There is just something about high quality, real hardware analog compressors, that just seem to make my job so much easier! I have nothing against software plugins, and I have a huge assortment of plugins that I use extensively, including software compressors. I've been a computer geek since the early 80s, and I've used both all analog and all digital systems for recording & mixing, and I'm not a fanatic on either side. In fact, I prefer my own hybrid analog/digital system that I've put together in my own studio. But, no matter how good software gets, I won't give up my hardware compressors without a fight! In fact, I'd love to have even more, but I can usually make do with what I have.
So, this post is going to be a bit of a "love story" about the analog hardware compressors that I own and how and why I use them.
The most used compressor in my rack for recording is the Cranesong Trakker. I actually have two of them (top two compressors in the photo), but the majority of the time I'm recording one vocal or one instrument at a time, and I only need one channel. I bought two so that I could link them as a stereo pair when needed, but I'll often use them for two separate sources for recording as well as when mixing. I picked up these compressors, which aren't cheap, on the recommendation of a sales rep that I trusted, because the Trakker has 16 different styles of compression. It's a very flexible compressor! With four types of compression, and then four different characteristics within each, plus being able to adjust not only attack and release times, but also a continuously variable knee control, they are extremely flexible. The only thing they are missing is a ratio control; but, these do such a great job that I've never missed that control.
The modes that I use most often on the Trakkers are the Optical and Air Optical modes. Since I record vocals more than anything else, those are the modes that get used most often. The Optical modes on the Trakker are simply incredible for vocals! You can be very gentle with a just a touch of compression, or you can slam them very hard. Even when slammed, you still can't hear the compressor working. It is remarkably transparent in its operation! The "standard" for optical style compressor are the vintage LA-2A compressors. We had two LA-2A compressors at the big studio I used to work at, and, although I loved them, you could hear them working/pumping when you did more than a few dB of compression. The Trakkers you can slam with tons of compression, and you simply don't get that pumping effect (although you can if you really try hard with the settings).
I haven't found a software compressor that does the equivalent of the Cranesong Trakker. But, even if I did, I would never get rid of the Trakkers since you can't use software compression on the way IN to your computer (you could put one on the inputs of your DAW, but that would be AFTER you already went through the A/D converters, so it's pretty much pointless then, and you might as well just wait until mixing if you are going the software route). Pretty much every vocal track I record (as well as guitars and other instruments) go through the Cranesong Trakkers on the way to my A/D converters. It helps me keep the levels under control, and gives me a nice smooth sound as well. The Air Optical mode also adds a touch of high frequency air, similar to what the LA-2A compressors do, so they are nice for adding a touch of "color" to the signal on the way in.
Even though I mostly mix "in the box" these days, my DAW software allows me to connect external effects as well as hardware inserts. I'll often run the lead vocal out through a hardware insert to add some extra compression with a Trakker during the mix. Sometimes I'll use the Trakkers in "hard" VCA mode on the kick and snare through hardware inserts. Or, even a bass guitar. Occasionally, I've even used the two Trakkers stereo linked as the main mix buss compressor (although my API 2500 usually gets that duty, as I'll explain below). The Trakkers are quite versatile and still unmatched by any software plugin.
Next to the Cranesong Trakkers, the API 2500 stereo buss compressor is my next favorite and most often used compressor in my rack. These days it practically lives on my stereo mix buss. I do a hardware insert loop on the stereo mix buss, using the Universal Audio 2191 master converter as the D/A and A/D path. The API 2500 just has that nice "glue" quality that seems to help a mix come together a bit faster, while also doing some mild compression, and adding a touch of that API sound. I usually don't drive it very hard at all; just a dB or two of compression most of the time. I also own the Waves software plugin version of the API 2500, which is also quite nice for software, and I'll often use that on the drum buss or other stereo groups if I'm already using my hardware 2500 on the stereo buss. Would I be able to tell the difference in a double-blind test? Maybe... maybe not. With a very quick, unscientific comparison, with mild amounts of compression and not driving the output very hard, it's really hard to tell. But, there is something about that combination of the API 2500 through the UA 2192 converters that just seems to feel a bit better overall. Software is catching up fast, but when Waves released their emulation of the 2500, I don't think they modeled all the complex non-linearity and distortion characteristics of the hardware and its output transformers.
The API 2500 is just one of those versatile compressors that simply does its job without getting in the way too much, unless you want it to. Most of the time I used it in the Old (Feedback) style mode, as that is a more classic and transparent type of compression. With the Old mode, it's very smooth and you don't hear the compression working unless you really set it to extremes. The New (Feedfoward) style is a much more aggressive mode that you can hear working much sooner than you can in the old mold. It works for some types of music, or some subgroup compression tasks, but I prefer the Old style 95% of the time.
Finally, my last compressor in my rack is the Drawmer 1968 ME (Mercenary Edition). I LOVE this compressor on drum subgroups, both for acoustic and electronic/sampled drums. It's a FET compressor with a tube output stage. I like to drive the output of this compressor to give drums a bit more edge and bite. Nothing like a bit of real tube saturation! I'm not pinning the output, but I get it to where the meter lighting is turning red on most of the snare hits. It's quite cool that the lighting for the VU meters change color with the output level, going from white to yellow/orange, to red as you drive it harder. I like to get it to where it's just going into the red, so that there isn't obvious distortion, but it's giving the drums a bit more beef and edge. Doesn't work for all types of music, but when you want that extra edge, again it's hard to get the same sound with any software plugins. Of course, it's also a quite versatile compressor and can be very clean sounding if you are not driving its tube output stage.
Software plugins have recently been getting much better, much faster. It used to be that they modeled a static frequency response curve and compression curves, but modeling the dynamic non-linearity and distortion characteristics was a challenge, or require more processing power than available. I think we are finally getting to the point where they are able to fairly accurately model down to the component level, including all the non-linear and distortion characteristics of a lot of hardware, and some of the more recent releases sound VERY good.
Of course, in the days of pure analog, the goal was always to try to make gear more linear and transparent, with as low of distortion as possible. So, I didn't have any problems using software plugins and digital gear that didn't have any non-linear characteristics or distortion. I'm no analog hardware snob, and I'll work with whatever tools I have available. But, if you are going striving for that classic sound that many of us grew up listening to, then that involves all those non-linear characteristics of tape machines and vintage hardware, including the distortion they added to the signal.
But, the biggest thing for me remains the ability to do a little bit of compression on the way IN to the A/D converters. There is no way to do this with software as that has to happen after the conversion to the digital domain. That's why I've stuck with a small selection of very high quality and versatile compressors.
You'll notice, though, that I don't have any hardware analog equalizers in my rack. I've never been a huge fan of using EQ when recording, as you usually are going to do more EQ when you are mixing to make everything fit together anyway. The only exceptions are when I'm tracking at a major studio that has a classic console, such as a Neve or API, where I may want to run things like drums through those vintage analog EQs just to add some of that character to the tracks. It will usually be subtle EQ at the point, and I'm very familiar with how drums usually need to be EQ'd to fit into a mix, so I'm not afraid to do that on the way in if I'm recording through a great sounding console.
I've often thought about adding at least one really nice analog EQ to my own studio, but I usually can't justify the extra cost for the tiny amount of difference it might give me over software plugin EQ. I think the software EQs are usually much better than the software compressors as far as accuracy goes, as it's much easier to model a frequency response curve than a dynamic compression curve. Again, it's only recently that they've also been able to do a really good job of adding in some of the non-linearity and distortion characteristics of some classic equalizers. I particularly like the UAD Massive Passive EQ, and certainly couldn't justify buying the hardware version. For me, software plugin EQ has always been close enough if it can just model the EQ curves close enough. I'm not usually looking for EQ to add "color" or distortion to my tracks anyway. I use EQ more to shape the overall sound to fit things together, and use other hardware or software if I'm looking to add color or distortion.
Would I still like to have a nice hardware EQ? Yes! I've come very close to picking up an API 5500 EQ to put on my master buss right after my API 2500 compressor. Double the API goodness! But, I haven't been able to pull the trigger on that purchase yet simply because the software plugins I have do a great job for EQ, and there is always something else of higher priority to spend my money on.
So, that's my little ramble on the hardware analog compressors I use in my studio. Leave a comment or shoot me a message if you like reading this type of article. If so, I'll do some future articles about my other favorite studio gear that I own, such as my microphone preamps and microphone collection.