Kush Audio’s UBK-1 aims to deliver character and colour rather than audio precision. Mark Cousins feels the squeeze.
The combination of saturation and compression is a pairing that has fascinated engineers (and listeners, for that matter) for years. Of course, from an audiophile’s perspective this form of signal abuse would be frowned upon, but it’s interesting to note how much the subjective enjoyment of a range of sounds can be improved by a little extra ‘juice’ in the equation, whether it’s a compressor pushed extra hard or the levels on a tape driven well into the red.
Kush Audio’s UBK-1, therefore, is an interesting proposition in that it features a unique combination of saturation, compression and a so-called Density section all as part of a single plug-in. In theory, it’s a ‘mojo’ enhancer plug-in, arguably incorporating the best bits of tape saturation and character compression. Better still, its principal parameters are established via three prominent knobs, arguably making the UBK-1 an immediate tool with little added complication.
The signal chain of the UBK-1 is largely evident from the front panel of the plug-in, with an initial Headroom control (to effectively set the level of the signal entering the plug-in) followed by a Saturation section, compressor and, finally, a Density control, which adds a form of frequency-selective compression and saturation. In the case of both the saturator and compressor there’s an additional Mix control, effectively enabling you to create parallel versions of both effects.
Interestingly, the UBK-1 is a plug-in that starts working as soon as it’s instantiated, with a degree of non-linearity injected when audio starts running through it. Even with the Saturation and Compression controls set to Subtle and Mild respectively, the plug-in starts working on the input. A large part of this is established by the Headroom control, which effectively sets the signal levels running through each section (and to some extent the amount of compression and distortion applied). In short, it allows you to push the UBK-1 harder using a single control, or back off slightly should you feel that the sound is becoming over-cooked.
Rather than giving you loads of controls, the principal amounts of saturation and compression are established using the virtual pots. Push each section harder, therefore, and you’ll get more effect, ranging from almost unperceivable amounts of ‘glue’ or transient reduction through to heavy-handed pumpy compression and a distinct bite to the saturation. It’s also worth noting that the compressor has several different modes – Splat, Smooth, Blue, Squish and Crush – each mimicking a different make of compressor coupled with its unique dynamic response.
The Density section works like a frequency-selective compressor, squashing either the highs or the mids. It’s a surprisingly effective tool, lending some of the sound and character of compression without compromising the entirety of the input, and a perfect way of adding a touch more control to a drum submix, for example, without making it sound overtly compressed.
By packing all of the controls into a single plug-in, the UBK-1 is undoubtedly a quick and convenient way of adding ‘analogue-like’ qualities to a signal, whether it’s subtle non-linearities or extreme juicy compression. Individually, though, there’s still a strong case for using single plug-ins to achieve some of these effects, especially given the extra choice and flexibility involved. However, the ‘one-stop-shop’ approach is intriguing, largely given the delicate interaction between the three key stages – something that really comes to light when you start to tickle the headroom.
While it’s easy to dismiss the UBK-1 as just another ‘lo-fi’ signal processor, there’s plenty here to intrigue and delight. From the subtleties of the Density section to the multi-faceted response of the compressor, there’s plenty to discover. More importantly, the UBK-1 is a superb tool for adding character and interest, something that’s often missing in a sterile digital mix.
+ All-in-one solution
+ Can be subtle or extreme
+ Easy-to-use three-knob design
– Some good rivals for the individual sections
– No AAX version yet
– Limited compression controls
Despite its simple controls, the UBK-1 is an intriguing tool, capable of everything from soft transient saturation to more extreme ‘pumping’ compression effects.