Sunday, August 19, 2007

In search of simple, clean compression.

The era of cheap, plentiful technology has provided the modern music producer with an increasingly sophisticated array of bang-for-your-buck, all-in-one modules that tie together many different techologies that, in the past, have remained separate. Mixing boards have acquired built-in hard disk recorders and screens, now calling themselves DAWs, while synths, samplers and ROMplers all became basically the same thing; and the latest in compressor mics sports a built-in power supply, a USB port and a headphone jack in addition to exquisite components and that lustworthy compressor mic sound. However, this ceaseless heaping of technology upon itself isn't neccessarily a good thing; a particularly sad victim, in my opinion, has been the standalone audio compressor.

What started out as an innocuous little box with mysteriously labeled knobs and even more mysterious analogue guts has, during the course of our current technology frenzy, been dissected, emulated, cloned, aped, and just plain ripped off so many times that one can find it in more than one form in just about any kind of setup. Like the distortion pedal before it, the compressor has suffered severe dilution in the never-ending push to cram more things into a smaller space for a lower price, and the resultant dive in overall expectation and quality. In short, while most of them can technically perform the task we refer to as audio compression, most also suck terribly.

A good example of this is called "effect compression", and a good (or terrible, rather) example can be found on the Korg Electribe samplers. While still based on the same mathematical principles as its analogue ancestors, it is a cheap-sounding digital effect that apes real compression only in its barest form, whittling the process down to two knobs that basically control an ugly, brattish pumping noise that is guaranteed to sound like shit in any mix. These sorts of pseudo-compressors are often included by manufacturers as weak additions to fill in ad copy and push up the hype/price machine, usually as one of several dozen equally bad emulated features. In many cases, such as the Roland V-series DAWs, the machine's hardware supports the technical possibility of supporting something that isn't attrocious, but hasty programming usually mangles any potential that may have been there. The same can be said for most of the line's "renowned" guitar amp modeling effects. Unfortunately, a good cross section of the music producing community hasn't seemed to catch on to this sad industry-wide sleight, and continue to mix with the assumption that these features are somehow of a standard quality and fit for studio use. Examples can be found in hardware units like the Roland V-series DAWs, particularly the earlier models, and in any number of VST plugins. Bad compression is everywhere.

On the flip side of the issue, hardware compressors are still around, and can be had new; but like anything, it's a gamble. Units like the Phonic i7200 offer surgical precision, but an ultimately sterile sound. Reputed models like the Gates Sta-Level Tube Compressor guarantee a gateway to mixdown bliss, but only at a price tag that rivals a vacation in Europe. There are software suites available as well, many of them quite good, but again, they come with a price tag coupled with the tedious (and often dubiously legal) task of combing through a sea of weak software with good ad copy in search of a diamond in the rough that costs less than next month's rent. (Raise your hand if you're using pirated software! *whistles*)

After delving into this issue several times over the past few years, the best solution I have come across comes from the folks at FMR Audio, in their RNC1773 unit. Featuring an all-analogue signal path hemmed with digital controls, this little standalone box is everything a classy compressor ought to be. Have a peek at the specs page for all the pertinent details on its I/O and dimensions. Users rave about its clean and "expensive" sound, which is damned odd for a price tag of $199 American. And in contrast to all the Electribe-quality horrible sluge-machine compression effects, the RNC1773 holds up like a trooper even under extreme compression ratios, and even features a switchable "Super Nice" mode for signals with a really wide dynamic range.

In an age where our technology seems to fold in on itself more and more every day, perhaps it's worth it to make room for standalone units like this. Not to mention, I would personally love to see more analog/digital hybrid hardware hit the market. This is one of the boxes that showed up on a metal tour where I was sound tech, and after using it once I immediately felt cheated by every other compressor I have ever used. It's that good.

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