Paul Wolff: Fix and the history of the Flanger and Doubler
Kristofer Ulfves, December 2015

We met Paul Wolff at the world famous Electric Lady studios where Michael Brauer kindly let us use his multi-purpose room to have a chat about the latest additions to the Softube family: Fix Flanger and Doubler.

While a lot of pro audio equipment is viewed as legendary or iconic—or any of the marketing copywriters' favorite words—very few of the equipment designers behind that gear receive any kind of iconic status. A few obvious exceptions are Georg Neumann, Rupert Neve and Bill Putnam, but you could certainly also add Paul Wolff to the group. The main brain behind the API consoles, EQs and compressors, and later the entire Tonelux line, Paul Wolff recently started a new company called Fix Audio.
– The name Fix comes from back in the 70s when I was hanging around in a TV repair shop, and this guy walks in with his guitar that wasn't working. As the TV-repairman had no clue what to do, I flipped it over and took the back off and had a look at the jacket that had spun and broke the wire off. So I told the TV-repairman to solder that and the guy said to me: "We're gonna call you Fix". And then, when they played at a club they called me up and told me to come and see them, which I did. We stayed in contact and then when the band split up and formed a new band, one of the guys called me up and said: "Would you like to come on the road with us and do our sound and light?" and my obvious answer was of course: Yes!

I flipped it over and took the back off and had a look at the jacket that had spun and broke the wire off. So I told the TV-repairman to solder that and the guy said to me: We're gonna call you Fix

This was when I was 19 or 20 or something like that. So I packed all my stuff, went on road with the band and we travelled mostly east of the Mississippi, playing as a club band reminicent of Edgar Winters Whitetrash featuring horns and stuff—a really good band.

Eventually I left those guys and started out with another band. This was back in the days when Charlie Wicks of Pro Co Sound, who passed away a few years ago, had a place called the Sound Factory which is a huge musicstore in Kalamazoo, Michigan. And this is where I met this new band, went on the road with them and eventually ended up in a nightclub in Niles, Michigan, where I stayed for a year and a half until I met a band called the No-where Man.

I joined up with them and come up to DC, and ended up getting a job at this nightclub called the Bayou which is a pretty famous club in Washington DC. So I started doing live sound there and everybody called me Fix which was cool. My old room-mate was an artist and he did the Fix logo, airbrushing it and just sat me down by the table one morning and showed me: "hey, check it out" and I was just: "Wow!" So I framed it and had it ever since. I figured this would be a cool logo to have eventually, so that's what I did when I founded Fix Audio, used his logo made for me in the 70s.

What's the history of the Real-Time Auto Doubler, the first one that you made?
Well, when I worked at the Bayou, in those days there were very limited live consoles available. We had the Altec 1220, which I think was a 10 channel console, just featuring basic bass and treble tone controls. But we wanted to start doing shows at the Bayou, so we had to have more channels and so we bought another Altec. I remember tearing them both apart and spreading them over the dancefloor the night before a big show, joining them together as one and I also drilled out holes for switches for frequency points for the bass and treble. I also put insert switches on every channel for this flanger and doubler that I had built.
I always been fascinated with flanging as I thought it was really cool. So I built the flanger and the doubler and had them setup at the console so all I had to do was to flip a switch, and then master so you could have your voice doubled or flanging and stuff.

I really liked having things sound like bigger than life. When we did any kind of a show or any kind of a band, I wanted to give the them the tools to make them sound as good as possible.

So eventually all the bands had to learn Eagles' Life In the Fast Lane and stuff like that in order to for me to use the flange effect. And as we started put on a lot of shows, they all used it and all loved it.

And about the Doubler—it was real interesting 'cause I figured out a way to do real tight doubling by doing a way of canceling the flanging effect, so you could put it on a guitar or voice and it didn't sound like the typical double-picked, 40 ms delay kind of delay thing. And so everybody used it on vocals for everything at the Bayou. I also built a couple of custom units for a couple of artists as they wanted it and I sent it to them, but that was basically it. But then one unit was brought up here to New York, at Media Sound where Mike Delogg that was the engineer. And interestingly I found out a couple a days ago that Michael Brauer was his assistant in those days! And so at Media Sound, they used it on the horns of Barry Mannilow's Copacabana and they also used it on Egbert Humperdinck's voice. They thought it was really cool and some years ago Michael asked me: "What ever happened to that box?"

I actually have the original box at home. It was my first circuitboard design. I made it myself, etched it and had a nice panel made for it and that was the beginning of it. Every year at all the trade shows I always walk around listening to everyone's choruses and all stuff—nobody ever figured out quite how to do it quite as good as my Doubler though. And then, when the plug-in thing came around, I figured I'd give it a shot and so I contacted the guys at Softube.

What was the inspiration for creating the Flanger and Doubler? Was it purely out of curiosity or was there something else in there?
When I did live sound at the Bayou I really liked having things sound like bigger than life. When we did any kind of a show or any kind of a band, I wanted to give the them the tools to make them sound as good as possible. And to make everybody walking away with a real memorable experience which I think we achieved. We did Foreigner the first time they ever played in a club. They played at the Bayou and used our stuff. Same with Dire Straits, first time they ever played, that was there. Pat Benetar, Molly Hatchet and Kiss! All these bands you know and they were just fascinated by the sound which was basically just trying to make it sound like a record live, but still have the live effect, you know. It was great, worked perfectly.

We did Foreigner the first time they ever played in a club, they played at the Bayou and used our stuff. Same with Dire Straits, first time they ever played, that was there. Pat Benetar, Molly Hatchet and Kiss!

You mentioned the production of Barry Manilow's Grammy winner Copacabana. Do you know much of how they were using your Real-Time Auto Doubler there?
I was just in and out, as I basically just left it up there at Media Sound but Michael told me about it later. They wanted to have the horns in stereo, on the left and the right but they only recorded one set of horns in mono, so they used the Doubler to make it pseudo-stereo. Neat job. I still have Mike Deluggs old phone number written on the orginal unit with a grease pencil from the old tape-splicing days.

Talking about tape: What can you tell us about the process of working with VSO control tape recorders?
When you do flanging with a tape machine, a lot of times you would do it with a multitrack and a two-track if you gonna keep that mix, or you'll just have two multi-tracks and then you blend them together at the console. But often you'd record the two-track onto other tracks and then you could just blend it when you wanted them. A lot of times, just flange the whole song so that you could bring it in when you want it and bring it out.

But with flanging, you're basically taking the same sound one two separate tape machines, slipping the machines past each other. So one tape machine is running at speed and as you slow the other tape machine down you will get any from 10 to 15 ms delay flange. Then as you start increasing the speed of the machine again, as it passes the zero-point and goes over it actually has that ... "phozzziow" kind of sound you get and then goes down the other way. And then eventually, you got to slow the machine down and bring it back.

This is how a flange effect on tape machines work and there's two ways achieve that: the later machines could do that with a VSO, a variable speed oscillator, because they'd had a oscillator controlling the speed of the tape machine. So you had this wheel where you could control the speed of the tape machine. On the earlier machines you would just vary the voltage into the capstan motor. When you brought the voltage down a little bit, there wasn't that much current and so the motor would start to drag a little and then you would up the motor again to would increase cause it had more current, so there's the way you used to originally do it. The latter is how a lot of old records were done.

In the Fix Flanger, I tried to emulate VSO as an option, so you have a big VSO knob and also have the just manual functions that all the flangers have—sweep, mix, blend, offset and all that. But in the Fix Flanger, there is a mode that you actually turns it into the right VSO style as it goes up and then you have pull it back to the left to slow it down: just like flying an airplane you turn, you gotta to straighten it up, you turn back and straighten it up. And it sqarely too, cause as it starts to approach, slow down and then go past it. We also emulated the servo bounce of the servo motor, cause when you change it real fast in a tape-machine the servo would try to correct itself and you get this physical hunting. It tapers off and so, when it crosses over zero-point, it would go back and forth a few times. So it got a real tape machine feel to it.

there is a mode that you actually turns it into the right VSO style as it goes up and then you have pull it back to the left to slow it down - just like flying an airplane you turn, you gotta to straighten it up, you turn back and straighten it up.

This interview was made in connection to the video shoot Softube made together with Paul Wolff in Electric Lady Studios New York, November 2,2015.

Product specialist. Kristofer divides his time between researching and developing new products, and marketing duties. He's very passionate about instrument user-friendliness, beta-testing and analog circuits. Kristofer is synth geek since childhood and has a record of both repairing old analog synthesizers and building new ones. In his spare time he makes spaced out synth music with his wife in the dynamic duo Lisa & Kroffe.