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Alice 538R

Stereo Optical Compressor By Matt Houghton
Published November 2023

Alice 538R

If you’re a fan of Ted Fletcher’s classic optical compressor designs, this one should not disappoint.

I’ve always had a soft spot for Ted Fletcher’s optical compressors. His JoeMeek SC2 became something of a classic ‘character’ compressor for drums, of course, though it deserves praise for more than that one ‘trick’. Most of Ted’s compressor designs over the years have been based to some extent on the same circuit — if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it — and I’ve owned and used quite a few of his compressors and channel strips. I’ve enjoyed them all: classy, yet full of character, and with a little less hiss in the later models than the earliest. So when he sent me his latest creation, the Alice 538R stereo optical compressor, I was very happy to take a look.


The 1U 538R isn’t something you’ll overlook nestling amongst the other gear in your 19‑inch rack: the chassis, which extends 15cm (six inches) behind the rack ears, is painted a distinctive... I’m not quite sure. I could call it ‘muted magenta’, maybe or ‘heather meets lilac’, but certainly it seems a bit more vibrant in the flesh than most images I’ve seen suggest. With the white legends, the warm glow of the meters and the purple power LED, it all comes together pretty nicely.

On the front panel, to the right of a power‑present LED, two moving‑coil meters have a small toggle switch between indicating the left and right channel output levels or the summed stereo output (left) and gain reduction (right). Another toggle instructs the compressor to react to the internal or external side‑chain signal.

The main controls comprise two clusters of knobs, which flank a Char (character) toggle, of which more later. To the right of the switch, the Input knob (marked 1‑10) is a pot to set the level before it hits the compression circuit. Between this and the meters, it’s very easy to set a signal level so that it’s in the right ballpark for compression. The Width control appears to be an M‑S balance pot, and ranges from mono (fully anticlockwise) to 150 percent (fully clockwise), with the balance unaffected at 12 o’clock (detented). The third knob in this trio (again marked 0‑10) sets the Output level. It comes after the meters in the signal path, and is there to set an appropriate level to feed the next device in your chain.

To the left of the switch are four knobs, all continuous pots. Comp sets the amount of compression, by raising the signal going into the compression circuit. Attack runs from Slow (fully anticlockwise) to Fast (clockwise), while Release has the fastest time fully anticlockwise, and Ratio is marked 1.2:1 (very subtle) to 10:1 (effectively limiting). The Char switch toggles between Norm and Dark positions, but the manual’s a little coy about what’s actually happening: a single mention informs us that this “artistically alters the release timing profile”. Finally, a blue On (bypass) button, which some may find a touch too...

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