Analogue distortion devices abound, but few offer as wide a range of sounds as this one.
It seems that the cleaner we’re able to record, the more obsessive becomes our hunt for ways in which to add back in a bit of ‘analogue mojo’. To that end, there’s a small but growing market of high-quality analogue ‘saturation’ devices, of which Elysia’s Karacter and Karacter 500 are the latest additions. It’s the latter which I’m reviewing here; the 19-inch rackmount version, announced shortly before we went to press, seems to be almost identical in terms of functionality and controls but it adds CV inputs, enabling you to hook up an external control source, such as an LFO, to change the effect over time.
Saturation seems a bit of a vague term these days. For me it conjures up sonic memories of overloaded analogue tape and transformers, but what we have here is a solid-state analogue device designed to add a more tube-like harmonic distortion. While the effect can be subtle, it doesn’t have to be so: during the review period I created a number of audio examples and if you listen to those, as well as the ones on Elysia’s site, you’ll be able to hear that this can be suitable for anything from the very faintest enhancement of a vocal to full-on loop-mangling distortion. This device differs from so many guitar stompbox effects in two key ways. The first is the degree of control it affords the user, which I have to say is remarkable, and the other is the quality of the signal path — other than for the distortion you dial in, it sounds remarkably clean. Indeed, Elysia describe it as “mastering-grade saturation”; I suspect the point they’re making is more about the quality of this processor than its intended applications.
We’re all taught not to judge a book by its cover, but first impressions count and, for a 500-series module, this device cuts a stylish figure. It sports the same slick livery as most of Elysia’s range: a matte dark blue with white legending, distinctive and tactile detented rotary controls, and buttons (with small, bright, recessed LEDs) to engage the various functions. The white backlit logo, recessed in a bevel-edged circle, adds a pleasing finishing touch; it all looks and feels very classy. But the most important thing about the front panel is not its aesthetic appeal, but the fact that everything’s well laid out such that the controls are easy to access and easy to read — you’ll have absolutely no trouble getting your fingers on the controls or figuring out how to drive this thing.
I chose to begin by deploying the Karacter on various parts of a multitrack acoustic drum recording and discovered, to my delight, that it’s as suited to a gentle enhancement role on the stereo drum bus as it is to more creative applications with individual kit pieces. This is largely thanks to its Mix control, as no matter how aggressive the processing, you can always turn it anti-clockwise to back off the effect.
In terms of general approach, I found it best to start with the Mix control set to 100 percent wet and tweaking the Drive and Color controls until arriving at a desirable sound character. Then, I’d adjust the Gain knob to match the level of the processed and unprocessed signals, using the bypass button to do so. Working this way makes the Mix control far more intuitive, as it gives you a 50:50 balance at the 12 o’clock position. It’s then a simple matter of nudging that balance to taste.
If you’re using the Karacter for more ambitious mangling of individual kit pieces (be they acoustic or electronic) it’s worth noting that the more aggressive distortion will inevitably weaken the bottom end of the drum sound, something that can rob both kicks and snares of their ‘oomph’. The best way to counter this, I found, was to over-egg the processing a little before blending back in more of the dry sound, which of course has its low end still intact. As long as you pay attention to such things, the results can bring a real smile to your face — they certainly did to mine when I transmogrified an acoustic kick into the sort of fat, squelchy monstrosity that you’d think could only have originated from a drum machine. It lends itself equally well to snare distortion. And as there are two independently controllable channels, of course, you could process both kit pieces differently with the same unit to radically refashion a drum part, without mashing its cymbals into oblivion.
So it’s a versatile processor for drums, then, but what of other sources? On a cleanish bass guitar part it proved useful for adding a judicious helping of mid-range ‘bite’ without things becoming overblown or ill-defined, and I also found that the Karacter 500 could work very nicely as a parallel distortion device for vocals, and for male rock- and rap-style parts in particular.
For electric guitar, you’ll want to try a control I’ve not discussed yet: FET Shred, which enacts another solid-state distortion circuit. The idea, Elysia say, is to mimic the sound of a cranked tube amp. The associated Turbo Boost button shifts the threshold for this circuit a little lower, giving you a stronger effect. If you were hoping for an accurate model of a tube amp, you might be disappointed, but it is certainly reminiscent of one, and can be a very enticing sound in its own right. That Mix control again means that you have the ability to dial in as much or as little attitude as you wish. Whereas it’s always essential to tweak the Color, Drive and Gain controls, you’re not going to want to use FET Shred (with or without Turbo) on every source, but it’s by no means limited to use on guitar: on the right part, it can sound great on drums, bass, synth pads, arpeggios and more.
Although the Karacter 500 is a stereo/dual-mono processor, I found myself using it more on individual sources than on stereo buses, and that’s probably because that gives you two ‘instances’ to use in your mix. But Elysia have certainly put a lot of thought into the stereo side of things.
In dual-mono mode not only can you use the channels on different sources, but you can apply different treatments to the left and right channels of a single stereo source. That can be useful when the material has different things going on in the left and right, of course, but it also presents the opportunity for more creative processing. You can, for instance, add some real drama to a plain-sounding stereo synth, guitar or organ part, or add a sense of width to a mono source by treating the same part differently in each channel and opposite-panning the results. That’s something that worked well for me with a guitar part: it’s effectively re-amping the part twice with different settings, to spread the sound across the stereo panorama.
With stereo linking enabled, the left-hand set of controls governs the behaviour of both channels at once, and in the M-S mode one set of controls is used to process the Mid signal and the other the Sides. This means you’re able to do some remarkable sound-design work on electronic drum loops, synth arpeggios and the like, targeting centrally panned elements and treating them differently from those panned to one side. It also makes this a useful device for processing stereo drum samples (eg. kick, snare, hats, claps or more complex loops), for which the main energy you wish to reshape is in the middle but there’s plenty of ambience in the sides that needs room to breathe.
Really, this is one of those devices that, ideally, you’d take for a test drive, to discover whether it offers a sound you like. For me, it proved versatile, easy to use, sonically satisfying and enormously fun. The settings you end up with for different sources might vary quite radically, according to both the nature of the sound (how short, sustained or rhythmic it is, how much low- or high-frequency information it includes, its level, any effects tails that are printed, the amount of leakage from adjacent sources during recording, and so on), but arriving at those settings is always intuitive, and there’s bags of control over the result — more than most saturation devices are blessed with and certainly more than an overdriven preamp.
I could no doubt compile a wishlist of additional features (high- and low-pass filters for the wet signal, for example), but most of those things would add to the price or complexity, or would make it fiddlier to use — and they can already be done by using the Karacter in tandem with other devices. As things stand, I really can’t fault it, and the versatility in terms of channel configurations is a particularly big plus too. I was sad when the time came to hand this unit back!
So many devices can be driven into saturation that it’s impossible to list them here, but a few offer a wide range of sounds, or afford the user a particularly useful degree of control. These include the DIYRE Colour system, the Overstayer Saturator, various devices made by Looptrotter and some electronic analogue tape emulations, such as the Sound Skulptor STS, Roger Mayer 456 Stereo, and Rupert Neve Designs Portico 542. These all offer things that the Karacter doesn’t — but then none offer quite what this does either!
These audio examples accompany my review of the Elysia Karacter 500 saturation processor, in SOS July 2016. As I made clear in the main article, this device is suitable for use on a range of sources, but perhaps the best illustrations for me are drums and electric bass and guitar. You can find more examples on synths and loops on the Elysia web site.
Keeping the Drive setting at zero, the Mix at 100 percent wet, and other features such as the FET Shred and Turbo Boost off, I swept the Color knob to show the sort of sound palette available. I set the gain at -5, just to avoid clipping the converter, but I’ve level matched all the files here for the purposes of comparison.
As in 01, but this time keeping the Color control at zero, and sweeping the Drive control.
Tweaking the Colour and Drive controls (both start at zero) and then balancing the wet and dry mix.
A ‘mashed’ kick drum in the context of the rest of the kit, taking this drum loop in a Big Beat direction. I’ve used the FET Shred and Mix controls here to come up with a workable sound. It might not be to everyone’s taste, but it should help you get an idea of the sort of crunch this thing can achieve!
I captured similar examples for the snare drum in the same loop.
Same settings as for the ‘01-kick-color’ example. Notice how much less the sound changes than with the kick.
The Drive control yields more noticeable results!
With the Drive control in the 12 o’clock position, sweeping the Color control has a more clearly identifiable effect. Notice how much ‘splattier’ the sound gets as I turn the Color control towards the fully clockwise position. Much of the charm of this device is to be found in the careful balancing of these two controls.
The snare close mic processed but played in the context of the kit. Here, I’ve used a low-ish Drive setting alongside a more assertive Color setting with the FET Turbo Boost mode engaged to brighten the snare sound a little. It’s brighter than I’d typically go for, and might benefit from a touch of EQ or with less of it in the mix (the Mix control is at 100 percent here), but again, it shows the sort of thing that can be done.
See if you can hear when I engage and disengage the FET circuit (Turbo Boost not engaged). In the second half of this clip, I back off the Mix control a bit.
With the FET Shred button engaged I apply the Turbo Boost, before tweaking the Mix control again.
With the FET mode engaged, I sweep the Color knob before balancing the result with the Mix control.
12-bass-guitar & 12-bass-guitar-clean
Just one example for this instrument. It’s quite easy to massage this fairly pedestrian bass part into something with more attitude — or just a little extra presence if you prefer. I started with the Drive control set at 3, Color at 0 and the Mix at 100 percent wet, before tweaking them all, and the Gain, to see what sounds might result.
13-elec-guitar & 13 elec-guitar-clean
A quick slightly distorted rhythm example, in which I play with the Drive, Color and Mix settings, as well as engaging and disengaging the FET circuit in order to add a little more ‘girth’ to the sound.
I’ve prepared a few audio examples for your delectation (http//sosm.ag/jul16media), which are intended to complement those on Elysia’s web site (www.elysia.com/hardware/karacter-500/introduction). They won’t reveal everything that this unit can do, but between them they should give you a clear idea of the sounds that are achievable.
- Great build quality and stylish appearance.
- Mix control makes subtle or abusive results easy to refine.
- M-S stereo mode.
- FET Shred and Turbo Boost modes inject real attitude.
- What cons?
This is a classy, intuitive and supremely controllable distortion processor, capable of sounds from the subtle to the extreme.
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