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Review: Inner Tube Audio Atomic Squeezebox

A compressor that boasts artefact-free compression? We’ve heard it all before but this unit really puts the squeeze on.

By

22 January 2008

Review: William Bowden

Inner Tube Audio is a tiny US company run by a most unusual man by the name of Stayne McLane. A quick look at the website www.innertubeaudio.com under the ‘Employees’ section reveals the man’s vibe – it’s him in every photo, including the white-coated loony. Still, the mad professor’s work has been garnering attention, mainly for a product called the Atomic Squeezebox that claims to compress signals without the traditionally associated artefacts – i.e., pumping or frequency loss. These boxes are super pricey, totally hand-built tube designs, and have to be ordered a good couple of months in advance. They come with no manuals either, just a couple of colour photocopies of the brochures already found on the website. It’s all very anti-establishment, almost underground in a way…

RELEASE THE SQUEEZE

The Atomic Squeezebox comes in a couple of varieties: Dual (stereo), and Mono. I was lucky enough to have both for this brief review, including two Mono units to shoot out against the Dual unit. While the wiring isn’t the neatest I’ve seen, the construction quality is fairly solid except for the unusual use of a plastic chopstick in the bypass mechanism of the Mono unit that was somewhat, err… original!

The units are nothing short of intriguing. I think it’s no exaggeration to say that there’s nothing quite like them on the planet. I found the Dual unit, with its separate power supply, quieter than the Mono – which exhibited minor low-level mains hum. Meanwhile, the large switch controls on the Mono were easier to get around. Sonically there was almost no difference between the two models. A stereo linked pair of Monos was almost indistinguishable from the Dual model. I set both units to the same parameters, fed them a split of a signal, phase reversed one, added them together – and the result? Not too surprising, almost nothing, given that they use the same tubes and transformers. This is certainly reassuring in terms of quality control. The Mono runs extremely hot – think a Manley Variable-Mu type of heat – while the Dual is much cooler – no doubt as a result of the external supply.

I used the units mainly on stereo material: either the Dual or two Monos (stereo linked), though I also did some work with them set up as an MS pair. Simply running the signal through either box with nothing ‘dialed in’ resulted in a nice present and pure sound. The midrange protruded a hair perhaps, but it was extremely clean for tubes and transformers. Both Squeezeboxes were sensitive to units with high impedance outputs (such as my Sony CD player) and were best fed signals that weren’t super-hot either, as they could ‘load’ the output of the device feeding them.

The compression characteristic of these boxes is unlike anything I’ve experienced so far. Dialling in more Squeeze (threshold) and adjusting the Slope (ratio) reduces the dynamic range of the signal, but it’s as if the sound gets flattened, in a way. It’s difficult to describe… but on an average song, snares, for example, become less peaky, vocals tend to come forward a little more, and bass becomes more even. It’s as if the whole signal goes through some kind of ‘medium’ that glues it together more, though the sonic relationships between elements remain largely undisturbed – it’s the dynamic relationships that change.

There seems to be very little pumping, even at extreme (or wrong) attack and release settings, and it’s difficult to make the gain reduction obvious. This level of artefact-free control is very difficult to achieve with normal compressors. Looking at the VU meters on my TG mastering console was an education when playing with the Squeeze boxes. There were aspects to the action that were easier to ‘see’ rather than ‘hear’ sometimes. If I looked at the VU meters bouncing around (on my desk), patching the Squeezebox into the chain quickly tamed their action, even though this change was virtually inaudible. At extreme values on solo instruments such as voice or bass, it was possible to really fang the unit and get a hint of what’s going on – though, again, it rarely sounded bad, just less dynamics as you pushed on through with higher compression/slope values.

ATOM MAN

These are interesting and original devices with a complexion all their own. Stayne does seem to have come up with something unique, and his website has many enthusiastic user comments (including Steve Albini), which may whet your appetite for a demo. There’s an almost tape-like quality to these units. Even though I’m still grappling with the operational characteristics of the Squeezebox, the first single I mastered through it got added to radio very quickly and garnered some nice comments from two different stations – so thumbs up from me on the Squeeze!

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