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Thread: Warm Audio TB12 Tone Beast Review and Shootout with Audio Clips

  1. #1
    Master of the UADiverse Matt Hepworth's Avatar
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    Post Warm Audio TB12 Tone Beast Review and Shootout with Audio Clips

    Warm Audio's Tone Beast


    I have to admit I'm quite a fan of colored and vintage-style preamps, so I was very excited when I got an email about an opportunity to do a test drive and review for the new Warm Audio TB12 Tone Beast. I have a good collection of high-end pres and I've collected over twenty API and API-based pres over the last few years (I suppose you could say I’m a vintage API enthusiast). Because of my experience and love for colored, larger than life, and "vibey" preamps, I suppose I did have a bit of an expectation going in to this review. I was expecting the Tone Beast to have to work hard to impress me. I was also under the impression that Warm Audio essentially made API clones, and that the TB12 was a “me too” product. After putting the beast through its paces, I can confidently say that my assumptions and concerns were both quite incorrect.


    The Quick Unveiling

    I'm going to begin a bit outside the box, so to speak, and in an unlikely place—the brown outer box. This was my first look at the "character" of the preamp and company behind the product. Warm Audio proudly included their sense of humour along with the Tonebeast and definitely started this reviewer off on the right foot. [PICTURE COMING SOON]



    Layout

    Looking from a few feet away the TB12 seems to be a straight forward rack-mount preamp in a convenient 1U design. On the far left it has what I refer to as a “convenience jack”; a front mounted XLR microphone input that duplicates the proper XLR input that's nestled securely on the rear of the preamp. While a front input may say pro-sumer to some, I find it occasionally handy to patch directly into a preamp in the control room for an off-the-cuff punch in or idea, without having to run to one of the iso or live rooms and plug in there. Next to the XLR input is the 1/4" utility input. Continuing from there are Hi-Z and Line-level buttons for the front panel 1/4 input, 48V Phantom Power, -20dB Pad, Polarity Invert, and a High Pass Filter.

    As you continue your gaze to the right your brow may wrinkle a bit as you’re drawn into unfamiliar territory with a set of controls that take a bit to get your head around at first. There's a selector for two different Discrete Operational Amplifiers (with two different DOA's included as stock), a Tone button that reduces the impedance of the preamp and injects some color (and 6dB of signal), a button for selecting between two sets of capacitors in the circuit, an Output Transformer Bypass, and then a selector between a steel or nickel wound high-quality Cinemag output transformers.
    On the right hand side of the faceplate you'll find the gain and output knobs that are pretty much a requisite on a racked preamplifier, as well as well as LED metering. This clever layout and selection set give the user a huge variety of no less than 24 tone combinations from a single mic preamplifier, not including being able to utilize the multiple possible gain stages as another saturation tool.

    In testing these options together extensively, I found the tone influence to be (in order of sonic affect): Output Transformer Bypass, DOA (Opamp) selector, Tone, Output Transformer selector, Gain and Output combination, then Capacitor type. [AUDIO CLIPS ARE IN THE NEXT REPLY]


    About the Opamps


    As described in the nicely written single-page "manual", the Tone Beast is fed through a choice of font panel selectable Discrete Operational Amplifiers. This is another rather welcome feature in that there are not only two Operational Amplifiers to choose from (Opamps, as most call them these days), but Dual Socketed Operational Amplifiers.

    Socketing equates to being an end user-friendly mod, so to speak, as you just pop the hood, and pop ’n swap with another compatible opamp with a different character. Now, for guys like me that have done their share of DIY kits and as somewhat of a collector of 2520 op amps, this was thrilling, allowing me to easily personalize and further tweak the tone of an already very tweakable monster…er…beast.

    I was disappointed, however, to find that the internal operational amplifiers, though socketed, have a slightly different spacing than the standard API, GAR, Scott Liebers opamps that may make it tricky to to install alternate opamps without getting out a set of needle nose pliers and bending at least two of the six posts in order to make your opamp fit the socket on the PCB. On vintage opamps with short legs, this may be altogether impossible, as well as something I don’t know if I could bring myself to even try due to the risk of trying to bend old brass legs in a way they may not tolerate.

    I contacted Bryce, owner and designer for Warm Audio, about this and he took this concern of mine to heart. Bryce also let me know that most owners have been okay with just taking their pliers to them, as most people will not change out the opamps more than once in the unit’s lifetime.


    Get in Line

    The Tone Beast also has a line or instrument level (switchable) 1/4” input on the front that serves as either a line level input, or instrument DI. The line level setting is intended for adding a bit more tone to an already recorded track (or strapping across the mix bus), while the instrument level setting or plugging a bass or keyboard (or electric banjo, for that matter) directly in and using it as an instrument direct injection device.


    In Use

    Setting the TB12 up in the studio, I connected it in to my setup the same way I usually do: snake from the iso room, patched into the pre in the control room, line output out into an Apogee AD16X, then recording into Pro Tools HD TDM. I immediately put the pre to work and started in on a guitar session using what I felt was essentially the “12 ‘ clock” settings—nothing extreme, but making sure the transformers and opamps are working just a bit. The amp was an Engl Savage 120 all tube head going through a birch cabinet with vintage 30’s and it was mic’d with a Royer 121 and an SM57. Being that the sound that was coming through my ADAM P33A monitors in the control room was immediately pleasurable (the 121, in particular) and a little bit APIish, I stretched the Tonebeast's legs early on just a bit.

    The more tone color I dialed in, the more I found it was subtly reducing bass (a trait quite common when adding a bit of distortion to a part, and used to certain effect in classic gear like the UA 1176 limiting amplifier) while accentuating the midrange in a vintage-esq way. I found that on searing lead guitar tones, I could dial the TB12 to the point it was adding noticeable distortion without hurting the track. It could actually make the guitar sound even more over the top and full of life. On rhythm parts, the same was not true. They did not take the distortion in the same beneficial way the lead did.

    *Setting note*

    I ended up being quite happy with the 1731 Opamp selection in combination with the nickel output transformer on modern rock guitar tones—both dirty and clean, and I liked the steel transformer with the 1731 on bluesy lead tones or thick rhythm parts.
    In either setting I would press the Tone button for more attitude when needed and usually liked the little bit more middy and ever-so-slightly-compressed sound.

    The Tone Beast definitely sounded great on electric guitar. Pretty much every setting did something cool and so it ended up just choosing the combination which would fit the mix best.


    Money’s Where the Mouth is

    Though I didn’t put the Tonebeast through vocal paces nearly like I did guitar, it is well suited. Using a U87 on a male baritone rock vocalist the Tone Beast can be distinct, present, but still smooth. That little bit of extra midrange can help the vocal climb over the wall of guitars. In particular, the 1731 opamp and nickel output transformer gave me the combination of mids and top end I was looking, while still giving enough color that the vocal didn’t feel boring; despite the fact that U87’s can have that affect on preamps sometimes.

    CONTINUED BELOW...
    Last edited by Matt Hepworth; 17th November 2013 at 06:55 PM.
    DanButsu and upwithpeople like this.

  2. #2
    Master of the UADiverse Matt Hepworth's Avatar
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    Warm Audio TB12 Tone Beast Review and Shootout with Audio Clips


    CONTINUED...



    DI’ing to try it

    If guitars were where I felt the TB12 was completely at home, bass and key DI has to be its summer home. As a bass DI with a nice Yamaha passive bass, the results were excellent. After tweaking all the settings this way and that, I tended to favor the sounds at either extreme, more than the tones dialed somewhere in the middle that were neither clean, nor coloured.

    Having a good feel for the DI, I put it head to head against to my go to clean DI, which is a the Hi-Z input of my True Systems P2 Analog preamp and created the audio files by setting up in the following simple way: record bass in the cleanest way possible, then run out my Apogee DA16X converter and into a Radial X-Amp. From there I did a reamp’d pass into the True, and a second pass to the TB12 at a certain setting, each time recording the results.

    Of note, I did find the DI to run out of headroom earlier than I'd expected, but, as expected, engaging the Pad rectified the out of character response.

    Results? While the TB12 performed reasonably well as a clean DI, it didn't have the depth, realism, nor full bottom of the True, but was still superior to most budget DI's and on-board interface Hi-Z inputs.

    Going more to the other extreme and using the 1731, impedance/Tone shift, and steel transformer, I felt I lost too much of the lower octave for the big, smooth bass sound I was looking for. However, switching to the nickel output transformer and clean capacitors, I found an excellent, full, bass sound that sits very well in a loud rock mix and definitely put a smile on my face. [BASS DI FILES ARE BELOW]


    Mic Pre Shootout

    In comparing the TB12 with several lunchbox and rack preamps I setup a reamping rig so that I could maintain isolation and repeatable settings throughout the testing. I recorded an exhausting amount of files by feeding the output through the same Apogee AD16X and recording into Pro Tools HD.

    I found the Tonebeast to be quite versatile indeed, but to also definitely have its own character. At more moderate settings I could dial it in to where I found it compared favorably with my favorite vintage API 312, although it was not quite as dynamic, had a bit more mids, and a little bit leaner lows. When put up against a vintage 1073, the Warm was again leaner in the lows, but also made the 1073 sound a little dark, missing just a little bit of the “cut” of the TB12. I also felt the Tonebeast was a smidge less 3D than some of the much more expensive preamps I put it up against, although I never felt it to sound like it was outclassed, even though some preamps were more than six times as expensive. [AUDIO FILES ARE BEING UPLOADED]


    Warming Up

    I found I could also get the TB12 to do nearly clean amplification (though still more colored than a typical interface or compact mixer preamp) by using the 918 Opamp, disengaging the Tone control, and bypassing the output transformer. I liked it in this setup the least, but for acoustic guitar and drum overheads, it can be just what you didn’t realize you needed.

    On the opposite end of the spectrum, the Tonebeast gives you the anti-smiley face EQ curve when pushed hard and using the lower impedance/Tone control. This was particularly enjoyable on guitars, and may find its way into vocal chains for rock and indie vibe.

    Speaking to the versatility of the TB12, I could not find a source that I could not dial in a great sound on by simply manipulating some of the tone shaping controls and options in various combinations. It became intuitive to do so, even, which says a lot about the design. It’s a lot of control, but placed logically.


    Output Fader

    At $599, I think Warm Audio definitely has a winner. The ToneBeast provides a plethora of tone options from nearly clean, to quite dirty with an obvious sonic signature. Although it may be aimed at those studio owners with smaller preamp collections where the versatility can really shine, I'm quite certain also going to find its way into a lot of studio racks along side the classics and studio staple preamps.

    To say the Tone Beast is aptly named is grossly understating the beauty of this beast.






    MEDIA:

    All 24 TB12 Option/Combinations
    Bass DI Shootout Files

    Blues and Rock Guitar Shootout Files
    High Gain Guitar Shootout Files



    Last edited by Matt Hepworth; 19th November 2013 at 05:58 PM.
    DanButsu likes this.
    PTHD> 2x Pro Tools HD4 Accel | 2x Mac Pro 8 Core (16 thread) | 2x Magma Chassis | Apogee Symphony I/O, AD16X, and AVID HD I/O | 2x UAD-2 OCTO, Solo | Pro Tools HD 10, HD 12 | Studio One V3 Pro | OSX 10.8.5

    NATIVE> nMP Ashtray/Trashcan Hex Core | OSX 10.10.4| Windows 8.1 Pro | Apollo QUAD "Classic" w/ TB, Apollo Twin DUO | TC Konnekt 48 | Samplitude Pro X | Studio One V3 Pro | SONAR Platinum | Pro Tools 12

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    Go submit this to the Gearslutz review section. I bet you'll win one of the Heritage Audio 73 pres.

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    Practically a UAD Expert Kcatthedog's Avatar
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    excellent and very informatie review !!

    Quote Originally Posted by Markisflippinsweet View Post
    Go submit this to the Gearslutz review section. I bet you'll win one of the Heritage Audio 73 pres.
    +1

    I have two tb12's siting here and I learned things reading your review !

    Every time I see someone saying they want to buy their first good pre: i just say grab a tone beast by the tail !

    thx !
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    Matt, you and I had discussed the RND 511, once before. Which do you find to be the most used/better in your opinion: the RND 511 or the TB12?

    Thanks for posting this, by the way!

  6. #6
    Master of the UADiverse Matt Hepworth's Avatar
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    Wait for the shootout files. They're uploading.

    TB12 is compared to some vintage and modern units: 1073, 312, UA 2-610, VP26, 511, Lindell, etc.
    PTHD> 2x Pro Tools HD4 Accel | 2x Mac Pro 8 Core (16 thread) | 2x Magma Chassis | Apogee Symphony I/O, AD16X, and AVID HD I/O | 2x UAD-2 OCTO, Solo | Pro Tools HD 10, HD 12 | Studio One V3 Pro | OSX 10.8.5

    NATIVE> nMP Ashtray/Trashcan Hex Core | OSX 10.10.4| Windows 8.1 Pro | Apollo QUAD "Classic" w/ TB, Apollo Twin DUO | TC Konnekt 48 | Samplitude Pro X | Studio One V3 Pro | SONAR Platinum | Pro Tools 12

  7. #7
    Master of the UADiverse Matt Hepworth's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Markisflippinsweet View Post
    Go submit this to the Gearslutz review section. I bet you'll win one of the Heritage Audio 73 pres.
    Ah, why not.
    ctrlshft likes this.
    PTHD> 2x Pro Tools HD4 Accel | 2x Mac Pro 8 Core (16 thread) | 2x Magma Chassis | Apogee Symphony I/O, AD16X, and AVID HD I/O | 2x UAD-2 OCTO, Solo | Pro Tools HD 10, HD 12 | Studio One V3 Pro | OSX 10.8.5

    NATIVE> nMP Ashtray/Trashcan Hex Core | OSX 10.10.4| Windows 8.1 Pro | Apollo QUAD "Classic" w/ TB, Apollo Twin DUO | TC Konnekt 48 | Samplitude Pro X | Studio One V3 Pro | SONAR Platinum | Pro Tools 12

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    Shareholder Zsarbomba's Avatar
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    I hope they let you keep it. Better than some of Paul Whites columns.

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    Experienced UAD User Strange Leaf's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Matt Hepworth View Post
    TB12 is compared to some vintage and modern units: 1073, 312, UA 2-610, VP26, 511, Lindell, etc.
    I have a 511 on the way to me that will mainly see use for male vox + acoustic guitar, how is your opinion about it?

  10. #10
    Master of the UADiverse Matt Hepworth's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Strange Leaf View Post
    I have a 511 on the way to me that will mainly see use for male vox + acoustic guitar, how is your opinion about it?
    It works well for that. It's not overly colored, but can be fizzed up a little with the texture knob. It's mostly HF where you'll notice. One thing that surprised me is slew rate, giving it fast and dynamic response.

    It's a good pre.
    PTHD> 2x Pro Tools HD4 Accel | 2x Mac Pro 8 Core (16 thread) | 2x Magma Chassis | Apogee Symphony I/O, AD16X, and AVID HD I/O | 2x UAD-2 OCTO, Solo | Pro Tools HD 10, HD 12 | Studio One V3 Pro | OSX 10.8.5

    NATIVE> nMP Ashtray/Trashcan Hex Core | OSX 10.10.4| Windows 8.1 Pro | Apollo QUAD "Classic" w/ TB, Apollo Twin DUO | TC Konnekt 48 | Samplitude Pro X | Studio One V3 Pro | SONAR Platinum | Pro Tools 12

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