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Softube and Empirical Labs: Trak Pak Review

Softube Console 1 (C1) users are now able to encompass some of Empirical Labs’ (ELI) finest analogue kit into their digital workflow thanks to a first-ever collaboration between the two companies in the creation of a plugin bundle and full C1 channel strip, the Trak Pak, which I am going to be working with today. As a C1 advocate myself, and after spending an hour with Empirical Labs founder, Dave Derr, and Softube’s Niklas Odelholm, talking about the finer points of Trak Pak before I dive in, I’m keen to find out if I take to it as quickly as I did Softube’s SSL 4000 emulation which has since become my staple.

One of the easiest things about choosing C1 for me was its full integration with Reaper. It’s a DAW that super talented producer, Jack Ruston, recommended to me a few years back – Jack’s a real audiophile and said when he dug into Reaper that it became clear it could do so much more than the likes of Logic and Pro Tools, once you spend sufficient time with it.

I tend to agree – and four years down the line, I’m loving Reaper – still finding new nuances and shortcuts, and I find it does have its own sound over some other DAWs (another conversation for another time, of course).

What Reaper also has is seamless integration with C1 – so hearing about that, and the fact that I’d been seeking an analogue hybrid style workflow for some time meant I simply had to understand more about the Softube ethos and product line.

I was late to the party with C1, and even a little late with its sidekick, Fader 1, which came some years later; but my studio now houses a three-Fader 1 (30-channels total) setup with C1 as my centrepiece, and whether I’m putting it across every channel or working it in groups, it’s a joy to behold, as well as a touch nostalgic when I realise I’m riding faders throughout (with my actual hands!).

I have even considered bringing in my old DAT machine to print off an actual mix, to see if I can still manage manual fades.

Maybe a bridge too far in 2021, but never say never. Today, I’ll be using the Trak Pak for the first time – on a song I helped put together with talented London based singer-songwriter and mult-instrumentalist Cam Bloomfield.

In the pilot edition of Spotlight Journal [which dropped in December 2020] we invited Cam into Headliner HQ to write, record and produce ‘A Song In A Day’ – a cool initiative which he thrived on; in just four hours, he’d taken a beat I’d made, added some dynamism of his own, exported it as a stereo bus, written a track around it, tracked bass, guitars, keys, and six vocal tracks. Not half bad really – especially under pressure.

Safe to say, I was very impressed. So today I have that project in front of me – 27 tracks worth. We recorded everything clean, taking sound at source as always.

Guitars have no processing on them; they went into a Vox head then into a Merging Anubis before hitting the DAW; the bass just went DI into the Anubis, again with no additional processing; the keys were the same, so were all the vocals. So it’s not only a pretty dry track, it’s all going to hit the Trak Pak without any processing prior.

I’ve broken the track down into five groups – each of which is assigned to C1. I have drums, vocals, keys, bass, and guitars – and I’ve inserted Trak Pak on each one.

First up, like any C1 channel strip, there is an element to each which fills the channel strip – but not exactly as C1 users might expect. Input is the hipass filter from ELI’s Lil FrEQ and a newly-designed low-pass filter. The Shape section houses the de-esser and high-frequency limiter - both from the Lil FrEQ - and you can switch between them via C1’s ‘Hard Gate’ button.

There is a four-band parametric EQ with high and low shelf, and both the Compressor and Drive section are based on the classic ELI Mike-E, complete with ‘Nuke’ setting, as existing ELI users will no doubt be pleased to know.

Trak Pak comes highly recommended. In under 30 minutes, I’ve been able to get to grips with a completely new and genuinely unique C1 channel strip, and it’s been a pleasure. Paul Watson

As the guys at Softube have told me, setting Drive to 5.0 (50%) will generally apply the ‘glue’ of the channel strip/ console sound. This is absolutely true of the SSL 4000 emulation, so I decide to kick off here with the drum buss. But I get to 3.0/3.5 on Drive and can already feel the heat – in a good way, I should add.

Knowing it’ll get very aggressive, I continue past halfway, and at around 75% the kit starts sounding totally different – the kick sounds like it’s gone through a bitcrusher, and although it’s not right for this track, the power of the output section is immediately evident, and it’s incredibly gritty sounding.

Character works in the same fashion as ever on C1 – clockwise provides more top end, anti-clockwise will give you a darker tone. I settle at just left of centre. And the kit is already sounding great.

Onto the compressor – which I love instantly, and decide not to play around too much with. A 2:1 and 4:1 ratio both add punch and a real tightness when I apply about 25% of ‘wet’ – C1’s neat parallel control.

I settle on 2:1 and move on. At this point I want to give it a low cut at 30Hz just to get rid of the real rubbish, and I open up the EQ, which instantly sounds superb. After a 4dB boost at 60Hz – which brings the kick right in your face yet keeps it tight thanks to the compression - I add some air at around 14kHz, and a touch of low mid. It’s made a big difference, no question.

Some air in the highs, with some thump in the low. That’s what I want from my drums.

Onto bass guitar – which I cut at 60Hz to make way for the kick drum, and add some energy around 125-150Hz to compensate. I play with the Drive and at one point have it up at 8 or 9 which is clearly overkill, but the distortion is very easy on the ear so I can see this working on some bass tracks especially if you squash it afterwards (‘Nuke’ it, even?).

I like a 4:1 ratio on bass, and with no effort whatsoever, just dialling that in works instantly; it tightens and rounds off the instrument, while providing depth of tone. And on the depth note, I’ve dialled Character about 20% to the left, for further warmth, a level of distinction to the individual notes, and plenty of guts. Parallel is set at around 20% Wet.

The Keys buss is quite an eye-opener – there are four parts, and as I bring Drive up to about 4, each part seems to jump out at me, which is amazing. It’s as if each is lining up alongside the other in order, somehow.

A low cut at 100Hz takes out any unwanted mud and dark overtones within the reverb, and it’s just silkier sounding straight away; 2:1 compression with a boost around 11kHz is allowing the delays to open up, and I’m immediately noticing more width.

And now the vocals – and this is where the magic happens for me. A cut of 60Hz as standard to kill the unwanted frequencies, and Drive at around 3.5 is bringing out so many harmonics in Cam’s voice, probably more obvious on the ear as they’re not only dry, but there are three-part harmonies in there spanning his range nicely.

The Drive somehow glues it all together without losing the dynamics - which is ideal, basically. Character is at about 40% clockwise – and the EQ I find wonderfully responsive with just a 1.5dB boost at 14kHz. I love to pan my vocals, and they just got a whole lot wider.