A n00b shops for hardware compressors

I need to preface this by disclaiming that I’m a n00b when it comes to hardware compressors and I have pieced together these notes from various trusted and untrusted sources. I should also mention that this comes from the perspective of an electronic musician who is entirely outboard, and one who is in the unusual position of having digital synths routing through an analogue mixer, so one of my main hopes is that I can add some warmth.

Additionally, I think that getting started with compressor shopping is particularly daunting. I found it even more difficult than shopping for a mixing console. However, there’s a lot of great used hardware going relatively cheap these days, as people sell it off to invest in their DAWs, so you can get some pretty good kit for less than a fortune. These are basically just shopping notes, which I told a friend I’d put together, so I figured I’d post them here in case anyone else finds my entirely subjective and relatively uninformed research helpful, having not even put the compressors properly to the test yet. But without further rambling, this is wot I found:

Probably most importantly, I stumbled across this article called All about Compressors, which is a great starting point. Definitely worth a read. I also found this article about compression on the Mix bus (Master), which I am about to read shortly.

In the end, I wound up buying two compressors. I got a Drawmer DL441 off of a guy on Gumtree. It’s a quad compressor, i.e. 4x mono or 2x stereo (in 1U). It wasn’t really ideal, because I kind of wanted a gate/compressor for my drum mix bus, but it should basically do the trick and I found it for £250 so I just went with it since it cost less than a Drawmer DL241, which I originally wanted (more on this below). I will now be using two channels on my drums group bus and two on my synths group bus. I’ll be experimenting with mono and stereo settings, as I don’t want to take anything for granted there. Ideally I would have a different type of colour on the synth bus, but I’ve opted to try and make up for that with some subtle tube compression on the Master. Or I may experiment with the routing over time.

As I said above, I wanted some tube amplification  on my digital synths because I think they could use a touch of added warmth. I looked at a huge amount of stuff before provisionally deciding on an SPL Stereo Vitalizer Mk2-T, which I found used on SOS for £250, but when I went to look at it the unit it was not balanced properly (really quiet on the left channel), so I passed on it. This wasn’t really a good fit with the DL441 that I wound up getting either. It’s kind of like an aural exciter or a stereo widener, but with tube compression, so it’s a funny piece of kit, but I thought it might suit my synths well because they recommend not using it on the Master (although many people do). I was actually looking at it when I thought I was going to get a Drawmer DL241, and it seemed like an OK option to put on the bus with all my synths, but really it was never going to be right on the Master for every track. It’s just not really what it was designed for.

So… last night (I was well sick of all this by this point) I stumbled on the ART PRO VLA (Mk2), which I’d previously written off because I’d read some bad things about ART kit, but when I found a couple of favourable reviews I decided to look closer and it seems like most users and reviewers say that ART sucks except for this and one or two other pieces, and a lot of people said this was the most bang for the buck of any kit that they own. At £255 new, I took the plunge. I wanted to “try before I buy” with all of this stuff but I really have no idea where one would do that. When I e-mailed DV247 about their in-store stock I got no reply.

After research, I think I’ve figured out a few things:

  • You can spend a great deal of money on  compressors, especially with tubes. I couldn’t convince myself that I really needed to spend more than £300 on one of these devices in my home studio.
  • I think a gate is pretty useful for drums (and other stuff potentially), but if you’re trying to get a gate/compressor you should find one that gets the two to work together well. The only stereo models I found at a reasonable price like this were the Drawmer DL241 and the Aphex 240. Both are around £500 new and a little more than half that used (rather, I’ve not seen the Aphex used, so I’m not sure about that one). The Drawmer DL241 has a great reputation though and it shouldn’t be too hard to find one for ~£250. I lost an auction for one that went for £222 because I stopped bidding too early.
    • Note: both of these models are not tube compressors.
  • The whole question of whether to get something with tubes in it seems really complicated. I can’t really speak about it all that sensibly, but in the end I went with the ART PRO VLA precisely because it’s harder to go overboard with the tube on it. It just seemed like a really sensible unit to apply subtly to the Master mix.
  • A lot of the opinions that you’ll find on the forums like Gearslutz are from people working with bands, so you need to understand what perspective they’re critiquing from. Sometimes a good touring compressor may not be great in the studio and vice versa. Other people may really be after a limiter, not at all interested in colouring sound with tube characteristics.
  • A lot of people say that if you’re doing stuff all digitally on the computer that there isn’t much point using external compressors. Of course there’s quite a bit of debate on this point, but you probably wouldn’t want to come out of the computer just so that you could use a hardware compressor.
  • There’s other stuff specifically for mastering, like the TC Finializer, if that’s what you’re after, but that stuff is quite pricey.
  • I think the main thing, like with most things, is that you really need to find the right answer for the problem that you’ve got. It’s taken me some time and a great deal of this research just to be able to articulate my problem and refine my search. No doubt I will feel differently about most of this stuff in a couple of years.
  • The SoundOnSound, etc. reviews are excellent, but they rarely slate anything, so they need to be taken with a grain of salt.
  • Lots of stuff isn’t stereo so you need to think about the impact on cost, power, space, etc if you buy mono stuff. Note: some people seem to prefer dual mono modes on stereo kit when the stereo mode can be disabled, which I find pretty surprising, but interesting.
  • It’s also worth figuring out early on how much time you want to spend getting to grips with a compressor. If you want to ease the learning curve, an automatic compressor may the way to go, depending on the model. I went with the DL441 largely because the automatic mode evidently “just works”, and so on something as active as a group bus I think this is probably the way to go.

All that said, my choices were not clear cut, so here’s some other units that may be worth looking at or may get you on your way if you decide you want to buy a hardware compressor.

Drawmer 241

  • I really liked the looks of this because it is meant to be very transparent and it has some logic behind how the compressor and gate work together as I mentioned above.
  • Lots of people on the Gearslutz compressor thread have them and use them on drums.
  • Evidently the DBX 166 (not to be confused with the DBX 166XL) is very similar but the 166 evidently has a click.
  • The Drawmer MX30 is a budget version of the DL241 according to this.
  • The Drawmer DL221 and DL231 are earlier, similar versions of the DL241, but they do not have the gate.
  • The DL441 (that I wound up getting) is basically two DL241s without the gates.

Drawmer Tube Station TS2

  • I was originally drawn to Drawmer stuff when I stumbled on this TS2.
  • I would have considered getting this over the ART if I’d also not found the DL441. I probably would have gone for this on my synth bus and a gate/compressor for the drums if I’d seen one of these used at a good price.
  • These are £510 new @ Dolphin.
  • One thing that may be of interest is the optional digital output with S/PDIF (the DC1) for £166.37 @ DV247. I imagine at this cost that the converters must be pretty sweet.
    • Can request pricebeat at DV247 and most other good shops.
    • The analogue/digital outputs are “simultaneous”, so presumably if you get the optional digital out you can record digitally while sending the analogue outputs back to your mixer, or to another recorder, or speakers, or wherever, if so desired.

ART Pro VLA Mk2

  • £254.99 at Pro Audio Systems http://www.proaudiosystems.co.uk/product-1766.html
    • This is a stupid price for what you get.
  • I’ve not found another piece of kit with such agreement on quality-per-£££.
  • Some people recommend replacing the tubes in them, but others say not to bother. Either way, there’s a fairly cheap and easy upgrade to try out.

Aphex 240

  • As I said above, this was in strong contention beside the Drawmer DL241 for my drum bus. Because it’s new there aren’t loads of used ones about and not a load of people stock them. This is the main reason I didn’t get it. They just didn’t appear used in the last week or so that I was looking at them.
  • This gets very good reviews suggesting that it links compressor/gate functions in a unique way. Quite a few other positives. It has EasyRider compression, which is meant to be awesome and it’s stereo.
  • Here’s some reviews:

Chameleon Labs

  • I also stumbled across the Chameleon Labs stuff last night, which is supposed to be awesome. Unfortunately they just didn’t look better-enough relative to the ART and the Drawmer for the money, but this looks like very high-spec stuff at a fairly low cost.
  • Unfortunately there isn’t a UK distributor.
  • There are lots of articles on these and a specific thread comparing them to the ART PRO VLA on Gearslutz.

Aphex 651/661

  • I was very tempted by these forever but finally decided not to get them because they are not stereo and I didn’t want to have to power two units for one stereo bus.
  • Jim Williams from Audio Upgrades rates these incredibly highly.
  • The difference between the 651 and the 661 is that the 661 has the Tube.
  • Both are mono but units can be linked to operate in stereo.
  • There are some of these on eBay now.

TL Audio 5021 2-Channel Tube Compressor

  • This was the first tube compressor that I was seriously interested in, and I stumbled across a friend’s eBay auction. When I asked him why he was selling he said it just never imparted the character he was after.
  • The MK1 version goes for as low as £200 on SOS/eBay. The MK2 is considerably more expensive.
  • The MK2 version has hard and soft knee modes, four attack and release times, an improved optical gate design and an optional digital output
  • SOS review: http://www.soundonsound.com/forum/showflat.php?Board=MRT&Number=639074

Joe Meek and the FRM RNC (Really Nice Compressor) are also worth considering, but I never gave them a close enough look because they weren’t precisely what I was after at the moment.

So that’s it. I’m not sure who or how that might help, but hopefully it will refine shopping options for people that are looking for stereo compressor in the £200-£300 range. I’d definitely suggest doing more research beyond these notes if anything piques your curiosity.

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