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Aardvark AardScape

Analog warmth for a digital world.

© Dan Phillips

This review first appeared in Electronic Musician magazine. As per their policy, the version below is my original, unedited text.

Not too long after getting my first open-reel analog multitrack, I made what might have been an uncomfortable mistake: while recording a friend playing the third and best take of a screaming guitar lead, I lost track of the level going to tape. When I looked at the meters half-way through the solo (read: too late), they were jammed far into the red. As he was finishing the take, I started to mentally compose my apology. Before I said anything, however, I decided to listen to the tape - [italicize] maybe it won't sound that bad, [un-italicize] I thought.

The reader will have already guessed what I discovered: it sounded [italicize] brilliant. Listening to the dense, rich, full tone coming back from tape, I tossed aside my half-formed apology and instead made a note to try that trick again. Of course, I had simply re-discovered a common studio technique: using the saturation characteristics of analog tape to add compression and a touch of pleasant distortion to guitar, bass, and drum tracks. Basically, this method uses the tape itself as an effect.

Despite the many advantages of digital recording - because of them, in fact - this is one game that it won't play. Hit a digital recorder too hard, and instead of the gently increasing compression and overdrive of analog, the signal changes instantly from precise, linear clarity to brittle, unpleasant distortion.

Aardvark, makers of stand-alone A/D and D/A converters and digital audio synchronization equipment, are hoping to offer the sound of analog tape to users of digital recording equipment. Their AardScape ($599) is a single-channel, half-rack-size signal processor, which uses solid-state analog circuitry to simulate tape saturation.

Front Panel

The AardScape's front panel layout is clean and simple, making basic operation quick and straightforward. There are three knobs, labeled Input, Warmth, and Drive; all have 10 detent positions, making it easy to restore often-used settings. They also rotate freely between detents, allowing finer control if desired.

In addition to the knobs, there are two three-position switches, named Saturation and Brilliance, which control the basic character of the tape saturation effect. A bypass button, equipped with a bright red LED, allows comparison between processed and unprocessed signal; input level is displayed in 3dB increments on a 9-segment meter, with a red "Over" LED. A power on/off button rounds out the front panel.

Although the controls are generally easy to understand, the "Drive" knob caused some brief confusion, both for myself and for another engineer/producer. The name would seem to imply that it affects the saturation in some manner, but it is in fact simply an output gain control, and has no other effect on the sound. Call me old-fashioned, but I'd like to see volume controls labeled as such; leave the special names for the special functions.

Gazintas & Gozoutas

The AardScape provides both balanced and unbalanced audio inputs and outputs, with 1/4" jacks for unbalanced -10 signals, and XLR jacks for balanced, +4 operation. A switch on the back panel selects between balanced and unbalanced inputs; both outputs are always active. Power is supplied via an external "wall wart;" the complaint is so common as to have passed beyond cliche, but I would have preferred a built-in transformer (to be fair, wall warts do help to keep costs down, and to speed time to market).

The Saturation Process

The AardScape's saturation process involves its own particular combination of compression and odd-harmonic distortion. As with both traditional compressors and distortion boxes, the AardScape's processing is non-linear; that is, the saturation effect changes in relation to the input level. The higher the input level, the more pronounced the effect.

The Saturation switch allows you to choose between three of these non-linear saturation curves, labeled Soft, Medium, and Hard. This is much like selecting between different channels on a guitar amp; each of the three settings has a different compression/overdrive characteristic.

The Warmth knob functions as a fine-tune control for the Saturation switch. When Warmth is turned all the way up, the saturation is at maximum intensity for the current setting; with Warmth turned down, the effect is almost bypassed.

The Brilliance switch offers three EQ variations, labeled Full, Clean, and Brite. The Full setting apparently bypasses the EQ, but when combined with moderate to high amounts of saturation, this setting generally produces a fairly bass-heavy result. Clean tightens up the bass response, but still delivers a warmer, darker tone when compared to the original signal. I almost always preferred the Brite setting, which combines the Clean setting's tighter bass with a restored high-end.

Since the EQ is in the signal path prior to the saturation section, its settings alter the compression/distortion characteristics as well as the overall tone. The Full setting, in particular, seems to drive the saturation much harder than the other two choices.

 

 

 

Saturated Phat - The Sound

I used the AardScape in my Adat-based studio over several months, on projects ranging from acoustic ballads to techno/industrial dance tracks. Some friends also used it during mixdown on a guitar-based alternative rock album.

The device worked very well on male, alternative vocals. On the techno/industrial track, I processed the lead vocals through the AardScape's Hard and Bright settings to create a heavily squashed, distorted, crunchy and angry tone, which worked perfectly. On a ballad vocal, however, I had less luck, with even the Soft setting producing a bit too much distortion for my taste.

For the alternative album mix, my friends used the Soft and Clean settings on the lead vocals to create what they termed a PA simulator, adding a fair amount of compression combined with a slight amount of distortion. They commented that the AardScape made the vocals sit better with the guitars, making it possible to reduce the vocal volume without losing it in the track.

On heavy, electric "crunch" guitar, I found that the AardScape came close to duplicating the effect of my happy accident with the analog multitrack; the Medium and Hard settings produced overdrive and compression timbres that were quite complimentary to the existing guitar tone. On the alternative album mix, however, my friends commented that when used on a cleaner, jangly rhythm guitar, the AardScape caused too much accentuation of the pick noise.

I particularly liked the way that the Aardscape dealt with kick drums, giving them a full, round body; this was the source material on which processing sounded most like real analog tape compression. Snare drums also did well, producing a fatter timbre which emphasized the buzz of the snares. The effect does seem to include a certain amount of transient smearing, so that hats in particular sometimes didn't sound as crisp as I would have liked.

On a mono submix of an entire drum kit, I had fun driving the AardScape's inputs very hard to produce a truly messed up, pumping and throbbing beat, morphing what had been a clean drum sound into something approaching the timbre of a sampled vintage loop.

I tried processing a number of sampled bass sounds, to mixed results. A fuzz bass sounded absolutely spectacular after a trip through the Aardscape, with both increased presence and a beefier low-end; on the other hand, a clean, acoustic bass sample became too gritty. Similarly, simple analog synth basses seemed to benefit, but whenever I tried a sound with filter resonance, the distortion component of the saturation process became too strong.

Although the AardScape is a single-channel processor (and in light of that, the $595 list price seems slightly expensive), Aardvark also sells them in sets of two, as a calibrated pair, complete with a rack-mount tray, for $1095. I wondered how well this stereo setup would work on a full mix, so I tried summing a few mixes to mono and sending them through the single-channel box. I wasn't really happy with the results; the distortion aspect of the processing was too evident, and the transient smearing was too pronounced.

Saturated Solution

The AardScape is a unique-sounding processor. When processing kick drum and crunch guitar, the AardScape delivered a pretty good rendition of tape saturation; the rest of the time, the effect may not be exact, but it's often interesting and useful nonetheless. It definitely tends towards the heavy side; an engineer friend commented that you'd have to hit analog tape pretty hard to approach the AardScape's level of saturation.

While it's not a panacea for all possible source material, it proved to be very useful for several critical applications, including electric guitar, drums (especially kick), and male rock vocals. If you're looking for a way to bring some analog life to your digital recordings, give this box a listen.

 

Aardvark AardScape, $595 (dual mono pair, $1095)

Aardvark Computer Systems

Phone: (313) 665-8899 Fax:

(313) 665-0694

Ratings (out of 5):

Features 3.5

Ease Of Use 4

Sound Quality 4

Value 3.0

 

Dan Phillips is a singer-songwriter in the San Francisco Bay Area, and a principal in Touch Productions, a firm providing music for television, film, and multimedia.