Kieron Clough: Drawmer History and the Digital Heritage
Russ Hughes, June 2016

Over the course of almost four decades, the iconic British brand Drawmer has earned a name synonymous with the highest quality and innovation in audio engineering, developing revolutionary products guided by inspirational head honcho Ivor Drawmer. We meet Drawmer's Product Manager Kieron Clough for a chat about past, present and future.

Softube's Russ Hughes met up with Drawmer's charismatic product manager Kieron Clough, a seasoned member of the Drawmer team, to dig deeper into the company history and the discuss the new Drawmer 1973 Multi-Band Compressor released in collaboration with Softube.

I was quite amazed. When we first got the S73 to beta, the preset I tried was Clarity—just played a mix through it, and straight away I knew that inside it was a 1973.

Tell us a little about the history of Drawmer.
It started in about 1983. Ivor was playing in bands, doing a lot of recording, a lot of live gigging. And one thing he noticed was that the drum recordings would always let tracks down, because of the mic bleed. Gear existed but it didn't quite do the job as Ivor thought it should be done, so he went away and designed the DS201. Word quickly spread and the company launched from that. Within a year he'd built his own factory, and the rest is history—we've released about 40 products over the years.

And what would you say was the impact of Drawmer on the studio business?
I think you weren't classed as a serious studio unless you had a Drawmer DS201 and maybe a 221, or even a rack full of them. There are 40000+ DS201s out there and it's still in production today.

Softube nailed the 1973. When I first tried it, the first thing I thought was—that's a 1973. Ivor thinks it's great too! He's got absolutely no issues at all.

What was so special about the DS201?
It was the first frequency-conscious gate. Gates in the past has always been closed, or had hold and release where you could do all your envelope per manipulation on them. But it was adding the frequency-conscious part that was special, so you could separate the kick from the snare, from the hi-hat—and get perfectly clean recorded drums.

And the 221?
The 221 was actually before my time. I think it was just a clean workhorse compressor—which is what you also get with the 241—that was around when I started and is still around today. It does what it says on the tin—it compresses cleanly, no other bells and whistles, it just does the job.

Is Ivor still involved hands-on with the work at Drawmer?
Yes. If Ivor doesn't think it's right, he either won't make the product, or the product won't come out until he thinks it sounds as good as it should and has the feature set it should have. Nothing is ever just 'good enough', it's got to be absolutely spot on. In the past, one of our marketing guys used to call things "Drawmer-isms", where you try to add something that no-one ever has before — the new 1978, for example, has got more features on a 1U compressor than any other compressor out there—that was the aim. We wanted something fun that offered every feature under the sun for shaping the compression.

Do you think there is a particular, distinctive Drawmer sound?
I don't think there's a Drawmer sound. If it's clean, with a full frequency response, if it measures well, if it's well specified—I think that is the sound. But I wouldn't say we have a signature sound. We have a sound that we try to achieve on each different product.

How has Drawmer adapted to the new world of digital compression and plug-ins?
We went heavily into digital research, and released a product called DC2476 which was a multi-band compressor, limiter, EQ, multi-bandwidth, multi-band tube emulation—with all the code written by Ivor himself. He had learnt how to model the circuit blocks that he'd been doing for years—he'd learnt how to model them in DSP. And the 2476 I think was regarded as the most analog-sounding digital device out there. Unfortunately, it had to be discontinued due to RoHS [Restriction of Hazardous Substances Directive] when that came along ... But Ivor's done a lot of work on plug-ins over the years and written all the code himself.

How did the Softube collaboration come about?
I was introduced to the guys at Musikmesse 2013. We discussed making plug-ins based on Drawmer units, and after some time, the idea came up to do the 1973. It was our latest hardware release and it had been getting great reviews, great press—being a full featured multi-band but at the price of a normal mono boutique compressor. It was selling great, everyone was just talking about it, and Softube didn't have a multi-band under their belt, so it made sense to go with that one first.

Surely other Drawmer units must have been discussed as well?
Yes, but we just thought that the 1973 was more suitable for today's market. I mean, there are a lot of multi-band plug-ins out there but they're like looking at a "space copy"—so many controls, graphs, filter shapes ... whereas the 1973 is such an intuitive interface, we thought that would be the way to go. If you look at the 1973, you can see the unit is based around a three-band crossover. That was the first thing we wanted to have when we designed the product. The first sketch passed onto our product designer was literally a sheet of A3 paper with a 2U bar across it, then a three-band crossover— that was his product brief. And yeah, I think we pulled it off well.

So you wanted the 1973 to maintain the Drawmer sound and features but make it really accessible?
Yes, accessible both in usage and price-point as well. Many multi-bands out there are several thousand Euros; we wanted to hit under the thousand-pound mark.

So what do you think of Softube's plug-in version?
I think they nailed it. When I first tried it, the first thing I thought was—that's a 1973. But I couldn't leave it just there so I went and got it on the Prism, checked all the characteristics, checked the knee-shape, checked the attack and release times, and they'd modelled it perfectly—it's fantastic! Ivor thinks it's great too! He's got absolutely no issues at all. Ivor has always thought that if a plug-in is done right, it can sound as good as the hardware. He's not one of those people who'd say "It's a plugin—it's no good", because he's written a lot of digital code himself and believes that you can get a true emulation of a hardware product.

What do you think sets the 1973 apart from other multi-band compressors?
I think the intuitive use of it. You can sit there, and you can see exactly what you're going to do—you can boost your bass, bring up your vocals on the mid, you can add some sparkle on the high end, you've got the Air control ... I think it's the instantly pleasing results that can be achieved.

And the plug-in can do extra stuff that the hardware doesn't do?
Yes, we've incorporated some clever tricks that mastering engineers have been doing for a long time, like adding side-chain, and adding Mid-Side which allows you to control the width of the mix. Which is a lot easier to achieve in a plug-in than with hardware, because you can have separate compression on the mid and the side with one set of controls because the software can remember where it is on the mid and the side. With the hardware, we would have to double up on the set of controls to do the same job. So it seemed a worthwhile addition while the plug-in was being done.

What exactly what does the Big switch do?
The Big pulls a high-pass filter into the side-chain meaning you're not going compress quite as much on your low-frequency kicks and basses. It just basically prevents pumping. That's not as important on a multi-band as on a single-band compressor, but it can really give you a big fat bottom end.

And Air ..?
Air is a low-pass filter on the high-band, which means much more of the high-frequency content can get through. You know under heavy compression you can sometimes lose a lot of high-frequency content; well if you like a bit of sparkle—switch the Air in—it can just give you that added "tick". That said, it's not suitable on all material.

What do you think of the S73 Intelligent Master Processor that builds on the 1973?
It's something even simpler than the 1973, where results can be achieved by just the turning of one knob. So if someone doesn't understand how a multi-band compressor works and possibly wouldn't know how to set one up, give them the S73 and they'd get instant results. It's multi-band compression under the hood, but with a single-knob control surface.

Are you surprised at the response the S73 has generated?
I am surprised because I'm used to having so much control, when presented with just a one-knob control I thought maybe it wouldn't do enough. But with all the presets on there, I think you can cover most settings you can get on a 1973, without having to understand how to set it up. So yeah, I was quite amazed. When we first got the S73 to beta, the preset I tried was Clarity—just played a mix through it, and straight away I knew that inside it was a 1973. I could just hear that it was the '73.

There must have been a moment of "Hey, they really did this!"?
There was, especially with the S73. It was quite fascinating for me to test all the compression characteristics, because you can't see what's going on under the hood, but getting it on the Prism, on the DAW feeding pulses, at various different frequencies we could actually see that each preset was doing multi-band compression in various different styles.

Who would you imagine a 1973 customer to be?
I think it will be people who love the S73 but do feel that they want some more control and be able to do more tweaking, to get slightly different results. Maybe also some of the users of our hardware 1973 who want the ease of use of a plug-in, the recall-ability and a portable unit.

© 2016 Russ Hughes
Mix engineer