Behind The Gear: Traverse Analogue
In a short period of time, Julian Traverse has made a name for himself around the world with the brilliant Traverse Analogue 652 dual-channel mic preamp. Traverse Analogue's reputation is staked on boutique-level craftsmanship and the 652's tube-based circuitry, which lights up any source passing through it with plenty of rich harmonic content.
We recently sat down to talk with Julian about the company, his journey into pro audio, his mentors, and more. Watch our demo of the Traverse Analogue 652 below and continue on after to read our full Behind The Gear conversation.
What led you to start your own gear company?
I was the kid that wanted to take everything apart. I wanted to know how things worked and how they were assembled. Anything related to science, engineering and electricity was of interest to me. From electric mixers to washing machines, vacuum cleaners to water pumps, nothing was safe from getting stripped to pieces, and just maybe, it would get put back together and work correctly again.
I always had an entrepreneurial spirit. When I was 10 or 11 years old, I signed up for a “Youth Ventures” program in my community and created a small computer business. I sold peripherals and did the odd repair job. I moved into repairing old TV sets and the like. My dream was to be able to manufacture things like that and having my own company. Around the same time, I also took an interest in music. It became a big pastime for me when I got my first electric guitar and amplifier. My friends and I would jam to classic rock in school at music class and recess. I really loved stringed instruments, eventually moving to playing bass, mandolin, and banjo, but the guitar was my favorite.
In my teenage years, I took an interest in automotive and mechanical work. Later, I enrolled in trade school to be an industrial mechanic. I worked for a short period with hydraulics and rebuilding pumps and motors for the offshore oil industry. Fast forward to 2015, I moved to Ontario and worked as a mechanic in a sheet metal manufacturing plant, repairing hydraulics presses, brakes, CNC laser and turret punch machines. I took notice of how they built their 19” racks and rackmount enclosures.
During all of this, much of my spare time was spent learning more about physics, math, and electrical principles, while building hand-wired vacuum tube audio circuits like the venerable Pultec EQP-1A. I took some of these samples to Toronto, and showed them off to pro audio sales guru Dave Dysart. He was really interested in my work and was instrumental in helping me get things off the ground! I realized I wanted to take all three of my interests – electronics, mechanics, and music – and roll them into a single company. In late 2016, I moved back to my home province of Newfoundland and Labrador to build a 10-piece prototype run of microphone preamplifiers. Traverse Analogue was born.
You’re known for being a big advocate of tube gear. Why choose tube topology when designing pieces?
Aside from the memories of tearing apart tube amplifiers and radio relics, and the aesthetic of how old amplifiers where assembled, I felt they positively reinforced the musicality of whatever source you put through those circuits. It really satisfies the recording process and glues things together. In fact, it is the distortion of the signal that gives our ears such a pleasing experience. While designing, the intention was to take the absolute best of what tubes and transformers had to offer, keep the signal path as pure as possible, while also using a dash of discrete transistors on the side to bring out the highest potential of the circuit. Another important aspect was to stay away from op-amps in the audio path.
While working as a technician in the local music industry, I had the opportunity to repair and audition so many different topologies. My ears always tell me that the vacuum tube-based stuff has a magic sound that we all seem to favor! There is also a certain vibe from these pieces that’s so incredibly hard to replicate on a screen. The combination of tubes and transformers is gestalt in a sense, and a product that has these elements in a recording environment sounds so much grander than the sum of its individual parts.
Were there any existing pieces that inspired you when working on the 652?
One of the fundamental values of Traverse Analogue was to focus solely on original designs. There are a lot of good clones out there. I do not think I could add anything worthwhile in that regard. While tube-based gain stages certainly have some similarities, the project was to take various things that I thought worked well and combine them into a wonderful sounding circuit. As an amp tech, there hasn’t been much that I haven’t come across, from guitar and hi-fi amplifiers, all the way to multi-thousand-dollar studio preamps. The 652’s front end uses a custom Lundahl input transformer with the first triode designed for low noise, the following triode for asymmetrical clipping, then buffering the resulting signal through the Lundahl output transformer. I felt that this was the best way to achieve the sound I was looking for, and to be used in a modern studio setting with a DAW.
What was the development process like on the 652 preamps? Were there any challenges?
Like painting a picture, it started with broad brush strokes, as far as the general idea of how I wanted the preamplifier to be used and what it should sound like. I chose the topology and fine-tuned everything, much like painting in the little details with fine brush strokes, until I was satisfied with the result. The exterior also needed to be rugged and robust. The switches and pots have such a solid feel, and I wanted a traditional VU meter in order to keep the vintage vibe. I really wanted it to feel like an industrial bit of kit, yet have familiar and classic styling from the gear of days gone by.
A great deal of my knowledge and core design comes from my time working with a gentleman in Australia named Doug Ford. He was a senior design engineer for a very well-known microphone company and is responsible for many of their classic designs. We worked together for a while at the start until he found other work opportunities, but even afterward, Doug remained a valued mentor to me. I’ve learned so much from his time and work that would take decades to learn on one’s own. He really helped fill in the holes of my knowledge and solidify my understanding of low-noise analog electronics, for which I will be ever grateful and appreciative.
For challenges, the biggest one would be continuing to pursue my dream through the global pandemic. During the years prior, I got the design pretty much where I wanted it. After getting the attention of M1 Distribution, I added a few requested features, and the product was ready to hit the market. The prototype of the new design made an appearance at NAMM in 2020, but bringing it to production during the pandemic was a tough journey. Thankfully, I am too stubborn to give up, and here we are in 2021 getting them out the door and into the hands of engineers abroad!
How would you describe the tone of the 652’s circuit to someone who’s not heard it? What do you find that it shines on?
I find that some preamps are designed to lean towards the vintage, creamy-sounding side of things, while others are leaning towards the ultra-clean, transparent-sounding side. There’s sort of a spectrum of flavors. The 652 lands squarely in the middle and is meant to vary its character depending on how the front panel controls are set and how hard you hit it with a signal. If you drive it hard or use it on a mix buss, you can saturate things. But for low output microphones like ribbons, it amplifies them in a pristine manner, brightening up the darker tones a little. Because I wanted this preamp to be an all-around workhorse, it was important that the preamp react differently to each source and place it anywhere on the spectrum of flavor.
The frequency response is very flat. Vintage preamplifiers sometimes have low and high frequency humps, or even a falling high frequency response that we hear as warmth, but for this design, I wanted the natural response of the mic to be amplified unaltered. Therefore, there isn’t much in the way of EQ on the unit, other than the high-pass filter. These types of tweaks can be done in the box without setting anything in stone. If this is done on the way in, you’re sort of stuck with it. The magic happens at the second triode, where various amounts of asymmetrical clipping will add harmonics to reinforce the signal in a positive way. The higher the gain is set, the more 2nd harmonic is present, whereas driving the circuit harder with it set at lower gains it has more 3rd harmonic. Another unique point is it’s designed to add these harmonics at slightly lower output levels than many preamplifiers. With all of this in mind, along with the fact the unit has mic, instrument and line-level inputs, means that the uses are truly endless with a variety of
tones at hand. It’s essentially my take on the perfect 2-channel front end for the modern DAW.
I’m sure you’ve spent plenty of time using your own designs in recording scenarios. Do you have a favorite mic to pair with the 652?
Since devoting my time to running the company and designing circuits, I haven’t had as much time as I did in the past to do much in the way of recording. This means that I relied on engineers and producers from all over North America to give me feedback and do in-depth testing for me. During the testing stage, it was noticed that you could really take any microphone, even budget-friendly microphones, and simply putting it in front of the 652 made such a profound difference to the sound. You really can use any microphone with this preamp and end up with a very pleasing sounding track.
Ribbon microphones were also important. I wanted the preamp to be able to blend well with ribbons and tried a variety of industry-standard models to confirm it does the business, including the famous Coles 4038. The 300R setting works wonderfully with them, and while the maximum gain of the preamp is 60dB, it is enough to work well with most ribbons when running into an interface and DAW. Condenser mics sound lovely, and dynamic mics work like a treat. I tried to make this product as well-rounded as possible to satisfy whatever you throw at it.
What’s next for Traverse Analogue?
The goal is to continue manufacturing and getting the brand known. Along with servicing, I am super close to making a living doing what I love. The 652 seemed to be the best choice for a first product as outboard preamplifiers are still a necessary piece to any setup, from smaller home-based studios to the racks of state-of-the-art facilities. A small companion product to the 652 was the Mass-DI box, a discrete DI that also sports a Lundahl transformer. It was designed primarily for stringed instruments. They were made in limited quantities a few years back, but I get so much positive feedback on how they sound that I think another batch of them is on the horizon.
I frequently get asked if a compressor is in the works. I am happy to say there is a device on its way, featuring a similar styling to the preamplifier and using a similar style of triode gain staging such that it will be variable in character and flavor. It will certainly be of interest to anyone involved in tracking, mixing and mastering!