Tobias Lindell set himself the difficult task of recreating the sound of his own high-end compressor in a much more affordable box. Did he succeed?
Back at the beginning of 2012 (how time flies...), I reviewed the 17X compressor-limiter, the debut product from Swedish company Lindell Audio. You can read that review at /sos/feb12/articles/lindell-17x.htm, but the abridged version is this: the 17X is an 1176-inspired processor that sounds every bit as great as you'd expect, given the cost-is-no-object approach to component selection. That design approach puts such processors out of reach of project studio mortals, though, and to his credit Tobias Lindell has since tried to tackle that issue with a line of more affordable units, the aim being to maintain the sonic and build quality as far as possible.
One of the earliest fruits of Lindell's cost-cutting labours was the 17XS, which adhered to pretty much the same blueprint as the 17X, in that it was an 1176-ish FET compressor-limiter, offering control over the same parameters, with the same settings. But, while perhaps not cheap, it was at least affordable, rather than purely aspirational. Unfortunately, I never had the chance to check that one out... at least, not before the 17XS Mk II was announced! This unit has just become available, at well under half the asking price of the original 17X. So what do you get — and what don't you get — at this cut-down price?
The visual styling is similar to the 17X. In fact, other than the colour (black, rather than the 17X's military green), and the fact that the four Fender Telecaster switches have been replaced with rotary switches, it looks very similar. Some removable hi-fi style feet have been added to the bottom, so you can stack the units in this series quite elegantly without requiring a rack (the rack ears are built into the front panel, though, and aren't removable). The case itself has a reassuring solidity, courtesy of the thick, brushed-aluminium front panel and case sides. On the rear panel, there's nothing new either: you'll find the standard IEC power inlet (with associated on-off switch), balanced XLR analogue audio input and two more XLRs, one of which is for a fully wet compressed signal output and the other for the 'Mix' output, which is the blend of dry and wet signals you've set using the front-panel control. Although there's no external side-chain input, it's not really necessary for most applications, as there's a built-in side-chain high-pass filter (the control being on the front panel), with settings for off, 100, 200, 300 and 600 Hz. It wouldn't be my first-choice type of compressor for dance-style side-chaining in any case.
There are five settings each for attack (20µs to 800µs) and release (50ms to 0.8sec) time, labelled Slow, M-S, Medium, M-F and Fast on both. The benefit of the switched settings over rotary pots for this is that they're easily and precisely recallable, and the five options offer plenty of versatility. As you'd expect of an 1176-derived design, there are five ratios available: 4:1, 8:1, 12:1 and 20:1, plus a 100:1 setting which is the equivalent of the 1176's famous 'all buttons' mode. The only other controls are fixed high- and low-pass filters for the audio signal (6dB/octave at 80Hz and 12kHz respectively).
I tested the 17XS Mk II by hooking it up to my DAW as an insert processor on a range of different sources, including male vocals, clean and distorted electric guitars, kick drums, acoustic pianos and guitar, and drum loops. Considering the asking price, I was impressed. Actually, I was impressed full stop: if we assume that the target for Mr Lindell was to create an affordable device that got you, say, 95 percent of the way towards the sound of his 17X, his efforts have clearly met with success. (I appreciate that you can't really measure this in percentages, but you get my meaning.)
At low ratios, the sound of gentle gain reduction is suitably smooth on all sources, but using the higher ratios, you can smash or splat the living daylights out of pretty much anything. Of course, by juggling the input and output levels, and experimenting with the attack and release times, you can produce pretty much any result in between these two extremes quite quickly. The elusive final five percent I'd put down to a combination of factors, such as the less expensive balancing transformers, meaning that the low-end sound — while perfectly pleasant — perhaps lacks the tiniest bit of thickness by comparison. But when describing things like this, I'm bearing in mind that the 17X set the sonic bar rather high in the first place — and I doubt anyone would notice a difference unless they had the two units working side by side.
When it comes to recording and mixing, time is a very precious resource, and the convenience of the 17X made it appeal to me every bit as much as the sonics. Particularly useful to me was the combination of the side-chain filter and the wet/dry mix control, and those controls are just as effective on the 17XS MkII. By filtering low frequencies out of the side-chain, for example, you can prevent the kick drum triggering excessive gain reduction on a drum loop, even when you're crushing it half to death. A simple twist of the Comp/Mix knob would then enable you to back off the effect a little. Controls such as this make achieving the desired results speedy and effortless — leaving you to get on with the more important business of using your ears and making critical judgements.
As I did in the case of its older and more expensive sibling, I'd still prefer it if two units could be stereo linkable, or at least if they could share the same side-chain signal. In such a configuration, this compressor would excel on a rock drum bus. Nevertheless, the small shifts in stereo image resulting from using dual mono compressors won't bother everyone — and if they bother you, you can always try hooking up two units in an M/S configuration. It might also be nice to see a high-impedance instrument input on the front panel for bass/guitar DI, just to add another string to this processor's bow... But note that these all are wish-list features rather than real criticisms; they'd certainly have no impact on any purchase decision.
The 17XS MkII has been really well conceived. It isn't trying too hard to be an 1176, even if it is based on that design. It's certainly capable of being used for all the same applications, but there are useful additions such as the side-chain filters and blend control. What's more, the 17XS circuitry and controls (if not all components) have come straight out of Lindell's own tried-and-tested design. It's no surprise that it gets very close to the sound of its much more expensive older sibling, then — or that it sounds better to my ears than many units costing much more. This may be a serious wad of cash for a typical home-studio type to think of shelling out for a single piece of outboard gear, but if you're considering investing in an outboard compressor, the quality-to-price ratio makes the 17XS MkII a very attractive proposition indeed. For those with slightly more budget to burn, I'd still want to place this on the audition list alongside compressors costing half as much again. Highly recommended.
Given that the price brings this compressor within reach of even home-studio owners — even if it's worthy of gracing professional facilities — you have to consider the 17XS MkII alongside both hardware and software implementations of the same FET compressor design. On the hardware side, there are plenty of 1176-alikes, but few at this kind of price. The closest in 2U rackmount form is probably the Wes Audio Beta 76, though there are various 500-series modules to consider (including Lindell's own) if you already have a 500-series chassis.
To my ears, you can't yet get a sound this good from a plug-in. The modelling is certainly getting better and there are plenty of great, very usable plug-ins, but they're not there yet — and I say this having used a few of them alongside the 17XS in my test sessions, including the recent models from Universal Audio, the Waves CLA76 and Softube's FET Compressor. The last of these comes closest to doing the same thing, featuring, as it does, side-chain filtering and a wet/dry mix control. But one of the joys of using hardware like this is the tactile nature of the interface, which makes setup and adjustment so much quicker.