D.W. Fearn VT-7 Review High-end, two channel tube compressor
D.W. Fearn manufactures high-end tube gear in Pennsylvania. Their equipment is known to be no holds barred designs. They are built like a tank, have only the highest quality parts inside, are hand assembled, and all his equipment are painted with a bright red color with yellow markings, and give a 5 year warranty.
The D.W. Fearn VT-7 is a two-channel tube compressor that can be used separately or linked together. Inside the unit, the input transformers are made by Jensen Transforms, Inc. The input Class A amplifier has a gain of approximately 20 db. Since the second stage uses negative feedback from the plates, it assists in reducing distortion, and to help keep the frequency response flat, and a low phase shift. The output stage has a Class A voltage amplifier with a gain of approximately 30 db. The transformer is also made by Jensen Transformers, Inc. The unit has 8 tubes in all with six being 6N1P tubes and two 6072A tubes. What this means is the unit gets warm and needs good ventilation as do all tube gear. DW Fearn has thankfully thought out having nice red spaces to be put above and below the unit. They look really nice and made the VT-7 look even better in a rack. Please note that there are no rubber pads on the bottom of the unit. So if you don't put it in a rack, you need to be careful not to scratch the surface your placing it on. The unit also comes with a 24 page manual that is very clear on the operation of the VT-7.
The compressor is a 3-spaced unit that has the typical controls for both channels that includes threshold, gain, attack, and release. It then has something a little unique which is the harder/softer knob. This works like a ratio control but it does more than that. It actually affects the knee curve and to some degree the attack, release and threshold controls. The unit also has two large VU meters. There is also a separate/Link/Link HPF. This is a three-position switch that links the two channels together for stereo operation. In the Separate position, the two channels operate completely independently, and can be used on totally different sources without any interaction. In the Link position, the two channels track each other precisely, so that the stereo image will remain constant even if one channel has much more level than the other. In the Link HPF position, a high-pass (low cut) filter is inserted in the side chain. This makes the compression less bass sensitive and may be a better option on mixes that have a very heavy bass content. It will reduce “pumping” of the mix from bass or bass drum hits, and increase the amount of low-end in the mix. The HPF operates on both channels, in a linked configuration. The roll-off of bass sensitivity is a very gentle curve (about 6dB per octave) and has little effect above 150Hz. There is a fan that helps keep this unit cooler. It can be a little noisy, though I found it quieter than my computer fan. I found it not to be much of an issue in my studio. The Gold-plated XLR connectors used for inputs and outputs are in the back of the unit.
VT-7 in use
The VT-7 is very flexible compressor. I was able to obtain very good results using it on vocals. It was able to control the transients while adding a clean but more detailed sound to the vocal track. It also equally performed well when tracking a bass guitar, controlling the peaks, giving more of an even sound. At the same time, it did not add any artifacts to the track. Usually when you think of running your tracks through tube gear, many expect a thick, or creamy sound coming out of your monitors. Not so with the VT-7. This is a very clean, open, detailed compressor. It does have some character including a gentle smooth sound. It is able to make tracks sound bigger and controlled without adding negative artifacts. Even when pushing -10 db, it does not add wooly or warm character that some other tube gear could add to the signal.
The Attack and Release controls react as you would expect from a compressor, but with no numbers on the knobs, and with the hard/soft knob, you have to work it differently than a standard compressor. I found at times it was easier to just closed my eyes, move the knobs and stop when it sounded just right. You could tell where to stop by the smile it can cause on your face when you hit the right spot. I was able to save the settings of the different tracks by using the Comment section on the Project page that several DAW's offer. This is where I would write down the compressor settings on the different tracks. One of the things the unit lacks is a bypass switch. Doug Fearn believed by adding one into the unit would compromise the sound, though I think many would appreciate being able to A/B (with and without the compressor) it during sessions. The way I worked around this was by adding it into my effects channel in both Samplitude and Cubase. Inside your DAW, you would then be able to turn the compressor on or off on your Aux or Effects track.
One of the more popular uses for this compressor is to run it through your 2-bus mix at the mastering stage. I ran several rock and jazz mixes through the VT-7. In addition I was able to compare it with several hardware and software compressors to fully appreciate the VT-7. In my tests, I compared it against a Focusrite Compounder, Pendulum OCL-2, Cranesong STC-8, and Waves Renaissance compressor. Here are the results.
1. Focusrite Compounder would not be a fair comparison since this unit cost thousands less. I was usually able to get good results with this unit. However when I A/B it against the VT-7, I noticed the components with this unit did not offer the clear, and open detailed sound of the VT-7. It is more like I was hearing a little harder sound in the mix Even with a gentle ratio, and threshold, it did not handle the mix the same way as the higher end Fearn.
2. Waves Renaissance Compressor: This added more color to the mix, even when I tried opto and all the different settings. This compressor added a slight thickness to the mix, while helping to gel the mix. It offered an acceptable option.
3. Pendulum OCL-2: This compressor is more transparent than the VT-7. I found this unit added a 3 dimensional clarity and sparkle that some would call the fairy dust that mastering studios impart on mixes.
4. D.W. Fearn: Due to the design of this unit with its class A circuitry, it added more depth and seem to open up the 2 bus mixes very nicely. This offered a big, clear, sound with greater definition. It does not add weight to the mix, but just made them sound better. With a mid response on the attack, the VT-7 left the bass and kick more open and makes the mix sound larger and punchier. With a faster attack, it smoothed out the bass and kick leaving a more balanced sound. Like in many mastering situation, I used up to -2db on the mixes.
I brought the VT-7 to a mastering studio in my area called the Mastering House. The chief engineer Tom and I were able to listen to the VT-7, and compared it to his Cranesong STC-8. As owners of the STC-8 know, this unit excels in bringing the signal lower and controlling the peaks while keeping the mix clean and open. We preferred to use the STC-8 without the Ki switch on which seemed to remove some of the openness we liked. The VT-7 in comparison to the STC-8 added more depth and put a slight smoother sound on the mixes. Dave Hill from Cranesong helped create the gain reduction elements in the VT-7 and are similar to the ones in his own STC-8. Both will do a great job on mixes. Depending on your client and the way the mixes were engineered, you may find one will be better than the other for that particular mix.
If you have a home studio and would like to own one high end compressor, I would seriously look at the VT-7 which can offer more depth to your mixes and help gel everything nicely. Though the STC-8 is a great unit, it was a little too transparent for my taste. However when you have well engineered mixes, the STC-8 could be the better option to balance out the mixes while leaving the character of the mix alone.
Second opinion: Tom who is the chief engineer at The Mastering House in Pottstown PA.
I'm in total agreement with Glenn's opinions. It's great a sounding unit but with a few minor flaws for mastering, no bypass switch, non-detented knobs, and the small (about an inch or so, very quiet but still slightly audible) fan. The "link HPF" option is great just as Glenn mentioned for keeping the bass and kick out of the way when compressing the mix. The sound is deep and full, the signature sound of what I like about Fearn. Got to see if Doug Fearn is willing to mod this unit.
1. No bypass switch
2. The power button being in back of the unit.
3. It is expensive
1. One of the best clean compressors I have ever heard. It gives a wonderful sound to the mixes.
2. HP filter was a huge plus making songs with a solid kick, and bass very evenly compressed with the rest of the mix.
3. Once you hear it work in your studio, it's hard to let go of.