A professional stereo enhancer at a affordable price.
If the answer is 42, could this offering from Slapback Audio be the question?
You may be fairly satisfied with the results achieved using your present array of equipment, but aware that there is a notable difference between them and what can be achieved in 'state-of-the-art' studios. This is particularly obvious when you make a direct comparison between your own tapes and a well produced record.
Could the Scintillator be the answer to your dreams... or nightmares? Is there life after death in the studio? Can the Scintillator really begin to approach the excellence of pro studio toys?
The unit is housed in the ubiquitous 1U case and is probably quite tough enough for gigging, although it is intended for 19" rack mounting. The front panel is black and uncluttered, featuring a drive level control with associated green peak LEDs, one for each channel, and an effect level control. All the controls are stereo ganged.
A latching button switches the system in or out of the chain, the function indicated by a red status LED, as is the power on/off switch. The only other control is a switchable filter with three fixed positions.
The rear panel has four unbalanced jack sockets; simply an input and an output for each channel. There is a holder for a 2 amp fuse which seems a little generous, although I haven't checked the current drawn. The mains cable itself is well clamped with an earth but there is no ground lift switch. Internally the circuit is not connected directly to the chassis ground but goes via a resistor which probably accounts for the lack of earth loop problems.
The initial challenge was to run a soggy and, so I believed, hopelessly irretrievable recording through this unit in an attempt to breathe some semblance of life into it. Yes, we've all tried it before, probably with limited success. By using parametric equalisers and dynamic noise filters something approaching acceptability can occasionally be achieved, but the Stereo Scintillator is truly, er... exciting!
The skeleton in my musical cupboard is a cassette recording dating from the 70s: it's under recorded with much tape noise and is a poorly balanced live (well it was then) recording. Inaudible vocals, half buried cymbals - real bootleg stuff. It is however a much prized performance of a band I worked with, and to me an important piece of history despite its nasty sound.
After a little experimentation, the result was pure alchemy. Given this severe test, the Stereo Scintillator performed excellently. The vocals, electric guitar and top end of the drum kit were lifting out of the mess, and although some sacrifice was made by exaggerating tape noise, the sound of the live gig was rejuvenated. Being fair, you would add a lot more noise by trying to do a salvage job using any other method that I can think of. By preceding the unit with good dynamic noise filtering and judicious equalisation, truly stunning improvements could be achieved in processing substandard material.
More recently recorded material, which didn't come under the category of salvage jobs, was also greatly improved by the process, seeming to take on more detail and transparency. The drums on this test material were initially recorded using an overhead stereo pair of AKG C451s, an AKG 202 on the bass drum and another one on the snare. It sounded good on tape, but using the Scintillator in an A/B test, the impression was of a multi-microphone recording without phase problems and was really very impressive. The same sessions produced a master that was very punchy and well defined throughout, and it left me feeling that I could not have done much better given the resources of a well equipped professional studio.
My original scepticism was rapidly fading. Vocals were given added presence without harshness and the improvement in definition was most significant, it reminded me of the kind of sound achievable by running the tape at 30ips and using a desk capable of doing justice to the signal from Neumann U87s - or nearly!
It seemed at first unlikely that the unit was going to be capable of adding much to my radio commercials since they are recorded highly compressed to maintain audibility in noisy environments, and to compete with other broadcast material. Some surprises were again forthcoming: the voices were given that extra presence but with no loss of a good rounded bottom end, so further enhancing what I considered to be an already excellent mix. The sound of rain on a hard surface, part of one of my sound effect overdubs, positively sparkled. All this was achieved without an increase in overall programme signal level, at least according to the meter, but my ears told me otherwise.
How about an acoustic guitar? Remember them from the days before sequencers and Les Paul? Mine hasn't been restrung for some time and I don't play frequently, so its tone had dulled, never mind the fingers. Using the Stereo Scintillator is not exactly a cost effective way of bringing back that delightful new quality to oxidised metal strings, but if you have guitarists arriving for a session with duff strings when all the shops have shut, this is an answer.
"The inescapable fact is that Scintillation is compulsive. Once experienced, it is difficult to live without."
Not having had the opportunity to make a direct comparison with old strings enhanced by the unit and new ones without enhancement (I was too mean to buy any new strings), I can't say exactly what the difference would be, but I imagine that new strings plus Scintillation would be an effective way to produce that very bright American acoustic sound. Certainly, even with the old strings, the harmonics and general brightness were much improved.
It seems also to be a neat unit for live work, especially its ability to enhance the vocals and to improve intelligibility. This can be done without incurring the feedback often encountered as the balance engineer strives to make the vocals penetrate the mix; it may also help the rest of the sound if patched to the desk outputs.
Ensuring the bypass switch is out (red LED lit) so that the input signal is being processed, patch the Scintillator into the chain at a point where the effect can be monitored. The drive level is then turned clockwise until either or both of the green LEDs light in the presence of a signal. The unit has good overload capabilities, but the drive control should be backed off until the LEDs flash only on peaks in the material, at which point the Effect level can be set whilst listening to the result; this is essentially a mix control.
Depending upon what you wish to enhance, the mode switch should be set at one of its three positions. These select the frequency band pass of the side chain filters and, like the other controls, is ganged for stereo operation. The filters, I am told, are 12dB per octave high pass; mode one is set at 2kHz, mode two at 3kHz and mode three at 5kHz.
The mysterious circuit generates primarily second harmonic and other musically related overtones (see HSR May 85 for more detailed information). It also applies high frequency compression, subjectively making the effect very punchy with little or no appreciable increase in signal level.
The inescapable fact is that Scintillation is compulsive. Once experienced, it is difficult to live without. This unit is worthy of a place in any small studio or PA rig and its high sound quality means that it wouldn't be out of place in a truly professional set up or cassette duplication suite. At the price, it's certainly good value, but there are limitations to it's format, imposed I suspect to maintain the attractively low retail price. I would have appreciated being able to use the stereo channels independently and Slapback Audio may consider a future model featuring separation of the ganged controls to allow this. The three fixed filters could also be fully variable to permit finer tuning to a particular instrument or voice or even a three band parametric EQ for each channel, though I am not really sure if this latter measure would increase the flexibility in proportion to the cost.
The Stereo Scintillator is intended to be easily affordable without trimming back aspects which would detrimentally affect it's performance, but I'm sure, that you too can envisage separate mono applications on some occasions. The other reason the manufacturers give for providing ganged controls is that the two channels do track pretty accurately, and so don't cause any alarming image shifts when the unit is used to process a complete stereo mix, and to be fair, this will be one of its main applications.
Until Slapback Audio bring out a 'Super Scintillator', one could experiment by using a graphic or parametric EQ before the inputs, possibly controlled by a keyed noise gate, and so tune in to a signal very accurately.
Imagine a scintillated snare with deep reverberation! At present one can make level compensations to the signal applied to the unit, but can only apply the same amount of effect and filter setting to both channels, which limits the units versatility for some applications.
I have not made direct A/B comparisons with other PHEDs (Psycoacoustic Harmonic Enhancement Devices) but I believe that the Stereo Scintillator actually performs better than some more expensive enhancers in two very important areas. At the heart of the machine there are lower noise op-amp chips than are commonly used in circuits of this type and it has extremely forgiving overload capabilities. Some of the high priced enhancers distort alarmingly as soon as the peak input level is exceeded. Certainly I found no nasty results when driving it very hard - within reason.
The drawbacks mentioned can only be improved at a price, and if they are important to you, much can be done by thoughtful application of other equipment in the chain, to affect the programme before the input to the Scintillator. Undoubtedly it is a superb aid in production of 'big' studio quality at roots level and is highly recommended.
The final testament? I'm buying one.
Further information is available from Slapback Audio, (Contact Details).
Review by Martin Goldman
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