FROM MODDING TO MODELLING
UBK got its start modding Empirical Labs’ analogue Fatso, now Gregory Scott is digitally modding the Distressor. We talk about his new company Sly-Fi Digital, and which is better, analogue or digital?
Story: Mark Davie
Holidays were done differently in 1982; quite a bit differently under Gregory Scott’s guidance. 10-year old Gregory’s parents had bundled the kids into the car for a guided cassette tour of Nova Scotia. Its running commentary steering the Scott’s on a course between significant Canadian landmarks… mostly lighthouses.
Young Gregory had just requisitioned his first tape deck but had no material to try out his new contraption with. Then it dawned on him that they’d been listening to a tape all day; a tape he could record on. Blithely he popped his parent’s cassette out of the car console as they pulled in for the day. Later that night, beneath the doona cover he slipped a piece of tape over the erase tab and began playing it back, stopping every now and again to record. The next day the Scott family holiday was punctuated with Gregory’s mod — a fresh, inappropriate, look at the Nova Scotian landscape — which his parents, without flinching, listened to for the rest of the trip.
LIFE IS ONE BIG MOD
Being a world-class modder of audio gear (UBK Fatso), hardware designer (Clariphonic, Electra EQ and Tweaker) and plug-in developer (House of Kush and new company Sly-Fi), I figured Scott’s childhood would have included more torn-down radios than wisecracks. He’s a joker, for sure, just listen to his UBK Happy Funtime Hour podcast for a taste. But taking a soldering iron to his dad’s hi-fi equipment would have been one hi-jinx too far. “He was upgrading his rig every two years,” said Scott. “Amazing headphones, quadraphonic; whatever was ‘the latest’, my dad was spending money we didn’t have on it.” But he was grateful for his father’s habit because young Gregory was indoctrinated with great sound, not merely sound engineering practice.
With hindsight, Gregory’s life looks as planned out as a Nova Scotian sightseeing tour, but his take is that he got “sucked into the life” by doing things he typically wouldn’t. It all started off with a Gearslutz user gathering — an ‘I’ll show you mine if you show me yours’ of audio gear. He’s a self-described hermit, so when he told his girlfriend (now wife) he was planning to hitch a ride along, it raised both eyebrows. When he arrived, Scott recalls the room being divided in half like a school dance — people that seemed younger than him on one side, and a group that seemed older on the other. The older guys were laughing, so he joined them. That night he met Gil Griffith, owner of Wave Distribution and distributor of Dave Derr’s Empirical Labs.
They hit it off, and Scott left Griffiths with the open-ended promise, ‘whatever you need…’ A while later he was at a tradeshow helping out on the Wave Distribution stand and noticed people vibing with the ELI Distressor but walking away confused by the Fatso. Surveying the crowd, he realised people were instantly gelling with the Distressor’s distortion characteristics and a bit bemused as to why they weren’t getting the same effects from the more polite Fatso. He took the idea of a more aggressive Fatso to Griffiths, who sent him over to Dave Derr.
Scott had never planned to be a builder of gear, so when he rocked up to Derr’s Empirical Labs headquarters for a Fatso modding how-to, he wasn’t expecting to get more than a few bucks a unit. “We took it to Dave,” said Scott. “And he was like, ‘I don’t even want to know what you did, just sell it on your own and make sure your customers don’t bother me.’” With Derr’s ‘blessing’, he and Griffith formed a business and started shipping units.
Scott’s next meeting of fate was when he moved home for a year to house sit his parent’s place and met Kevin. Kevin’s the same age as Scott, and they would have met years earlier in high school if they hadn’t lived in different districts. He’s also a DIY gear obsessive. These days, Kevin does the mid-level implementation of Scott’s analogue hardware designs for Kush. While Scott’s completely at home hacking a device’s output over a bread board, some jumper wires and a rough schematic, he prefers to let a more steadied hand fret about the final layout. “I get something basic cobbled together then give it to this genius and he makes it a million time better, then he hands it to another genius and makes it another million times better than that,” explained Scott. “They send me the first prototype and then I start tweaking from there. I usually do about four different prototypes of a piece of gear.”
SLY-FI: A NEW ADVENTURE
Since then Scott has flipped between a mix of hardware and software products, occasionally leafing through his journal of 37 product ideas to find a fresh challenge. His latest are three plug-ins from an entirely new company called Sly-Fi Digital: the Deflector compressor, Axis EQ, and a one-trick pony mystery box named Kaya. Scott has no real answer as to why he started a new company to launch the new plug-ins, he just chocks it up to instinct; instincts that have served him well so far. And then there’s his bizarre logic, “It makes for a fun job and having two companies is half the work.” … right.
DEFLECTOR: ORIGINAL DISTRESSED
The first of the three plug-ins has brought Scott right back to Derr’s front door. The Deflector is Scott’s take on the Empirical Labs Distressor. “I had just come off the UBK Fatso and became really obsessed with what else I could mod. Nothing in my rack was sacred. I loved all the gear I had but no piece of gear is flawless to anybody’s ears. You buy something and there’s gonna be 10 things you love about it and one thing you don’t.
“Primarily I wanted to see if I could make the Distressor tonally neutral. It has a specific forward sound that most people love. I wanted to just hear the compression and none of the distorted forwardness it had.”
AudioTechnology: “What does Dave think about you releasing the plug-in? At least with the Fatso you had to buy the original units to mod them.”
Gregory Scott: “I don’t even know if Dave is aware this plug-in exists, and I don’t know if he would care. It’s very purposefully not a Distressor. It’s definitely in the same family but the Distressor is hardware and this is a plug-in. I know there’s another company coming out with their Distressor soon, and I’m curious to hear it.
“My main complaint with all plug-ins, including my own, is that they don’t have the same transient behaviour as analogue does. It’s not that analogue is better, it’s just that the analogue version does a specific thing.”
AT: “What’s the main difference?”
GS: “It’s all in the transients — half a millisecond to a millisecond of sound at the most. It’s mostly the speed and therefore the frequency of the sound’s leading edge. The waveform is either coming at you or pulling away from you at the speaker, right? So a transient is everything that’s moving forward. Analogue, no matter how transparent or clear it is will slow that. It just shaves it off, ‘you’re not going any faster than this’. It’s got physical limits. No matter what you do in digital, it’s way too fast. To my ears, there’s a form of brightness to the sound that cannot be drawn out.
“The opposite is true. There’s something about the slowness, and it just gets slower the more coloured gear you’ve got in the path. Analogue sound is slowing down the high frequencies, making the bass come out phase shifted a little ahead in time. Digital can’t do that yet, though it may someday. I actually don’t think it will. I think they’re just mediums that are always destined to sound a little different.”