Little Feat used to sing about a “fatman in the bathtub with the blues.” Now we’ve got a Fatman crossing the ocean in a purple box: the new Radius 3 Fat Man Stereo Tube Compressor made by Sonic Touch and distributed in the U.S. by HHB (available in the colonies for a mere $469). Let’s take this fatboy off his three-rack-space throne and see what he can do.
Product PointsApplications: Studio
Key Features: Stereo solid state/tube hybrid compressor; 1/4-inch instrument inputs; balanced TRS 1/4-inch I/Os; preset and manual modes
Contact: HHB at 310-319-1111; www.hhbusa.com; Reader Service 69.
+ Ease of use
+ Pleasing hybrid “tube” sound
+ Well-implemented presets
– Can’t be unlinked (no dual mono operation)
The Score: An excellent-sounding inexpensive stereo hybrid tube compressor that is easy to use.
There are 15 presets covering a range of suggested uses: two presets for electric guitar; two for bass; three for vocals; one each for keyboard, acoustic guitar, kick, snare and kit; and three for final mix. Only the input gain, output gain and gain makeup can be adjusted in these preset modes. The other individual threshold and ratio knobs, along with the hard/soft knee, slow attack and fast release switches are not modifiable.
In manual mode, all eight of the above functions can be altered. If you wish to make adjustments to the presets, switch to manual mode and match the settings described in the manual, then adjust to fit your taste. This process is a little time-consuming and it breaks tradition with most other outboard gear that lets you adjust the presets in the preset mode, but it is certainly workable.
The illuminated VU meter has two modes: output level and gain reduction. The on/off compressor switch lights an LED when the compressor is activated; it can be used for an A/B comparison of how much processing is being added to the original sound.
The two instrument inputs on the front panel are 1/4-inch phone jacks. The two sets of balanced TRS phone jacks on the rear panel are line-level I/O. The rear panel also has a +4 to ö10 dBu operating level switch. There are no XLR connections.
The Fat Man compressor is stereo-linked so that input, output and makeup gain are applied evenly to both channels, preserving stereo imaging – handy for a mix or a stereo keyboard coming through the front panel. Any adjustments made apply to both channels. The input amplifier is solid state, and there is a single 12AX7A tube for the second stage of amplification to give you that warm tube sound. All this is housed in a sturdily made purple case with perforated chrome vents.
I plugged my Sabre bass guitar directly into the belly of the Fat Man, selected the first of the two bass presets, and hooked it up to my board: nice round sound, even compression up and down the neck. I did find it easy to distort when adjusting the sensitive input gain knob, so use a light touch. Then, I ran a prerecorded bass track through the machine in the manual mode. It added the prescribed “warmth” to the bass in the mix, made it fatter, and definitely compressed the sound, but not enough where I could hear the compressor pumping.
Turning up the gain quickly brought on more distortion – which is a nice effect on the bass for certain occasions. I tried an acoustic rhythm guitar directly into the FatMan and instantly liked what I heard: the unit evened out the soft and loud strums and gave it a full warm sound. This could prove useful when I need a machine to smooth out my less-than-perfect playing, allowing the instrument to sit in the mix properly.
Next I sent a session drummer into the booth to record a snare, telling him to give me soft, medium and hard hits in random order. Then I put this through the Fat Man on the snare preset and, upon hearing the playback, I actually said the word “wow” out loud. My friends, this is a rare event. The compressor did an excellent job of reeling in the runaway snare track and, except for some of the extremely loud hits, was distortion-free.
I tried the same on the kick drum using the kick preset, and later bussed the whole kit through the Fat Man. It worked fabulously – anything that can keep a rogue drummer in check gets my thumbs up. This alone is worth the price of admission. Especially at this price!
I seemed to agree with most of the other presets. I liked what one did to a clean electric guitar track, but when I pushed the envelope on an already distorted guitar track, it gave me a less-than-musical sound. In this case, the added distortion was unfriendly. The second order harmonic distortions caused by overdriving the tube can be your friend or your enemy, depending on the situation, your taste, or lack thereof.
During a mix, I sent a vocal through the Fat Man. It was a little overcompressed to begin with and the Fat Man accented the nasty points in the track but in general it was a good little soldier and allowed me to get the vocal nice and loud. On an uncompressed vocal track, it added just the right touch. In the manual mode you can adjust the ratio from 1:1.5 to 1:30, a lot of room to move. I liked that the ratio adjustments seem to audibly affect the sound much more than my other compressors. On most compressors, the threshold knob is the one most used. With the Fat Man, the changes in the ratio settings audibly broaden the palette.
The one or two presets for each instrument offer varying degrees of compression and in the process affect the equalization of the sound, for the most part, in a pleasant way. I’d hire the Fat Man any day to help me get the optimum volume to digital tape or hard disk and avoid going into the red.
The linked stereo channels allowed any changes in a mix I compressed to simultaneously affect both channels. The negative corollary is the fact that each channel cannot be adjusted individually. In other words, it can’t be unlinked and used as a dual mono compressor.
How phat is fat? Well, certainly the Fat Man can’t work miracles, but he can add more fullness, presence and warmth, especially if you are recording digitally. The manual is a good read – it can tell you probably more than you are willing to remember about how they manage to get a stereo sound out of a single tube, and how when you “compress” something you are actually making it “larger.”
But like fast food, sometimes we don’t really want to know how they make it – just give it to us quick and fat. And the FatMan delivers.