This keenly-priced device offers a bit more control than most valve compressors.
I don’t need much persuading to review a nice‑looking valve compressor — I invariably end up liking such things a lot. But good examples can have very hefty price tags and it’s almost painful to have to return them after only a few weeks of play, while I find myself contemplating another reckless financial decision! The more accessible price tag of Gainlab Audio’s Dictator, then, was intriguing but it wasn’t just the price that caught my attention: it ticked all the boxes from a feature point of view too.
Named after their studio in Budapest, Gainlab started out repairing and modifying their own studio’s equipment, but almost inevitably this work led to them developing their own designs. The Dictator, reviewed here, is one of their first two releases, the other being a valve EQ. It is a stereo compressor based around traditional valve technology but, while Gainlab say that its sound is inspired by heavyweight compressors such as the Fairchild 660 and The Gates STA level, it offers some more modern features and controls too.
With its pale‑grey military styling, I like the look of the Dictator a great deal: it’s both aesthetically tasteful and nicely laid out in an ergonomic sense. It’s very much designed with stereo rather than dual mono applications in mind, since both channels share the same control set. That said, there is the option for unlinking the left and right channels, allowing each channel to compress independently of the other according to what signal is going through it, so you could use it on mono sources too.
The Dictator is relatively rich in features for this style of compressor. The large threshold control is front and centre, and it’s the perfect size and weight for when you want to lean over and give it a little nudge mid‑session. There are also controls for both input and output gain, stepped in 2dB increments. Obviously, these can have a role to play in general gain‑staging, but they also influence the character you can extract from the electronics — more on that below. There are deceptively simple options for attack and release, as well as two different compressor settings: Low Comp, which offers the ‘gentle’ style of gain reduction you might expect from this kind of tool, and High Comp, which is more aggressive. You can also switch off the compression. Lastly, there’s a low‑frequency side‑chain filter, with five options ranging from 22 to 200 Hz, as well as Off.
My thoughts turn first to using stereo devices on the mix bus and on stereo subgroups, and for my first experiments with the Dictator I tried it as a stereo mix‑bus compressor. Partly that’s because when it arrived, I had to quickly run off some rough mixes for a client, and there was no pressure on me to deliver a finished, recallable, result. In use, both the input and output stages seem to have an effect on how much ‘colour’ is imparted, and it took me a few minutes to get a feel for how hard to drive them in this role — initially, I was hearing a bit too much furry‑sounding saturation for my taste but, once I’d become more familiar with how it behaved, the Dictator became very usable. In fact, once I’d backed things off a bit I was really impressed by the fine degree of control I had over the tonality, even when a generous amount of gain reduction was being displayed on the VU meters. I’d typically go for a slow attack and fast release for a bus compressor, but with the Dictator I found that I liked the attack a bit faster — something made possible by the low‑pass side‑chain filter, which allows you more control than you might expect from this style of compressor.
In the High mode, things immediately become more ‘grabby’, and I was able to coax an aggressive, almost VCA‑style compression from the Dictator when using it on a stereo drum bus. The low‑frequency side‑chain filter was again really handy here, and impressive. With the option of just rolling off the sub‑range frequencies below 40Hz or going right up to 200Hz there’s plenty to play with, and you can quickly learn just how much influence the low frequency of a source is having on the gain reduction being applied. For drum or mix‑bus use, I usually found myself setting this at either 80 or 130 Hz, which is enough to prevent the weight of the kick drum and bass parts triggering too much gain reduction on the rest of the mix.
I was really impressed by the fine degree of control I had over the tonality, even when a generous amount of gain reduction was being displayed.
Of course, the Dictator is not restricted to use on buses, and I found plenty of applications for it on a tracking session. For instance, I tried it inserted on my drum overhead channels, with only the faintest amount of gain reduction being applied, and it added a lovely sense of solidity to the drums. It also performed superbly when I used it to help capture the sound of my upright piano on the same session. Despite being a two‑channel compressor you will always be limited by the shared controls, but there’s nothing to stop you from using one side as a mono compressor. It sounded fantastic to me both on vocals and bass guitar, but not only because it offered the smooth, almost effortless sort of compression you’d expect of a valve device: in these roles, the option to use the input and output knobs to add a nicely controlled dash of saturation is welcome.
As you can probably tell, I enjoyed my time in the Dictator’s company a great deal. A modern studio or home recording setup might only contain a few pieces of hardware these days and, with the quality of digital processing getting ever better, our outboard investments need to offer something special if they’re to earn their keep. The Dictator does. It sounds every bit as good as the other valve compressors that I own (and have reviewed for SOS), which are considerably more expensive, but it also offers a flexible, well‑thought‑out, well‑executed set of controls and, of course, it’s a stereo device. In fact, it’s been a while since I’ve looked at a piece of gear that, relative to its main competition, offers as much value as the Dictator, and I highly recommend trying one out.
- Sounds great.
- Relatively, very good value.
- Very usable side‑chain filter.
The Dictator is a highly impressive early release from Hungary’s Gainlab Audio and offers a convincing take on a classic style of valve compression along with a well‑thought‑out set of features.