REVIEWS:From ELECTRONIC MUSICIAN 1997 (Shortened version)



For Richer or for Poorer
Explore the relationship between cash and crunch as EM pits
three affordable compressors against three costly dream machines.

By Brian Knave

The personal studio revolution put exquisite audio tools into the hands of the masses, but it did not manage to wipe out the inequity of the Haves and the Have-Nots. Large commercial studios can still afford the sexy, high-end gear that home recordists can only dream about. ("Same as it ever was," to borrow a tine from David Byrne.) But how much better audio quality are those rich acquisition budgets buying the pampered pros? For example, does the sound of a $4,000 signal processor outstrip the sound of a $400 unit by such a huge margin that the expensive model automatically elevates source signals to a pinnacle of undeniable brilliance?

Well, we just have to know how much audio magic lies within those costly toys. In the June 1997 EM ("Rich Man, Poor Man"), we pitted high-end microphone preamps against inexpensive models to see exactly what the pricey boxes delivered in relation to preamps we could all afford. Now, we're sliding six solid-state, stereo compressors under our value microscope for a similar price-versus-performance comparison.

For the inexpensive category we looked at three models costing less than $300 each: the Aphex 108, dbx 266A, and the PreSonus Blue Max. The opulent units chosen were the Avalon AD2044 ($4,200), the dbx 160S ($2,495), and the Focusrite Red 3 ($3,995). Is there even a prayer that the affordable boxes can sound decent compared to the tonal sophistication of such moneyed majesty~ Should you simply toss your masters into the nearest trash bin until you can afford to spend four grand on a real compressor? Sit tight, gang, all will be revealed as we toss the diamonds in with the cubic zirconia, shake things up, and see which sparklers actually deserve to be living large.

The Arena

To test the units, I focused on five instruments: electric fretless bass, acoustic guitar, vocals, kick drum, and snare drum. I recorded each instrument flat (without EQ) through a Mackie S-bus console to one track of an ADAT XT. For vocals and acoustic guitar I used a Neumann U87; for kick drum an AKG D112; and for snare drum an Earthworks TC-40K for brush work and a Shure SM57 for sticks. I recorded the bass guitar direct through a Countryman DI box.

I set the tests up so I could patch each compressor into a separate channel insert and hear the units side by side, in real time, processing the same signal. Of course, I also made use of each compressor's bypass switch to compare processed and unprocessed signals. In addition, 1 listened to each compressor with some tracks primarily fiddle, funky Stratocaster, and fretted bass from a sample disc provided by PreSonus.

For these monaural instrument tests, I tried a number of settings with each unit, including mild, moderate, and extreme compression ratios, different attack and release times, and varying thresholds. Naturally, I had to spend a good bit of time fiddling around with each compressor to find the best-sounding setting for each instrument. It was rarely a matter of simply applying the same setting to each unit. And just for the heck of it, I tested each unit's "breaking point" by dialing up what I termed the Disaster Setting: maximum ratio, minimum threshold, and maximum make- up gain.

It was also important to hear how each compressor performed in stereo- link mode while processing a complete mix. For this application, I dug up a few DATs that featured full-band mixes, as well as a few simpler mixes consisting only of guitar and vocal. For this part of the tests, I kept the compression ratios low, between 1.5.1 and 2.1 (which is where they'd likely be in a typical mastering application), and sought to find the most transparent settings. Of course, I was also curious to see how well the limiting worked on the units that offered it.

Meet the Fat Cats

Now, these strutting sophisticates are like the movie stars you'll never get close to at Spago. Sure, you can gawk at them as they cruise towards the YIP lounge, but don't bother entertaining the notion that they'll decide to sit at your table for a spell. They travel in different circles, kids. But do you ever wonder if the snooty mega-stars are really just high-priced posers? Well, let's meet these expensive compressors from Avalon, dbx, and Focusrite and critically assess the sound quality that thousands of dollars buys.

Avalon AD2044

There are plenty of compressors on the market costing upward of two thousand dollars, but how about one costing upward of four thousand? One such unit is the Avalon AD2044, a relative newcomer that, despite the high ticket, has been selling steadily and garnering wide acclaim. The Avalon AD2044 is distinctive not only for being the most expensive compressor we tested but also for being the only one that uses optical control elements rather than voltage-control amplifiers (VCAs). It also features 100% discrete, Class A circuitry throughout and a large, separate, 150W power supply that connects to the compressor via a beefy 4-pin cable.

Visually, the AD2044 is a study in austerity and attitude. The front panel, a thick slab of brushed aluminum with charcoal-gray lettering and beveled-edge, oval cutouts for the analog VU meters has a distinctive gothic vibe. For each channel, sizable machined-aluminum threshold and ratio knobs sit on opposite sides of the VU meter (which can be switched to monitor output or gain reduction). Three smaller knobs handle attack, release, and output, and are positioned beneath clear, orange-backlit in/out switches for sidechain, meter, and compressor. On each channel a tiny, mercury-vapor blue LED beams luminously during operation while an identical one lights up when gain reduction is underway. A large stereo- link button, illuminated with a reddish-orange light, glows brightly when engaged.

The ratio settings on the AD2044 are variable from 1.1 to 20.1 with a variable threshold ranging from -24 dB to +20 dB. Attack times are variable between 0.5 ms to 150 ms, and release times range from 80 ms to 5 seconds.

The AD2044's rear panel provides, next to a large heat sink, balanced XLR inputs and outputs, XLR sidechain access, and a connector for the power cable. The 2U rackmount unit does not provide a power switch.

Bang for the buck.

The Avalon AD2044 was unquestionably the warmest, fattest, and most full-bodied sounding compressor of the bunch. It was also the quietest (probably due to the external power supply and Class A electronics). The quality of the compression is supremely smooth, transparent, and musical, even at extreme settings, In fact, with this box it's difficult to make a signal sound bad even at the Disaster Setting, the sound is still usable.

At first listen, the AD2044 seems to produce transparent compression. However, critical listening reveals that the unit subtly colors the signal but what delicious coloration! Specifically, the Avalon unit enhances the bass and low-mid content of the signal and seems to ever-so-slightly darken the high end, removing any hint of harshness. And yet, it doesn't sound cloudy or hazy, and the compression itself doesn't noticeably squeeze or diminish the signal.

This makes the Avalon the finest compressor for electric bass that I've ever heard. The sound is fat yet detailed, smooth yet aggressive. Indeed, if 1 didn't know better, I would think there was a tube pre-amp stage somewhere inside the AD2044. Ditto for bassists Marty Holland and Edo Castro, both of whom fell in love with the unit. "It sounds like my old acoustic 370 tube amp," remarked Holland.

Of course, the qualities that make the AD2044 so awesome sounding on bass may render it less-than-ideal for some other applications. For example, although I personally loved the warm, luscious way the AD2044 handled vocals, Hall preferred a brighter-sounding compressor on her vocal tracks. And for acoustic-guitar tracks especially if I were trying to make the guitars sparkle and stand out in a busy mix the Avalon wouldn't be my first choice. Likewise, on snare-drum backbeats the sound was smooth, dry, and meaty, but there was not enough high end for my tastes. On kick drum, it was fat and round with lots of low-end oomph. The AD2044's warm quality also nicely fattened the fiddle and electric rhythm guitar tracks.

I liked the AD2044 a lot as a stereo-program compressor. It ever-so-slightly darkened and thickened the mix, making the overall sound beautifully smooth. Tonally, it reminded me of what you might get using a high-end, tube-based mic preamp to warm up the sound.

Bang for the buck.

The sound of the Red 3 falls somewhere between the other two high-end units: it's warmer and smoother than the dbx 160S, but not quite as warm and fat sounding as the Avalon AD2044. The Red 3 has a distinctive punchiness and is somehow quirkier sounding than the other compressors in the test group. For example, on fretless bass it produced a tuba-like sound with a slightly muted quality which Holland described as sounding "like it has a net over it." The sound wasn't unpleasant or in any sense unusable; in fact, next to the Avalon I liked it best. But it was definitely quirky.

Show me the money!

Bottom-line time. does spending ten times as much money buy ten times as much compressor? Put that way, of course, the answer is no. Then again, if the equation were that simple, people would never buy a Mercedes rather than a Nissan or Dom Perignon rather than Brut. So let's look more closely,

So what do you get for spending tens times as much money? Well, generally, you can rest assured that no corners were cut in terms of components, design, and assembly. That engenders same major peace of mind in terms of reliability, durability, and user confidence. Sonically, the high-end units are almost always more transparent and pleasant sounding, as well as cleaner and quieter, And, with the exception of the dt)x 16QS, they are more forgiving as well. In addition, each of the high-end units was able to produce decent audio at my Disaster Settings.

This was not the case with the less expensive boxes, which seemed to crash and burn at the far fringes of processing. Both the Blue Max and the Easyrider, for example, broke up terribly at the Disaster Setting, one sounding like a door buzzer and the other like a fuzz box,

The inexpensive compressors also charted less-than-audiophile results on vocals and bass. To my ear, they imparted more of an electronic sound to the vocal tracks. As for bass guitar, evidently all that low-end energy is often simply too much for the cheaper boxes to handle well. (Although the Blue Max fared better than either the 266A or the 108.)

However, the expensive compressors were not clearly superior at handling all source sounds and applications. Certain instances arose where a low- end box performed about as well as a high-end one. That's a "feel good" victory for the affordables.

So, unlimited headroom on a Gold Card can certainly buy gorgeous audio for many applications especially those timbre-critical tweaks for vocals, But you don't have to feel like subpar audio is a fact of life if your pocketbook is restricted to the affordable side of the dollar sign. Just use your imagination, your ears, and the technical knowledge you can gain in these very pages, and even those affordable boxes can produce delightful sounds. And if you do make a transcendent recording with inexpensive gear, the bragging rights go on for about 25 years.

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