A couple of months ago, we got together with our mates at Liveschool and built a very special sample pack – a Roland TR-808 drum machine sampled through a very rare Fairchild 670 valve compressor (we own the only unit of this kind in Australia, sitting in Sydney’s Studio Two). Originally Liveschool uploaded this rather cool Ableton Live Pack, But now we are also offering them to other DAW users in the form of the raw .wav samples.
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For a rundown on the process we went through to capture the samples, you can read Liveschool’s Blog post here. Now I’d like to get a bit deeper into the gear we used, most notably…
The Fairchild 670 Compressor
The Fairchild is possibly the best / definitely the most sought after / probably now the most valuable / compressor ever made. It’s a two channel valve compressor that was designed in the 1950’s, and it’s believed that only 30-40 of the units were ever constructed and sold, which I’m sure by it’s scarcity has helped to create a shroud of mystique around the unit.
The unit functions as either two independent compressor/limiters or a Vertical-Lateral (i.e. sum & difference) compressor/limiter, the latter being a unique feature of its time. This means that it could control the level into a disc cutting lathe to constrict both the vertical and side-to-side (lateral) movements of the cutting needle, ending up in a better sounding record.
But how does the 670 sound in day-to-day use?
Steve Smart, Senior Mastering Engineer with us at 301, had our Fairchild hooked up in his mastering suite for many years (before it was reclaimed into the recording studios – sorry Steve). He says “I used the Fairchild on almost everything that I mastered for that period of time. It has a magical characteristic of making everything you run through it sound great, even with the compressor doing minimal – or no – gain reduction. I often used it in the vertical-lateral mode so that I could compress the centre and side signal differently, which was particularly useful for cutting vinyl. Aside from this use though, running the Fairchild as a L / R compressor over the master worked great, particularly because of it’s fast attack time”.
Often when talking about compression, the words “smooth” and “thick” are thrown around… and nothing else justifies the use of these terms when compared to the Fairchild 670. It has a wonderful trait of being able to level out quite dynamic material into a consistent, smooth signal without the usual signs of compression. To quote the manual, “… the MODEL 670 is characterized by the complete absence of audible thumps, absence of distortion and noise…”. I’d have to agree.
When I use the Fairchild, I find it to be a fairly straightforward process because the simplicity of the parameters available really help my ears to listen to the effect of the “compression” rather than the effect of the “settings”. This means I achieve results quickly, easily and effectively. In dual-mono operation, there are parameters only for input gain, threshold and “time constant”, which is six different attack and release combinations. The attack time is incredibly fast, varying only between .2 and .4 of a millisecond across the six settings. The release time is the opposite – very slow – between .3 of a second right through to 25 seconds (when set at position 6 of the time constant setting and sending consistently high level into the unit).
The Roland TR-808
The TR-808 is an incredible machine, and if you’re going for “that sound”, nothing compares to turning it on and programming beats straight from the front panel. It sounds amazing and samples just don’t feel the same. I’m not saying that samples can’t be useful (or that you shouldn’t download ours!), I’m simply professing my love for the real deal.
But where samples come into their own is in their flexibility. For what I loose from the “808ness” sound of the hardware, I make up in tweak-ability and convenience. That, and getting into a massive studio with a tonne of great processing equipment, with drum machine underarm to make samples, is my idea of a great night in. Making the samples is half the fun!
Sampling the 808 through the Fairchild was an obvious choice – the greatest drum machine ever made, processed through the best compressor ever made – what could go wrong?
Using the 670 with the 808
Where the Fairchild + 808 combo came into it’s own was most notably on the bass drum sound. Without the 808 bass drum being prevalent for the last 30 years, music would have been much… worse. But because it sounds SO BIG it can be hard to tame sometimes – enter the Fairchild 670. Running the bass drum through the compressor tightened up the sound, smoothed it out, but did nothing to stop it from sounding solid. The different bass drum samples in the pack were created by tweaking a combination of the bass drum decay time on the 808, and varying the input and threshold on the Fairchild (if memory serves me right, we found the nicest sounding time constant setting and left it on that for all of the bass drum samples).
The fact that the 808 bass drum sounds so great through the Fairchild makes sense really, when you think about the 808 bass drum’s characteristic loooong decay, which *can* be more complimentary to the Fairchild’s longer release time (*can* because often a fast releasing compressor on a long decayed kick drum is just what I want. Not this time though.)
Following on from this, the more harmonically complex snares and claps also did well through the 670, enriching their tone nicely, and the toms came out great too. (I only wish I spent more time sampling more tom variations, but had to make way for a paying client’s session!)
Having loved the Fairchild on the bass drums, snares and toms, I found it less useful on sounds like hi-hats. From a technical perspective, this makes sense too, when you think about the compression envelope of the Fairchild vs the transient envelope of a hi-hat. When the hi-hat is triggers, the Fairchild’s extremely fast attack more or less catches the transient immediately, but reacts so slowly (i.e. 300 ms – at least) to the fast decay of the hi-hat that the net gain (yes, pun) of running the hi-hat through the compressor is simply that – just effecting the overall volume of the sound. Of course, valve gear usually imparts a nice tone on the signal, and the Fairchild is no exception, however tonally speaking the hi-hat isn’t very”full”, nor do we usually want it to be, so i didn’t fell there was a benefit in using the Fairchild for this purpose either.
Having been through this process and found the results to sound awesome, we’ve decided to make an on-going series of drum sample packs with Liveschool. They’ll be made available periodically, so keep an eye on this blog for the next instalment! (Hint: check out this Liveschool blog post).
[Written by Anthony Garvin, Manager of Studios 301]