interview series (9) – D.W. Fearn

Doug, when and how did you arrived in the music business?

I have had an interest in electronics ever since I was a kid growing up in the 1950s and 1960s. I built a crystal radio  receiver when I was 8 and my first audio amplifier (tubes, of course) when I was 10. I passed the test for an amateur radio license when I was 12 and that experience of communicating using Morse code was excellent training for  learning to hear. I built a lot of my own radio equipment, and experimented with my own designs.

The high school I attended had an FM broadcast station. Most of the sports and musical events were broadcast, and I learned about recording orchestras, marching bands, choirs, and plays. Friends asked me to record their bands, which was my first experience working with non-classical music.

Another major factor was that my father was a French horn player in the Philadelphia Orchestra. As a kid, I would attend concerts, rehearsals, and sometimes recording sessions and broadcasts. I learned a lot about acoustics by walking around the Academy of Music in Philadelphia during rehearsals.

It would seem logical that my musical exposure and my interest in electronics would combine to make the career in pro audio I have had for over 40 years now.

I was a studio owner for many years before starting the D.W. Fearn manufacturing business, which started in 1993.

Did you already had a musical background before?

Although I was exposed to a lot of classical music as a child, I was not encouraged to play an instrument. I had music theory classes and solfège lessons growing up, but never played an instrument or sang.

Later, as a studio owner, I wanted to get at least a working knowledge of the instruments I was recording, so I borrowed and learned the rudiments of a lot of instruments. I was never very good, especially compared to the really excellent musicians I often worked with. I did play guitar and bass a bit, but a traffic accident in 1979 resulted in damage to my left arm, which makes it impossible to play any instrument anymore, except one-handed keyboard.

What was your intention and motivation when starting to develop the VT-1 mic preamp to that time?

When I built my first studio in 1968, I had a limited budget so I used old second-hand tube mic preamps to construct my “console.” Later, I could afford a real console and got rid of the tube preamps. But the sound of those preamps haunted me, so in 1992 I decided to see if I could recreate that sound. I wanted some good tube mic preamps for my own recording. I was pleased to find that I could design and build mic preamps that sounded better to my ear than any others I had ever used. Producing those as a product for sale was in the back of my mind, but I did not know if the market would hear them the same way I did. I loaned a prototype to a friend to try out in his studio, and he wouldn’t give it back.

Getting an unknown company off the ground in the pre-Internet days seemed daunting, but gradually I built up a dealer network and I had a lot of enthusiastic customers. We still sell the VT-1, the original single-channel mic pre, as well as the VT-2, the two-channel version, and the VT-12, which is a special purpose high-gain mic preamp for ribbon mics.

It’s a Class A tube design, right? What are the benefits of such circuit designs and how does that impact the sound?

Ever since I was a kid designing and building audio amplifiers of various kinds, I have been partial to the sound of Class-A triode circuits. To my ear, they just sound better. There are technical reasons for that, especially the preponderance of even-order harmonics as the distortion products.

From the beginning, I tended to gravitate to a certain sound, something that sounded more like the real music produced by the real instruments that I was exposed to growing up. This was music that did not come out of loudspeakers, and it was performed in places with excellent acoustics. That was the way I thought music should sound, and the triode amplifiers were the best way to achieve that.

Of course, just using triodes does not guarantee a great sound. The tube choice has an impact. The transformers have an impact. And even the passive components (resistors and capacitors) can change the sonic quality. Circuit design and amplifier layout also have an effect.

In all the products I have designed, I worked on the component values to achieve the sound and performance I was looking for. You have to know what you want before you start, and keep pushing the circuit in that direction.
There are many things that affect the sound, and using the best parts is important. We build all our products using point-to-point wiring, which has some sonic advantages. Each little thing may only add 1% to the sonic improvement, which may not be noticeable. But if you can come up with ten of those, that’s a 10% improvement and that will be audible.

How would you describe the quality of that special sound you’re after? For example, does it have a special “color” or is it more in the opposite direction, a rather clean and transparent sound?

Describing a sound in words is always difficult. I always want a sound that is musical and has nothing that annoys me. I listen for what I find annoying and then work to get rid of it.

I don’t like “color” in my sound, unless it is for an effect. I want to put the listener’s ear as close to the performer as I can, without being obvious or getting in the way. Sometimes that means making decisions that degrade the measured performance slightly, for the sake of a sound that is more natural.

There is no doubt that tubes have a different sound, and that tubes always sounds better to me. Solid-state audio equipment can sound excellent, but there is something special about the sound of tubes. The recording I do these days is 100% vacuum tube, with the exception of the analog stage of the converters, and an occasional FET condenser mic. That’s the sound I like, and I am pleased that it is the sound that has made our products popular.

Lets talk about dynamics. Does a preamp already impacts the dynamics of a recording?

The interface between the microphone and the rest of the recording chain is critical, and if the sound is impaired at that stage, you can never get it back. In the early 1970s, Russ Hamm did research on why transistors and tubes sound different. I remember reading that paper in the Journal of the Audio Engineering Society when it came out, and I decided to prove it to myself. The article said that the peak level out of any mic, condenser, dynamic, or ribbon, was much higher than the average level read on a VU meter. Peaks could easily be 20dB higher, and may exceed 1V P-P even on relatively low output mics. I put an oscilloscope on the output of a U67 and measured the peak level and was amazed to see how high it actually was.

The preamp has to handle those peaks in a pleasing way or else the transients will be smeared and the sound will lose impact.

Most preamps, of any design, will overload on those transient peaks. It will not usually be obvious as distortion. The sound just becomes smaller, less exciting, and rather uninteresting. The difference is how the preamp handles those overloads. All preamps will go into distortion at some level, but the nature of the distortion is the key to the sound. Solid-state devices generally produce odd-order harmonics, which we hear as discordant and annoying. Those distortion products are “out of tune” with the music.

Tubes, in properly-designed preamps, produces mostly even-order harmonics, which are musical (simply octaves above the fundamental) and much more pleasing to our ears. Long before the distortion becomes annoying, it adds fullness to the sound. It’s still distortion (the output is not a perfect copy of the input), but in many situations it is not audible as distortion at all.

This even-order distortion applied to the transient peaks makes them more powerful, not less. And tubes eliminate that “grunge” sound that is so difficult to describe but prevalent when the preamps are operating in that transient overload realm.

So it seems to be about how transients and (harmonic) distortion are actually managed within the device. Is that the same within a compressor? And from your point of view: What’s today’s importance of applying compression to audio in general?

Transient handling is one important aspect, but it is not the entire reason why some equipment sounds better than others. It is a major factor, however. There are many other circuit design details that affect the sound. Some are pretty subtle and perhaps only add 1% to overall quality. But if you can find ten of those things, that could make a 10% difference and that would definitely be audible.

All our products use a similar Class-A triode circuit topology. The line-level products, like the VT-7 Compressor and VT-4/VT-5 Equalizers, use different tubes and related components, but are otherwise quite similar to the preamps in their basic design. Of course, line level devices do not need a lot of gain. In those products, the tube electronics provides a proper interface with the rest of the recording chain, and provide the necessary make-up gain due to attenuation in the EQ circuitry or the compressor gain reduction elements.

Because the circuitry is similar, the entire family of products sound very much alike. You could call it a “signature sound” but I think of it as just clean, pleasant-sounding electronics that does not get in the way of the music. Music should be powerful and my goal is to keep it that way.

Compression can have many applications, and to properly implement any of those applications usually requires a different design approach. For the VT-7 Compressor, I wanted a very transparent sound that simply helped “glue” the sound together in an unobtrusive way. Used on the mix bus, the VT-7 makes the performance sound tighter and more cohesive without being obvious at all. Often a mix through the VT-7 sounds like a different (and better) take. On individual tracks, the VT-7 gives you the same “glue.”

There are other compression (or limiting) applications. You might want an obvious, in-your-face type of compression as an effect. I like to have that type of sound available, and one of these days I’ll come up with a compressor of that type that I really like.

And then there is the hard limiting type of device that can be useful in situations with a definite maximum ceiling, like digital recording or broadcasting. That type of device is valuable and often necessary, especially in situations that require maximum loudness. Personally, I am not particularly interested in designing such a product because it has been done very well already, particularly in the digital realm.

In a general sense, I think compression needs to be used carefully. Some music does not benefit from compression at all, and at the opposite extreme, a lot of compression on individual tracks and overall can be used innovatively to create a unique sound. You have to do what is appropriate for the music. The music will tell you what it wants; you just have to know how to serve the music using the best tools for the job.

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  1. super interesting as series indeed

  2. GREAT

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