Can we talk hardware compressors for vocals?

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Larry Mal
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Can we talk hardware compressors for vocals?

Post by Larry Mal » Sun Jan 03, 2021 8:21 am

Hi all- I feel like I need a hardware compressor for my little home studio and would like some recommendations since budget is not unlimited.

I've used the classics like the 1176 and the LA2A and if I had the money for either I would be buying those and not creating this thread. I would absolutely consider clones of those like what Warm Audio and Klark Teknik makes if anyone can vouch for the quality of those, and it doesn't have to be 100% dead on.

This compressor would only be for light vocal compression while tracking. I'm not married to any kind of particular type of compressor since I don't actually have the imagination to take me to knowing which kind would be best for this project and I can't think of how any particular kind of compressor would be better than another. In my mind I can make a case for optical compression as well as FET here.

Like I say, I'm aware of the classics and if I had the money I would just be buying that, and I might in the future also. But for now I've been thinking about maybe getting something like a DBX 160x (although I really don't think that would be all that strong here for whatever reason), I used to use Drawmer compressors and never really remember loving them but maybe revisiting them might be OK, I took a look at the ART VLA 2 and maybe that's not garbage like so much ART stuff is, and so on. I could get up to $500 or so, so some clones can enter the picture but I haven't used any of them and maybe you have.

This compressor doesn't need to be the end of the road here, I would get other stuff down the road. There was a Tube Tech compressor I was bidding on, but the eBay seller realized it would have gone for far less than it should have so they took the whole sale down. I would have chased that one pretty far.

No need to recommend any software, I already have all the plug in compressors that anyone could ever want. They can be good for mixing, but I've lost faith in them for tracking for the most part. A good hardware compressor just adds a little magic and immediacy when tracking and I just don't find that software versions do that.

Thanks for any thoughts you might have!
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Re: Can we talk hardware compressors for vocals?

Post by Larry Mal » Sun Jan 03, 2021 8:32 am

Oh, I'd been reading a lot about the "Really Nice Compressor" , maybe that would be a nice compressor for now just like they say it is. Anyone use one of those? Is it something that would immediately become a door stop once I had a better compressor, is it only a starter compressor, in other words?
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Re: Can we talk hardware compressors for vocals?

Post by marqueemoon » Sun Jan 03, 2021 9:43 am

I Iucked into a good deal on a pair of silver 1176s and more often than not I will use a lowly RNC for this job. As long as it’s not compressing too heavily it does this job well. I like it lightly touching acoustic guitars and as a take saver for louder sources like overheads for the same reason.

The 1176 sound is cool though. When I do live acoustic recordings I’ll use my ISA Two>1176 for vocals. With the HPF on the mic on there’s very little that needs to be done to it in the mix. I think it’s a classic, recognizable sound but not really “transparent”. I haven’t tried any of the 1176-alikes, so I can’t comment on how close they get or if they do their own cool thing.

Anyway, for color plugins have gotten quite good. There’s probably a better “clean” compressor than the RNC these days for not much more, but that’s the category I’d be looking at.

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Re: Can we talk hardware compressors for vocals?

Post by Larry Mal » Sun Jan 03, 2021 10:11 am

Thanks for the thoughts... I'll likely use this on acoustic guitar also, again lightly.

It'll be similar to what you are doing, I only have the ISA One but I'll be looking to run that into the compressor.
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Re: Can we talk hardware compressors for vocals?

Post by Larry Mal » Sun Jan 03, 2021 11:00 am

And thanks for the great advice, that's a nice recommendation for the RNC.

I guess I keep reading that it's a great 1st hardware compressor, which is what it is in my own personal collection. However, since I've spent time with other much better units (or more expensive, maybe) I guess I'm afraid that if it comes I'll feel like I have moved beyond it already. Maybe that's a dumb way to think, though.
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Re: Can we talk hardware compressors for vocals?

Post by marqueemoon » Sun Jan 03, 2021 11:46 am

Larry Mal wrote:
Sun Jan 03, 2021 10:11 am
Thanks for the thoughts... I'll likely use this on acoustic guitar also, again lightly.

It'll be similar to what you are doing, I only have the ISA One but I'll be looking to run that into the compressor.
RNC is unbalanced which is one potential headache. Mine lives in the unbalanced inserts of my MP-2NV. I use the 1176s in the balanced inserts on the ISA Two.

Hopefully Brad will chime in with some solid advice in this area. I bet as bit rates have gone up and plugins have improved more people have dumped some nicer compressors that can be had for not much more.
Last edited by marqueemoon on Sun Jan 03, 2021 12:06 pm, edited 1 time in total.

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Re: Can we talk hardware compressors for vocals?

Post by marqueemoon » Sun Jan 03, 2021 11:56 am

Edit: duplicate.
Last edited by marqueemoon on Sun Jan 03, 2021 12:06 pm, edited 1 time in total.

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Re: Can we talk hardware compressors for vocals?

Post by Larry Mal » Sun Jan 03, 2021 11:57 am

Yeah, I feel that if Brad stops by he's just going to tell me something I already know deep down and then I'll have to actually face the truth of it. Right now I think I might be in a state of denial about the whole subject and I won't be able to pretend I haven't been given the answer once Brad tells me it.

On the other hand, though, if there is anyone that is able to let me know whether or not the various 1176 and LA2A clones are of any value it would be him. I would bet he's the guy here who has genuine first hand experience with all of the units in question.

I might just pick up a Drawmer unit, I remember liking them OK, they didn't sound all that "musical" or maybe inspiring but they were pretty transparent and utilitarian, anyway. I would probably find use for it down the road even if I got something a little different.

Or I would just buy a DBX 160x or something, but I haven't ever used one, and I get the idea that while they have their uses that light compression on vocals during tracking really isn't a strong suit there. But I guess I could find out for myself and then relegate it to bass or snare or something, I seem to be reading that they are stronger there.
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Re: Can we talk hardware compressors for vocals?

Post by marqueemoon » Sun Jan 03, 2021 12:05 pm

Larry Mal wrote:
Sun Jan 03, 2021 11:00 am
And thanks for the great advice, that's a nice recommendation for the RNC.

I guess I keep reading that it's a great 1st hardware compressor, which is what it is in my own personal collection. However, since I've spent time with other much better units (or more expensive, maybe) I guess I'm afraid that if it comes I'll feel like I have moved beyond it already. Maybe that's a dumb way to think, though.
I don’t think it’s a dumb way to think, but I don’t feel like the RNC is the weak link in my setup. That would be the operator.

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Re: Can we talk hardware compressors for vocals?

Post by Larry Mal » Sun Jan 03, 2021 12:26 pm

marqueemoon wrote:
Sun Jan 03, 2021 12:05 pm
That would be the operator.
There is also that. Not that I don't know how to use a compressor, but do I really need to be spending $3k on a world class compressor and even if I could, am I skilled enough to really utilize that kind of outlay and do I have a good enough recording environment to do so anyway?
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Re: Can we talk hardware compressors for vocals?

Post by Dok » Sun Jan 03, 2021 3:41 pm

A lot of people who use compression while tracking tend to use two compressors - one to tame down the transients or really high peaks (a limiter, really), and then another opto-type compressor to even everything else out. The thinking being that if each piece is just doing a little bit, you won't really "hear" the compression and your signal will still sound natural and big and all that, which is why you see a lot of 1176 > LA2A type chains.

When tracking, you also want to be careful that your compressor isn't clamping down on excess low frequency parts of the signal, because those can activate the compressor and make it start compressing frequencies you don't really want, and it's a lot harder to uncompress something that you've tracked with. This is where having a preamp with a high pass filter can be really useful.

I have a DBX 1066 with something called a PeakStop Limiter function that I use for tracking vocals and bass sometimes (and maybe snare drum occasionally). I don't set it to do much, maybe just pull off 1-3 dB on the loudest peaks of a performance. Then when mixing, I'll cut any other frequencies that I don't like so that the next compressor isn't grabbing them. I save my EQ boosts for after any compression. Now, that's not necessarily the correct way to do things, but it works for me and my brain and tends toward pretty consistent results.

DBX units aren't super in vogue these days, but they are cheap and relatively transparent. There's an engineer by the name of Jim Williams (https://tapeop.com/interviews/90/jim-williams/) who has spent the last many decades taking existing equipment and finding ways to improve the hell out of it, and he has a favorable opinion of those 1066 compressors, which is good enough for me. It also has a noise gate and other compression settings as heavy or as light as you like, and plenty of ways to get in and out of the box. Not bad for $100 used. I don't think you'd be in bad shape with the RNC or Drawmer, either. Just because something is cheap doesn't mean it can't do the job!
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Re: Can we talk hardware compressors for vocals?

Post by Larry Mal » Sun Jan 03, 2021 3:46 pm

Dok wrote:
Sun Jan 03, 2021 3:41 pm
A lot of people who use compression while tracking tend to use two compressors - one to tame down the transients or really high peaks (a limiter, really), and then another opto-type compressor to even everything else out. The thinking being that if each piece is just doing a little bit, you won't really "hear" the compression and your signal will still sound natural and big and all that, which is why you see a lot of 1176 > LA2A type chains.

Not bad for $100 used. I don't think you'd be in bad shape with the RNC or Drawmer, either. Just because something is cheap doesn't mean it can't do the job!
Thanks for the advice, and that's kind of my goal, to have a hardware compressor to kind of even things out with a little compression on the way in, and then I would probably evaluate the need for any further compression in the box, unless I purchase another unit.

However, maybe the first compressor in the chain, if there is a chain, might not need to break the bank and I can add a second opto type compressor later as you say.

The 1066 I don't think I know a whole lot about, I'll look into it- thanks.
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Re: Can we talk hardware compressors for vocals?

Post by Dok » Sun Jan 03, 2021 3:50 pm

Another cheap compressor that gets the Jim Williams nod of approval is the Symetrix 501, but that is a single-channel unit. Oh, and the Aphex Expressor.
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Re: Can we talk hardware compressors for vocals?

Post by Larry Mal » Sun Jan 03, 2021 5:40 pm

Thanks... I've see Jim Williams posting on Gearslutz a lot during my searches. I'll look into those.
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Re: Can we talk hardware compressors for vocals?

Post by Dok » Tue Jan 05, 2021 9:08 am

Larry, there's a RNC for sale on TheGearPage for $125! https://www.thegearpage.net/board/index ... d.2215980/
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