Softube Abbey Road Brilliance Pack – Secret Spice
Hi and welcome back to Music Nation StudioWise. After reviewing some incredible new plugins from Swedish developers Softube I was really keen to look at a few of the oldies to see if they still hold up in today’s studio environments. This week, its the Abbey Road Brilliance Pack, a three-piece EQ bundle modelled from original 1960’s EMI hardware.
In the early 1960’s, when studio engineers wore white lab coats and studio control rooms look more like Dr Frankenstein’s lab, audio equipment was built to a much higher standard, even over-engineered due to the industry being mostly closed to independent operators, hence no costs spared and no corners cut was the motto. Abbey Road Studios were particularly known for the incredibly custom built EMI/Seimens built equipment that was never meant for mass-production, or in fact, to be moved.
The early EMI Redd 17, 36 and 51 consoles were the pinnacle of design at the time, fully tube design with unheard off 8 in 4 outs with rudimentary bass and treble controls. Funny by today’s standards, but the revolutionary EQ section had only a single frequency, but since it was semi-modular, could be swapped out with a choice of either pop or classical.
Many external devices we made to be inserted permanently to extend the mixer’s capabilities, each given an identifying number. The RS127 was the 127th device made, and proved to be very popular for adding brilliance and presence to tracks. Since it was difficult, if not impossible, to move these racks to other studios in the facility, special green ‘mobile’ boxes were made with the same internal design. The main difference being the internal power transformers which had the happy side-effect of introducing much broader harmonic anomalies and exaggerated the high-end frequency range, which ironically made them more desirable as inserts on the inserts in the main rooms where the original rack units were kept. The RS127 was made to introduce higher frequency ranges to recordings, the RS135 was designed to add more of the bridging mid-high 8k range that was missing on the Redd consoles.
The technology of the time relied on huge power transformers to convert very low amplitude audio signals from microphones up to a usable volume level to mix, and they introduced overtones and noise to the signal. In the day engineers went to great lengths to remove as much of this as possible, it seems now we’re trying to add as much of this back into our digital recordings as possible.
So, history lesson over, let’s get the software installed and cranked up to see if we can recreate some of that 60’s mojo. You can wear a white lab coat and light a pipe if you wish to capture the full immersion of an Abbey Road Studios recording session in the 60’s.
In what looks on the surface to be an ultra-minimalistic design, Softube Abbey Road Brilliance Pack is a set of three characteristic EQ filters modelled from the original preserved rack units.
The grey RS127 is the main filter, featuring three fixed frequency bands and stepped boost or cut positions +/-10db. Also included is the green RS127 which is the mobile version, featuring the exact same controls, but an extended frequency harmonic range thanks to the modelled transformed input circuitry. Finally, the RS135 which is the 8k boost-only device intended to bridge the gap between the Redd console’s set 5k filter and the RS127.
If this is your first Softube purchase, you’ll need to install Gobbler, a download manager that handles all the iLok activation and setup behind the scenes. It’s a bit of a faff to setup for the first time, but after that everything is a breeze to download and setup.
Graphically, all three units look great, in a very retro kind of way, capturing that old-school looking bakelite dials and flat painted, utilitarian steel box design. Unfortunately, they are very small and can’t be scaled, but the important indicators and text are all sharp and easy to read.
Starting with the grey RS127 first, this is a very simple EQ featuring three presence frequencies, 2.7k and 3.5k for presence and 10k for brilliance, with a stepped 10db boost or cut in 2db increments. To be honest, on the first run through I wasn’t sure what all the fuss was about, it sounds ok, it did the job. There is a non-linear response curve, so the more you hit it, the more in hones in on the selected frequency. However, the 2db incremental boost or cut steps are very subtle, even at full 10db, this is not an aggressive sounding filter.
Since this is a single band filter, the bell curve has no phasing issues or crosstalk, so you do get a very clear response, but the real magic is not immediately apparent if your ears are digitally attuned like mine are.
Doing a side by side comparison with a standard parametric eq (I used Reapers excellent ReaEQ) the results are interesting. There are two distinct ‘sounds’ with this EQ – the frequency resonance and the harmonic overtones. The resonance is similar to any other EQ, though the Q width is hard to judge due to its non-linearity, and as mentioned, these filters are very subtle, so a 10db boost sounds more like a 6-8db boost on ReaEQ. Of course, you can fix this by simply applying two instances of the filter in a row, and then boosting them both.
What is vastly different, though, is the added harmonic content, you don’t notice this until you A/B with a digital EQ. I can only describe it as a lustre or a luminance underneath the air. It’s weird, and unless you know what to listen for, easily missed. At full 10db boost the R127 sounds very natural and smooth, but when you swap in a digital EQ you get the same top end sizzle, but you can easily tell it’s missing the harmonic layer, it’s like the stereo width has been reduced 20% or so. It’s not the top end sound, its the creamy layer underneath that adds more width.
I was tempted to produce a video showing the difference, but since YouTube compresses audio horribly, I think you should just download the free trial and listen for yourself.
So with newly found awareness, I applied this Reaper/RS127 test to a bunch of source tracks and the difference is quite literally night and day. Most impressive I found were instruments with naturally occurring high range frequencies, such as acoustic guitar, cymbals and overheads, orchestral instruments – especially violin, wow. Also equally impressive is the plugins ability to boost anywhere up to 10db with zero signs of distortion or harshness.
The EQ is too smooth to accentuate anything needing serious boosting, particularly around the 2.7 and 3.5k range, both of which are my favourite go-to starting points for bringing out an electric guitar from a rock mix, it just doesn’t have the punch. But when used purely as a presence boost, amazing.
Moving on the green portable variant, the results are a lot more immediate, with a noticeably wider and more exaggerated top end sizzle. I felt it was a little too coloured for my tastes from some sources, such as vocals and synths, but generally very nice. The Q width is a little sharper too, so there is a more pronounced frequency bump the harder you push it.
Though it might seem odd that two of the devices are essentially the same EQ units, all three can actually work interdependently of each other well. For example, sometimes you want more high-end, but you don’t want to risk thinning out the sound too much. One unit can cut the low 2.7k range, and the other slightly boost the high 10k – less overall boost with similar results, sort of push and pull style.
Finally, the black RS135 8k boost-only filter is very…..very gentle. Its boost might be internally measured at 10db, it just feels way less in practice. The harmonic characteristics of the RS127 are not so prevalent here, but there is a good amount of character in the device. 8k is one of my favourite frequencies to pull forward vocals and acoustic instruments, so I’m happy the plugin is featured. The trick again here is to incorporate all three filters together, each focusing on a band, giving you very focused and distinctive top end control.
All three devices can be pretty much used on any track source, bus or master output. In the day the green RS127 was often used for mastering purposes, so collectively quite flexible in their application.
DSP requirements are negligible, measuring around 4% on our system with all three devices inserted. With any modern spec computer, you’re not even going to notice these guys running.
Abbey Road Brilliance Pack is a deceptively complex and flexible top-end EQ set.
The top end clarity with each of the units is stunning, working together is pure magic. To use three separate devices as one is an unusual workflow, especially if you’re used to an all-in-one channel strip plugin, but once you get your bearings you’ll be reluctant to go back to the confinements of a channel EQ.
I do like the GUI design, but I feel its time for a 2018 update to something scalable. The $199 USD price tag is a little steep for a12-year-old VST effect, but I haven’t heard anything that comes even close so far. Considering the role it can play in your studio, this could almost be a required purchase.
The top end frequency range can be overlooked for more focus on the low end punch these days, but its the most important area for defining clarity and width of a track. This is a very specific product that will be a godsend for productions centring around vocal and acoustic instruments, but the subtleties possibly lost a little on more energetic music like hip-hop, metal and EDM. It is, however, one of the most characteristic EQ’s we’ve tested here, and on the right occasion, that magic spice that will transform your production.
Download the 14-day trial demo and give this a good test, I think you will be impressed as well.