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This article was originally published in issue #43
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My oldest plugin emulations of vintage gear are now over ten years old. Computers today are far more powerful than they were, several generations of coding expertise have built on the legacy of those earlier plugins and software today is simply 'better' than it used to be. That’s not to say that the older plugins are obsolete - some of them actually have a classic sound of their own, and if you want to launch a 'yet another' product, it had better have something new to offer. As it happens, Positive Grid did a pretty good job of doing just that with its BIAS amp-sim software, and again with their BIAS FX software, so I was interested to see (and hear) what the company thought they could do with studio processors.
The Pro Series plugins come in a pair of bundles, one of compressors and one of EQs. Each bundle contains three different models which need to be installed and authorised individually - not ideal but it only takes a few minutes so let’s not worry too much about it. This time I’m looking at the compressors...
First-off, I fired-up the FET (1176) on a vocal track and wondered what had gone wrong. This does not look like a 1176 - where are the buttons; why is there a threshold knob, why isn’t it black, or silver with a blue stripe, and why doesn’t it sound punchy and sort-of distorted? Well, imagine a hi-fi/wide bandwidth 1176, still with the lightning-fast attack times, and with continuously variable ratios, and you’ll start to get the idea. Want the classic 1176 drive (a fairly civilised version of it anyway) - set the input level high and then set the threshold to give the gain reduction you want (you can’t usually do this - threshold is set and you nudge the level towards it with the input gain on the real thing and most emulations). If you’re used to a 1176 or a clone, then the FET will take a couple of minutes to get used to, but it’s oh-so flexible and has a lovely wide-open sound. Below the fascia is additional set of controls for knee (how suddenly the compressor works), mix (parallel compression), peak/RMS detection, high/low cut on the side-chain and look-ahead - all completely non-authentic and they should be included on every compressor plugin.
Next-up, the Opto Compressor based on the LA-2A. At least this one looks like an LA-2A, and jumping straight to the chase, it sounds brilliant. The interface here has additional controls for attack and release, mix and a couple of other things, and it also has some “hardware-configuration” options that will be familiar if you’ve seen BIAS. These let you change-out input stage tubes, signal-path capacitor types and light source (for the optical circuit). I’m honestly not sure if these reflect real hardware variants or just some mad-scientist saying 'what if?' but they sound good so I don’t care.
Finally in the compressor suite is the Fairchild-alike Tube Compressor. I actually struggled a bit with this one on the first track I used it on, finding that it seemed to drive into distortion just a little too easily. Setting the input gain low helped, as did changing the input tube to a lower gain type, and then dialing the mix back a little from 100% opened the sound nicely. Again, great sound once you get used to it.
The interfaces are all clear and easy to use which is rather useful as the website links for user documentation don’t seem to lead to any user documentation, and each has a limited number of presets - perhaps a few more would be nice to help new-users get to grips with some of the customization options.
I have several of each of these compressor plugin types. Over the years I’ve decided several times on my 'favourite' one of each. Typically these character plugins add their own flavour of non-linearity to the sound, and quite often I’ll add a processor, think it’s done the job, then later in the mix take it off and use something cleaner instead. Some of those older favourites have more immediate punch or thump or whatever, but compared with the Pro Series Compressors they often seem to sound a bit smaller and veiled. The Pro Compressors are a bit like a top-class microphone in that they don’t immediately smack you in the teeth with how great they are, but you do notice after a while that they seem to work remarkably well on just about everything you try them on!
Overall, a great set of plugins with a big sound and character that you can actually use.