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My Latest Top 10 Compressors

Top 10 compressorsAbout 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?

Winter NAMM 2017 Overview – Part 1

Winter NAMM 2017Winter NAMM just ended and as usual there’s a lot to talk about. I’ll be covering the various new products and oddities over the next few days, as well as a big picture overview on my podcast.The show was generally filled with enthusiasm and everyone was feeling pretty prosperous. Hope it stays that way in the age of Trump, as things could fall apart quickly if we get into a trade war with China. Let’s dig in.

On the audio side of things, this was a show dominated by in-ear monitors. So many companies large and small are trying to get into the space (even Fender), that the future on stage amplifiers and floor monitors is looking pretty dim. I won’t even begin to touch on that here because we could spend a couple of days just on the subject, but I did see one outstanding product in the space that I’ll cover on the next New Music Gear Monday.

Let’s get into the audio products at NAMM, in no particular order. Some of them might not be exactly new, but I never spent much time looking at them before so they’re new to me.

Maag Magnum KProbably the coolest audio product that I saw was the new Maag Audio Magnum K compressor. Cliff Maag (who’s a great engineer, by the way) has been talking about this for a while, and it’s now a reality. What makes this compressor so different is that it’s really 4 units in 1. It has a standard compressor with most of the features you’d expect, which feeds into another special compressor just for the midrange, with a EQ 2 in parallel to put back the lows and highs that might be lost during compression. Finally there’s a soft limiter on the output. Sounds wonderful. It’s around $2,400 for a single channel, but no other compressor on the market does what this one will do.

I love JST plugins and Joey Sturgis has come up with a couple of great new ones. The first is Soar, which is a very realistic tape echo, and the second is Toneforge which may be the best, most intelligently laid out guitar simulator on the market. There are a lot of parameters in Toneforge that can be tweaked, but they’re all easy to get to and just make sense the way they’re presented, which can’t be said for many other similar plugs. Toneforge is available for a NAMM special of just $79. Soar will be released later in the Spring.

Lynx Aurora (n)Lynx showed its new Aurora (n) interface, which will go up to 32 channels in a single U rack mount unit, in 8 channel increments. It can be connected via USB, Dante, Pro Tools HD or Thunderbolt. The prices start at $2,799 up to about $6,600 with all the options, which is pretty good for that many channels of high quality conversion.

Apogee GrooveApogee showed a neat little device called the Groove that’s one of the best sounding computer headphone amps you’ll ever hear. It connects via USB and can handle sample rates up to 192kHz. It can be found for around $265.




Barefoot Footprint01On the speaker front, Barefoot Sound showed their new Footprint01’s, which sounded great. There’s so much sound coming from such a small speaker that it’s hard to believe, especially on the bottom end. They’re only around $3,400, which is a pretty good price for this quality of speaker.




Chandler Limited presented the new RS124 compressor, which is a reproduction of the Abbey Road version of the old Altec 436C compressor. EMI boffins did a lot of technical upgrades to the original Altec unit and rechristened it the RS124, and now you have have that same legendary sound for around $2,900. The company also showed its REDD .47 mic preamp, a reproduction from the famous Abbey Road tube consoles, which is available for around $2,300.

Speaking of tubes, Teegarden Audio presented its Fatboy DI and Magic Pre 4100 mic preamps. I love tube mic DI’s, and most bass players agree that they’re really hard to beat. This one goes for around $700.




Nugen Audio showed one of the coolest plugins at the show with its Mastercheck Pro. The plugin goes across your master buss and will tell you the best settings for numerous distribution sources like Youtube, Spotify, Pandora and just about anything else you can think of. Not only that, it will also send it through the appropriate codec so you can hear what your mix might sound like on the service so you can adjust accordingly. This seems like it should be a must have for today’s mixer. It’s available for $149 until the end of the month.

Warm Audio had a number of new products, starting with the updated WA-12 MKII ($469) that now has an output control and socketed chips, the WA-412 ($1,199) with 4 channels of old-style API preamps, and the WA-87 U 87 clone. At just $599 it’s hard to beat if it sounds as good in the studio as it did on the show floor.


Speaking of mics, EveAnna Manley revealed her new Manley Silver tube mic. It will retail for around $4,000 when it begins to ship later in the year. It falls directly between the company’s Reference Cardioid and Reference Mono Gold mics.





MOTU demonstrated some new additions to its audio interface family, as did Slate Digital with its VRS-8. The company also had a new virtual mic, the MLS-2, which is the first with a small diaphragm.

That’s it, more on NAMM tomorrow.

My 10 Go-To Plugins

10 Go0To PluginsI often get asked what plugins I regularly use, and even though I like to think that I’m pretty open minded about it, there are some that I keep coming back to. Here are my 10 go-to plugins, with a number of honorable mentions, in no particular order (even though they’re numbered).

1. Universal Audio 1176 – In my opinion, there’s never been a more versatile compressor created, either hardware or software. I’ll use it on drums, room, keys, guitars, bass, vocals – almost anything actually.

2. Universal Audio dbx 160 – Another favorite emulation, it gets used mostly on kick and snare, where it shines for the controlled punch it provides. Be sure to use a low compression ratio of 2:1 or even less.

3. Waves Schepes 1073 – What a fantastically versatile EQ! It’s also one of the few where I even use the presets and they work well (great job, Andrew!). I especially love it on kick and snare, but it will work everywhere else as well.

4. Universal Audio Maag EQ4 – I just love the Air band, which brings out the presence of almost any mic. Stick this sucker on a vocal and you’ll make that cheapie mic sound closer to a C12 than you might have imagined.

5. Exponential Audio PhoenixVerb – I loved the sound of the old Lexicon reverbs, and the PhoenixVerb has all that and more (company owner Michael Carnes spent 25 years working for Lexicon).

6. PSP Vintage Warmer – I use this on the mix buss of every mix. It just makes everything sound better, even without using too much of it.

7. PSP 2445 Reverb – One of my new favorites, it’s kind of a one-trick-pony reverb in that there’s not a lot of different algorithms to choose from, but that one trick always sounds great. The shortest decay settings are excellent.

8. Universal Audio SSL Buss Compressor – Once again, this is one that’s on the mix buss of virtually every mix I do. I’ve tried other plugins, but always come back to the SSL.

9. Universal Audio LA3 – For some reason, this is just the ideal electric guitar compressor. It even makes highly distorted guitars sound better.

10. Pro Tools Native 7 Band EQ – I use this more than just about anything, sometimes just to finish off the sound after another EQ was already applied. The good thing is that since it’s native, you can use a ton of them without eating up much computer processing power.

Honorable Mention:

JST Finality – This is quickly finding it’s way into my top 10. Sound wonderful on kick, but I’m still finding other uses for it.

Universal Audio LA2A – I use this a lot of hat and vocal (usually in conjunction with an 1176).

PSP L’Rotary – This is the best Leslie speaker emulator ever, in my opinion. You won’t need this on every mix, but when you do, it always works.

Soundtoys Microshift – Whenever I need a Harmonizer sound, this is what I turn to. It’s one sound that just can’t gotten any other way.

I know the list leans heavily towards Universal Audio, but I’m can’t deny that I’m a big fan. The list of honorable mentions could have also gone on quite a bit longer, but then I would’ve been getting into plugs that I don’t use as regularly. Anyway, now you know what I use as go-to plugins, but keep in mind that if you check back in 6 months, the list may be completely revised.