Having never had the opportunity to work my way up from teaboy to head engineer at a world famous recording studio, the closest I’ve come to being in a room filled with vintage analog compressors is the Universal Audio Plugin Store!!!
That said the sheer number and quality of vintage analog compressors available as plugin emulations put some of the most revered compressors right at our fingertips. In fact with so much choice it’s now possible to get a great idea of what these beauties bring to the mix process without the need for a big-budget recording studio or degree in tea/coffee making!
But why would anyone want to reach for vintage compressor emulation plugins over the stock DAW compressor plugins? What exactly are all of these vintage compressors famous for and what do they bring to the table when mixing a record?
Sonic Character. The first thing to point out is that vintage compressor plugin emulations promise to give you one thing above all else – TONE. Lovely, guey, analog tone to cure all manner of digital ills! This is achieved not only through emulating the way the compressor compresses audio, but also through emulating harmonic distortion, transformer and tube warmth, as well as other non-linear artefacts.
Compression Character. Another feature of vintage analog compressors is that they often compress audio in different ways depending on their circuitry. So, for example, the characteristics of a FET compressor are different from those of a VCA, Optical, Tube or Transformer based compressor. And it is the unique way each of these compressor behaves that makes it more suited to certain tasks (more on that in a moment!).
Location On the Stage. Another interesting reason for reaching for one vintage compressor plugin over another is that they are useful in helping lock instruments into certain frequency ranges. For example the bluestripe 1176 compressor is known for adding mid-range presence to sources, whereas the blackface 1176 compressor adds density and warmth to the low-mids. So you might reach for a bluestripe 1176 for vocals, while assigning a blackface 1176 to the bass guitar.
Understanding the unique sonic and tonal characteristics of these compressors is useful as it allows you to match the compressor most suited to the compression task at hand – and for better reasons than you simply like the way it looks!
So now…what exactly are some of the more common vintage compressor types and how might you use them in a mix context?
FET Compressors (the 1176 Compressor)
Qualities: Reacts very quickly to audio. Fast attack and release times. Can be very clean sounding or aggressive when pushed around bit!
Great For: Vocals, guitars and drums.
Optical Compressors (LA-2A, LA-3A)
Qualities: Responds slowly to audio, allowing transients to creep through. Slower than the 1176. Can have a glassy and ‘polished’ sound.
Great for: Vocals and instruments with soft transients, but also acoustic guitars. (The LA-3A is also known to be great with electric guitars.)
Tube Compressors (Fairchild, Manley Vari-Mu)
Qualities: Adds warmth in the low and low-mid frequency ranges. Also known to add high frequency fizzle. Can therefore add body, depth and presence to a part.
Great for: Vocals, mixbus compression
Transformer based Compressors (Never 33609 and PYE)
Qualities: Great at adding low-mid frequency warmth and density to a sound.
Great for: Adding warmth to instruments or a mix that needs it.
VCA Compressors (dbx 160, API 2500, SSL Channel, SSL Stereo Compressor)
Qualities: Can be very aggressive when pushed. Edgy. Also pumps and breathes really well.
Great for: General purpose use but also drum bus and mixbus compression duties.
So the next time you reach for a vintage compressor emulation to help massage a mix into shape, think about the sound you are trying to achieve and then make your selection.
How do you use vintage compressors?