What Are The Benefits of an Outboard Compressor?

Will You Benefit From An Outboard Compressor or Will Plugins Do The Job?

There are many excellent plugins that will give professional results to your recordings.  At the same time, there are some nice benefits to having an outboard compressor. This post is going to answer a few of the questions that you probably have:

  • What are the benefits of an outboard compressor?
  • Would you benefit from having an outboard compressor or would it be a waste of money?
  • What are the different kinds of outboard compressors and what does each excel at?
  • What are some of the options available at your budget?

Outboard Compression vs. Plugins

Every home recordist will run into this discussion at least a few dozen times in any forum or Facebook group. Some people swear up and down that compressor plugins can’t produce professional recordings. Personally, I’ve never seen anyone that can listen to an album and say “that was definitely compressed and eq’ed with outboard gear” or vice-versa.  There’s no reason that you can’t cut an album using nothing but plugins.

But What About Compressor Plugin vs. Outboard Compressor Shootouts???

There is no shortage of plugin vs. outboard shootouts on Gearslutz and YouTube.  Any one of them will clearly show that there is a difference in the sounds of an LA2A plugin and that of a vintage Teletronix LA2A.  What they never mention is that one would even hear differences even between two LA2A units.  Compare the plugin against the “worse-sounding” of the two units and voilà—LA2A plugins are now better than vintage outboard equipment. The point is that “quality” is often subjective.  It’s not whether an LA2A sounds better or worse than your Waves CLA-2A plugin; the important thing is that it accomplish the task you want it to complete.  This is usually related to controlling and crafting the dynamics of a track.

But Won’t An Outboard Compressor Make My Recordings Sound More Professional?

If you’re anything but a super seasoned mixer (i.e., you’ve mixed thousands of records and learned from the best), you’re far more likely to be limited by your abilities than your gear.  An outboard compressor isn’t going to make your records sound better simply because it isn’t a plugin. That said, I prefer to track with an outboard compressor when recording dynamic sources.  There are two reasons for this:

  1. It gives me piece of mind.  If a musicians suddenly gets markedly louder, having the outboard compressor will help to tame the peaks and potentially avoid clipping.
  2. It gives a bit more polish to the performance as we are recording. The is incredibly important when recording a singer.  Hearing a more polished vocal in the headphones can sometimes give a singer the confidence to loosen up and really give everything in a vocal performance.  While this can also be accomplished with plugins, I prefer to run the lowest number of plugins as possible when tracking.  The last thing that I want is to lose a great take because my CPU got hung up for a half second.
  3. It allows you to record a slightly hotter signal.  Recording a hotter signal can increase the quality of your recording, as long as you don’t overdo it.  Having an outboard compressor in your signal chain can enable you to record a hotter signal with less risk of clipping.

If you want to enjoy any of these benefits, you may want to consider getting an outboard compressor.  If you’re looking into it simply because you’re looking for a magic bullet to improve the quality of your recordings, you’re likely to be disappointed.

What Kinds of Compressors Are There and What is Each Best At?

There are tons of different types of compressors out there.  The most common types of compressors that are found in home studios are based on the following types of compressors:

  • LA-2A
  • 1176
  • SSL 4000

All of these compressors are outside of the price range of the average home studio owner. Nonetheless, there have been a number of companies that have sprung up offering equipment that sound damned close to the originals at a fraction of the cost.  Warm Audio, Stam Audio, Chameleon Labs, and Golden Age are a few of them, and if you’re in the market for a compressor, you should check them out.

LA-2A

la2a compressor Universal Audio has a great article outlining the history of the LA-2A optical compressor. You should definitely check it out if you’re interested in the history of this era-defining unit. The LA-2A is the simplest compressor that you’re every going to come across.  It has three knobs, one to control gain, one to control peaks, and another to set the gain reduction ratio. This unit is a go-to compressor for vocals and bass.  Its attack and release are fixed, but happen to be perfect for these two sources.  If you’re looking for an easy-to-use compressor for vocals, you can’t go wrong with an LA-2A. Universal Audio, Waves, and virtually every DAW have come out with a version of the LA-2A, each with varying fidelity to the original.

Common Uses for the LA-2A:

  • Vocals
  • Bass

Alternatives to the LA-2A

1176

1176ln_classic_limiter

The 1176 is the compressor of the late 60s and early 70s.  When it was released in 1967, it became an instant “must-have” as a result of its unprecedented fast attack and release times.

Today, it’s used on records from every genre that you can imagine, on virtually every kind of instrument that you can think of.  When a producer wants to get a dirty, distorted, heavily-compressed vocal, this is often the first unit that he or she will reach for.

While few home studio owners can afford a vintage 1176 or even a UA reproduction, there are plenty of clones out there.  It is possible to get an 1176 sound into your recordings for under $1k dollars.

Common Uses for the 1176:

  • Vocals
  • Bass
  • Guitars
  • Snare

Alternatives to the 1176

WA-76 by Warm Audio

wa76

This is Warm Audio’s take on the venerable 1176.  This style compressor has been a fixture in studios since the 1960s and the WA-76 is a great take on it.  Whether you’re going to use it on vocals, drums, bass, or guitars, it’s the kind of unit that you really can’t go wrong with. The attack and release can be a little confusing for a beginner to get right, but these units sound just as good as the $2k+ units at around $500.

SSL 4000

Technically, the SSL 4000 is a console, not a compressor.

This console featured a compressor that became incredibly popular in the 80s.  It gained an almost immediate reputation for providing “glue” to a mix and became an industry standard.  Today, Solid State Logic has released a product that features just the bus compressor, which has also become a studio staple.

Common Uses for the 1176:

  • Mix bus
  • Drum overheads
  • Sidechain compression

Alternatives to the SSL 4000

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