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About 3 years ago I posted about my top 10 compressors, but things have changed a lot since then, so I thought it was time to post an updated list. Many of the entries haven’t changed, but a few have (especially on the software side).
This list is a combination of hardware and software, since most of us live in a DAW world these days. Also, the ranking is somewhat arbitrary based on my personal usage. Okay, here we go.
1. Universal Audio 1176: I don’t care which version you use, the 1176 is about as close to a desert island compressor as you’ll get due to its versatility. I like to use it on kick, snare, guitars, bass, vocals – just about anything. It can be aggressive or smooth sounding, but nothing pulls an instrument out of a mix in the same way.
2. Teletronix/Universal Audio LA-2A: Once again, I don’t care which version of the hardware or software you use, the LA-2A has a sound and feel all its own. It can work pretty well on most instruments, but it stands out on vocals, and is dead easy to use. I rarely use a lot, as I like the sound of 2 to 3 dB of gain reduction in most situations.
3. Universal Audio LA-3: Perhaps the ultimate electric guitar compressor, I’ve used it successfully on piano and keyboards as well. Nothing works quite the same with electric guitars in a mix.
4. UAD Precision Limiter: This is a plug that I use on every mix. It doesn’t really try to emulate anything else and it doesn’t have to. It can sit there and be very transparent while putting an absolute ceiling on the peaks of a mix (the way I like to use it), or you can set it to be really aggressive and squeeze every last drop of dynamics from the mix, if that’s what you’re looking for.
5. PSP Vintage Warmer: I don’t know what it is but the Vintage Warmer makes a mix sound better just by being in the signal path. I hardly ever adjust it much, but it always seems to pull the mix together. I like to use it as the first thing on my stereo buss and feed it into an SSL buss compressor, then the Precision Limiter.
6. SSL Buss Compressor: This is the sound that made so many pop and rock records in the 80s and 90s, and it still works great in those genres. I once worked in a studio that had the buss compressor on their 9k labeled as “The Good Button.” Why? Because no matter how your mix sounded, once the SSL buss compressor was engaged, it sounded better.
7. JST Finality: Joey Sturgis is a clever guy and his Finality is a great example of a new take on a classic design (the 1176). The Finality sounds great on drums and bass, doesn’t cost much and doesn’t take up too many system resources. Very cool.
8. dbx 160: I just love the 160s; any of them. For a punchy drum sound, you can’t beat the hardware 160X’s (or even the A model). In software, the UAD 160 sounds great. My favorite for aggressive kick and snare, but it will pull a piano or acoustic guitar up front as well.
9. Fairchild 660/670: When it comes to buss compression, the Fairchild 670 stands is king of the hill for many kinds of music (especially retro or acoustic). It just adds a glue and warmth that you have trouble getting any other way. Just a little bit (a couple of dB) seems to work a lot better than a whole lot. The 660 is the mono version of the more widely known 670, and was the sound you heard on many of The Beatle records (Ringo’s drums, for instance).
10. Empirical Labs EL8 Distressor: Few modern compressors have caught on so widely as the Distressor, and that’s because there are few that are as versatile. I like to track with it on vocals to keep the peaks under control, but there are few compressors that are as effective on room mics, especially when it’s set to “Nuke.” I’m so happy that there’s now a plugin version as well.
Honorable Mention. Pro Tools Native Digirack Compressor/Limiter: I personally think this is one of the most versatile compressors that you can find. It can sound transparent and it can sound aggressive, and since it doesn’t take up much in the way of systems resources, you can use a lot of them in a big mix. Don’t overlook it.
Once again, my top 10 compressors are what I always use, so this is a clearly personal opinion. There’s lots of great compressor out there (especially in software), but I’ve come to rely on these units because I know what they’ll do in most situations.
What are your favorites?
The AES Conference was in Los Angeles at the end of last week, and there was new gear everywhere. Unfortunately, there wasn’t much that you’d call “revolutionary” (which is the norm at gear shows these days), but there were a few things that caught my eyes and ears that I thought I’d share.
This was a pretty upbeat show in general that was fairly well attended. There was a feeling of optimism in the air and people were spending money, even on large hardware purchases like recording consoles. That said, a number of hardware manufactures didn’t show. Universal Audio, Trans Audio Group (importers for the likes of Drawmer and ATC), Audient, and and other hardware manufacturers, and a host of software companies that you normally see at NAMM didn’t exhibit.
If there was a theme to the show, it was immersive audio, and there were exhibits and demos everywhere, although this was helped by the fact that the Audio For Virtual Reality sub-conference was also held at the same time upstairs. All in all, it’s an exciting time for this side of the business, although in many ways its still the wild west, with new tools and techniques being made up as we go along. Sort of reminds me of the early days of surround sound around about 2001 or so.
As usual, the gear that caught my eye might not be what was most popularized at the show. Something jumps out if it’s unusual in any way or I can see an immediate use in my workflow, which might not be anything like yours. With that in mind, let’s get started.
Little Labs Monitor – High quality headphone amplifiers are big this year, and other manufacturers have jumped in the game, but I saw these little boxes everywhere at the show. What makes Monitor unique is the ability to swap input channels, listen to one side only, go to mono or invert the phase at the flip of a switch. It’s expensive at $540, but it sure does sound good.
Hafler-Dynaco ST-70x – For those of you who go way back in the business, you’ll appreciate the fact that Radial Engineering, who purchased both the Hafler and Dynaco brands, is reintroducing a new version of the the famed Dynaco ST-70. This was and still is a revered tube amplifier in many hi-fi circles, and it’s back once again. No idea of the price though.
PrimAcoustic TriPad, HeadRest and CrashGuard – Speaking of Radial, the company seems to come up with something new and useful every month. Here we find three new products from its Primacoustic division that you’ll find you’ll be able to use every day in the studio. The TriPad is a mic stand isolator, HeadRest is a mic stand headphone holder, and CrashGuard is a drum mic shield to protect your precious snare drum mic from getting wacked.
Manley Nu Mu – Manley showed a new compressor called the Nu Mu (along with ELOP+) which takes the tube vari-mu backbone and marries it with solid state electronics. It’s around $2,500.
UTA Un-Fairchild – Speaking of vari-mu, UTA’s new UnFairchild is basically a reproduction of the hard-to-find Fairchild 670 but with a lot of extra parameter control that goes way beyond a typical 670. How much? Less than $10k.
Electronaut M97 – Speaking of the 670, Electronaut showed its M77 which is like a 670 on steroids (complete with NOS tubes if you want) that incorporates a Dorrough peak meter instead of VUs. Looks pretty cool at $7,777.
JBL LSR705i – I’ve never heard a small speaker with a 5 woofer sound as big as the LSR705i. The low end that comes out of these little boxes defies the laws of physics somehow and the demo that I heard by Peter Chaikin and Frank Filipetti was truly outstanding. AT $687 each, they seem like a bargain until you realize that they’re passive and require an amp and DSP processor as well. That said, they’re truly impressive..
Ocean Way RM1 ribbon mic – Ocean Way Audio showed off their monitors, which always sound great, but also introduced the new RM1 ribbon mic, which incorporates a newly designed pop shield so you don’t have to worry about popping the ribbon when working with a vocalist. $2,250.
Sennheiser Ambeo surround mic – If you want to record immersively, B-format is the way to do it, and Sennheiser showed it’s new Ambeo mic that’s very much like a Soundfield, but a lot cheaper at $1,650.
VisiSonics 5/64 – Speaking of immersive recording, the VisiSonics 5/64 features 5 cameras and 64 microphones. What’s amazing is that it outputs 64 48/24 PCM channels over a USB connection, along with the video. A lot of money at $64k though.
RackFX – One of the most interesting things I saw at the show was a service by RackFX. In a nutshell, if you want to have your tracks processed through some analog gear that you don’t own, the service will find a studio with the gear, download your file and play it through the device, then send you the processed file back. It even has a set of robot knob twirlers that allow you to dial in the settings yourself if you want. It’s pretty out-of-the-box thinking, but we need more of that in this industry.
That’s it for hardware, tomorrow I’ll get into some of the software from the AES show.