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.

Sonic Rolling Ball Sculpture

My friend Rory recently got to exhibit his Sonic Rolling Ball Sculpture at the Royal Festival Hall during the Ether Festival 2010. I was quite pleased to catch it on the final day in April, having seen some of the work in progress a few weeks earlier.

A few days ago he posted a video of the sculpture in action, accompanied by a proper mix-down that really helps convert the sculpture to film. Both the sculpture itself and the film sound showcase everything he’s learned during his BA in Sound Arts and Design, for which he completed this project.

It’s a truly ambitious idea. He used many musical objects for the structure itself. It’s powered by turntable, the tracks that the balls roll down are melted vinyl. The supports of the structure are music stands and the platforms that the balls roll/bounce through are often musical instruments themselves: from triangles to tambourines to make-shift string and mallet instruments. It’s sweet! Try to find two minutes to check it out if you can. Full-screen is recommended.

BA3 Show 2010 – Rory Buckley – Sonic Rolling Ball Sculpture from Sound Arts & Design @ LCC on Vimeo.

Full update on the Volcano/Bleep lineup impact

Full details, as on the Bleep43 website:

Volcano special

Sadly, Iceland’s geothermic fuck you to Europe in the shape of a volcanic cloud has pretty much decimated our original line-up for tonight which had included Mika Vanio, Donato Dozzy and Terrence Parker.

Mika Vainio had already cancelled due to illness, and his replacement Lerosa then had to cancel also due to a lack of flights from Ireland.

Terrence Parker then found out that his flight had been cancelled. We had fingers crossed for Donato Dozzy coming from Rome, but as the flight ban has been pushed to Saturday 0100 BST (at time of writing), he has now had to withdraw, too.

It’s as if the Scandinavian gods were punishing us for our steadfast refusal to book Adam Beyer.

Surgeon and other UK talent come to the rescue

Continue reading Full update on the Volcano/Bleep lineup impact

Video of the last time I played with TP

Taking a quick break from getting ready for this Friday’s gig, I was just looking for video of TP in action. I happened upon this clip from the last time we played together, back in 2000 at Gabes in Iowa City (glow sticks and all). The video starts with a glimpse of Ryan Burns, who passed away a few years ago. It’s nice to think that this video captured him at his happiest. He loved seeing TP.

Oversteps

It probably goes without saying that the release of each Autechre album is a listening event for me and many like-minded music nerds, but for Oversteps this is more true than it otherwise might be after the London gig in support of Quaristice (one of the best musical experiences of my life), and all the variants on that album, which sat very well with me. It’s definitely one of my favourite Autechre albums, if not top of the list (controversial, I know).

Oversteps feels like a logical follow-up to Quaristice. It sounds very Nord heavy to my ears, as was Quaristice, but you can also hear the digital elements that they’ve reintroduced here. If I had to sum up the production in a word, it would be “crunchy”. You first notice this on the second track, ilanders. A lot of sounds decay or release in to bit reduction, which gives them an explosive sound and is quite disorienting over the first few listens. This is a part of a sound which normally creates ambience rather than demanding our continued attention. By creating in this typically-taken-for-granted space, they define a really unusual, demanding acoustic space. I certainly wouldn’t be averse to hearing other people exploit this approach. It’s probably strange to focus on the production so early in my comments, but it really is definitive of the album. It’s an essential part of what they’ve created.

I prefer the second half of the album, or basically everything from track 7 forward. I think the first half establishes the mood/palette well and holds the whole thing together as an album, but the individual tracks don’t do as much for me in isolation. Put another way, I think the first six tracks set out the boundaries of the album and the rest of it is the identity, if that makes any sense. Somehow I don’t have a great deal to say about those first tracks, so forgive me if I focus on the stuff that I find most compelling. If you’re interested to read more about that part of the album, my friend Kent focused on it in his review.

My favourite track is Treale. This feels like the full realisation of the Oversteps sound to me: heavily composed but rooted in repetition. Competing melodies jostle for focus while politely sliding out of the way when they’ve said their bit. The production is amazing. The resonance on the edge of one of the main melodies feels like a razor through the brain. This happily carries along for just under four minutes when it suddenly comes together as a single melody across five or six instruments. This sneaks up for a couple of repeats before taking a completely sensical but unexpected turn. This all sounds very much like Autechre and no one else. It’s everything I like about their music and precisely what I look for in music more generally.

The eighth track, os_veix3, sounds like Flutter part II to me. Again, this track is pure Autechre idiosynchracy, which leads nicely in to O0, which is distilled Autechre melody left to its own devices.

I think it would be a better album without track 10, d-sho_qub. It starts out with a distressingly happy tone. I’ve tried very hard to like this track and I just don’t. It completely interrupts what is the best part of the album for me. The beat is cool (huge) and they do some wicked effects fuckery around it, but that melody ruins it for me. That said, it wouldn’t be an Autechre album if you weren’t thwarted in a few places. Also, the end of the track with the crazy 2001 voices (Jacob Arnold beat me to this description) is sweet. It really leads on to the end of the album well, but that first four minutes of it is a blemish.

If d-sho_qub was Autechre at their most twee and melodically indulgent, then the 11th track, st_epreo is them at their most rhythmic. It definitely brings things back on track, and showcases their production skills more than any other track on the album.

If it weren’t already obvious, the melodies can’t be easily categorised. The 12th track, redfall starts out sounding like classic Plaid, but with an utterly immense resonant reverb beast that pops in and out of the mix on the periphery of what can be considered melody. On the Warp cousins tip, the fifth track, qplay, starts off sounding a lot like Boards of Canada. They’ve definitely explored melodically on this album more than on any of their earlier releases.

From the tail end of the twelfth track through the end we’re in beatless territory again. There’s a whole lotta big melody. In these tracks you can hear how they’re often using release or reverb where others might use pads. This is done throughout the album but is most noticeable at the end. It’s an unusual approach that works very well in this case.

In short, as an album it’s pure win. As Jacob Arnold said in the link above, it’s worth spending a month of your life listening to this album and not much else. It’s fantastically rewarding. Given that there’s only the one track that I wish I could remove this is a probable album of the year. Now on to that 12 hour radio show!

Can we hear “today” in today’s music, today?

I typically shy away from anything theoretical when it comes to music, but I’ve been listening to a fair amount of stuff that invokes a similar feeling and was made during the first half of the 80s in England. This is a place and a period that was really formative for me musically and I guess I’m picking up on the precise mood that so much of this music evokes and it’s the first time that I’ve ever immersed myself in it while also having a decent understanding of the history of the society at the time. This has ignited some curiosity in me. I wonder if anyone can pick up on this and grasp it when it’s happening and if so, what we would apprehend about today?

Would it be the sound of bankers, paedos, Anglo-American imperialism and old media juggernaut deaths? Or is it just that innovative music has always taken place in enclaves of shared understanding, and this “picture” is more a view of how those people saw it than of how everyone felt it? Probably some nuance in between. I dunno, but I’m interested to know what y’all think about it.

Bleep 43, 16 April 2010, full party details

As I mentioned a couple of weeks ago, I’m most pleased to be returning to Bleep 43 and Corsica Studios alongside Terrence Parker and more. Full party details below:

Finnish grandeé of Minimalism Mika Vainio headlines our first party this year on Friday April 16th at Corsica Studios. Although he has retired live outings of Pan Sonic for the forseeable future, he continues to play solo and we’re very excited about witnessing his primeval explorations of analogue-generated electronic sounds. Without doubt one of the more visceral and thought-provoking artists in European music, Vainio’s pedigree is vast – he is one of the true pioneers of minimal techno, evinced by his Sakho label, and the various projects he has masterminded. Put that together with Pan Sonic and his sizeable back catalogue of abstract sound works, some of which have been recently released by Raster-Noton, and you have an idea of just how influential he has been, both to electronic dance music, and to the more cerebral end of the genre.

Joining him in Room 1 is Donato Dozzy, who will be laying down another epic journey of hypnotic techno. We were enthralled by his stately ability to brew infectious atmospheres when he made his UK debut for us last year, and it was only a matter of time before he graced the decks again. 20 years of DJing has enabled Donato to call upon a weighty collection of abstract and obscure techno records, most of which you’ve probably never heard. We have no doubt that alongside Surgeon he’s the best techno DJ in the world right now and are excited by the prospect of yet another techno odyssey from him.

Flying over from Detroit for a rare visit to the UK is Terrence Parker. Something of a veteran turntablist in the Motor City, Terrence mixes house in a unique style, and we’re looking forward to him setting Room 2 alight. Making his Bleep43 debut alongside Terrence is DJ Guy, who has built up a strong following as Europe’s finest booty DJ. Formerly one-half of the Non-Stop DJs, Guy runs his own Global Fire label, and his style encompasses electro, house, disco and funk. Supporting them is one of our regulars, Phonopsia, who returns to Bleep43 after a 2 year absence.

£12 advance tickets are available from We Got Tickets, otherwise it’s £15 on the door, or £9 with a valid NUS card.

Hope to see y’all there! Here’s the Facebook page, if that’s how you roll.

Advanced notice of next Bleep

I’m most pleased to be returning to Bleep 43, playing alongside the inimitable Terrence Parker for the fifth time, at Corsica Studios in Elephant and Castle on Friday 16th April, 2010. This is the night I’ve played at the most and the headlining DJ I’ve played with most, so it feels exceedingly comfortable. I’ll be playing an extended set as well.

If that weren’t enough, we’ve got Europe’s leading booty turntablist, another chance to see Donato Dozzy, and Mika Vanio playing live on a fantastic Funktion 1 rig. I’ll post further details as they’re released.

Bleep 43

Fri 16th April @ Corsica Studios – 10 pm – late

Room 1

Mika Vainio live
Donato Dozzy
Toby Frith

Room 2

Terrence Parker
DJ Guy
Phonopsia

online adv tix £12, £15 otd, £9 NUS

More details tba

Sorry I’ve been quiet around here lately. Blog posts go down as micro-blog posts go up, it would seem. If you haven’t already got it, I’m talking most of my nonsense over here now.

Emote Control

This is a new mix of moody music from the past, with a decent amount of ambience and some guitars. Light on the mixing. Just over an hour.

2020 note: all mixes taken down for now to re-post at higher bitrate on Mixcloud in due course. If you’re at all keen for me to do this, please let me know and I will try and get anything specific you want to hear moved over ASAP.

Depeche Mode – Sibeling [Sire Records]
Mara Carlyle – Pianni [Accidental Records]
Aphex Twin – Lichen [Sire Records]
A Small, Good Thing – Flamenco 1 [Soleilmoon Recordings]
Björk – Amphibian [One Little Indian]
Tortoise – Gamera [Thrill Jockey]
The Cure – Closedown [Fiction Records]
New Order – Doubts Even Here [Factory]
Tones on Tail – When You’re Smiling [Beggars Banquet]
Laurie Anderson – O Superman [Warner Bros. Records]
Steve Reich – Proverb [Nonesuch]

Prosthetic Memory