Behind The Gear: D.W. Fearn
Based in Pennsylvania, D.W. Fearn has garnered a reputation over the years for being one of the finest purveyors of tube recording equipment. Known for essentials like the VT-1 and VT-5, D.W. Fearn gear can be found in control rooms all over the world and is easily recognizable by the brand's iconic red finish.
The company was originally started in 1993 by owner and namesake Doug Fearn. Doug spent the better part of a few decades making his own gear before enlisting brothers Geoff and George Hazelrigg of Hazelrigg Industries to help in the manufacturing and marketing of his equipment.
We recently sat down with Doug, Geoff, and George to discuss the legacy of D.W. Fearn and how Hazelrigg Industries has helped push the brand's name even further. Continue on below to learn more about Doug's design process, his inspiration, and how his creations have been emulated digitally.
Doug, what are some pieces of gear over the years that influenced your taste in recording equipment?
DF: I started out in the vacuum tube era. My first studio opened in 1969. It was almost entirely vacuum tube-based gear. The mic preamps that I used there were mostly RCA from the 1930s and 1940s. I had Ampex 300 Series tape machines that had really good mic preamps in them. I also gathered up a bunch of other tube mic preamps, some good, some not so good. As far as other gear, I’ve encountered over the years that opened my eyes, one experience was the first time I used a Neve 1073. Those equalizers to me just worked beautifully with music. They were designed to work with music. Those, and the Trident EQs, taught me about that. As far as compressors, the Fairchild of course, which everybody loves. They had some great ideas. I also would say a lot of the great broadcast compressors and limiters of the 1950s.
What sort of equipment limitations when you were first starting out led you to start designing your own gear?
Doug Fearn: There was a time in the mid to late 80s, where I was really unhappy with the sound I was getting. I came across some old recordings that I had done very early in my career when everything was vacuum tube-based, and I really liked the way that sounded. So I decided that it would be good to revisit that and see if I could capture that sound but bring it into the modern age, where it had specs (like noise) that were comparable to the digital gear. Everything I’ve designed is all based on something that I wanted for myself because I felt a need for it in my own sessions.
D.W. Fearn is known for creating designs that are tube-based. What makes you continue to choose vacuum tube designs over solid state?
DF: Tubes just sound better to me. It’s just the way music is supposed to sound. When I first started using solid state gear in an early console I had, I was kind of appalled with how it sounded. It had a lot of great features, but it didn’t sound anything like what I was used to. I haven’t changed my mind ever since then. I think solid state gear has gotten a lot better, but I’m sitting here in my control room, and everything here is vacuum tube except for the solid-state stage in the converters. That’s just how music’s supposed to sound to me.
Over the years, the D.W. Fearn VT-1 has become an iconic piece of gear. What do you think makes that preamp so special?
DF: It’s the basis for all of the other preamps we make. It was the result of a couple of years of experimenting and building different preamps after doing a lot of research and a lot of listening. Coming up with the best ideas from all of the old preamps, saying “This was a really good idea, I like that” or “They really went cheap on this, I can do better than that.” Then adding my own background and saying “I can do this better, and that’s because I’m not going to compromise. It’s going to be the best it can be, and the price is going to fall where it has to.”
How has the relationship with Hazelrigg Industries benefited the development of D.W. Fearn gear? Has it made it easier to roll out gear?
Geoff Hazelrigg: It’s been good. A big focus on Hazelrigg Industries taking over the manufacturing has been to free up Doug to do design work. I think that’s been good. I think there are some really positive things in the pipeline that would’ve taken a lot more time if Doug still had to worry about the day to day stuff.
For us at this point in time, we’re running like a well-oiled machine. Things are smooth, we maintain really good relationships with all of our customers. We’re really engaged in it, and we really enjoy the process. We like manufacturing the gear, but we really like using the gear [Laughs].
Let’s talk about the design process a little bit. What process does each piece go through from idea to development?
DF: Like I said before, all of the things I design are tools that I want for myself. So I have a pretty good idea of what I want something to do and sound like. I start out by studying the fundamentals of it. I have a whole library of books on vacuum design that goes back to the 1930s. So a lot of my learning was saying “How do they do that? Why did they do that?”
I got to know a bunch of the people at RCA in Camden, New Jersey early on in my career. Just having a casual conversation with them was an incredible education in learning about technology and why things work the way they do, where the problems are, and how to get around them. So that formed my education of vacuum tube design. I would visualize what I wanted, and then I’d work backwards. Once I know what I want it to do, I figure out how to get there.
Then there is a lot of listening. I fill up about six notebooks for each product during the design process. I must have had a dozen compressor prototypes that lead up to the VT-7, but they just didn’t do what I wanted. They sounded great, but they didn’t move the state of the art forward. I don’t want to build clones of anything, I want to make stuff that moves the state of the art forward.
So I’d move along, tackle the next problem, and at the end, if I’m not getting what I want, I won’t put my name on it and I won’t release it. There’s some really good gear out there. If I can’t do better than that, I don’t want to do it.
What about the design of the Hazelrigg gear? Is there any crossover with Doug's designs?
George Hazelrigg: We also have the Hazelrigg pieces like the VDI and VLC. They’re brown powder coated to save on paint. The VLC was our attempt at a lower cost line for DW Fearn. I’m not sure that we were entirely successful at making it cheap, because we couldn’t compromise at all on the sound quality of the gear. So we took Doug’s VT-15 design without the compressor, and we did some tuning on the EQ section.
When we put together the package for the VLC, we had a few guys in mind. These were guys who were traveling a lot, working in improvised spaces, all that. This was the box that they could throw in their suitcase and set up anywhere, and have a guarantee that whatever they were working on, the sound would come out fantastic.
We focused on getting a smaller unit and making it faster to manufacture, and it saves us some cost that we can pass along to the customer. We often have customers who get back to us saying they use these pieces every time they work.
Each D.W. Fearn piece tends to be recognizable by its red housing. What led you to choose the cohesive look for the line of products?
DF: Well, the prototype front panel for the VT-1 is one that I made myself, and it’s identical to the ones that you can buy today. I figured raw aluminum didn’t have a very good look to it, so I went down to the hardware store and I was looking at cans of spray paint. I had a color in mind, and it was a sort of blueish-grey color. A color like the one that Hewlett Packard used for all their test equipment. I always liked the look of that, so I figured I’d find a color like that.
So I’m looking at cans of spray paint and there’s one there that was pretty close, but also on the rack was this red that kept grabbing my attention and kept saying to me “Use this.” So I figured, it was just a prototype, it didn’t really matter. I hand spray painted that front panel with red hardware store paint. The people that saw it really reacted to that color because there was no other red gear out there. This was before Focusrite and all the others.
At the time, my wife was working for Dupont in corporate communications. She knew all the guys that developed the paint. So I talked to the guy, told him what I wanted to do, and he said “What you want is Imron, it’s the most gorgeous finish we’ve developed, but I’m warning you that it’s really hard to make look good. It requires a very sophisticated paint shop to do it.” That’s what we’ve used ever since. It’s $800 a gallon, it’s extremely expensive. The paint is used on most airplanes and UPS trucks. It’s a very durable paint and very beautiful.
The VT-7 is often referenced by engineers as a favorite in the mastering stage. What about the VT-7 do you think makes it so musical?
DF: Well, essentially what I wanted was a compressor that disappeared. Something that just did what it was supposed to do but didn’t draw any attention to itself. One that had as few artifacts as you can possibly achieve in a compressor. I’m satisfied with it. It’s the only compressor I use.
Geoff Hazelrigg: This goes across the board for all of our products, but my brother and I come to music as musicians. When we perform and record, we’re going for a certain transparency with what we’re playing and what we want the listener to feel and react to. That’s what really drew us into these products, which eventually brought us to manufacture them today. The VT-7 falls right in line with that where it doesn’t get in the way. It controls what you need to control musically, but it doesn’t interfere with the emotion and the idea that the music is ultimately trying to get across to the listener.
George Hazelrigg: I’m going to go one step further with that. In the last couple of months, Geoff and I started tracking everything that we personally do in the studio through a VT-7. Geoff and I do a lot of session work. We normally would never track with compression, and we’ve been doing some pop stuff recently and we track everything with the VT-7 on the way in.
I think the difference with that compressor versus most compressors is that most of the time compression takes away from fundamental frequencies from the source. The VT-7 does the opposite. It actually reinforces fundamental harmonics in what you’re doing. So I can play a dense chord on the piano and every voice of that chord comes through clearly. That’s an incredibly hard thing to do with compressor design, and we have that here.[caption id="attachment_27643" align="alignnone" width="800"] Processed with VSCO with a6 preset[/caption]
Some of your designs have gone on to become digital plug-ins, including the VT-5. What was it like getting involved in that process?
DF: Over the years, I’ve been approached by a bunch of different plug-in designers who expressed interest in developing plug-in versions of our products. A few of the companies seemed like they had really good ideas, but the company that I decided to go with was Acustica. They actually came here on two or three occasions, with all of their test gear and spent a couple days each time just sampling the VT-5 Equalizer. They sampled every possible setting, a combination of settings, levels, everything you can imagine just so they can fully define what that piece of gear sounds like under every circumstance.
The algorithm that they used to develop the VT-5 plugin modeled it out to the 9th harmonic. No one does that. It does sound really, really good. We went through about a half a dozen iterations, and I’d tell them what we needed to fix each time. The hardware and the plugin sound a little different; I think for most people, they’d hardly notice any difference. Acustica did an excellent job. I’m really happy with it.
Having worked with your own equipment so much over the years, you must have a preference of what it pairs well with. Do you have a particular microphone that you reach for when using your creations?
DF: Well, everything I’ve built had to reach a certain point before I’d consider it a product, and that criteria is that it’s got to be something that I’d use in preference over anything else out there. If it doesn’t meet that criteria, I’m not going to use it, I’m going to use whatever is better. I want to use the stuff that sounds best to me.
In my control room, it’s all D.W. Fearn gear. Something that I’ve learned early on is that our mic preamps make just about any mic sound good. A good friend of mine, who’s a voiceover guy, is very particular about microphones. Whenever we’re doing a session, at the end he’ll ask, “What new mics do you have that I can try out?” We’d set up a bunch of mics, and he’d try them all through the Fearn preamps. So for fun, we set up an SM57, and it was remarkable. Straight through a VT-1 and it sounded really good. We were all kind of shocked.