Category Archives: Kit

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.


  • £254.99 at Pro Audio Systems
    • 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:

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.

Upgrade to RS7000

I’ve mulled the upgrade from RM1x to RS7000 over for most of the last month and in the interval had a brief look at my friend’s GenoQs Octopus. While incredibly impressive, I’m not sure a GenoQs is what I need presently. It’s a fantastic tool for creativity and live performance, but I’m not sure it’s really built to help me with my strengths and I don’t need another complete recalibration at the moment. So I’ve finally found a decent deal and I’m going to join the ranks of the RS7000 devoted. Ultimately it’s only going to add versatility and increase capacity at faiy minimal cost. I’ll report more in due course.

Memory limitations of the Yamaha RM1x

I wrote a pretty massive post on this topic the other night, which fell victim to back-space malfunction. I’ll try again without further ado…

Image courtesy of Darren Stone/Wikipedia

I’ve got a couple of gripes with the Yamaha RM1x. Let me preface them by focusing initially on the positives.

  • It’s got 480ppq timing resolution. Evidently the Akai MPC 5000 has 960ppq resolution but that’s miles off the chart for anything from 10 years ago. By comparison, the original Akai samplers have 96ppq timing and I think the first generation Elektron Machinedrum is no more than 128ppq
  • The Yamaha kit of this era is nearly flawless in terms of making promised functionality work – and work routinely
  • It’s got loads of editing capabilities that nothing else in its class, nor its era shared in common
  • It’s got a friendly enough overall ease of use that I don’t generally miss the computer

However, there are times when I do. Particularly when I try to arrange music. But before I explain my gripes, let me explain how it would seem most people work with the limitations of the device and where I run in to problems:

  • The pattern mode allows creation of multiple sections per pattern, with distinct mute combinations of the same phrase, or variations on the phrase across these sections
  • These sections can be chained together to form the basis of a song in Pattern Chain Mode. Once the sequence of sections/patterns has been laid out there is a Copy to Song function that duplicates the pattern data in a song, becoming a separately editable object (as in my changes to the patterns or song don’t reflect in the other)
  • In my case, memory limitations forbade this copy operation, so I deleted some things that I wasn’t totally happy about deleting (after backing them up of course), but it still didn’t free up enough space. Without deleting everything but the pattern I was working on at the time, I couldn’t see how I was going to get the Copy to Song function to work
  • I should note that this is a 32-bar pattern, for what it’s worth
  • Unfortunately the documentation doesn’t really suggest anything about approaches for transitioning from pattern to song, nor for freeing up memory – at least not that I’ve seen

So… I wound up copying my original section with all of the track data in to Cubase, did the skeleton of the arrangement there, then saved it as an SMF file and loaded it in to an empty section in the RM1x. I can only assume there was sufficient space because there was a lot less total note data than there would have been if everything was “on” for 200-300 bars. Anyway… this works fine enough if you only have to do it once, but doing it repeatedly would be a major hassle, and ultimately it feels like failure since my original aim when buying the RM1x (and subsequently rebuilding the entire studio with hardware) was to get my eyes away from the computer screen. Ultimately this isn’t a complete failure since I only need to look at the screen when I’m doing the arrangement, but it’s not what I really want.

This left me wondering if there was anything else on the market that might suit my needs better, so I looked at the FutureRetro Orb (which seems unsuitable because of the 16 step maximum pattern length) and the EMU XL-7 (which seems to have some annoying limitations of its own).

Basically this leaves me two options:

  • The GenoQs Nemo, which is the height of gear porn. Despite being a couple of thousands pounds less expensive than its bigger brother, the Octopus, it’s still way out of my budget, at around £1200. It’s an obscene amount to spend on a sequencer
  • I could look at upgrading to the Yamaha RS7000 at some point, if I can find adequate desk space to accommodate it. I’m pretty sure it’s big for the amount of space I have left (virtually none). It seems to have about double the sequencing capacity and there are fifteen other reasons why it’s improved over the RM1x, but I just need to figure out if it’s really necessary

This is my latest conundrum. I’m really pleased with my synths and the general usablity of my setup at the moment, but this arrangement malarkey has become a huge obstacle to actually completing anything. It’s making me feel like one of these gear geeks that just talks kit all the time and never finished real music

Waldorf Microwave XT

New kit! I had previously convinced myself that my synth shopping was done, but I recently figured out that I would never bother using the ROMpler sounds in my RM1X (still digging it as a sequencer though) and that I didn’t need to be routing the out from my effects box in to one of the proper stereo channels in the mixer when there’s a “playback” channel that would accommodate that just fine. So I decided to fill these recently-emptied channels. I was initially toying with the idea of getting a Blofeld, but decided that since I have a Q that I love already, the XT would be the way to go. And it has two stereo outs.

I’ve not yet really spent any time with the manual, but the short amount of time I’ve spent fiddling with a couple of sounds has left me really impressed. Here’s some gear pr0n:

New synth:

Revised studio setup:

Now I just need to get some monitors and I should be basically done. There’s no space left in the mixer for expansion and no space on the desk for a larger mixer, so I think this should be a it for a while! Not that I’m left wanting, mind.

A bit more discussion about the DS-10 from elsewhere

Replies from me:

Is it something that you could use to make releasable tracks? Releasable in the regular sense I mean, as opposed to on some release called something like “DS10 Trax” where people would allow it to sound a bit duff because it’s a concepty thing.

I’ve not put it through monitors to say, but I reckon it would be passable. Thing is, you’re just always going to be working with a quite limited number of sounds, and that would reduce the types of music you could properly make on it.

One other thing I’ve come to realise today is that the song mode is a bit disappointing, as you can’t actually modify things with the KAOSS pad, synth settings or effects in real time. You can still record distinct KAOSS pad movements in each pattern, but when the patterns are only 4 bars that’s a bit poo. This ultimately means you can do very little fading/effecting manipulation or you have to do everything on the fly in pattern mode (probably not the end of the world).

And how do you get your tracks off it? Does it render tracks to a .wav file or somat like that, and you then save the .wav to a memory card which you can then stick in another computer in order to pull it off?

Record the headphone jack output.

I like the idea of someone sat on the tube playing with something like this and spotting someone else opposite them doing the same. You’d then hit a “Jam!” button and choose whether you want to be the bassist, drummer etc. and then start making sweet sweet wireless jam music together.

Yeah, the “multi-player” mode could make things a bit more interesting. One person is master and the rest are slaves, as I understand it. Not totally clear on how that works in practice.

Incidentally, the patterns are only 1 bar in length, not 4- unless there’s something I’m missing?

No, you’re right. That’s my error. Up to 16 steps.

Getting to grips with the DS-10

A few comments that I’ve posted up elsewhere:

Just had my first proper go on this. It’s pretty cool! Navigation is really friendly and intuitive. The kaos stuff is a nice plus. It’s a shame it’s only got the two synths and four drum patches, but you can use drum patch slots for synth sounds – they just have to be played monophonic. With a bit of luck this thing might teach me to work within constraints. Either that or we’ll have to form that band.


Spent a bit more time with this tonight. There’s a few things I misunderstood. All four of the drum sounds have the full chromatic range but they have a separate effects section and there’s no KAOSS pad on those patches, just on the two synths.

The sequencer is a very basic up-to-4-bar old school 16th note step sequencer. Arrangement is just a string of up to 100 patterns chained. There are 16 patterns and each uses the same sound, effect and mixer settings.

The KAOSS pad is quite configurable and movements can be recorded and/or edited in the step sequencer. This is definitely one of the better features.

The effects are very basic but serviceable.

The synth sounds good. Basically does what it says on the tin.

I’m not seeing any way to back it up other than to transmit to another DS. Might need to look in to that in more detail.

Ultimately, with constraints like these, you’re unlikely to put together your next great opus on this thing, but with such a stripped-down set of features there’s very little to distract from the business of making music. I’m pretty sure I know it almost inside-out after just a couple of hours. All that said, it really is very fun to use and worth every penny of £125 (or £25 if you already own a DS).