Native Instruments has partnered with Swedish modeling wizards Softube to release Vintage Compressors. Their VC76, VC2A, and VC160 are based on 3 studio classics, the Universal Audio 1176, Teletronix LA2A, and DBX 160. Softube has a very successful track record of high-end hardware modeling which has garnered endorsements from the original designers of gems like the Trident A Range EQ and Tube Tech CL1B, so I was excited to be able to dig in to these effects, and I'm pleased with the results.
In addition to faithful emulations of the original features, all models include an expert panel (accessible via a disclosure triangle on the right edge) that reveals a Dry Level fader, a Side Chain button, and, on the VC2A and VC160, a Low Cut Filter on the detector circuit. These additions are welcome improvements on the originals, and extend the functionality quite a bit. The Dry Level allows for simple parallel compression without having to go through any additional bussing. Note that Output can still add gain to the signal, even when Dry is at %100, so pay attention to the interaction between these two controls. The Low Cut is very handy for things like preventing a robust kick from triggering the gain reduction on a drum loop while controlling wild crash cymbals nicely.
I will provide descriptions of each compressor, followed by several example clips. All clips have been normalized to distill the plugin effects from the changes in volume.
The LA2A is an electro-optical tube compressor. This design tends to have a slow response and impart general warmth to the signal. The VC2A behaves accordingly. It is the simplest of the bunch, with just gain reduction and output knobs, and also highest on the immediate gratification scale. Set the gain reduction, raise the output to taste, and you're good to go. One of the best uses is on vocals. This clip is dry, then through the VC2A.
Notice how the compressed signal is fuller. The VC2A evens out the 2 phrases and brings out the body in the voice.
The manual suggests using the VC2A on guitar, bass, and vocals. Notably missing are drums, presumably due to the slower response and lack of precise control. However, I really like how the VC2A sounds on a stereo drum submix. It can add a subtle big room sound. Sometimes it was useful to have something faster (like the VC76) in front of it for tight transient control, and then to use the VC2A to fatten things up.
The VC160 is especially adept at accentuating the attack of sounds while generally tightening the decay. As such it is well suited to individual drum sounds or percussive bass. It can act like a transient shaper with automatic envelopes that just happen to work well in a lot of music. However, it's possible to go too far and choke the life out of some material, so use with care.
The following clip is a slap bass loop dry, then through the VC160. Because of the tightening of the decay portion of the notes, it can sound like a bit of the low end is removed. This is not always bad, as it can help parts fit in a mix or remove tubbiness.
The VC 76 has the most control of the bunch. It can be a lot more surgical and powerful, but it's also the easiest to abuse, so don't get frustrated if the results aren't quite as immediate as with the other two. However, it's still pretty tough to get a bad sound out of it if you spend a few minutes getting it dialed. Universal Audio lists the attack/release times of the original 1176 as follows:
Attack: 20 microseconds to 800 microseconds
Release: 50 milliseconds to 1.1 seconds
Even at the slowest setting, the attack is VERY fast compared to a lot of other compressors, so adjust your use accordingly. Adding a bit of dry level can help if you lose too much transient information. Also note that he Attack and Release are "backward", just like the original, i.e. 1 (CCW) is the slowest, and 7 (CW) is the fastest. I found Attack=3 and Release=5 to be good starting points for most applications.
This clip demonstrates how the VC76 can add snap and girth to a bouncy acid line (courtesy Audiorealism ABL2), then how the VC160 can tighten the decay. The clip is dry, VC76, dry, then VC160.
In the next clip I use all three compressors to contrast their tendencies. The progression is dry, VC76, dry, VC160, dry, then VC2A.
Observe how the VC76 can absolutely manhandle the drums. Of course it doesn't have to be this extreme, but I like it. The VC160 treatment is more subtle, just stiffening it up a bit. Lastly the VC2A adds some gentle room to the loop.
But wait, Guitar Rig?
My biggest criticism of Vintage Compressors is that they run inside Guitar Rig Player, the Guitar Rig GUI that NI has started to use for other products such as the Traktor's 12, Reflektor, and Rammfire. The main problem is that Guitar Rig takes up a ton of screen real estate, and can be cumbersome on a smaller laptop screen. It adds unnecessary complication, and there are some setup tweaks (enable L/R channels, disable limiter and gate, make sure input/output gain are at unity) that you need to keep in mind. However, there are simple workarounds (create templates with default settings, minimize elements of Guitar Rig), and a few silver linings that I'm starting to like quite a bit.
Running inside Guitar Rig complicates saving presets, though it does allow for new options. I like to keep my presets organized in folders. In Logic, I now have to create several extra folders in order to keep my presets separated by compressor, e.g. guitar rig/compressors/VC76. On the other hand, I can group presets by role, and mix and match between the 3 compressors, e.g. guitar rig/compressors/bass (and have all my VC76, VC160, and VC2A for bass in the same folder).
One of the nice things about the Guitar Rig interface is that it allows me to have all 3 compressors in 1 instance of GR. I can then easily switch between or combine to find best results. Most of all, if you have Guitar Rig Pro 4, you can quickly create complex effects chains with other Guitar Rig effects. Highly recommended!
While I would prefer to be able to run each plugin without the Guitar Rig shell, I'm more than placated by the additional creative options that this arrangement creates.
Tips and Tricks
Precise adjustments can be tricky with the front dials, but by switching to Controls View in Logic (wherein the GUI is replaced by numbered faders) you can make more precise numerical adjustments.
If you need to get clinical about comparing compressed vs. dry, it's helpful to use a gain plugin in front of Guitar Rig when the compressor is bypassed in order to make sure your dry signal has the same peak level as the compressed signal. This way you can be sure that the compressor isn't just making things louder. On the other hand, sometimes life is too short for A/B comparisons, so just go with what works for your mix.
All models allow a 1:1 ratio (or 0 gain reduction on the VC2A, effectively the same thing) so you can use just their color or distortion characteristics. I like to run synths through Moogerfooger pedals with the Mix=0 (i.e. dry) with the drive cranked. Using these plugins in this manner provided me with a more convenient way to achieve similar results.
Here is an example of this technique. First the ABL loop dry, then through the VC76, VC160, and VC2A. The VC2A can get especially ballsy.
The cumulative effect of using these tools across many elements of a mix is where they really shine, even when the individual effects are used subtly.
The meters (like VU meters) are sluggish, and the program dependent compression contours take some tweaking, so use your ears not your eyes to dial the mix.
I use Novation's Automap Pro on most of my AU plugins. For some reason the automapped versions did not show he side chain selection menu in Logic on my Mac Pro, though it was available on my Macbook Pro. (To be clear, I'm referring to Logic's internal side chain selection drop down in the upper right corner of the GUI, not the side chain button in the Vintage Compressors). I don't know if this problem is due to Logic, Guitar Rig, Automap, or pilot error, but I've read that others have had trouble with sidechain operation so I thought it would be worth mentioning.
Native instruments and Softube have done well. Up until recently some of the best vintage emulations required hardware acceleration, and/or were fairly spendy. They've provided solid versions of these 3 iconic studio tools in the native format at a reasonable price. Vintage Compressors have found a place in my go-to arsenal for dynamics control.
As soon as UA can catch up with back orders, I'll have a 6176 and UAD card. I look forward to comparing the hardware, UAD versions, and the NI versions. In the meantime I'm quite satisfied with these options.
...solid versions of these 3 iconic studio tools in the native format at a reasonable price...
- Sound great, good value
- Proven studio workhorses provide strong character to offset more clinical modern DAW dynamics control
- Easy to get good sounds very quickly
- Low CPU drain
- Expert Panel brings classics into modern production styles
- Program dependent attack and release times take some experimentation
- Don't have the precision of other modern compressors
- Must run inside Guitar Rig
- Problem with Automap?
by Jesse Gay
Jesse is a musician, engineer, and Apple Certified Logic Pro Trainer in Portland, OR, USA. You can reach him here