Cherry-picking the best aspects of vintage outboard and marrying them with modern refinements is Doug Fearn's speciality. Dave Foister explores his new valve EQ
THE CONCEPT IS FAMILIAR, although the name may not be; the idea is an old one, but this is a brand new implementation of it. This is the approach brought to the other product bearing the DW Fearn name to have appeared in these pages, the VT-1 microphone preamplifier. The VT-1 is a massive 3U-high red box containing just one valve preamp with the bare minimum of facilities, and represents Doug Fearn's ability to rethink valve designs using modern technology. This time the Fearn touch has been applied to the vintage style of equaliser, producing an EQ that may be the first product of its type for some time that is not a conscious clone of an old favourite.
The VT-4 is so obviously in the style of Pultec that it could be taken for a replica, but the resemblance is superficial. Apart from the Fearn blood red colour, the facilities and control ranges are different and the unit sets out to be very much its own EQ. Having said that, the whole operating principle is that old approach so rarely seen today: completely passive LC filter circuits (with custom Jensen inductors) set between valve input and output amplifiers. Those in the know will appreciate that any reduction in detailed adjustability is more than compensated for by a sound that is very different from that offered by active EQ.
There are five 'bands' on the VT-4, but the term is not quite apt because each band can apply either boost or cut -- none can do both. Thus there are separate sets of controls for LF boost, LF cut, HF boost and HF cut, and this is not as daft as it sounds because the frequencies and characteristics are different for the boost and cut circuits. It's not possible to set either pair of boost and cut filters so that their actions cancel each other out. Instead the cuts appear to be optimised for gentle corrective filtering while the boosts are for more creative tonal alterations, and the possibilities presented by being able to do both simultaneously are interesting and unfamiliar to those used to modern mirror-image EQ filters.
We often don't do the numbers when looking at equipment like this but in this case an idea of what's on offer is perhaps a bit more pertinent to what it does than with some devices. The Low Cut gives up to 18dB of shelving filter at 30Hz, 40Hz, 100HZ and 400Hz, making its use for removing unwanted low end artefacts apparent. Few other EQs have settings as close together as 30Hz and 40Hz, but the difference when you need to get rid of an LF problem without eating into wanted signal is worth having. The Low Boost gives up to 12dB of lift at 20Hz, 40Hz, 60Hz and 140Hz; the difference in the ranges is immediately obvious and suggests all kinds of combinations where the boost can put in some bottom-end punch when the cut has removed a problem.
Similarly the High Cut operates at 1.7kHz, 4kHz, 10kHz and 28kHz (sic), up to a maximum of 14dB of cut, while the High Boost goes up 14dB at 2kHz, 3kHz, 4kHz, 5kHz, 8kHz, l0kHz, 12kHz and 16kHz. Once again the frequency settings are very close together on the Boost circuit, allowing much more subtle adjustment than the switched design might suggest. The Cut on the other hand covers a very wide range in very big steps, with a broad smooth curve that means the 28kHz setting does occasionally have some audible effect (although it's perhaps one of those settings that you so much want to be able to hear that you start to fool yourself). The High Boost even has variable bandwidth, with five switched Q values from 0.6 to 1.7 -- not a huge range but a useful variation.
The filter complement is rounded off by a Mid Cut filter, operating from 200Hz to 700Hz in 100HZ steps, with a maximum cut of 16dB. All the filters' gain settings are adjusted in increments of 2dB, which is a fine enough difference for most purposes. In fact the first surprise with the VT-4 is just how subtly variable it is; you expect a slightly clumsy stepwise adjustment, with the finished setting being close to what you want but not quite on the button, but in practice it's not like that at all. It seems the only way you'd know you're operating switches is the mechanical noise of the switches themselves -- the sonic changes are smooth and allow detailed adjustment. At the same time the advantages of repeatable switch settings are obvious, and the VT-4 is precisely calibrated with the intention of allowing two to be used for stereo -- this would be an ideal mastering EQ, with just the right kind of subtle overall contouring, repeatable settings and accurate channel matching. Five for surround anyone?
Many of you won't need me to tell them just what an EQ like this can do for you. It may not be what you want for the really extreme stuff, but for gentle to medium EQ it's a whole different palette of possibilities from the usual fare. And because the Fearn philosophy is Valves Revisited, the circuit design is tube state of the art, removing the worries that accompany the use of genuine vintage gear. The VT-4 could sell itself to those in the know without them even hearing it; the rest should hear and be converted.
DW Fearn, US.
Tel: + 1 610 793 2526. Fax. + 1 619 793 1479.