Buzz Audio Essence by TRW
Handmade in New Zealand and designed by Tim Farrant, moderator here and all round good bloke... Tim is a very gifted analogue designer. He knows sonics and knows how to build stuff right. In all my contact with designers and engineers, Tim stands free in a small select group of people among peers like David Hill (Crane Song). These guys just don't make bad sounding gear, and on top of that they are easy to use and well featured.
Buzz Audio is design done right. High speed, rich class-a biased electronics, quality capacitors in the signal path, custom hand-matched opto cells, great robust feeling (the switches on the 500 modules feel as good as the Elmas on the REQ2.2 that I've used) and when paired with the Lundahl transformers in the REQ2.2, Essence, Tonic etc, the tone and what it does to the super sub lows is nothing short of magical in my opinion.
I first came across Buzz Audio via the 3D Audio preamp shootout disks about 8 years ago and the MA2.2 mic pre always impressed with fast and solid low delivery and an incredibly open and detailed midrange.
At my old place of work, we eventually bought 2 x Elixir 500 series mic pres to get that same transformerless input stage, with the addition of the LL1517 output transformer, these became nothing but number one choice for kick/snare preamps, and provided an excellent foil to our vintage Audix console (which was fat, hairy and slow).
We then added a Tonic EQ to match and that was also awesome, as a fan of swinging input EQ designs that use inductors, it did not disappoint. The lowend has a thunk and chunk to it that works despite the 60/120Hz limited choices. The topend has a lovely sizzle that adds a sheen that is much nicer to my ears than any vintage Neve and the CAPS midrange has so much depth and grab that you could shape almost anything. I hope Tim releases the DPE-20 eventually! Or a 4band Tonic in a double wide module with switched frequencies for budget mastering option next to the REQ2.2... what do you think Tim??!
I've played with the mastering EQ and it's lush, but perhaps soft enough in the low band that you'd want a harder EQ to compliment but the overall Buzz Audio class-a box tone is stunning though.
Onwards and I got to try the SOC1.1 (the original) across some drum sub mixes and was impressed by how smooth and big sounding it was. This is the kind of musical box that makes things sound "right". Not like a plugin, not like a smacky overcompressed modern record (VCA comps etc) but right, like in a Russell Elevado tracked to tape kind of way. I was intrigued... what would a pair of Essences be like?
The Essence of Good Tone:
Anyhoo, somewhere along this journey I've had access to a few Buzz Essence opto compressors, but never more than one at a time. When playing with a single Essence, I found the lowend enhancement from the transformers so nice on kick drum, bass guitar and 808 that is haunted me everytime I didn't have one. Conversely on a lead vocal it added a modern presence that is hard to match with other tools, kind of inbetween a CL1B and an 1176LN but with smoother topend in the box tone.
I've been wanting to try two Essences as a pair for mixbus, sub bus and mastering duties for about 6 years and finally 2 months ago I jumped in on a matched pair of modules... MMMMMMMM
1 + 1 = GREATER THAN TWO:
My professional work has moved more towards mastering over the last year and although some mastering guys here will no doubt freak at a 500 module being used, here is where I differ. After testing the SOC-20 and the Pendulum OCL, the shaping modes available in the Essence are the game changer for bus work & mastering for me. Although the Mid/Side mode of the SOC-20 would be nice, this can be setup externally and I actually prefer digital mid/side processing for this job. M/S is a bit fashionable and not something you need to use a lot in my opinion. Fabfilter Pro-C does a great job if I need it.
I got the Essences to sit on a BIG extended frequency bus in my multibus mixing setup (colours spread across a Burl B32 summing box), but also double up as a great alternative to the SOC-20 / OCL-2 for mastering when I work on other peoples mixes.
They did not let me down...
Everything that I heard in the single Essence is preserved when running on a stereo bus, the lowend extends in a harmonic way, the midrange gets clearer and more forward in a musical way and the topend is smooth as silk. Engaging the box with no gain reduction sounds great.
The grab of the unit can be fast and slamming or subtle. The tone when compressing stays round and smooth with a modern sheen at modest levels and this reminds me of the OCL-2 but with a bit more bite.
You can change the feel of a mix with the stereo link feature, sometimes linking them tightens the image too much and going unlinked is just the ticket to preserve movement and spaciousness.
I've mastered 3 projects with the Essences and they have been great next to my more regular tools. Clients have noticed a change in overall warmth and listenability to their masters and I've had no recalls as of yet! :-) Using the Essence make-up gain to clip my HEDD or just gain up into the limiters is a great toneful way of getting more level.
With switched ratio, attack and release however, they are easy to recall as the drives can be matched by ear and the metering is good enough to ensure the image stays locked. Matching gain makeup is done with a test tone to be sure its 0.1dB accurate, but it's quick and easy and the pots are weighty and nice to turn.
Setting the Tone:
Where I think the Essences win over the SOC-20 for me are the sidechain high and low shelving EQ switches. These are FABULOUS. You can cut lows and highs and have the thing stay big on the lows and focus on the vocal midrange, with the sweet tone enhancing the expensiveness of a vocal delivery.
You can boost highs and really grab a harsh mix... or boost the lows and tighten a bloated one. The results are varied and always useful with a simple switch flick. I like "simple to use" equipment... The SOC-20 does not have these filters and it doesn't have the 70mS attack setting - both of which have become essential features for me on the Essences.
Auto attack and auto release can be a great way to smooth out a lumpy mix @ 2:1, or conversely 5:1, 70mS attack and release 100mS (1 is 100mS I think?!)... can firm up a mix, keep it big and not strangle anything whilst adding real weight.
Killer 2-Bus units, phenomenal on kick drums & bass and a great lead vocal compressor. These things sound good on an instrument bus, any kind of source. They are a better box to my ears... and great value.
Tim nailed it. With the external side chain keying options and the sidechain monitor etc... the tone and the build quality, these should be raved about more often. Sleeper gear that I'd prefer to keep to myself but I promised Tim I'd write the review! hahaha
Check them out. They are timeless and excellent.
(edit: I only gave Ease of Use a 4 - for mastering if the gain and drive were 12/24 position switches it would be a no-brainer 5+! - but it's so easy to use it's kinda 5 already...)
(edit 2: If you don't have 500 series - check out the SOC1.1 and SOC-20, they are equally amazing and the SOC-20 has a real wow factor when you stand in front of it.... The Essence however is one of the very best 500 compressors out there, and I'd go as far as saying one of the best compressors out there in any format).