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Warm it up with this box of sonic trickery

2021 May 01     
2 Bit Thugs

A compressor, saturator and filter in one unit… but what will Chris Lyth make of the box that goes 'BOUM'?

Small French hardware manufacturer OTO Machines has struck again in typically alliterative fashion. First it was BISCUIT, then BIM and BAM,and now we are most beneficially blessed by BOUM. Retailing at around the £480 mark and described by the company as an "analogue stereo warming unit", it packs a fully analogue compressor, saturator and filter into a military grade box that’s only a shade bigger than a guitar pedal. With intrigue peaking at +12db, I felt duty bound to investigate these matters further. 

What is very quickly apparent from using the unit is how sensibly designed it is. You don’t get the ultra-precision of a plug-in, admittedly, but that's very much the point of using hardware in the modern era: you're forced to engage with your music in a way that’s more intuitive and less visually focused. 

Because so much is packed into a small space, OTO use a slimmed-down approach to editing. Five of the six knobs are dedicated to a particular task, and conveniently they all do largely what you would expect. The sixth pot, labelled 'DATA', is more involved, it’s used in tandem with the six buttons at the bottom of the unit (underneath the LED display). These buttons allow access to deeper level parameters that are not assigned a dedicated knob, including Input gain (IN GAIN), (ATTACK), (RELEASE), low frequency cut-off (LO CUT), distortion type (DISTO) and gate threshold (GATE). 

Now… when I say LED display, think more Pac-Man than 4K Ultra HD, as the only display is two lines of dots. Once accustomed to these eccentricities, though, it becomes apparent that this rudimentary display shows you more than you would imagine, and what exactly it's showing you is explained in detail in the well-documented manual. 

The compressor is not one that I would call particularly subtle: it’s tonally very grabby. Interestingly, there is no ratio control – the BOUM is a one-knob compressor, with the ratio, threshold and make-up all controlled simultaneously by a single knob. The more you turn the knob clockwise, the more extreme the compression will become. Once you hit 12 o’clock, compression turns into limiting.

Keep turning past 12 and we eventually get to a fairly unique stage called 'dynamic reversal'. To spare you the science, this creates a pumping and ducking effect that’s very rhythmic and begs you to delve into the attack and release controls to fine0tune. As you would imagine, it’s a pretty extreme effect that won’t be used on every track. This sort of compression brings to mind early Daft Punk releases, with that deliberate overuse of compression to create a pumping and sucking effect.

The more I played with the compressor, the more it became apparent that this unit has been designed with electronic music in mind. By its very nature, electronic music doesn’t need the amount of compression that acoustic music requires to keep dynamics in check; instead, compression is more often used as an effect, to add weight and energy. The BOUM is tuned perfectly to deliver precisely that, and really brings punch and grit to proceedings. 

Conversely, while the compressor may seem extreme at first, when used in conjunction with other functions like the input gain, attack and mix settings, more traditional flavours can be achieved. The sidechain function is also excellent for cleaning up the bottom-end of a mix when it’s triggered by a kick drum, and can be abused wonderfully for effect. 

Distortion & saturation
BOUM is much more than a compressor, it’s a vibe box as much as anything. Turning our gaze to the distortion section, the BOUM offers four different types of distortion: (Boost), (Tube), (Fuzz) and (Square). These allow you to achieve anything from subtle hazy warmth to frankly disgusting levels of filth that should come with a voucher for a counselling retreat in the South of France. 

Used in conjunction with the filters, you can really hone in on your desired tone. The variable LO CUT filter is ideal for allowing the kick drum to pass without too much distortion, concentrating the filth on the frequencies above. It’s a very cool function that allows you to put your entire drum buss or mix through, adding a lot of grit without the kick booming out in a flappy, unfocused manner. 

The filter is a very simple yet effective affair which can be used to tame the harshness of the top-end as well as creating those lovely textural cut-off effects. There is no resonance control, but the axis of the filter is well chosen. It’s warm and thick and lush. Anyone using it in a live setting will have fun contouring their sets with this one. 

It should be noted that there is MIDI connectivity and that the filter (among many other functions) can be automated, which adds a whole new level of functionally and precision to this little box for studio use. The mix knob in particular is almost worth the money itself for what it brings to the table with it’s ability to blend the wet signal alongside the dry. 

The verdict

I can see this unit appealing to a lot of people with different set ups. It’s a great unit for live set-ups. It adds drive, control and power to a mix. Producers working in the box who want to add a little analogue magic will also find something for themselves here. It’s ideal for sending soft synths and drums into, bouncing back and generally adding that little bit of texture that truthfully can’t be had working with software alone. 

But the real genius of the BOUM is its quick and intuitive workflow. That it combines all of these functions into a very small unit with a very simple user interface is a testament to its design ingenuity. It’s a real tone chameleon which offers way more than the sum of it’s parts. It can be Hi-Fi and classy or Lo-Fi and filthy, depending on your mood, and it's the perfect remedy when you want to add a little thickness, warmth and character to your sound. Anyone looking to add any of the above to their productions should have this handsome and diminutive unit at the top of their list.

Words: Chris Lyth

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Tags: OTO Machines, BOUM, compression, distortion, limiting, saturation, filter, hardware, outboard