Getting the most out of the SPL Tube Vitalizer

In this article I’m going to share some analysis insights but also proposing an easy to follow 3-step approach for finding the sweet spot while processing any kind of material with this device.

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So, having now a Tube Vitalizer here on my desk (at least for some time), I was surprised about the lack of usable online reviews and background information. One just finds the usual YT quality stuff which might be entertaining in the best case but also spreads misinformation ever so often. To save those influencers honor it must be said that the Vitalizer concept is really not that easy to grasp and its quirky user experience makes it not easier. The manual itself is a mixed bag since it contains some useful hints and graphs on the one hand but lots of marketing blurb obscuring things on the other. Time to clean up the mess a little bit.

What it actually does

While easily slotted into the “audio exciter” bucket, some more words are needed to describe what it actually does. Technically speaking, the Vitalizer is basically a parallel dynamic equalizer with an actual EQ curve behaviour which aims to mimic equal loudness contours as specified in ISO226. Rather simplified, it can be seen as a high and low frequency shelving EQ to dial in a basic “smile” EQ curve but one which takes hearing related (psychoacoustic) loudness effects into account. It does this also by generating curves differently based on signal levels, hence the term “dynamic EQ”. And wait, it also adds harmonic content galore.

Taming the beast

To obtain an equal loudness contour the main equalizers center frequency must be properly set depending on the tonal balance of the actual source material. This center frequency can be dialed in somewhere between 1k and 20kHz by adjusting the Hi-Mid Freq knob which defines a cross-over point: while frequencies below that point gets attenuated, the higher frequencies gets boosted. However, this attenuation is already a signal level dependent effect. Opposed to that, the LF EQ itself (which actually is not a shelving but a bell type curve) has a fixed frequency tuned to 50Hz and just the desired boost amount needs to be dialed in. The LF curve characteristic can be further altered (Bass soft/tight) which basically thickens or thins out the below 100Hz area. Finally, this EQ path can be compressed now with the Bass Comp option.

A typical EQ curve created by the Vitalizer

On top of the main EQ path, the Tube Vitalizer offers an additional HF boost and compression option which both can be dialed in to complement the LF behaviour in a very similar fashion but in the high frequency department. Internally, both are in a parallel configuration and mixed back into a dry signal path. The according Process Level knob can be seen as a kind of dry/wet option but only for main the EQ part. The upper HF part is mixed back in separately by the Intensity dial.

Gain-Staging is key

For the EQ section as a whole, the Drive knob is the ticket for proper gain-staging. If compression can be dialed in properly for both compressors (as indicated by the blue flashing lights) input gain is in the right ballpark. One might expect to hear actual compression going on but it appears to be a rather gentle leveling effect.

Gain-staging for the output stage has to be concerned separately which might become an issue if the tube stage is activated and operates in shunt limiting mode. Now you have to take care about proper input levels since the Attenuators for both output channels are operating after the limiter and not beforehand.

Tube stage limiting: input (red) vs output (blue)

Which directly leads us to the additional harmonic content created by this device. First of all, there is always additional harmonic content created by this device, no matter what. One might expect the device to not show any such content with the solid state output stage but it actually does. The tube output stage just increases that content but signal level dependent of course and 2nd order harmonics are always part of that content. A serious additional amount of harmonics gets added as soon as the HF filter gets engaged by dialing in Intensity (and LC Filter mode activated!) but this sounds always very smooth and natural in the top end, surprisingly.

Delicious content

Also impressive is the low noisefloor for both output stage modes, tube and solid state. The first one introduces pretty strong channel crosstalk, though.

Workflow – Finding the sweet spot in 3 easy steps

Initial condition:

  • Drive, Bass, Bass Comp and Intensity set to 0
  • Device is properly gain-staged

1. Set Process to 5 and now find the best fit for Hi-Mid Freq for the given source material. For already mixed 2bus stuff you can narrow it down to 2-3kHz most likely.

2. Dial in Bass (either left or right depending on source and taste) and some compression accordingly.

3. Only then dial in some further HF content via Intensity and some compression accordingly. Adjust HF Freq so it basically fits the source/taste.

Workflow – Tweaking just one knob

My good old buddy Bootsy told me this trick which works surprisingly well.

Initial condition:

  • Left most position: Bass
  • Right most position: Bass Comp, High Comp, High Freq
  • 12-o-clock position: Drive, Intensity
  • Hi-Mid-Freq set to 2.5kHz

Now, just dial in some (few) Process Level to taste.

He also recommends to drive the input to some extend (VU hitting the red zone) using the Tube stage in limiter mode while always engaging LC Filter mode for HF.