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Classic, analog hardware modelling

As is evident after getting to grips with their plugins, Korneff Audio are the kings of classic, analog hardware modelling. Whether it be in vintage tube preamps or classic compressors, Korneff have undoubtedly mastered their craft. I’ve spent the past few days playing around with their “Pawn Shop Comp” and “Talkback Limiter” plugins; not only have I discovered some plugins that will make a regular occurrence in my projects, but I’ve also learnt a couple of interesting history and electronics lessons too.

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Pawn Shop Comp 2.0

Pawn Shop Comp 2.0

Much to the delight of my CPU, after putting “Pawn Shop Comp” to the test, it has not only taken the place of my standard compressor plugin, but also multiple other processor-hungry plugins in my chain. It really should be named “Pawn Shop Chain”, as fantastic sounding compression is just the first of its many abilities.

When first opening “Pawn Shop Comp”, you are greeted with the familiar threshold, ratio, attack, and release dials; along with an automatic makeup gain toggle switch and a gain reduction level indication needle. If all you’re looking for is standard “glue” compression, this is all you’ll need. However, if you want to push your sound even further (and trust me, you will), click the Korneff logo and you’ll “lift the face” of the compressor away, revealing a plethora of enticing parameters. This window is where you’ll spend most of your time shaping your sound and, as a result, Korneff’s attention to detail here is unparalleled — every minute detail, right down to the resistors to be used in the FET circuit, can be customised to your heart's content.

The parameters housed in this screen that you will be most familiar with include: input and output gain knobs; preamp gain and bias controls; two-band EQ parameters; a wet/dry knob, for easy parallel processing; and an “operating level” knob, used to emulate pushing real gear past its max. The ‘less typical’ hardware-emulation options available here is the ability to swap out three different models of preamp tube, three different types of output transformer material, two different kinds of FET device, and, finally, four different varieties of FET-circuit resistors (phew!).

Let’s start with the array of preamp tubes. Offering a choice of “5751”, “12AX7” or “ECC83” tubes, which you’ll be more than comfortable with if messing with valve amps is your thing, “Pawn Shop Comp” has an option for almost any production scenario. The “5751” tube has a lower gain rating than its counterparts and, hence, will produce a cleaner tone — useful for more subtle saturation. While the “12AX7” and “ECC83” tubes create a much more driven, distortion-heavy sound. Which, when combined with the dry/wet parallel processing control, can generate thick, crunchy undertones.

The output transformer allows for a choice of “Iron”, “Nickel” or “Steel” for its material. Due to a phenomenon known as “hysteresis”, when the signal through the transformer crosses zero, the particles in the transformer core flip direction. This action requires some energy and, as a result, a sort-of “crossover distortion” occurs. The various types of metal create their own, distinct, distortion characteristics — saturating the input in different ways. This is a welcome, unique addition to add some final analog-esque personality to your output.

The plugin’s two types of FET devices, the “2N5486” (being N-Channel) and the “2N3820” (being P-Channel), essentially work as voltage-controlled resistors, ideal for fast-attack compression. “N-Channel” FET units require a negative gate input signal, while, predictably, “P-Channel” FETs need a positive gate input signal. This difference ultimately alters the resistance curve of the two FET units, changing the “harshness” of the compression — much in the same vein as adjusting a typical compressor’s “knee” value, to modify its response. Although this may seem to be a loss in flexibility over a traditional compressor plugin, as “Pawn Shop Comp” has no such “knee” parameter, it is far more in-tune to the operation of true FET-dependant compression units and, as a result, more than makes up for this drawback.

The final piece of customisable, emulated hardware is the FET-circuit resistors. Here, Korneff presents the opportunity to use either two different metal film resistors, or two different carbon resistors. Carbon resistors tend to be able to withstand much higher power throughputs and, consequently, get much hotter; outputting a more vintage, much noisier sound. Metal film resistors, on the other hand, are much crisper and brighter; generating a more modern-style of compression. Korneff’s modelling for not only these resistors, but every component in “Pawn Shop Comp”, is remarkably impressive and not to be taken lightly.

In all, I found “Pawn Shop Comp” to be a critical component in numerous production scenarios, primarily on drums. Using this compressor on the drum bus to not only “glue” the multiple tracks together, but to also dynamically shape them, is a dream. The included two-band EQ allows the switching of the gain’s focus to 63Hz for the “weight” side — the typical fundamental frequency of a kick drum. Along with 1.6KHz or 2.4KHz on the “focus” side — the general attack area of a snare drum. Boosting the gain of these areas helps to enhance the transient and hence “punch” of your drums, which can sometimes be lost through fast FET compression.

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Talkback Limiter

Originating in the late 1970s, the story behind this plugin’s creation is riveting; diving into the ingenious creativity of some of the greatest musicians and producers of the recent past. The “SSL SL 4000E Master Studio System” desk; produced in 1979, and used religiously for multiple decades, housed a new “Listen Mic Compressor”. Originally, this unit was designed to compress, then boost the sound from the musician’s room. Allowing the engineers and producers to hear the musicians clearly, without any unprecedented loud sounds blasting into the control room. As the musicians could, potentially, be on the other side of the room, this compressor had to be extremely heavy.

It wasn’t until legendary record producer Hugh Padgham, also credited with creating the distinctive 80s “gated reverb” sound, accidentally discovered the musical ability of the “Listen Mic Compressor”, when in a studio session with drum-extraordinaire, Phil Collins. While communicating with Phil using the “Listen Mic Compressor”, Phil began playing drums, feeding the drum sound through the room communication mic and, consequently, through the beefy compressor unit. It sparked a sound so distinct and impressive, that Hugh had his mixing desk modified that night — splitting the output of the compressor, allowing him to patch it into an input channel on the board. The iconic sound of “brick wall” drum compression was born.

The “Talkback Limiter” plugin recreates the quintessential sound of the “Listen Mic Compressor” flawlessly, along with some additional controls and gizmos, to bring it up to modern ease-of-use standards. At the center of the window, are the original controls from the famous unit — a “Listen Mic” feed toggle and a threshold dial, alongside a gain reduction meter. Underneath, you’ll find the aforementioned modernised parameters; an “Analog” toggle can be enabled to alter the frequency response, to be more in-line with the true analog unit that Korneff modelled. Also included is a “Level” switch, permitting the choice between “Line” and “Mic” levels, the latter of which adding 30dB of gain. Enabling this “Mic” level input pins the gain reduction to maximum, producing the ultimate “brick wall” limiting effect. You’ll almost definitely want to make use of parallel compression when using this mode, to make your output sound at least somewhat reminiscent of your input. Thankfully, “Talkback Limiter” makes this extremely easy; just pull down the wet/dry ratio, letting some of the unedited transient input through.

As is accustomed to compressor units, a makeup gain knob is also included, which, again, you’ll want to make use of, as the gain reduction that this plugin produces is more than substantial. The top of the main window also houses four glowing bulbs, showing the status of each “virtual powerline”. Clicking each indicator toggles it’s power-feed on or off, in most cases, destroying your audio. Despite not being especially useful in any of my situations, I’m sure there’s someone who can make solid use out of it. If it’s authentic sounding analog crushing you’re looking for — look no further.

Much like “Pawn Shop Comp”, clicking the Korneff logo “opens up” the inner workings of the unit, exposing additional parameters. Although, I didn’t find myself delving into this screen particularly often, as I found that the parameters included in this area make very minimal changes to the sonic output. The most useful alterations I made while in this menu were GUI scale changes and oversampling multiplier adjustments. Nevertheless, the extra, appropriately themed, dials can be used for fine-tuning distortion characteristics, with the “Dist Trim” knob; compression “knee” curves, with the “FET Bias”; and a low pass filter cutoff control, labelled “LPF Adj”. Similar to the above mentioned “virtual powerline” feature, although I couldn’t find much value in this extra menu, it shouldn’t go unnoticed. The exact sound you desire could be lurking amongst these supplementary dials.

Overall, “Talkback Limiter” is the preeminent drum and low-end squasher that effectively captures the magic that is the distinctive 80s compression sound. Building on top of one of the most influential “happy accidents” in music production history, “Talkback Limiter” is a genius product that will undoubtedly become a staple of your 80s-like drum bus plugin chain.

Article by Ross Castledine Sep 2020

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Talkback Limiter
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