Ok, yeah, this is a gear review. But we need to start with a bit of philosophy.
It’s pretty well known that I came to the live sound world via being “the guy in the band who owns the PA.” I’ve done more gigs than I care to think about—both as the bandleader and as the sound provider (sometimes at the same time)—with not near enough PA to cover the space or where I was running mains and monitors from a position at the side of the stage. As have many of the people reading this. What not a lot of people know is that I was raised by a mechanic.
That upbringing gave me a pretty pragmatic and non-fetishized view of tools. Does the tool do the job I need it to do? Nothing else matters. Not the age or how it looks or if it has the latest handy-dandy feature. I still have three or four screwdrivers that were my dad’s. The little metal crown that fits over where the shaft attached to the plain, wooden handle is loose but otherwise… It’’s a tool and it does the job.
As I started to make some kind of name (for whatever that’s worth) covering the people and the gear in the live audio world, I pretty quickly learned that there was a class of tools that were widely derided as “crutches” and was led to believe that only dilettantes and wanna-be’s would ever stoop to even discussing, much less using. This class seemed to me to be populated by a couple of pieces of outboard gear—the BBE Sonic Maximizer and any form of feedback killer.
Now, I had used BBE units for years by the time I found out they were a crutch. They had proved really useful in creating a perception on the part of the listener that the PA was way bigger than it actually was. And as a guy who has literally never done a gig where he did not wear multiple hats, I had lusted after one of the earlier feedback killers (a Sabine, I think?) but they were pricey. When dbx made their version which was faster and more accurate (narrower PEQ bands) and that they sent for review and I was able to use for quite a while, I became a convert. For years, I did not go out on a gig without that dbx and a BBE in my rack.
And I was quiet about it, not wanting to be found out as someone using an audio crutch. Until I sat with Big Mick Hughes at a Metallica show for the first time. This was back when Big Mick was still mixing on an analog Midas. You couldn’t miss the outboard rack because there was a crew member sitting in front of it manually opening and closing noise gates on whichever mic James Hettfield decided to sing into at that moment in time. While watching that particular dance, I noticed two old school, black-face BBE Sonic Maximizers in the same rack. I asked The Man about them after the show and he said that they were great for making the toms really pop in the mix.
And I no longer felt the need to be so quiet.
I still own both and the only reason they’re not in the rack now is that between the 4-spaces for the mixer “brain” plus wireless mics for the horns and in-ears for a couple of us and the Mac Mini and a 2-space drawer I had to ditch something or go to a bigger rack.
Which finally gets us to the subject at hand…The FDBK-X plug in from Waves
In terms of operation, anyone who has used an outboard feedback killer will be instantly familiar with the controls and the process. Get the wedges up to the point where they are about to feedback and engage the FDBX-X. Then start pushing the wedges up until the start to feedback and let the plug-in catch the offending frequency and clamp it down. Lather, rinse, repeat.
It’s simple and does not take up a huge amount of CPU resources. I’m running a 2011 Mac Mini with 16 GB of RAM and running three different instances of H-Reverb on a total of 8 channels (vox, horns and snare) and FDBK-X on up to four wedge mixes (more typically it’s two) and have processing headroom to spare. It’s great to have access to a tool like this again. Here is why I think the FDBK-X is better than any hardware version I’ve used.
Adjustability: The hardware units I have used have, at best, the ability to switch between two preset filter widths and two or three—again, preset—sensitivity options. With the FDBK-X you get a nifty interface that includes a visual representation of what each filter is doing and the ability to alter the width of each as well as how (deep) each one is. This means that one can use the tool without being bound to preset limits. The old hardware versions are kind of like a crescent wrench that is rusted and frozen in one position. FDBK-X is like a massive dose of WD-40 to loosen it up and allow one to use the tool to it’s full potential.
Education: Either self or for that new guy on the crew who can’t call frequencies to ring out wedges for his or her life. (Admission: I suck at this, too. Likely a big reason i see its educational potential.) As everything in our tech lives migrates to a screen of some kind, we get more and more visually focused in terms of learning. Being able to SEE what’s happening in the process of applying filters can be the door to a world of knowledge about frequencies. I’ve made the same argument about the engineer presets in H-Reverb. Being able to see how different engineers—all of whom I hold in high regard—approach, say, a vocal reverb gives me additional knowledge that allows me to get better results on those gigs when I don’t have my rack and have to start from scratch.
The only thing that took a bit of getting used to were the controls called Amp and Gain. They work together in much the same way that the amount of compression and the make-up gain control work on a compressor. On a compressor, as the signal is compressed harder and the peaks pushed down, makeup gain allows you to get the overall volume of the source back to where it was pre-squeeze. On FDBK-X, Amp determines how hard a filter is hitting the source and Gain brings the overall volume back up to as close as one can get to the pre-filtered level.
There is one last thing that i really love about FDBK-X and it has nothing at all to do with how it works. Rather, it’s about how it’s presented. It’s rare to see this kind of truth in marketing. The online manual spends probably as much time explaining that FDBK-X is a tool but one that assumes everything prior to it in the signal chain is done right. The text flat out says that if you can’t control the squeals with a few filters, then the issue is likely with something more basic like a lack of understanding—or just poor deployment—of system gain structure.
With FDBK-X on the Mac, I get a better version of that old hardware until and may even learn something about calling frequencies. Win-win.