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In this first installment of the Foundations of Audio series, author Brian Lee White shows how to improve the sound of a mix with compressors, limiters, gates, de-essers, and other dynamic processors. The course explains the fundamentals of sound waves, and amplitude, explores common compressor controls, and shows how to eliminate unwanted noise using gates and expanders. The course also demonstrates best practices in compression and limiting in a variety of audio applications and covers sculpting the attack and decay of individual notes with transient shapers and applying frequency specific dynamics control with multiband compressors. Exercise files accompany the course and include special Get in the Mix session files.
The old is new again, at least as far as compressors go. In the last decade, it seems a year hasn't passed that some company hasn't introduced a new and improved plug-in model of a vintage compressor. Aside from the company simply needing new products to sell, computers have also gotten much faster over the years, so the models could be more CPU-intensive and thus recreate every detail of the original with more precision. The good news is that new vintage model dynamics processors have never sounded more like their analog counterparts.
I'm going to show you how to use two the most common vintage-modeled compression plug-ins: the Universal Audio 1176 and the Teletronix LA-2A. There are at least five companies that I can think of at the top of my head that have modeled these classics into plug-ins. And some will not feature the exact same name, due to licensing reasons, but as soon as you see the interface, you will definitely recognize the similarities. Here, I am using the Waves CLA compressors as an example of the UA 1176 and LA-2A. The 1176 is a classic example of a FET, or Field Effect Transistor, compressor.
These circuits were originally designed to emulate tubes, but achieve a completely unique sound all the round. FET compressors are extremely fast, clean, and reliable, and sound good on almost any kind of signal material. The 1176 itself has a very bright and present quality to it, almost like using an EQ. It can really bring out the presence on anything you use it on, especially vocals. The 1176 features a fixed threshold, so to control it's gain reduction, you must drive the threshold with the input control. Once you've achieved the desired amount of gain reduction, you can use the output control to return the output to a reasonable level.
Watch and listen, as I adjust the input to drive the threshold and use the output to make up any gain reduction. (music playing) The attack and release controls on the 1176 can be especially confusing because they are not marked by millisecond time values, but simple numbers one through seven, with seven being the fastest setting and one being the slowest.
This confuses many people because intuitively you think that a larger number would be slower when you are used to measuring in actual milliseconds. The 1176's attack time is extremely fast. A setting of one is still only around 800 microseconds, while a setting of seven is virtually instant, 20 microseconds. The Release time sits over a much wider range of 50 to 1200 milliseconds, so you can't really visualize the two in the same way. The 1176 features selectable ratio controls plus an All buttons in control that introduces a radically different compression curve, perfect for heavy compression, that you really have to play with and hear to appreciate.
Take a listen. (music playing) Introduced the mid-1960s, the Teletronix LA-2A is a famous electro-optical compressor that uses an electro- luminescent panel, basically a small light and a photo optic sensor, to apply gain reduction.
As the signal's amplitude increases, the light panel gets brighter and the photo- optic sensor reacts to this by applying more gain reduction to the signal. Because of the inherent lagginess in this design, this type of compressor tends to work more on the average level than the peaks, making it perfect for less attack-driven instruments like bass, vocals, guitar, and submixes. As an added benefit, the tube make up gain can be used to excite additional harmonics that help fatten up the signal, helping push low- and subfrequency content into the more audible low mid band, making this compressor sound great on bass instruments.
Sometimes, I like to use the LA-2A without any gain reduction just to tap into the tube gain stage. The LA-2A is super simple to use and a great example of the knob minimalism of classic analog gear. Simply increase the peak reduction control until the desired amount of gain reduction is achieved. Then use the gain control to make up any lost level or drive the compressor's tube amplifier. Listen as I adjust the peak reduction and gain. (music playing) Unlike the input gain control on the 1176, the gain control on the LA-2A does not affect the compression, so it can be used stand-alone if you'd like, to simply drive the tube amplifier and grab some extra harmonic distortion and warm up the signal.
The limit-compress switch changes the characteristics of the compressor's transfer occur. When in the compressed position, the curve is more gentle and presents a low-compression ratio. A higher compression ratio results when the switch is set to the limit position. No matter what models of these classics you happen to have access to, I'm sure you will find them just as indispensable as engineers have found their analog counterparts for decades.
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