Vintage Compressors vs. Stock Compressors . . . What’s the difference?

Compressors, Vintage, Stock

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?

Compressors, Vintage, Stock

7 comments

  1. Personally, I love having a solid hardware comp on my master AFTER my summing box. I use Dangerous summing, so it’s SUPER clean. I can use compressors like this to color things up without my hardware making assumptions for me.

    1. Hey Robby! As a slight off-topic comment I also have a Dangerous D-Box and normally use a comp after the summing (although mine is ITB). Lately I’ve been experimenting with not using the D-Box to sum as I’ve become concerned with the amount of gain it adds. As a matter of interest do you have the D-Box too? And if so do you keep your Sum Output at 12 o’Clock or do you use another setting?

      Thanks man!

  2. Stone,

    I just picked myself up a D-Box as well and am anxious to integrate it into my setup. I’m intrigued by your concerns about added gain by the D-Box summing outputs. Can you elaborate a bit on what problems this has presented you?

    PAZ

  3. Hey @Peter! Thanks for the cooment!

    I have no real problems with the D-Box other than that I have yet to figure out the best position for the Sum Output when mixing. The manual says 12 o’clock but I recently did a mix where I had it kranked fully to the right and it sounded great!

    When you send something through a Neve console you know you’re going to get – lo-mid saturation. When you send something through an API console you know you’re going to get lovely mid-range punch and detail. (I used to own 2x CAPI VP28’s. They were beautiful!) But when you send something through the D-Box what are you actually getting. Is it just adding ‘gain’ to the signal? Or something else?

    I would love to figure this out so I can better understand what the D-Box is adding to my audio and play to it’s strengths.

    Do you have any insights on this?

    Thanks man!

  4. Hey Stone,

    Great post here, really like the info. Well, I use a good bit of the UA Compressors in my mixes and most of the time they are all I use. The 1176 vintage series are really nice, I like to use them in series with the LA2A on vocals. 1176 on Drums most always, they allow for easy placement. LA3A all around the mix, Guitars, Piano, Percussion, everything. The Neve 33609 is killer on Drum Buss, actually a favorite and for good reason, it just sounds really good. I’ve been using the Shadow Hills Mastering Compressor on Busses ans the 2 Buss with good results.
    The Fair Child is a compressor that I haven’t yet made close friends with.

    Great Post!

  5. Hey Joseph. I recently pulled out the UA 33609 on drums and loved it. I also really like UA plugins. I have the Classic 1176 and LA-2A collections (which are just gorgeous) and I also use the Fatso quite a bit – mainly on acoustic guitar.
    I have to admit I demoed the Shadow Hills and loved it too. In my mind it is an absolutely beautiful ‘color’ compressor where a little goes a long way. It has a lovely lo mid warmth and thickness that I really like. Let’s just say it’s at the top of my Wish List although I also demoed the Ocean Way Studio plugin and loved it too!

  6. Sorry for the late reply Stone,

    I ALWAYS use my DBox, like a religion. I’ve never found anything it didn’t improve. That said, I use the sum output not to add\remove gain, but to TUNE to the next device. Many times, I’m dropping it into a set of convertors and yes, you can tune your gain stage to that input. That said, I only use that knob to correctly gain stage to the next device.

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