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elysia karacter 500 Stereo Saturator

They don't call this "the Coloring Box" for nothing…

 by Phil O'Keefe

One lamentation some engineers have about digital audio is that it's "too clean." In the analog days, there was noise and distortion from several stages of the recording process that are largely absent when recording digitally. Sure, we still have the "front end" analog signal path; the mic preamps, and occasionally equalizers and compressors through which we run our microphones, line level and DI instrument sources on their way to the converters. But that still leaves off the contributions of tape, analog mixing consoles, and outboard processors associated with analog productions. On one hand, we like the improved signal-to-noise ratio that digital offers, but oddly enough the human ear finds distortion very appealing too, and we tend to miss it when it's gone.

 

So how do you add that back in a controlled, musically appropriate way? Opinions vary wildly, but one product that's designed to bring a bit of dirt and coloration - or a heck of a lot of it - back to your tracks is the elysia karacter 500 stereo saturator. Called the "Coloring Box" by its maker, is it the type of unit that will shade your music in a cool way? Let's find out.






What You Need To Know

  • The elysia karacter 500 (the manufacturer uses lower case spellings) is a double-sized 500-series rack format unit that requires two adjacent open spaces in a 500-series rack. The 500-series rack (not included) provides all I/O and power.

  • The karacter 500 is designed for +4dB input/output signals, and is wired pin-2 hot.

  • There are two separate channels in the karacter 500 suitable for dual mono, linked stereo, or even linked or unlinked M-S operation.

  • Being a double-width module, the front panel is quite spacious, with plenty of room for lots of knobs and switches. In spite of a wealth of controls, nothing feels cramped or hard to adjust.

                            

Speaking of controls, there are two rows of four identical knobs. Those on the unit's left side control both channels when the unit is operating in stereo linked mode. The knobs are all stepped, with 41 different discrete locations across their rotation. This makes it possible to recall precise settings later. Here's what the knobs do:

  • Drive - Sets the amount of grit; turn clockwise for more.

  • Color - Adjusts the overall harmonics content. The flat setting is at center, with counter-clockwise rotation giving more of what the manual calls "dub" (darker), and more "shred" (brighter) with clockwise rotation. This knob is more than just a tone control, and offers a wide range of different tonal and distortion character changes.

  • Gain - Sets the channel's output level. The "flat" setting is at center, with both output level boost (clockwise) and attenuation (counter-clockwise) available.

  • Mix - This is a blend-type control that adjusts the ratio of direct and processed signals. Turn it up all the way for 100% processed signal, or down all the way down for a 100% dry / unprocessed signal.

In addition to the eight knobs, there are also eight pushbuttons in the front panel's center, each with a corresponding LED. They are laid out in upper and lower columns of four switches. The upper switch of each column affects both channels, while the lower three are duplicated for both columns, with separate yet identical sets dedicated to each channel; the top column works in conjunction with the knobs on the right side, and the lower column buttons work with the knobs on the left.

 

Starting from the top and working our way down, the buttons are:

  • M-S Mode - This switches the unit to M-S mode, where the left side knobs and lower bank of switches controls the Mid signal, and the right side knobs and upper switches control the Side. When in M/S mode, the karacter always codes from LR to MS and then back to LR after processing. So, both the source and the target signals are always stereo. The karacter 500 can give you some very cool-sounding stereo effects, such as crunch on the sides with cleaner, more articulate processing on the middle.

  • Turbo Boost - This only functions in FET Shred mode and when engaged it gives the unit an extra kick in the pants for even crazier amounts of distortion. This isn't subtle; if you're after maximum sonic destruction, this is where you'll find it.

  • FET Shred - Selects between the more subtle mastering-grade saturation (when the LED is off) to the heavier tube-inspired distortion. Of course, you can take that to a whole different level by engaging the Turbo boost.

  • Right On - This switch activates the channel or switches it to hardwire bypass, allowing for quick and easy comparisons of the processed and unprocessed sound.

And the lower four switches are:

  • Stereo Link - Activating it puts the karacter 500 into stereo mode. Again, only the left row of knobs is active when running in linked stereo, and they control both channels simultaneously.

  • Turbo Boost - Functions the same as the other Turbo Boost switch, except it affects the Left channel, and only when the unit is running in dual mono mode.

  • FET Shred - Switches the Left channel to FET Shred mode when engaged.

  • Left On - On/bypass switch for the Left channel.


  • The elysia character 500 uses a 100% analog discrete Class A design. The build quality is excellent, with surface mount construction for the components.
  • The elysia karacter 500 draws its power from the host rack. Like all 500 series modules it operates on 16 volts DC. Current draw is 210 mA total, or 105 mA per slot. That's more than your typical unit draws, but not too outlandish. Still, some older and lower-powered racks may have limited current available and if so, there may be limitations to the number of modules you can run simultaneously - especially if they're all drawing a lot of current.

 

Whether running in stereo, mono / dual mono or linked or unlinked M-S, there are three main modes of operation or approaches to using the elysia karacter 500:

  • Mastering Grade Saturation (Turbo Boost and FET Shred switches off) - This mode gives the most subtle distortion, with gentle symmetrical clipping and soft harmonic distortion giving signals a larger, "fatter" and more interesting character without overwhelming them or making them overly distorted.

  • Tube-Inspired Distortion (Turbo Boost off, FET Shred on) - The sound and character of the karacter 500 is very different in this mode. This is where heavier, tube amp-like distortion lives - perfect for gritting up direct guitars and basses, adding girth and personality to wimpy synth patches and samples, and goosing drums into a much heavier and harder-hitting zone.

  • Glorious Destruction - This is where you add the Turbo Boost switch to the FET Shred mode and usehigh levels of Drive to generate gobs of asymmetrical distortion that takes no prisoners in your quest to destroy everything in your (signal) path.

  • What's really cool is that the elysia karacter 500 does so well at all three types of tasks - not a simple matter, considering the vast range that it needs to cover.


Limitations

  • If you use a Radial Engineering 500 series rack (as I do), then you'll need to remove the metal alignment tray that ships installed in your Radial unit before installing the elysia karacter 500. Failure to do so can potentially result in serious damage to the elysia unit due to it shorting out, so the unit includes a bright red warning card that's inserted into the very front of the included hardcopy of the manual so you won't miss it.  

  • The association of buttons to their respective channels could be made a bit clearer. There are no indicators on the front panel other than the Right and Left On buttons, but you'll soon remember that the top switches go with the right side knobs and the lower switches with the left side knobs.

  • It's a bit expensive compared to some lesser saturation solutions, but all the best sounding stuff usually is, isn't it?



Conclusions

If you want to add some dirt to your overly-pristine digital recordings, whether it be a bit of subtle harmonic distortion to add extra character to an FET vocal mic or to enhance a stereo mix, tube-type saturation for grinding organ, synth and guitar tracks, or for an all-out sonic annihilation of your drum samples, the elysia karacter 500 is a box that can not only give it to you, but do it with finesse and style. All the controls you need are here and they work fairly intuitively and with a great deal of range. You also get the precision of being able to accurately recall settings due to the stepped rotary controls - a huge plus that's bound to appeal to mastering engineers.

 

Although the front panel switches could be marked more clearly to indicate the knobs with which they're associated, the included spiral-bound manual is well-written and has lots of examples to help you better understand the unit and get up and running quickly. But let's face it - ultimately, a box like this lives or dies by its sound quality, the range of distortion it has, and the variety and quality of the sounds available - which  is quite impressive. While it may sound contradictory, the elysia karacter 500 is a great-sounding, high-end signal processor that excels at getting dirty, and which works great with individual instruments as well as full mixes. It's filthy, dirty sonic excellence. 


Resources

Elysia karacter 500 ($1,049 MSRP, $975 "street")

Elysia's product web page

Karacter 500 settings / recall sheet (PDF file)  

Elysia karacter 500 manual (PDF file)

Sound examples are available to listen to and download on the elysia site



You can purchase the elysia karacter 500 and other elysia products from:

Sweetwater

Vintage King Audio

Zen Pro Audio

B&H








__________________________________________________

 


Phil O'Keefe is a multi-instrumentalist, recording engineer / producer and the Senior Editor of Harmony Central. He has engineered, produced and performed on countless recording sessions in a diverse range of styles, with artists such as Alien Ant Farm, Jules Day, Voodoo Glow Skulls, John McGill, Michael Knott and Alexa's Wish. He is a former featured monthly columnist for EQ magazine, and his articles and product reviews have also appeared in Keyboard, Electronic Musician and Guitar Player magazines.  





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