Behringer have redesigned their popular Composer Pro, adding tube simulation, de-essing and dynamic enhancement.
The original 1U Behringer Composer dual-channel compressor found its way into innumerable home studios, but the Pro XL version heralds a complete redesign, bringing together an expander, a compressor, a de-esser and a peak limiter, plus a switchable enhancer and tube simulation.
Both channels of the Composer Pro XL are identical and may be used linked as a stereo pair or as independent mono processors, the first processing stage being an expander/gate. This is switchable between expander and gate mode and, other than a threshold control, has only a switch for choosing two release time settings. To make the simple controls even simpler, the expander circuit uses Behringer's Interactive Ratio Control system, which simply means the expansion ratio varies depending on the program material, the outcome being that the gain reduction isn't so fierce on low-level sounds. A couple of LEDs show whether the expander/gate is open or closed.
The compressor is a variable-ratio type with conventional Threshold, Ratio, Attack, Release and Output (make-up gain) controls, but, as you might expect, extra buttons have been added to increase its flexibility, not least an Auto button that disables the manual Attack/Release controls and instead dynamically alters the values according to the programme material's dynamics. Behringer's Interactive Knee Adaptation can be switched in to combine the characteristics of hard- and soft-knee compression, while the Lo Contour button places a high-pass filter in the side-chain to prevent low frequencies from dominating the compression process. A Tube button simulates tube warmth, presumably by using a non-linear circuit to create soft saturation effects, and there's also the Enhancer button, which adds high-frequency harmonics to counter any dulling effects when compression is taking place. Unlike normal enhancers, this one tracks the gain reduction to add more enhancement during times of heavy compression.
Further switches are provided to monitor the compressor side-chain and to switch to an external side-chain input signal. The compressor's level meter may be switched to monitor the compressor section's input or output, while a separate Gain Reduction meter is provided, along with a three-LED meter above the threshold control to show where the input signal is in relation to the threshold. This meter also registers any gain reduction due to limiter operation. Unlike the expander, which has an Off position on the threshold control, the compressor has a bypass button, as does the de-esser that follows it.
The de-esser uses what Behringer call their Voice Adaptive Design, though the description in the manual is somewhat vague when it comes to explaining exactly which range of frequencies is attenuated. Certainly the controls are simple, with one knob to set the level of attenuation when de-essing is taking place and a button to adjust the processing for male or female voice types — this provides two preset filter options for sibilance detection. A four-LED meter shows how much de-essing is being applied.
That leaves the peak limiter, which has only a single threshold control adjustable from 0dB to 20dB, with an 'Off' setting in its far clockwise position. Fast peaks are handled by a clipper circuit, which relies on the fact that brief periods of clipping tend to be inaudible. If the clipping persists for more than 20ms, then the limiter reduces the overall signal gain to avoid distortion and allows it to rise back to normal over a period of around one second. While this is fine for live work, 20ms of clipping is somewhat excessive for studio use where 1ms interludes of clipping are considered to be about the limit. Nevertheless, if the limiter is used intelligently, so that only occasional peaks are clipped, the audible side effects should be negligible. A Limit LED is fitted to show when the limiter is working. A single button in the centre of the unit links both channels for stereo operation, in which case the rotary controls of the right-hand channel function as masters. Note, though, that many of the button control functions remain independent — those still active remain illuminated while those under central control are not.
Though priced close to the budget end of the market, the mains-powered Composer Pro XL appears to be well-designed and sturdily built, with an all-metal chassis, metal jack sockets and heavy-duty rack ears. It has generous metering with plenty of resolution and the panel layout is tidy and efficient, although some of the lettering is quite small, which may make it difficult to read in live situations with low lighting.
Balanced inputs and outputs are fitted, on both jack and XLR connectors, along with switches that allow the operating level to be matched to -10dBV or +4dBu systems. Each channel also has Side-chain Send and Return jacks allowing equalisers to be inserted into the side-chain signal path or the compressor to be triggered from an external signal to create ducking effects, for example.
I tested the Composer Pro XL both with complex mixes and with vocals. On mixes the compressor works fairly benignly, with the Auto mode making light work of changing dynamics. There's little dulling of transients during normal use, and where heavier compression is being used, the enhancer is effective in maintaining an even top end. The Tube emulation is also nicely subtle and seems to have a gentle thickening effect, as well as enhancing the presence part of the audio spectrum. When the limiter is triggered, it too sounds reassuringly transparent, unless severely provoked, and when used as a safety device, rather than as a means of squeezing extra dynamic range out of a signal, you wouldn't know it was acting at all.
I never like to use gates or expanders when recording, because of the risk of messing up a good take, but they are useful when mixing, especially with noisy sources such as electric guitars or antique synths. The expander is far more forgiving than the gate, as is to be expected, and it seems to come in fairly progressively, which helps avoid the starts of sounds getting clipped or decays terminating too abruptly. You still have to take reasonable care setting it up, but in most instances it works well. Gates are less useful on complete mixes, as they can only remove noise during pauses, but they may still be useful for cleaning up starts and ends where you don't have access to computer editing.
That leaves the de-esser, which seems only to affect the higher reaches of sibilance, leaving natural 'S' and 'T' sounds largely unchanged. Even when the meter is showing fairly heavy de-essing, there's very little timbral change, so the circuit is obviously more advanced than full-band gain reduction. In practical tests, it wasn't as effective as the de-esser on my SPL Channel One (admittedly far more expensive), but it was able to cope with most routine jobs with hardly any of that annoying 'lispiness' that many de-essers impose.
The Composer Pro XL is a significant step up from the original Composer and offers far more features than you might expect from such a low-cost unit. All its sections turn in a better-than-average performance, and the unit has no real vices, though there's nothing particularly exciting about the sound of the compressor either. This probably isn't the compressor to buy if you want to add vintage character, though the tube simulation works well enough, but as a general-purpose workhorse it does a great job at an almost unbelievably low UK price. In addition to working well, the Composer Pro XL is nicely styled, ruggedly built and has the benefit of comprehensive I/O connectivity, including side-chain access. Whether for live or studio applications, you can't knock it at the price.