All other functions are handled by one of three gray momentary push buttons.
Additionally, the FATSO is freckled with 31 LEDs per channel and each one tells a story. A top row of 8 moves from green to red and shows how much warmth is being applied (1–15 dB), a similar bottom row shows gain reduction (–1 to –20 dB), a small set of two indicate 0 dB VU or a pinned signal, while the remaining lights indicate your chosen warmth, transformer, link, and compressor settings.
The rear of the unit features a choice of XLR (balanced) or 1/4” (balanced in-unbalanced out) I/O as well as a 1/4” sidechain input and standard 3-prong AC socket for the unit’s internal power supply.
The FATSO is essentially a push-pull device whereby the harder you drive signal into the unit’s input, the more it drives the above mentioned process, i.e. the more it saturates, warms, or compresses.
Soft Clipping: The Soft clipping feature was modeled after broad-band tape saturation and offers smooth, variable harmonic distortion ranging from barely noticeable to 20% THD. The circuit is always present even when the other processes are off. Just running an instrument or mix through this process alone can yield a nice cure for “digititis”.
Warmth: The FATSO features 1-7 levels of high-frequency saturation called warming. More than just a simple hi-cut filter, this feature manages to tame and lessen the high-end content rather than flatly rolling it off like an eq filter would; it manages to retain the air and harmonics of the signal minus the brightness.
Tranny: Choosing Tranny engages a full-on custom transformer into the signal, and like all good big iron, it adds both weight and a forward punch to the sound.
Compressor: The FATSO offers 4 different compressors designed to conquer a specific task of the recording/mixing chain. Each one has its own preset attack, release and ratio. They are: Buss Compression (slow attack/fast release), G.P. or general purpose (medium/slow), Tracking (an 1176-style comp), and Spank, which is a super crusher based on the famous SSL Listen Mic compressor. Additionally, each of the first three modes can be used in combination with the Spank setting.
While calling the FATSO a tape emulation device was revolutionary in 2000, that designation is more subject to challenge in 2011 due to recent advances in high-end modeling plug-ins. Also in 2011, the market place is awash in compressors that offer tubes, switchable transformers and vintage emulation. While that sounds like I am attacking the unit’s relevance in the current decade, I am not.
While many compressors now profess vintage vibe, the FATSO is still a unique analog saturation and warming device on the market, and it just so happens to have a couple of compressors thrown in.
For over a decade the FATSO Jr. has had a proven track record of adding a warm fuzzy feeling to every buss and instrument it has ridden, and I will tell you the buss compressor alone is worth the $2200 (street) price of admission. Of course I realize that this is not spare change by any means, and luckily for many of us there is now another option...
The FATSO Jr/Sr UAD-2 Plug-in
Developed hand-in-hand by Dave Derr and Universal Audio’s crack team of modeling experts, the UA FATSO Plug-in is both visually and functionally faithful to its real world counterpart. Every button, knob and LED looks and behaves just like the real thing.
It can be run on stereo or mono tracks and... really, that’s about it; everything I described above regarding look, layout and function is the same. If you can drive one, you can drive the other, literally!
Of course when a plug-in models real-world hardware its success hinges on one question: How close does it sound to the real thing?
In the case of the FATSO, this is one of the closest plug-in models I have ever heard. Not just content with my own ears I brought in two other engineers to give a listen and they agreed. Yes, there are some subtle differences, such as the low end of the plug-in seemed a tad tighter, and as you would expect, the hardware possessed a touch of added airy nuance, but these differences were far subtler than any of us was expecting.
The only major difference: Although each function works the same on the plug-in and the hardware unit, be aware you can’t put them on a mix and A/B them side by side with exactly the same input and output settings. As with many plug-ins, it does take a bit more level to drive the plug-in than the hardware.
To get similar results between the two, I had to push the input on the plug-in about 1.5 to 2.0 clicks more, while simultaneously bringing the output level down. For example, with the hardware input and output levels set to 5 and 5, I had to set the software’s input to 7.5 and its output to 3. Once this was done, however, the two were scary close, and we were all very impressed.
If this is the Jr, what happened to the Sr?
While having a meticulously modeled FATSO on your DAW is cool, that alone was not good enough for Dave Derr and UA, and that brings us to some additional plug-in-only features. One of the most interesting quandaries in the gear forum world is the fabled FATSO Sr.
As the story goes, during the FATSO Jr’s initial design stages Dave intended to add more traditional controls, but for reasons only he knows, these innovations stayed in his lab and a real hardware unit was never commercially produced. But as a plug-in, it has now seen the light of day!
The FATSO Sr. plug-in gives you a second virtual rack of controls. These include a variable threshold, 4 choices of sidechain filter frequencies (60 / 120 / 240 / 450 Hz), 4 selectable attack times (0.9 / 10 / 30 / 100 msec), 4 release times (0.05 /sec / 0.1 / 0.2 / 0.5 sec), and a variable tranny level.
This adds traditional compressor controls previously impossible with the hardware and makes the plug-in FATSO hands-down the most versatile of the 3 current versions.
Price and power consumption
At $249 (recently marked down from $299) the FATSO plug-in is perfectly in line with UA’s other top-line fare, and is available directly from the UA website. The only caveat you need to know before you buy is that, due to its high level of modeled accuracy, it requires quite a bit of UAD-2 real estate and is one of the most CPU-hungry of the UAD line. It won’t even run on the UAD-1 cards.
You can expect to get 2 stereo instances on a UAD-2/SOLO card, 4 on a UAD-2/DUO, and 8 on a UAD-2/QUAD. Mono offers slightly more instances at 3, 6 and 12 respectively, and disabling the Tranny section will also eke out some additional instances—check UA’s online comparison chart for more details.
Okay, that’s the original hardware compared to the software... “But what about that UBK thingy?” Here we go.
The KuSh Audio UBK Edition FATSO
Parallel to the plug-in release, audio engineer Gregory Scott of KuSh Audio, otherwise known by his online handle “UBK”, decided, “Wouldn’t it be great if the FATSO could do these other things...?”, so he created the UBK edition FATSO with Dave Derr's blessing.
First is the look. The UBK edition features a sexy coffee brown faceplate. All the buttons and knobs remain the same, but some of their names and functions have changed. The output meter now reads Comfy and Roast instead of 0 VU and Pinned. Tranny is now known also known as Trafo.
Internally, the most significant change is the compressor section with both new names and functions. Gone are all of the originals (except Spank) and in their place are: Splat, a unique and proprietary attack/knee and a medium release that UBK calls “soupy”; Smooth, a trasnparent 70 microsecond attack brick wall limiter with a super fast release; Glue, a thicker gooier compressor suited for bass and for the 2-bus; and Squish, a mix of Splat and Spank that is fat and old school. The UBK Edition also features more aggressive Warmth circuit.
A compressor for everyone
So while the FATSO’s paradigm of warmth and harmonic saturation remains, the UBK version’s compressors are much more instrument-friendly than bus-centric, although it does big things there as well. According to UBK, his goal was to create a “compressor that never sounds bad: it may be too much compression for some, but it is never bad compression.”
You may be initially surprised, as I was, that the UBK FATSO is very grabby. Hitting 10 dB of reduction and beyond is not the exception, it’s the norm! Strangely though, it doesn’t sound as pumped or over-squashed as the meters may lead you to believe. It fares really well on delicate acoustic instruments, just as much as on heavy drums and electric guitar.
Since it still is a FATSO at heart, you still get the harmonic saturation, warmth and transformer choices, again making it unlike any other compressor on the market. Bottom line, the UBK Edition is a monster compression device that can squash the daylight out of the sky, but the thick clouds of compression it creates are still fluffy and beautiful, not dark, dreary or smoggy.
So Which One Is Right For Me?
Everyone’s asking that, and it’s not an easy question to answer. In oversimplified terms, you could boil it down to:
• 2-bus and warming duties – Original EL7
• Instrument tracking and mixing – UBK Edition
• I already have a UAD-2 and/or and want patch recall and/or love to get really tweaky – UA FATSO Jr/Sr Plug-in
But that’s kind of a skimpy return on six weeks’ comparison tests, so here are some more thoughts on where I found each unit to be best suited in various applications.
Bus work, master and otherwise: If simple saturation or warming alone is your thing, all three units will excel here with an ever-so-slight edge going to the “air” of the hardware. As you move into bus compression, the original and plug-in have the upper hand over the UBK edition, which I found a tad too thick and heavy-handed.
Drums: Here it is a real grab bag. For individual kit pieces like kick and snare, the Splat setting on the UBK is a monster. The UBK Glue setting was also incredibly useful on room mics and overheads when done New York-style in parallel compression. I also liked the plug-in’s low tightness on kick drum, and the overall drum bus is where the plug-in practically lives on my mixes.
Bass: Again, each has its charms. If you want to pin a heavy-handed or funky bass to the floor of your mix, then it’s UBK time; if you have an acoustic bass or want the high-end grit of a thin punk bass to shine through, then I would lean toward the original or the plug-in.
Vocals: Here is where I think the FATSO Sr. plug-in edges out the other two due to its versatility. Starting with the Tracking compressor, it offers a naturalness that does not sound compressed or heavy-handed. However, the Smooth comp on the UBK can give a nice “opto” feel as well.
Violin… yes, violin: I liked the plug-in and the original for balance and glue, and the UBK for evenness and presence, each with a mid setting of Warmth to lessen the squonk of the strings.
Acoustic Guitar: All three units shine here, and this is where the hardware and plug-in set on Buss with a warmth of 2–3 and Tranny in sounded nearly indistinguishable with a big natural evenness. The UBK on Glue comp just tickling 3–7 dB of reduction gave the guitar a nice controlled thickening.
Electric Guitars: My favorite use of the UBK unit, and there are just too many combinations here that work, from Splat to Spank and Squish and beyond.
So again, each unit excels in its own way at a number of tasks and you really need to play with all three to find what works best for you. Since the plug-in is available as a demo from UA, that may be your best place to start, and offers the best value, although if your findings are anything like mine, it will probably make you want to save up for the real thing as well.
The great thing about the three members of the FATSO family is that they are all truly different. None of them invalidates the others, and you could easily use them all side-by-side in your studio.
The Plug-in’s strength is its recall as well as the FATSO Sr’s tweakability. Since I got the plug-in 6 months ago, it has made an appearance on every one of my mixes, usually on drums or the master bus, and after a month and a half of playing with the hardware I am equally enamored of it.
While the original EL7 may have taken a temporary back seat due to the newness and excitement of the new models, there is a reason it warranted the mods and modeling in the first place! The Empirical Labs FATSO Jr is in an elite class and one of the rare pieces that deserves, and has earned, magic-box status. Pretty much everything you run through it (hardware or software) will sound better.
Gregory Scott - ubk