This is Part 2 of our Compressors Smashing Drums shootout review (Part 1 being 20 Plugin versions Smashing Drums). Like Part 1 this test is aimed to showcase how a bunch of compressors that people have requested, we have noticed are popular on Gearshoot, or that we wanted to check out for our own interests sound at the extreme limits. While this is not of course an exhaustive list, and may miss out some of the ones you would like, please feel free to contact us and make requests if there is one you would really like included, or, if it is already in the library of samples just drag it in and decide for yourself how it sounds and ways you can apply that to your mixes.
So, the next couple of paragraphs pretty much reiterate Part 1 review, feel free to just scan through if you have already played with Part 1. But if you haven’t, or can’t quite remember a couple of useful points, read on... One of the extra advantages of a shootout test such as this is that it really shows how the character of the compressors diverge, and where each one can take you when you push them hard. Many compressors are, (you will find if you load them up in the shootout players) more similar in character at the lower amounts of compression, so any tests and shootouts would take a bit more of your listening time and focus. Understanding you are busy people we thought we’d dispense with subtlety on this occasion and let the range of compressors shout their differences for all the world to hear. The basic rule for this Shootout review was that the compressor could be set to at least 20:1 ratio and carry out 15-20dB of compression. This meant a few ones didn’t fit into the scope of this semi scientific test. If you would like to hear some of the compressors in this shootout test at more sensible and polite levels just go to the preset menu and type ‘Analog Buss Comps’ and you will find a number of shootouts at lower compression amounts to test yourself on (offering you the best of both worlds). All the settings on the compressors (attack, release, compression amount) sit as closely in the ballpark as either the units allow, or was practical given the fact that things take time, and the more scientific you want to be the longer it takes (science takes a really really long time), and for the general tones and characters that we are wanting to show in this shootout it is not really that essential.
Another reason we decided that this test was important is thanks to the popularity of parallel compression, and its effectiveness in particular on drums. Having a quick reference guide that can give you an immediate sense of which compressor will get you the tone you want straight off the bat is a useful thing to have we think. Plus we’re sure most people agree it is fun smashing the crap out of drums.
As said, the compressors we have semi-randomly selected for this shootout are a mix of requested ones by Gearshoot users, and ones we thought would be a useful ‘starter for ten’ and also let you get a sense of ones that are similar in fundamental aspects. Feel free to drag in any other compressors or limiters in to compare as well (by clicking on the open player in new window link). For this shootout review they are:
Buzz Audio DBC-20
Empirical Labs Distressor
Klontz 1176 RevA
Lindell 7x 500
Urei 1176 Rev F
Warm Audio WA76
Ekadek FatLady Vari Mu
Golden Age Projects Comp-3A
Manley Labs ELOP
Warm Audio WA2A
Here they are for your listening pleasure. If you find this review useful, can we ask you to like our Facebook Page or Sign up to our Newsletter at the bottom of the page so we can let you know when new ones are available?
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What we think -
A good place to start when you are talking drum compression (and luckily also first in our alphabetical list) is the API 225L, one of the most famous and respected compressors for drums around (for 500 series users the equivalent (pretty much) is the API 527). We agree, and think that is with good reason (it is generally one of our first choices for kick and snare in most occasions and styles that come up). The 225L really locks in and tightens drums in a really particular way, even at extreme settings. It adds in some extra distortion to the kick drum, whilst shaving off some of the lows at the same time and reducing the ‘bounce’ of the unprocessed loop above to give it extra punch. Overall compared to the other compressors in this shootout it causes less distortion, staying rock solid, and enhancing the slap and ‘in your face’ nature of the drums.
Moving on to the API 2500 (from revered designer Paul Wolff) you get a nice difference in tone, and similarity of definition from the 225L. The 2500 at these settings (and this is an infinite:1) does have more coloration from distortion and gluing the whole kit together with a beautiful straight up solid feel. The kick is softer in feel than the API 225L, and the snare distortion at the end of its envelope is nicely filled out. Check out the other 2500 samples we have in the players, it is a complex design, with huge versatility.
The Alesis 3630 is a cheap compressor, you can often pick one up second hand for around US$100 on ebay. It actually does a pretty good job on the smash considering that it costs less than the 2 replacement opamps for the API 2500. It is noticeably a bit thinner and loses some definition (which isn’t always a bad thing), the kick has less punch or solidity (compare for example to the DBC-20 and Distressor - which also contrast with their ‘richer’ top end). You can also hopefully hear it sucking in the drums a bit, especially in the low end and notice some extra softening of the snare that the more expensive compressors don’t create. We should note that the 3630 has a DIY mod that you can do that apparently makes some significant sonic improvements (and is only US$50 for the parts!). Check out the details on the kit at DIYRE.
Diode Bridge Compressors are harmonically one of the most interesting tools you can have in your kit, and the Buzz Audio DBC-20 really shows this fact off. We’d recommend that you also check out the shootout review we did of some diode bridge style compressors and an interview with Tim about what makes them so special. There are some tonal similarities to the VCA style API 2500 at this level of compression, (interesting as both these units are often also used by mastering engineers), but the DBC-20 comes off as lusher and with (we think) the best top end of all the units in this test, (you can really hear this in regards to the way the compression affects the snare). Unsurprisingly, diode bridge compressors being what they are, at these types of settings you get more distortion than the 2500, which would be really beneficial introducing in parallel.
Going from a modern take on a classic circuit design to a classic design and unit straight from mid 1970’s the dbx 160 gives that famous sound that the likes of UAD and Waves have captured in their plugin emulations (check out Part 1 of Drum Smash to hear those). Here we have all the midrange snap that you’d probably heard about as well as the characteristic shaving off of the low end and pump that has made them such a useful tool in the right situation. The distortion is really well balanced as well, which would make it useful for styles where you aren’t intending on creating the most brutal drums of all time, but do want to make them more interesting than they would be without the feel of hyper compression.
You can’t really go wrong with the Empirical Labs Distressor really for a couple of reasons in particular. For one it has defined so much of the history of how drums should sound since it was released on the world 20 or so years ago (which probably doesn’t make it so fair on many of the other compressors ;) ), it also adds copious amounts of ‘Rock Mojo’ to the drums in the test (which we believe is a good thing), and seems to projects aspects of all the best parts of all the other top line classic compressors (e.g. jump between the Distressor, Urei 1176, API 2500, PYE, LA3A etc). The extra low end extension the Distressor provides is quite a useful thing to have on hand. We’ve gone into more detail on the Distressor with a shootout review of it and an interview with its creator, Dave Derr.
Stepping back into the budget minded realms of compression is a unit that is regularly touted as punching well above its weight on many forums. The FMR RNC1773 is a ⅓ rack size stereo unit that you can get for under US$200. Character wise it really pushes the low end distortion on the kick in quite a nice way with a bit of washy pump that would work great in parallel (especially on dance music tracks). Does it sound as expensive in its distortion as say a Kush Tweaker, or a PYE, no, but with a bit of a play on the settings and some EQ to help out you could easily something really useful that would stand up with many of the top units. Definitely worth the money in our opinion (and we have a couple in our collection to back that up).
The Klontz 1176 Rev A clone is a nice showcase of a custom built compressor by, Klontz (in the style of the popular kits available on the DIY forums). So one of the first compressors in the list you could compare it to is probably the Urei 1176 Rev F (and also the Warm Audio WA76). No surprises, it has a number of similarities that place it in the same family as the 1176, for example the amount of distortion on the kick and hihat tone, although the Klontz has a slightly different feel on the bounce of the kick and associated subtle pump (compare in relation to the hihats). In an ideal world (maybe one day we can add it in) we’ll shootout the Klontz with an original 1176 Rev A, but in the meantime you can be happy hearing that there is a pretty solid option in the 1176 style compressor style for significantly less than the ~US$5000 price that a vintage 1176 Rev F can command.
As a gear designer with one of the most innovative philosophies (and senses of humour - check the UBK Happy Funtime Hour) around you would probably expect some pretty cool features on the Kush Tweaker, and they definitely do not disappoint. With that in mind we’d recommend taking one for a test drive as while we are showing off one aspect in this test, this beast is deeeeep (we have shown off a number of the curves in the shootout library for your entertainment). Bringing in a touch more distortion at this level of smash than say, the Urei 1176 style, it does it well, nothing really (to our ears at least) feels out of place in the distortion field which is no mean feat. While it has characteristics of many of the other compressors (e.g. the Distressor) the Tweaker is definitely its own beast and brings a nice enhancement to the mid range feel (especially when you compare back to the original drum loop which should be a reference for every compressor you listen to we think).
We showcased the Lindell 7x 500 plugin in part 1 of the review, so we’d recommend that you also jump back at some stage and check that too (especially to see how close they got the plugin). The Lindell is one of the compressors in this test that has a 100:1 ratio (most here are 20:1), and really shows a step up from all the others her in relation to low end pumping distortion, a really useful tool to have on hand for the right occasion and as a bonus has built in parallel feature. It is definitely not at the clean, tight and super defined end of the market (compared to e.g. The API 225L or dbx 160 as two different takes), it overtly locks down on the drums and smashes them with reckless abandon. Smash.
Back to another classic drum buss compressor the PYE showcases (we think) why it is so highly regarded on a drum buss. As we pointed out in part 1, Waves did a really good job with their emulation capturing many of the same elements. The locking in place of the drums across the spectrum, tasteful pump, and low end solidity that it adds to the kick is nice to hear and it really adds a nice character to the snare and great high end. Winning.
Another design from the mind of Paul Wolff (creator of the API 2500), the Tonelux TX5C is a 500 series compressor that has a whole heap of clever features (to sample them all in would take days, so we’ll ask you to play with the settings we have captured and if you want to know more and then go test drive the actual unit). More nice even distortion coming through on the drums, raising the low mids slightly more than say the Urei 1176 and a nice ability to get the snare crack really in your face. This compressor is one we really like to also use on acoustic guitars, as it adds some nice extra definition in the upper mids when needed.
So we finally arrive at the Urei 1176 (Rev F version in this case), probably the most famous compressor of music history. Well, it sounds great doesn’t it... gold reference standard. With the Rev F You can hear all the aspects of the drums really clearly and it adds to them harmonically to make them even more interesting. The distortion coming through is not huge, especially compared to many of the other options in this shootout. The low end is beautiful, and the slight softening contrasts nicely against something more forward like an API 225L. It adds a nice feel to the snare as well, especially on the ring of it. Sell a kidney (you only need one to survive), buy a vintage 1176.
And representing another take on the 1176 (alongside the Urei and Klontz) we have the Warm Audio WA76. The WA76 is based on the Rev D 1176, so slightly different from our original Urei Rev F in this shootout. First thing you’ll notice when comparing to the Urei is that the WA76 significantly ups the distortion stakes and is much more aggressive, which would be super handy for rock and metal. There are (unsurprisingly) many tone characteristics with the Urei 1176, and so if you want to have less of the distortion just fiddle with the amount of compression or attack and release settings a bit and you should be able to get something close to the original. But it is also nice to know you can pull out this sort of distortion character especially for snares, and equally to use with modern parallel compression techniques. We’d recommend checking out our shootout review between the Urei 1176, Warm WA76 and UAD 1176 to get more indepth details of this beasty.
Moving into the Analog Limiter section of this shootout we are starting off with Boutique gear company Ekadek. The Ekadek FatLady Vari Mu is a really well thought out piece of gear (based on our time playing with the one we sampled into Gearshoot). The FatLady keeps a really nice smack on the snare and kit, doesn’t introduce huge amounts of distortion, but significantly ups the harmonic character of the drums. There is a definite contained squash that this style of compression provides, while still keeping a really nice top end. This is a Vari Mu design that (and we’d recommend checking it out at lower compression settings on songs and vocals too in the presets) stands happily alongside the sonic quality of any of the world’s best and most famous Vari Mu limiters. One of our favorites in this shootout to be honest.
A remake of the UA / Urei LA-3A, the Golden Age Project Comp-3A is a piece of kit that comes at a really good price. That generally means that the designer has had to approach the construction very carefully to capture all the essential elements of the original, but not price themselves out of the market. You can now check for yourself how well you think they did. From our listening tests there are definite strong similarities, and some noticeable differences. The Comp-3A does introduce more distortion to the drums than our original LA3A test unit, which is not a bad thing, especially in this day and age with its love of all things distortion. It also has less ‘bounce’ than the LA3A, and feels more compressed, something you could remedy with using parallel compression more than likely or adjusting some of the settings. For about ¼ of the price of the real thing Golden Age Project have done an amazing job, and this unit sits happily alongside many other compressors worth much more than it.
The Manley Labs ELOP is an Optical (LDR) limiter that is renowned for its ability to limit heavily without the usual high end loss you would expect. We chose to use the 100Hz sidechain filter in this case as, being it is a useful option when doing buss compression why wouldn’t you. It also lets you compare against the other optical compressors the benefit of such a feature and how it gives a nice feel to the low end, keeping more of it than would be possible otherwise. You can definitely hear the limiter locking down on the drums, but it has, thanks to the sidechain feature less pumping on the hihats than most of the other units in this test (which can be useful). The ELOP bring out fewer distortion characteristics than many other units here, so if you are wanting extra punch and clarity (especially when using in parallel) this would be a smart choice.
Nice and tight on the kick is one thing that jumps out with the UA/Urei LA3A, the extra compression of the low end (compared to the ELOP example) reduces the subs of the kick and brings the low mid range up somewhat. It really keeps the top end of the hihats apparent as well which is great considering the amount of gain reduction occurring.
Next in line is the next generation on from the LA3A, the Urei LA4, another optical style limiter. This one has more distortion characteristics than the LA3A or ELOP, feeling less dynamic or snappy, and with more sustain of the drums (notice the snare). It doesn’t capture the openness in the high end of the LA3A, and feels like it locks the drums and place and doesn’t let go. A handy tool to fill out drums when parallel compressing.
Last but not least is the Warm Audio WA2A, a retake on the classic Urei LA2A at a significantly lower price point. You can hear the slower attack of this unit compared to the other optical type limiters, and also that it keeps a nice punch or bounce to the drums once the compression has kicked in. It’s not as distorted as the LA4, but more so than the LA3A, and less so than many of the compressors we included in the shootout. The kick sounds great in particular and it keeps some nice definition in the loop, while giving the much loved optical squash. Well done Warm.
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Extra info for those interested in how we make our calls on what stuff sounds like -
Listening tests and assumptions are determined, double checked or signed off at Gearshoot HQ on ATC110ASL Pro monitors. We reckon that they give us a pretty good chance at getting it pretty well in the ballpark of what it is going to sound like on most other people’s monitors. We also headphone check on Extreme Isolation EX-29’s to hear what is going on in that spectrum and to hear what the world of headphones can show us.
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