Werrbach Guides Aphex DesignsBy Tom McGinley
Of RW Special Report
Tom McGinley of RW Online
This is one of a series of
occasional articles about the people behind today's audio processors.
It has been said that audio processing is personal.
You may not know the name of the person who designed your CD player or console, but you
may well know who invented your on-air processor.
If you use a product from Aphex Systems there's a
good chance it was designed by Donn Werrbach.
Aphex Chief Engineer
The company has been around since 1975 and grew from a
single product: the Aural Exciter, invented by Curt Knoppel.
In the 1970s, an album credit from Linda Ronstadt and a
Wings tour credit gave the company a higher profile, and it moved from Massachusetts to
California. Now in Sun Valley, its product line has expanded to include processors used by
recording studios, broadcasters and other professionals. In 1984 the owner, Marvin Caesar,
convinced Werrbach to move from Hawaii to California to take over the dutiesof chief
engineer. Every Aphex product since 1985 has been designed by Werrbach, now the company's
vice president of engineering.Werrbach spoke about his career and the
line of Aphex
products with Radio World
Technical Consultant Tom McGinley.
RW: Aphex is well-known for audio processing
products that are used both in the studio and in the air chain. Tell us a little about the
design philosophy behind early products like the Compellor and Dominator.
Werrbach: The Compellor and Dominator have proven
to be our most successful products. I think that's because they address the two most
critical and fundamental areas of dynamic range control: average level and peak level.
comp/limiters have been used to address these problems, but they are relatively primitive
and impart an audible change.
but what if I don't want that and just want the sound to be
the same as before? It has always been my curse to have to keep reinventing the wheel. I
can't help myself and I just can't stop experimenting. So that's become my design
philosophy. I want everything I create to add something to the art; to take it to a new
level; to be innovative. My approach to creating products is to imagine some kind of tool
that is needed but not available or to make a process sound better through some kind of
clever algorithm that I have to discover.
RW: The Compellor has become
perhaps the world standard for a stand-alone smart AGC unit, found in almost every radio
station and production studio. With 20/20 hindsight, why do you think it became so
Werrbach: I did not expect or even dream that the
Compellor would go so far. Naturally, I hoped it would be successful, but I didn't really
have an idea what that meant. I was totally flattered even to have a company like Aphex
take an interest and then work with me to bring it to the market.
It was my first
commercial product and to see it become so successful has been my greatest thrill. It
sells basically on its reputation alone. We are shipping as many as ever, 18 years after
its introduction. Other companies have tried to bring out a competing processor, but they
have not succeeded in matching the sonic performance of a Compellor. One reason is that
our patented processing techniques are very hard to duplicate.
From the beginning, Aphex has favored analog audio processing designs over digital
processing techniques. How has that philosophy evolved and influenced the new generation
of Aphex products?
We still know that, at the purely sonic level, analog is better than digital. That is a
God-given fact, and nothing will ever change it because digital is a quantized and sampled
numeric approximation of reality. However, digital audio is a growing and demanding market
that is displacing, to some extent, the analog market. We still find a strong market for
our analog equipment because of two things. First, there is a demand for high-quality
processing that is not being supplied by digital processors because of technical
limitations. Second, there is always an analog front and back end. Digital is just an
intermediate step where sound is stored, mixed and edited. The field of digital audio
production is a very important target for most audio equipment companies, and we do have
our battle plans in the works. We have brought out our Aural Exciter and Big Bottom as
plug-ins for a first entry. However, we have learned that hardware-based digital audio
products are much more important for the industry. We are expending a great deal of
research expense to develop digital signal processors of that type.
Our biggest advantage
in the industry is that we have so many advanced and patented audio processing techniques
in analog that we can bring into digital. Our greatest problem is that digital signal
processing hardware is still so primitive. Capturing the sonic quality of our analog
products will require very high sampling rates and intense DSP algorithms that present
hardware can't really handle at a low cost. Nevertheless, our philosophy is to maximize
the digital audio performance over putting tons of so-so effects into a single unit. We
expect to beginreleasing high-quality, all-digital products within the next 14 months.
Your most ambitious product is the
2020 Broadcast Audio processor.
The model 2020 took a long time to create and bring to fruition. It comprises more than 13
patented audio processing technologies, more than any other audio product I have ever
heard of.It was designed to go into FM radio stations and serve as the final audio
processor before transmission. It combines circuits to level out the program, add
multiband compression to improve program consistency, limit peaks for maximum total
modulation, and deal with transmission problems caused by pre-emphasis.
It also contains a
digital I/O interface and a stereo multiplex generator. Fortunately, I designed the 2020
to be modular so certain processing sections can be supplied as options. That means they
can be omitted for non-FM broadcast applications like mastering studios and such. This
opened up a number of possibilities to use it outside of FM stations, and we have sold
many to non-FM customers. It makes a fantastic mastering tool, and it is also useful for
general recording and live sound. Because it is digitally controlled, it can be run from a
PC and has preset storage for instant recall of designed settings.
The biggest thing about
the 2020 is that all of the processing is in analog. There is no loss of quality due to
aliasing and other typical DSP problems of other products. The sound produced is very
clean and natural. We feel our best bet is to model our patented, successful and unique
analog processing algorithms. We are discovering that some of them are very hard to
duplicate accurately in digital.
The original 2020 has been replaced by the 2020 MkII. We understand this is a
substantially improved design and not merely an updated version. Describe the differences.
The MkII is certainly an improvement, not that the original wasn't great too.
What I did
was to reinvent the "back end" of the processor and let certain improvements
ripple backwards. In the summer of 2000, I was in Germany visiting the WDR federally run
broadcasting company. I was impressed by the fact that German audio engineers have a
certain kind of sound they like. It is reflected in everything. They love big diaphragm
condenser mics, and they love their Genelec speakers. Voices are surrealistic, and very
close sounding like they are spoken next to your ear. The highs are sharp and strong while
bass is somewhat restrained compared to American tastes. I felt that I wanted to make the
2020 more capable of matching that sound for the German broadcast market. I also felt that
if I could do that, I could make it sound a little sweeter for everyone else, too.
result is probably the cleanest multiplex spectrum of any FM processor and no appreciable
overshoot. I also took advantage of the opportunity to upgrade the stereo generator module
with dual outputs and other added features. We reconfigured the leveler module so it can
be split into dual independent processing channels. That allows the MkII to now act as two
independent mono processors for users who had asked for it, such as TV networks and
Is there an upgrade path for current 2020 users?
Yes, we are providing an upgrade path for Model 2020 owners who want to turn them into
MkII's. All the information about that is on our Web site(www.aphex.com). For a
very nominal cost, you get all the audio processing features of the MkII but you don't get
the updated stereo generator or the new front-panel aesthetics.
Is there something unique about the 2020 Mk II pre-emphasis filter? Is this one of the
keys to the performance the unit achieves?
Yes, of course. One of my patented inventions is the distributed pre-emphasis filter. This
allows me to divide the pre-emphasis curve into two sequential stages where the
pre-emphasis can be added more gradually. In the 2020 it is divided among the multiband
compressor and pre-emphasis limiter sections. This helps keep the sound well-balanced,
even when we call for heavy processing.
Who was involved in the development
of the 2020 Mk II?
Werrbach: There are three people I would like to thank: Gary Liden, Kim Steffensen
and Richard Faith. These comprised Aphex's entire engineering staff at that time, and I
taxed them all. Without them I would still have proto boards wired together all over my
What are the next important product introductions that we should expect to see from the
I have launched the Thermionics line, which I intend to keep driving. We released the
Model 1100 Thermionic Mic Preamp more than a year ago and it is getting unbelievable raves
for its sound. There are a number of products in the works, one of which is a
comprehensive voice processor/mic preamp. This will comprise numerous processing stages
and some newly developed technology for de-essing and spatial enhancement. There will be
multiband compression, and downward expansion, equalization, etc., and it will contain a
super quality digital audio output. Of course, it will be based on my Reflected Plate
Amplifier tube patent. I also am pre-designing a very high-quality direct box, a studio
quality power amplifier, and other things that I don't want to jinx by talking more about
just yet. Outside of Thermionics, we are releasing our new Model 204 Aural Exciter with
Optical Big Bottom. There will be more 200 series products to come after that. Besides all
that, we are working intensely on a new line of digital audio products that we expect to
begin releasing some time next year.
Is there such a thing as a "Donn Sound" that sets Aphex products apart from
those of other audio processing products?
I suppose I'd have to say the answer is yes, just out of practicality.
I always design
while listening. As to what my "Donn Sound" comprises, it's hard to verbalize.
To try and describe what I listen for, I love deep unrestricted and easy flowing bass. I
hate it when bass sounds like it is high-passed, boxy, or pinched back. I spend a great
deal of time studying bass and learning ways to process it more musically. I love present
and forthright vocals. I hate it when a vocal sinks back into the mix when other
instruments are layered on, unless it is an artistic effect. I love definition. I love to
be able to distinguish all the various instruments in a mix. I like to be involved in the
listening experience. Anything that clouds or masks definition and devolves the imaging
makes me unhappy. I don't like harsh digital distortion. It hugely aggravates me and I
hear it all the time these days. Once you become sensitive to detecting digital grunge,
you are cursed forever. I spend a lot of time looking for better compression and limiting
algorithms, and of course that is purely judgmental but it lets me play god just a little.
Some of your products like the Tubessence mic preamplifier use vacuum tubes. How do you
describe the sonic differences and advantages of employing such vintage technology in an
age dominated by digital techniques? Are the differences really significant or just
With digital audio recording and production, a whole new dimension of creative freedom is
available. However, with all the great utility of digital production, engineers and
producers have accepted a profound amount of audio degradation. The total digital mix
seems to somehow go bad. It gets flat, dry and edgy. For some kinds of music this is good,
and art tends to fit the tools and instruments used by the artist, so a lot of the modern
music forms are coming out unintentionally featuring these digital artifacts.
this is seen as a problem by many artists and producers. They wish they could get the
beautiful, layered and dimensional mixes that can be made with analog. By passing tracks
or a whole mix through a piece of analog tube electronics, some of the fine detail can
sometimes be recreated and the sound improved. The question is, "Why tube, and why
analog?" Tube circuits are inherently analog, and they are not numerically linear
like digital. Tube circuits comprise numerous nonlinear properties following mathematical
laws that are foreign even to solid-state circuitry. That's another way of saying they
generate unique distortion and compression effects that can't be duplicated digitally.
There is no true digital model of a tube circuit. To get the real tone and responsiveness,
you still need the real tube amp. We have been told by our customers, many of them the crem
de la crem of professional recording, that our thermionic mic preamps just have a big,
beautiful sound they have almost never been able to capture before.
I know that is a
psycho-acoustic effect of the tube's characteristics from the many hours of listening
experiments in my lab. We can actually measure the specific distortion curve, but there
are no methods yet devised to accurately measure any of the subtle temporal or dynamic
effects. Some of the tube "magic" still remains empirical. That is one reason we
can't package this effect into a digital signal processor.
What about "digital grunge"? You have built your products on the belief that the
best analog audio processor can still be adjusted to sound "better" than any
digital unit in terms of warmth and lack of unfriendly distortion by-products at the same
Explain why this is.
Werrbach: Digital grunge is real enough. It can be reduced in digital signal
processors by exhaustive algorithm development. However, that may heavily burden the DSP
power that is economically available. Therefore, you find the grunge gets into everything
What constitutes digital grunge is the numerical rounding and truncation that
is often re-entrant or recirculatory in the DSP code, and aliasing products generated by
any nonlinear function like gating, clipping, compression or limiting.
workstations are based upon DSP engines running DSP code that can have all these
adversities in varying amounts depending upon the skills of the algorithm designer and
codewriter and the extents of processing. Just straight mixing on some workstations causes
audible grunge. Grunge can creep in at CD mastering even off an analog master because of
the A/D conversion and the DSP that is used for coding the CD format. This kind of
distortion is distinctly unnatural. No object in nature creates anything like digital
grunge. Analog distortion is comparatively benign because harmonic and intermodulation
distortion can be found in nature. That is one reason a good analog audio processor can
sound better than a digital unit. Another reason is that advanced analog processing
algorithms are far easier to develop through experimentation. To develop digital
processing algorithms, first you have to abstractly conceive of what you want to try. Then
you have to write extensive code to implement it to whatever approximation you are allowed
by available processing power. Then you have to compile the code, load it into a target
processor and finally run some audio through it to listen to the result.
algorithm designers just test their code on an offline simulator and never actually listen
to it in real time. Those who do run real-time testing can never hope to test as many
ideas as the analog designer within a reasonable time window. That is why, to this time,
digital processors contain nothing but primitive algorithms approximately comparable to
the analog art of 50 years ago. It is fairly obvious that the most reasonable path to
developing better digital processing is to model advanced analog processors. Until that
happens, and the problems of digital grunge are truly eliminated, analog processors will
always sound better.
What is your opinion of the ongoing loudness wars being waged by stations on both the AM
and FM bands? Will the evolution of digital broadcasting and the Internet change the
general sensibilities of most programmers that being loud will always be important?
Digital broadcasting will not end the loudness wars. Some of us thought, just for a
fleeting delirious moment, that it would. However, the dynamics of commercial broadcasting
are proving to be just the same as analog FM and AM. That goes for Webcasting as well.
Programmers seek every tool at their disposal to beat their competition and loudness is
one of the tools. A possible exception could be direct satellite or cable radio where all
the channels are exclusive and originated by the same company. Then there is no direct
competition between channels. In that case, audio processing is usually omitted altogether
and that causes problems. There needs to be at least moderate processing to hold up
program consistency and peak control over the medium.
What will the coming of Ibiquity Digital broadcasting mean for broadcast audio processing?
What is Aphex doing to get ready for the implementation of this new medium?
As far as Aphex is concerned, we're ready now. Our 2020 MkII is modular and can be
configured without pre-emphasis or a stereo generator. We havehigh-resolution digital
audio I/O already available. The main difference for iDAB, or IBOC as it is also called,
is that it is not pre-emphasized or limited to 15 kHz bandwidth. That is going to improve
the sound of the medium immensely if the technology for iDAB can ever reach all the
milestones and become practical enough to actually be implemented widely.
On-air processing is a subjective arena, and it's a business that seems to be more and
more defined by the marketing of high-profile personalities like Bob Orban and Frank Foti.
Where do see yourself and Aphex fitting into this competitive landscape?
Well, I don't see myself getting into a hissing war with either gentleman, although the
competition is warming up. As most can remember, Foti came out, some would say recklessly,
with a negative campaign against Orban's 8200 processor. He ran some ads about the 8200's
Naturally, Orban's company struck back, and that is when we saw Bob
himself being put out on display in their ads. They merely downplayed the grunge issue and
pitted Bob Orban's professional credibility against that of Frank Foti as they cast Frank
Foti as a junk scientist and Bob Orban as the master of audio design.It has been a sad
battle ever since. It appears that Frank may have felt the sting because he has turned
away from the direct credibility confrontation as far as I can see and concentrated on
proving himself and his products. I think we will see the high-profile personalities drop
more into the background and the product marketing become more hardware oriented.
believe that both Orban and Foti view Aphex as insignificant competition. They are keenly
focused on each other. Meanwhile, we have made deep inroads and have taken some hallowed
ground away from both. We continue harping on our better sound quality and let everybody
compare boxes to make up their own minds. Our analog sweetness and clarity, as well as the
more advanced analog processing algorithms, wins a lot of races, especially with the new
MkII release. We are certainly in it for the long run and intend to continue pressing into
Assess the quality of audio compression or bit-rate reduction algorithms used in digital
audio today, and how much improvement we should expect in the future?
I always recommend using uncompressed digital media whenever possible to anyone that will
listen. Anybody with good ears hates to hear bit compressed digital audio.
quality is so widely accepted as good sound is shocking. However, we live in the digital
age where audio quality is second in importance to distribution. The narrowness of
Internet bandwidth and ISDN audio links dictates extreme bit compression, and the show
must go on. After three decades of digital audio consumption, people are trained not to
expect anything more. The fact that "CD quality" is now the buzzword for
"perfect sound" is really disappointing to me. CD quality is mid-fi, not hi-fi.
That was not the promise of digital audio back in its infancy. We were promised future
developments would take us further towards perfect audio. Instead, what we got was a bunch
of hideous sounding compression algorithms. Yes, we now have 24/96 digital technology, but
where can you find it in use? Practically nowhere. The entertainment industry and consumer
product manufacturers aren't bringing it to the masses. Instead we get Minidiscs and cute
little MP3 players and crappy sound. Because there is such a demand to pack digital audio
into tighter bandwidths, there will continue to be more compression algorithms developed,
and I hope they will get better. Future technology may allow less lossy compression
through wavelets or fractals or some other mathematical transformation as computing speeds
soar. These methods are now only practical in non-real-time recovery at present CPU
speeds. However, when we get 100 GHz CPUs that fit into an earphone, maybe it can happen.
What percentage of the company's business is in traditional radio broadcasting? What are
your biggest growth areas?
Aphex does about 40 to 50 percent of our business with broadcast customers, both radio and
tv, but mostly radio. We have designed our products to be flexible and useful in broadcast
and non-broadcast environments alike. Our biggest growth area is on-air processing at this
point, but we are projecting additional growth areas for the future. Webcast processing is
growing. We are getting on a faster track to generating more new products with the larger
and stronger engineering staff that is now onboard. We expect to open up many new roads as
we introduce more new products. The Thermionics line that started with the Model 1100 has
made a big hit with the high-quality oriented artists and producers. We see a definite
demand for more of this family in a world where studio equipment is getting lower in
quality to meet the low price demands of home studios. Another growth area is going to be
in digital audio processors. Yes, I said digital. I cannot discount the advantages of
digital in manufacturing and sales. Digital audio products require so much less labor to
build and test that it is quite sobering. We are
constantly barraged with "When will we see a digital Dominator?"
and the like from audio industry professionals. To that end, we are
developing a digital audio platform that will take us there. We are aiming at the highest
digital audio quality, and that will elevate our
line above the others.
Of Marvin Caesar’s APHEX's CEO
de la Musique,
Paris, septembre 23rd 1994
Could you tell us when the story of APHEX
began? We started in 1975, April 1st. In America we have a holy day called
"April's Fool", where everybody is playing jokes on everyone, and this joke has
lasted almost twenty years! We started only with the Aural Exciter, and at the beginning
we only rented it for 30 $ a minute: soon the top artists around the world rented the
Aural Exciter for their albums, also P.A's for example. In 1980, we started selling the
Aural Exciter, then we came out the low-cost version..
What was the name of the first version?
It was actually a model 402, and that's what is used on albums of Linda Rondstadt, James
Taylor, Jackson Browne, Fleetwood Mac.... It's interesting to know that the 402 was a tube
unit, like our latest product now. It became more and more popular, we came out with the
602, a solid-state version, and then in 1981 we made the Aphex II, which was for sale, and
then in 1983, we started with the type B, and it sold on a much bigger market, wider
market. And we also introduced the Compeller, the Dominator, the Expressor, and we made a
left turn into the MIDI-market. I never wanna see a 5-pin connector again! So we stayed
very much focused on the analogue signal processing market.
What was your contribution to the MIDI market?
We made the Tube Factory, the Studio Clock, the Impulse, which was a trigger to MIDI, for
drums. They were the finest products, but each product required so much explanation that
by the time you finished explaining to a musician, you had no time left to make any
profit... And that's a problem with all equipments: if you look at the line of equipment,
every piece has an invention, we have patents and patents and patents: we don't make
anything that's typical, that's usual: every piece on our entire line has a story. But at
least we can explain much more easily about signal processing than MIDI to an idiot. Now
that's what we started calling us: idiots: but don't call me! Our chief engineer is coming
from the broadcast side, so his mentality is " 100 % modulation", and stop. So
almost everything we do we have a higher vision "maximum modulation, not giant
peaks", and that's very important in digital world, because every 6 dB down is one
bit. So, for example, a typical DAT player: the instruction says "Record O VU @ -18
dB". So usually the typical maximum is 13 bit, the low level signals 8 bit, and it's
just for example: so many people now use the Dominator, which is a three-band peak
limiter, to get the maximum level without flashing. (Clipping!). Perfect square waves
under threshold and the threshold is at maximum, and when it hits the maximum point, it
sounds fine. So it's a really terrific product. The retail price of the Dominator is
9000F, much too expensive for the typical home recordist, so we developed a line of lower
cost products, easy to use, easy to understand, and so clear that one reviewer in England
criticised the gain reduction meter saying "it's not accurate, because it says 18 dB,
but it doesn't sound like 18 dB of gain reduction". So he's so used to listening to
shitty products that to think of 18 dB even more than 6 dB and not have a sound, and
here's 18 dB: it's impossible! So we took our technology and made it into a smaller, less
expensive package, easy to use. The first product in the line was the 104, which is the
Aural Exciter and the Big Bottom. The circuit that we sell in it is better than the first
circuit we rented a 30 $ a minute.
We made a review of the 104 and the 105, and were surprised by the limited number
of knobs. Is that a deliberate choice?
Yes, it's a big challenge that I've made. The first thought of many home recordists look
at is "How many knobs?». They say "It has more knobs, so it's better!".
Challenge to the people is " Get a sound with your compressor, the best you can do
with any compressor, other than an Aphex. You got your sound? Now let's go to Easy
Rider". In two seconds, "Aow, which one is that?" and it's the Easy Rider
swimming. But the mentality is: "I have to have more knobs". But the others can
work and work and work, maybe they get close to the sound of the Easy Rider, with few
knobs. So that was a little bit of the philosophy of the Easy Rider, but of course of the
Aural Exciter and the Big Bottom too. One of the important features of the Big Bottom was
that it increases bass without increasing peaks, because always when you try to increase
the bass, EQ or sub harmonic synthesisers, the peak goes crazy. So you have more clipping,
the speakers blow with all this bottom, so here's the Big Bottom circuit, very
inexpensive, and it's making the bass more strong, without increasing peak. It's very
nice, especially for smaller speakers, vocal D.J, small format tapes, or digital: it's
working great. When we had the 105, which is a perfect gate, I challenged other
professionals... listen to the quality. I noticed you had written VCA on your list of
questions, and that's a very important part of the philosophy. The company philosophy is
"a signal processor must be able to do nothing before it does something". That
means that it should sound like a straight wire from input to output, without any effect,
absolutely be transparent. That's the #1 goal, and we achieved that, and one of the goals
that we achieved is through the VCA's. Very low noise, very low distortion. Now, of
course, the point of the VCA is to move! And one of the problems with other VCA's is that
they have a DC offset. So when you move very quickly, DC is coming out, at the output. Our
VCA's : nothing, micro volts.
I think you sell those VCA's to other companies...
Not at all: why should I sell my advantages to other companies? That would only look
Those components are made on our design, on our special specifications. The electronic
design around the VCA's has always been the same. The difference between the professional
products and the low-cost products is the complexity of the input and the output stages:
not just balanced, but servo balanced. Many of our professional products, if you look at
the inside, have more circuitry for input and output than in the competitors' whole box.
A VCA is moving, and one of the fastest moving VCA is a noise gate. Very often, if you ask
a noise gate to go for a 100 dB attenuation in a few microseconds, you'll hear it:
crrrr... Our VCA has no problem about that, no control offset. Also in a limiter, if the
VCA is moving, and then starts to put DC on the output, detectors looking at the DC are
working too hard, so it creates some distortion. That's another reason why our VCA is so
wonderful for noise gates and limiters. That's one point: now, look at the Easy Rider: it
is something wonderful, but if you look at the output, there's no big overshoot. The
people who want a very open sounding compressor make a slow attack time, but the slow
attack creates a big overshoot, you have to make the level lower and lower to protect from
big overshoots. With the Easy Rider, you don't need it, but many people at the home
recording level do not understand that: so you need to educate them a little bit. The
advantage of Easy Rider is not only that it sounds good, but it's also protecting peaks,
its slow attack but then it adds a faster attack. In other words, on audio sound, first
sound is slower, so it feels like an overshoot, but it's no electronically overshoot.
Do you use transformers?
No transformer, a transformer is a filter, even the better ones. Our frequency
response is almost from DC to maybe 150 kHz. People say "You're crazy, why do you
need to go to 150 kHz? " The reason is: transients. When you look at digital, 20 Hz
to 20 kHz, one of the problems is transient response. It has slew rate limitation, and
that's why digital has not that air, that feeling of space you find in analog machines. We
don't have to go into an analog versus digital discussion, but that's just one part of our
philosophies. We test capacitors for example, and listen very carefully to different
styles of capacitors, and we use what sounds good.
So you don't plan to develop products
in the digital domain?
People asked us for it, but we say "When digital starts to sound!", but right
now it's no point to make a digital reverb or delay: Yamaha, Lexicon, Alesis... there are
too many companies, and again our idea is to do everything we do as unique. We don't go
into the market to copy somebody, to do something after... I'd do another job! It's not
interesting. So we have the 104, the 105, and the 106, and now the Tubessence. We came in
and said "O.K, we need a mike preamp". We looked around and wondered what we
could do. Our first thought was to have a four-channel mike/instrument preamp, using the
SSM part, which is a standard mike preamp chip. We listened to it and we said,
"What's so special? Why do we need it?" : so instead we said "O.K, let's
make something special for the home market", and we developed a special tube circuit,
which uses a low-voltage tube : this circuit is also patent-protected, because one of the
problems we have is to come out with products that have patents. The 105 for example has
logic assistance, new gear, patent-protected: so Mr Behringer doesn't copy it! The 106 :
patent protection. On the 107, there's a patent on the special tube circuit, so it's a
combination of??? Max Spencers on front end and tube amplification: one tube running low
voltage for both channels. It's a great invention. Because it's running low-voltage, it
has a long life, no heat: it's perfect for the home market. And what we did while we were
developing the tube circuit was to bring the whole circuit into different studios to make
comparisons. And each time people listened to our mike pre, or Tube Tech or Avalon or
Neve, all the top devices, they listened to all of them and people said, "It's not
fair, the Aphex is louder!" And we look again, and we make a sine wave in the studio
and wind up perfectly the sine wave, and then try to switch again: "The Aphex is
louder!» as we have a much wider bandwidth, no transformers, and also a lot more
presence, it feels more powerful. So the impression is it's louder, same level: very
important again for the mentality of P.A or broadcast: to have more sound at the same
electronic point. We were talking and talking, and people said, "it's louder!» so
what we had to do was to make another invention, to design a product just to test our own
products. It's a switch box: mike in, mike pre out, to mike pre B, from, front (?), line
out. The reason to put it in this box is you cannot put a microphone into two mike pre's
at the same time, because of impedance loading: so you have to switch, but you can't
switch too fast, especially with phantom powers, so we have a delay on these relays, it's
totally passive, it's only relays. Then the point is: "How do we make it absolutely
perfect unity gain?» there is a test signal, the same to both preamps, comes back, one
preamp out of phase, so if you make the gain on one of the preamps to be 1/10 of a dB,
it's 40 dB down. Now we're on unity gain, now we test, and every time when it's so close,
everybody was satisfied and said "It's perfect", I compared it in Munich to a
pre-amp designed by Rupert Neve himself, we tried it on an acoustic guitar, with a Neumann
U 47, the guys playing in the studio switch the Aphex : you hear the box, and the fingers
on the strings. Neve : smaller box, the details were gone, still guitar, but as if it was
not the same instrument. The price for one channel of the Neve : 3500 DM. Price of the
Aphex : 1200 DM. So what you give up when you buy a 107 is the fancy knobs, the fancy
displays, it has an outboard power supply, a small chassis, but if you're thinking of how
it sounds, if you're dreaming to get a good sound from your expensive microphones, how do
you do it ? It's not possible. Really the market we have, even now we compared it to the
most expensive preamps in the world, but what we're telling people is "O.K, try it
against the preamp you have in your console, and then you'll be believing this is
fantastic.", an then you go to compare the mike preamp with the Aphex, you'll really
hear the difference, and also if you want to go direct on preamp, to DAT or to ADAT or to
tape, then you can do it. And not take the odd quality of the audio down through the
When we started, we had half a room, and a table. I knew some people who worked in
studios, but what really started the business going was the Linda Rondstadt "Hasten
Down the Wind " (1976) album, the sleeve notes said "Mixed with the Aphex
Aural Exciter", and people heard that album and found so much presence, they called
and that's how we started. We replaced the tube circuit with a solid state one, because
working with tubes is so difficult... It was much easier so. Today, we're going back, it's
really a terrific thing to be able to go back because now really the style is tubes.
People are making mistakes saying "tubes are warm", tubes are really open and
fast, there's no slew rate limitating, there's detail. "Warm" to me, to my ears,
is a round sound. A transistor or a solid-state circuit takes a square wave and makes a
triangle wave, because of slew rate limitating. And a square wave is like music: if you're
able to follow a square wave, you are able to follow a transient. Also the overload
characteristic: the solid-state devices mostly have hard clip, they make the edges a
little rounder, much better sound.
Will there be a new Aural Exciter built
with tubes like the first one?
Maybe, maybe. For now, we're going to use this circuit in other products;
You sell preamps, limiters, and exciters... Do you plan to develop for example a
No, it's too big a job to do mixing consoles. What we may do in the future is
maybe make individual strips, so that somebody can have compression, gates and EQ in one
strip with the preamp. It depends what the market asks us for.
All these devices would make a nice mastering console...
Can you tell us about Mr Behringer, who copied your products without licence?
The German Federal Court found him guilty in 1992, he was copying exactly the Type
B Aural Exciter, Type D, and then Type F. He copied so exactly those products, same face
blade, used the same arguments in his brochures, and so then we started pursuits in 1987.
And he put on so many arguments to the Court that it took until 1992 to find him finally
guilty. In the meantime, he kept on using and using our technology. Then the next product
he copied was the 612, a noise gate, and he copied everything so exactly, but from an
earlier version, that he even copied the mistakes we had made! But he was hard to argue we
didn't have a patent on the 612, but we went to Court because he had copied our manual,
page for page, illustration for illustration. So we could show the Court exactly what he
did, and were able to bother him for the copyright. He's an unbelievable thief, and then
he says that he developed all this on his own, so people thinks he's a good engineer, but
all he is a copyist.
Each product is a copy.
Did he copy products from other manufacturers ?
Among others dbx, Bristow, Rockon, Mackie. He comes out with a console exactly
like the Eight-Bus. So he's a very dangerous person. And it's not allowed in America to
form a cooperation to go in trial against a manufacturer. It's a problem because I play
with rules above the table, he plays with rules under the table: he has no morality, he
laughs, he makes a mockery of business ethics, and it makes me crazy because I could go
home and I could sleep, the problem is what he's doing is confusing the market by telling
them "Oh, that product is perfect, it works great", but when you analyse the
product it's a bad copy. But he's that kind to make great advertising: that's easy for
him, because he has no engineering expense. So that's why each one of the products we do
now must have patents.
Have you projects of what will come out after the Tubessence in a few months?
No, nothing I can talk out because rolling existing products out of the marketplace makes
people angry. What we do make when we come out with an improvement is that we give it to
the market too. For example, the Compellor has been around since 1984. We made a new
invention for the Compellor two months ago, and we made an update kit available to all the
owners at low cost, so people are not angry, they can install it themselves, it's very
simple, no need to go to the retailer.
How many Aural Exciters did you sell over the world?
Last year, we have produced a hundred thousand Aural Exciters, not including those, which
are licensed to other manufacturers. Yamaha uses it in the digital domain for SPX 900,
990, 1000, SY 99, the digital mixer. It's a great thrill for me to see on a Yamaha
product: "licensed by Aphex"
The other application, which is very interesting for the Aural Exciter, is for assistant
listening. There's a law in America now, if you have many people in a P.A system and if
some people, say, are hard of hearing, you must give them some way to hear emergencies and
so on. And a company uses an Aphex system and they use the Aural Exciter for the people
who have hearing loss, because the Aural Exciter works very well if your transmission is
bandwidth-limited, or if the people who are hearing have hearing loss. It increases
intelligibility, so it's a great application. Also for low-cost industrial amplifiers.
How many people work for Aphex ?
We are fourty people, we manufacture in our own factory, we don't manufacture in China. So
if we come with a change, we can react very quickly. For example, at first we made a
low-pass filter 60 Hz, 6 dB/oct. And the feedback was "No, that's not enough!",
so we made it 80 Hz, 12 dB/oct. We made some tricks: instead of being critically damped,
we made a ramp and then flat, we under damped, so you have more the feeling of bass, even
though it's cut. We trust our ears... We listened at capacitors too, for our mike preamps.
Almost all manufacturers use tantalum capacitors in their preamps. They work perfectly as
capacitors, but they sound terrible. So we use very expensive special plastic capacitors,
which work as well but sound beautiful. So we spend money for the components, not for so
much promotion: we prefer a good quality sound and people like that too.
About the two attacks-compressors
It has to be dependant on the waveform. It doesn't have a short rise time, you don't wanna
to go to another attack time, you want it to be slow. Have a sharp attack that's you wanna
do an application. So we have an intelligent circuit, not just automatic, slow/fast, but
depending on waveform. Behringer uses the term "interactive" : bullshit ! Ask
the Behringer distributor "What does it mean, interactive?
Where is the circuit?"
Our design philosophy was to have the same product applicable to many applications. For
example, the Dominator is used in recording, in mastering, in broadcast, in cable TV and
radio, in P.A too for system protection across the stereo bus and one of the most
impressive applications is an in-ear monitor. The limiter that is used all over the world
as a standard for ear-monitors is the Dominator. So the top artists, Gloria Estefan, Phil
Collins, Madonna, Barbra Streisand... they are listening to their own voice, and artists
are the most critical of course of their own voice, so all of them are listening to their
own voices through Dominators,
that's how clean it is.
That way, we can keep the price very low, even on our professional products: for example
Dominator has 8 limiters on 1 U. What do you think about the price ? It may look expensive
for 1 U, but what's inside works perfectly.