In our October 2011 issue, I had the pleasure of introducing Radial Engineering's new 8-slot 500-Series rack enclosure, the Workhorse, and started taking a detailed look at new 500-Series modules from Radial. In this issue, we move on to the Radial PowerPre and Komit Compressor. One is a very original Radial design, the other a reimagining of an old classic in a new form.
First up: the PowerPre. As with all of the modules in the line and reminiscent of Radial's uber-tough direct boxes, the PowerPre is fully enclosed in a steel housing. Its extra thick front panel is done in a classy baked enamel blue finish, and all of its buttons and switches are of the highest build quality.
It features +55 dB of gain, phantom power, highpass filter, phase reversal and a -15 dB pad. There is also a front-mounted XLR microphone input, a full 10-segment signal LED meter and a 3-position voicing switch labeled VOX with a choice of Breath, Linear or Punch settings.
While most of this sounds fairly typical of a mic pre, other than perhaps the VOX switch, it's in the details were the PowerPre comes to life.
An old transformer does new tricks
Radial is quick to point out that, sonically, this is not another Neve 10-Series wannabe, nor does it aspire to be like any other famous preamp. It doesn't even perpetuate Radial's usual love affair with all things Jensen. Instead, the PowerPre is designed around an old Hammond broadcast transformer. Not "that" Hammond; rather, these transformers were most often found inside early broadcasting desks such as those by Ward-Beck. If you think of the deep, rich sound of vintage radio announcers, you will be in the ballpark of the PowerPre's sonic vibe.
Not content with just one tone, the VOX switch takes this rich solid sound of the Hammond transformer and gives you a pair of preset eq boosts. As you can guess, Air adds a twinge of openness to the high-end, while Punch gives the lows a nice kick in the pants. The center section or Linear is the true unaltered sound of the circuit.
From AccuState to OmniPort
The word 'linear' brings us conveniently to the unit's next feature, its AccuState output gain pot. This ultra-smooth pot plays upon Radial's problem-solving strengths, by tackling an inherent issue found in many mic preamps: Turning the gain pot often results in large, unnatural jumps in volume, especially the last 20% of many a pot's throw. In the past I have had much experience with said touchy volume pots, i.e. "Nothing... kinda something... little more... whoa, too much!"
Radial's proprietary design gives a detailed and even response across the spectrum, free of random jumps. The other half of the AccuState design is that it does so with very little self-noise. This is one quiet preamp, with a noise floor that only starts to become audible when used with low-volume dynamic mics and ribbons and pushed darn near close to +50 dB and above, i.e. the last 5% of the unit's throw.
It's surprisingly rare to find microphone preamps with even a clip LED these days, let alone 10 stage input metering, as such the Power Pre's input meter is most welcome.
And while many mic pres offer a highpass filter, this one cuts a bit deeper than your standard 80 Hz version, it starts at 150 Hz and is 3 dB down at 100 Hz.
Unique to all of the Radial modules is the new OmniPort. This is a special 1/4" TRS jack located on the Workhorse that gives all Radial modules a special extra function, as detailed in the October 2011 issue. On the PowerPre, the OmniPort serves as a 1/4" instrument in, and gives the Power Pre additional DI status.
Test notes and conclusions
I would call the PowerPre full, solid and clean with a classy vintage sound; it falls nicely into the "classic console preamps" category and as such it stacks very well. The Breath switch adds a nice air to vocals as well as acoustic string instruments. It is more of a general openness than brightness. Punch is nice for bass, electric guitars, kick drum and toms for extra thump, but it is not heavy-handed or muddy. That said, however, whether on acoustic guitar, drums, voices or guitar cabs, I like the classy, full smoothness of the Linear setting the best.
This is a stellar, unique sounding preamp; a rack of 4-8 of these would serve any studio from project to pro very well. And that many channels isn't at all out of range; at $499 street price the PowerPre is also one of the most affordable 500-Series preamps on the market: a great bonus!
The Radial Komit is a VCA-based compressor, sonically flexible, yet functionally simple. The folks at Radial call it a "single-dial auto-tracking compressor-limiter".
The Komit Compressor actually started life as a short-run boutique product by the now defunct Bergen McDaniel Designs. The original was a hand-built affair with a military-meets-science-experiment design that touched on the bizarre, such as an odd old-school mechanical VU meter, oversized military knobs and all cryptic nomenclature that bordered on hieroglyphic. It shipped in an actual decommissioned military ammo case and sold for an initial price of about $750 street. (For a more detailed history, check out Radial's web site.)
Meet the new Komit, same as the old Komit - just better
According to Radial, the Komit has been sonically and functionally unchanged, it's just been improved and altered in the slightest of ways. The biggest change is the look and the build quality. While Radial pays homage to the original with its olive drab color scheme, all of its pots, switches and housing are all now Radial-grade.
Also gone are the best-guess symbols, replaced by actual numbers and words. The other significant changes are the welcome replacement of the original's wonky meter with a dual ballistic 10-step LED meter (the same one as on the PowerPre), an additional Brick Wall Limiter setting, the added OmniPort feature, and the original's fiddly internal +4/-10 dB level jumper being replaced with a handier recessed button on the front panel. All the other components and functionality remain, including a Hammond input transformer... which may be where the idea came from for the PowerPre?
In addition to the +4/-10 dB input switch and the LED meter, the heart of the unit is its center compressor section which contains a continuously variable ratio knob (1:1 to 10:1) and a simple 3-position toggle switch with a choice of slow, medium and fast auto-attack and release times. The ratio knob makes use of a FlexKnee process, whereby the knee gets harder the higher the ratio.
As on a vintage compressor, the actual input signal is driven into the unit by an external source. The signal is then boosted back up by a single make up gain knob with +22 dB of gain. Overall this is a very smooth and clean compressor, but the more you clamp down and boost, it does start to get some subtle character as well.
Take it to the limit
The compressor and makeup gain are then followed by an old-school Diode Bridge clipping limiter, and this is where subtle goes out the window. If you keep the limiter set gently and the output gain close to unity, its stays clean and controlled, but as you can imagine, if you set the limiter to a lower threshold and push some of those 22 available decibels into it, you can enter full-on clipped distortion land in no time, as well as lots of shades of added harmonics in between. If that's not your flavor, Radial has added an additional setting of a traditional and cleaner 25:1 brick wall setting as well.
Two Komits can be linked for stereo with ease in a Workhorse, and it's worth noting that unlike typical stereo compressors that are linked via a control voltage, the Komit sets up a dual master-slave situation where both units trigger off of the same time constant, yet still maintain their individual control. The OmniPort function for the Komit is a true Key input for side-chaining.
I have had a very long love-hate relationship with the Komits, as I owned a pair of the originals and then I sold them. At the time, I found them very frustrating, prone to distortion and tricky to set up and tame. At the same time, they became one of my absolute favorite compressors for Americana and folk based acoustic guitars, as well as vocals.
It has only been since using the new Radial units that I came to realize I was setting them up all wrong most of the time and essentially driving them too hard. The Komit is a finesse unit and is capable of subtle control and presence to a full-on heavy grit-fest. It's another one of those units where a little knob movement will yield big changes.
So what is the Komit good at? I still love it in subtle mode on acoustic guitars and vocals, but it also excels at drum room squashing, thick in-your-face electric guitars, and is also nice for bringing life to dull DI'd bass tracks. I also found it great for adding edge to vocal tracks, especially vocal doubles alongside the cleaner lead vocal.
This is a compressor that you finesse, set and trust rather than tweak, and that is its challenge and its charm. I have gone from love to hate back to wondering if I can live without them again-sounds like any honest relationship! And once again, the last and best news is that unlike the boutique priced originals, the new models are only $499 street. Unique, musical, and affordable... go figure!
Prices: $499 street (each)
More from: Radial Engineering, www.radialeng.com