Could this be the ultimate analogue 'vibe box'?
Many largely in-the-box producers like to turn to a hardware vibe box on occasion — something to add real 'analogue mojo' to their projects. But as they can already access pretty much any effect they could want in the DAW, the hassle of routing signals out of the box is only really justifiable if it achieves something that can't be done in said box. Having started off working entirely in the box, I amassed a fair amount of outboard over the years, but as time has passed my justifications for owning all this outboard have grown increasingly esoteric.
Now, despite owning some nice reverbs and EQs, pretty much all my reverb and EQ moves are once again done with software. Yet, for saturation, compression and distortion I use a combination of software and hardware, and when hoping to inject some analogue vibe I think that hardware generally still has the edge. I tend to look for something a bit 'different', and while I'll often turn to my three Rupert Neve Designs 5042 'tape effect' saturators, an old transformer-laden Alice desk, and various compressors, including a Drawmer 1968 MkII, I'm always on the lookout for new 'flavours'. So when I learned of Drawmer's new 1976 multiband saturation and stereo-width processor, I had to give it a try!
One man's 'saturation' is another's 'distortion', but the name of the game with 'saturators' is to add aesthetically pleasing harmonics. In the analogue domain, this can be achieved in many ways, from overloading transformers and valves, to pushing transistors and analogue tape beyond their specifications. Like the 1974 EQ that Bob Thomas reviewed last month (https://sosm.ag/drawmer-1974), Drawmer's 1976 aims to deliver a broadly '70s sound — essentially, they're going for the vibe you can achieve by pushing the channels of a transistor-filled 1970s mixing console. But Drawmer also see the 1976 as a sort of analogue interpretation of the tube section of their old, all-digital DC2476 mastering processor, and a glance at the facilities on offer certainly hints at 'controllable vibe'.
The 1976, with its yellow and black knobs and simple, bold layout, is unmistakably modern Drawmer. Connectivity is easy, with XLR ins and outs and an IEC mains inlet. The internal layout is also neat and pleasing, including ±15V power-rail indicator LEDs that let you know the hefty centre-tapped toroidal transformer is doing its job. While there's a lot to commend the design, there are also a couple of mildly curious decisions.
First, the power switch is on the back, next to the IEC inlet, where it's of little practical use when bolted into a rack. Second, while I definitely have no complaints about the mains power being stepped down via a toroidal transformer, I'd have preferred the 230V/115V mains voltage selector to be on the rear panel than inside the box. Not only would that mean you didn't have to open the unit to change the setting (a minor gripe, since you'd do that very rarely) but it would ensure there was an external indication of the current setting.
This is a stereo processor rather than a dual-mono one (a single set of controls applies to both channels), so it naturally lends itself to bus processing, whether for a whole mix or an instrument group within the mix, and to work with stereo sources such as drum loops. You could alternatively use a single channel for mono processing, and you can also hit the mono button to check the effect of any stereo processing on the mono mix. Still, the 1976 aims to shine on stereo sources.
There are three bands (low, mid and high), and the crossover frequencies are continuously variable: the low-mid crossover ranges from 70Hz to 1.5kHz; the mid-high from 800Hz to 15kHz. These generous ranges allow some crossover in the crossovers, if you will. There's a master input level, with a yellow LED indicating ideal level and a master output control for taming the onward signal. Lastly there's a master bypass for quick A/B comparison of your settings with the dry signal. There's no master mix or wet/dry control, so if that facility is important to you, you'd have to achieve it in your DAW or with traditional parallel analogue techniques.
Each band has the same control set (Saturate, Width and Level), each control simply increasing/decreasing the strength of the effect in question. The manual is great. It gives the user a rundown of the effects and their intended uses, and the signal flow, and it includes recall sheets and even a frequency chart with suggested crossover points. So beginners won't be intimidated. Above all else, Drawmer say to "use your ears" — universally good advice, but especially useful when it comes to saturation and distortion.
The first thing to note when you start using this thing is that the input control and its associated lights are really helpful. If your source is peaking at the yellow light, you'll get saturation across the whole range of each saturation knob. If it's peaking above this, you'll get more distortion as you turn up the saturation knob. In a way, this means that the 1976 has a couple of roles: you can achieve a subtle effect by feeding it lower levels, or choose to blow things out entirely, much like when using a real mixing desk. An easy way to establish a rough operating level is to set the input so the signal you want to process lights the yellow LEDs all the time but its peaks tickle the red ones. This will get you in the right ballpark very quickly, but you should feel free to vary the levels for subtler/more aggressive results — I found that setting the level so the red light flickered on and off just a little typically made everything sound that bit more 'exciting'.
Starting with a full stereo mix, I dialled in some saturation and used the mutes to listen to each band in isolation. Interestingly, when trying to listen to the low band alone, muting the mid and high bands doesn't appear to completely remove them — some signal gets through, probably due to the use of fairly gentle filters — but the other two bands seem to interact with the mutes as expected.
The saturation side of things made for a nice mastering tool. I found that setting the low band to control below 100Hz and the high band around 10kHz and up allowed a modern, lean tone to be dialled in, with thick bass and a little glitter on the highs. As I increased the saturation, the level also increased, so balancing your main input, the saturation for each band and the output for each band is important to controlling the sound. As with all saturation, I found it very easy to overdo things, but with subtle settings the results were pleasing.
The saturation character is great for thickening up group busses, and since it's multiband you can focus the processing on a specific frequency range, which can be really useful. The bands aren't super surgical, and the roll-offs on the crossover filters are nicely balanced, and this has the effect of separating the bands without making them feel disconnected. For me, a favourite target for the 1976 saturation was the drum bus — I can definitely see it being normalled into a patchbay, ready to deploy on the drum bus each and every time. In this role, when using similar crossover frequencies to those I've just described, but with the low crossover set just a touch higher and applying more assertive saturation, I was rewarded with a nice, solid thickening of the sound. It's an effect similar to that of pushing channels on a nice desk quite hard. Couple it with a nice compressor and you'd be addicted in no time!
For individual instruments, fine-tuning the crossover settings is vital if you're to achieve the best sound. By way of example, with acoustic guitar I found that a thinner-sounding instrument could be beefed up using hefty saturation below 250Hz and a little push in the mid-range, while leaving higher frequencies alone. A thin vocal can easily be given some richness and push with a tight mid-range band saturating just where the recorded voice is lacking. As you might imagine, distorted guitar loves the mid-range control too; it can deliver some lovely '70s-style crunch and thickness.