Biased? Perhaps. After all I’ve made no secret about owning and preferring Aracom equipment, and Jeff Aragaki is a good friend of mine. But irrespective of my ownership of Aracom products and my relationship with Jeff, if you’ve followed this blog with any regularity at all, I don’t say things like that lightly. There’s too much competition in the marketplace to crown a “best” or make a claim like I just did without experience. Luckily, experience is on my side, and having kept tabs on the various attenuators that have hit the market over the years – especially the last few years – I can confidently say that no other attenuator on the market does what the DRX can do.
I was going to save this for the end, but yes, it’s bye-bye PRX150, once Jeff finishes construction of a DRX for me. But I will say this: For basic attenuation requirements, the PRX line of attenuators are fantastic. My PRX150 has been a stand-by on stage and in the studio for years, and has served me quite well. The totally transparent passive attenuation technology combined with the Aracom input/output impedance matching that Jeff invented has no match on the market. And if what you’re looking for is straight-up attenuation, you can’t ever go wrong with a PRX attenuator.
Every year, I write an article on game-changers for me. The PRX150-Pro has always made the list because I just can’t do without attenuation and get the high-gain sounds I need at a reasonable volume. But the DRX will unfortunately AND fortunately supplant it on the list.
So, with the preamble out of the way, let’s get down to brass tacks…
In evolutionary science, there’s a term called “disruptive selection” (aka diversifying selection) wherein extreme traits are selected over intermediate traits within a given population. A good example of this is the evolution of the peppered moth in England (yeah, I was a biology major at university and genetics and evolution were part of the curricula). In this study, the light-colored peppered moth population was severely decreased due to predation; in large part because of the environmental changes brought on by soot covering the foliage, thus making the moths stand out. On the other hand, dark-colored moths increased in population because they could conceal themselves much better against the darker foliage. Darwin also observed this on the Galapagos islands with the finch population (this is a cardinal case, as it is known, and it is mentioned in the article to which I provided a link).
So what does disruptive selection have to do with the DRX? Well, first we have to start with the PRX. Jeff’s attenuation circuit technology, while functioning in basically the same manner as other attenuators; that is, attenuating output power was actually a disruptive event in attenuator technology when it first arrived on the scene. Every other manufacturer at the time was basically using a variation on the same attenuation technology which, while effective, were tone sucks. So to get their transparency, they had to add EQ circuits to compensate for the high-end frequency loss inherent to the traditional attenuator design. Jeff, on the other hand, figured out circuitry that retained transparency and dynamics without the need for an EQ circuit. It truly was a game-changer, and sparked some heated debate on the forums. But with time, things settled down, people picked their attenuators, and the discussion moved on. Enter the DRX (I really wanted to say “Dragon”).
I had worked with a prototype of this a couple of years ago. It was on a pine board. 🙂 And even at the time I told Jeff that this was going to change everything in the attenuator market once he came out with the real deal, and now that I’ve had a chance to finally play with it, I wasn’t wrong. This attenuator changes everything for me!
I finally got to try out the DRX at Jeff’s workshop over the weekend. I was taking my PRX150 in for a bit of servicing because after hundreds of hours of use, I started noticing some weirdness in it that I wanted to have him check out. Also, Jeff wanted me to test a VERY special, new 100-watt amp that he was shipping to Australia before he packed it up. This amp will be his flagship 100-watt Marshall-style amp. I say “Marshall-style” because it has circuitry in it that will give it voicing for three different Marshal amps: Plexi 100, Plexi PA, and JCM800 – all in one amp! It’s absolutely killer, and I will be writing a review of it in the coming weeks.
After I played with the amp for quite awhile, Jeff hooked up the DRX to show that to me as well, then spent several minutes explaining its operation to me. As I listened to him, I started chomping at the bit to test it because it had everything that I had wanted in the PRX150! I also knew that based upon my experience and knowledge of other attenuators on the market, the DRX would be an ass-kicker.
I won’t bore you with technical details, as this is an “impressions” article, so you can read about the features here. But I will highlight the three most major features that get me so excited about this attenuator:
Dual-level attenuation. For clarity, Jeff has this labeled “boost” on the attenuator. But it’s not a boost in the traditional sense in that it doesn’t add input gain to your signal, which would result in a bit more compression from the power tubes. This is actually an attenuation reducer. In that sense, it is a boost as output power increases and you get more volume. But unlike input boost, no compression takes place, thus your tone stays the same. This is an absolutely HUGE feature for me, especially when I’m playing in overdrive and need to get into a lead break. If I’m already slamming my amp with input gain and my tubes are pretty well saturated, adding more input gain to do my leads doesn’t change my volume much. But with a “boost” mode on the attenuator, I can reduce the attenuation to increase the output power at the back-end of my amp and will get the volume boost that I need. Then switching back to “normal” mode, I can easily go back to rhythm volume.
This is the very first feature I tested on the DRX, and that feature alone sold me on it, and I asked Jeff if he’d build me one. This is something that I’ve wanted on my PRX150. The secret behind this feature is the foot switch; actually foot switches available for the DRX. I won’t go into detail about them here – because I only know about what mine does – so you can read about what each different type does here. I have a “Type B” foot switch which allows me to not only switch back and forth between normal and boost modes on the attenuator, but also allows me to switch channels on my two-channel amps. I could actually use this on my DV Mark Little 40. While it’s not a two-channel amp, the foot switch provides 6dB of gain boost. So I could have the amp set up in normal mode at just the edge of breakup, then when I engage the “boost” on the attenuator, I’ll simultaneously add the 6dB boost on the amp to take it over the edge. OMG! Looks like I’ll have to test this. 🙂
You might be thinking “so what” about the foot switches. Well these are what set the DRX apart from the competition. Actually, you could do without a foot switch and in that case you’d have to switch between normal and boost by hand; still much more than what the competition offers. But combined with one of the Aracom foot switches, it suddenly opens up a bunch of possibilities, and further distances the DRX from the pack.
Variable Dynamic Control. As if Jeff’s attenuator technology and dual-level modes weren’t enough, Jeff added another feature to the attenuator that to me, simply decimates the competition. VDC is a subtle feature (actually less subtle if you switch back and forth between extremes) that adjusts the reactance between the DRX and the speaker. The result is a smoothing out of the high-frequencies as you change the reactance. This is NOT an EQ, but it does act like a very subtle high-cut filter. For instance, when my Plexi-style amps are cranked, they produce a ton of bright tone (and no, I’m not talking about those undesirable high-end transients that some in the past have imagined hearing – I think it’s their tinnitus. 🙂 ). With the VDC, I can roll off a bit of that so my tone isn’t quite as piercing. In my test of the DRX, we had the 100-watter cranked in the Plexi channel with minimal attenuation (oh yes… it was LOUD). With Jeff moving from extreme to extreme, the sound went from piercing (no roll-off), to much smoother. The sweet spot for me was a couple of clicks down on that amp.
Why is this an important feature? One of the complaints that people had about the PRX line when it first came out was that when they cranked their amps, they’d hear these high-end transients or their sound was piercing. I don’t think they ever totally cranked their amps up before. A cranked tube amp takes a little getting used to because it transforms at higher-gain, with many amps seemingly producing more highs when cranked (or they’re just not as apparent when slightly overdriven). For some like me, I love those high-frequencies. But for others, they’re undesirable. So now, those complainers have nothing to complain about. If they don’t like all the highs their amp is producing, they now have a way to dial them down; without adjusting the EQ on their amp! How f-in’ cool is THAT?!!!
It only weighs 7 lbs!!! As much as I love my PRX, it weighs 18 lbs, and is about the height of an amp head. The DRX, on the other hand weighs less than half that, and has a lower vertical form factor than the PRX, making it much more easily transportable. For as much I gig, the less weight I have to lug, the better.
I could go on and on and on, and it looks like I’ve done a good job of that already. 🙂 But the DRX represents yet another turning point for me. I will be releasing gig reports and a studio test (with clips) in the near future. Jeff graciously lent me his first production model while my DRX is being built. Stay tuned!
For more information, check out the DRX product page!