Can you really achieve 24‑carat Neve‑style compression on a shoestring, or is this a case of fool's gold?
If it's true that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, Rupert Neve should feel very flattered indeed. Many of his classic preamp, EQ and compressor designs from the late '60s and '70s have been copied in recent years by commercial manufacturers and audio‑gear DIY fanatics alike. Some people go to great lengths to ensure authenticity, down to sourcing NOS ('new old stock') parts that are no longer in production, whereas others take the designs and tweak them — whether in order to make technical or subjective improvements, to integrate more readily available components, or to make an acceptable compromise to bring the price within the reach of home‑studio owners.
Golden Age Project (GA) base their current outboard line on classic Neve designs, and reduce costs by carefully choosing cheaper components and assembling everything in China, before quality checking, and if necessary tweaking, in Europe. They should know what they're looking for, as they're also high‑end audio gear distributors in their native Sweden. There are currently only two hardware units in GA's range. When Paul White reviewed the first, the Pre 73 mic preamp, back in SOS March 2009 (/sos/mar09/articles/goldenagepre73.htm), he found that "given the very affordable price of the Pre 73, its performance is astonishingly good... I can't detect any serious corner‑cutting, and the aim of presenting a warm, vintage sound that's musically attractive has been met extremely well.” I agree with that assessment: to my ears, the Pre 73 is nicer than anything similar at anything like a comparable price.
I was understandably keen, then, to review their latest release, the Comp 54 mono compressor. Like the Pre 73, the design follows that of a classic Neve unit very closely. This time it's the 2254 compressor/limiter, one of a family of similar processors (including the 33609 stereo compressor/limiter) that use a diode bridge as the gain-control element. If you want to know more about the 2254, I'd recommend reading Hugh Robjohns' review of the Neve 2254R in SOS August 2009, at /sos/aug09/articles/neve2254r.htm. GA's Pre 73 gave us just the preamp, but not the EQ, from the Neve 1073; in a parallel move, the Comp 54 gives us the compressor from the 2254, but not the limiter circuit.
The interior, as you can see from the photo above right , is neat and tidy. Everything's laid out on three circuit boards: one for the power supply and rear-panel connectors, one for the compressor itself, and one mounted vertically, which hosts the controls. Good-quality components are used, and despite the savings in labour costs through manufacturing in China, there are few obvious cut corners: the switches seem solid, and I could see no surface-mount components, for example, and no ICs in the audio path. The whole thing is mounted in an unfussy, burgundy‑painted, half‑rack, metal box, and comes with an external 'line-lump' AC power supply.
The cost will have been brought down considerably by using cheaper audio transformers than are present in the original, and by leaving out the limiter (the side-chain for which included yet another expensive transformer!). GA have used plain, no‑brand transformer models, and given that some people ascribe the classic Neve sound at least in part to the choice of transformers, the nature of the sonic coloration that the Comp 54 imparts will probably be different, albeit subtly.
Cleverly, however, Golden Age have made it possible for users to upgrade all three of the Comp 54's audio transformers. The original 2254 employed transformers made by Marinair, who have long since ceased trading, and the original transformers command a high price on the second‑hand market. Another British manufacturer, Carnhill, make a reproduction model that's used in many of the DIY 2254‑clone builds I've seen photo‑documented on forums. I'll leave the tone geeks to debate the relative merits of the Marinair and Carnhill models, but for those who want to chase 'perfection', there are two spare sockets on the main circuit board for the first two transformers, into which you can place Carnhill models. As I was completing my review, Golden Age made available a Carnhill transformer upgrade kit for both the Comp 54 and Pre 73. It looks as though fitting this will be a simple case of unplugging and replugging a few cables (there's no soldering required!) and you're done.
There are detented knobs for threshold, ratio, attack, release and a high‑pass filter for the compressor's side‑chain. The release times are augmented by a second auto-release mode that didn't appear on the original, but perhaps a more useful addition is the side-chain filter, which can be set to off, 50Hz, 100Hz or (presumably for de-essing) 7kHz.
Between the filter control and the non‑detented gain control on the far right is a VU meter, which can be switched to display the output level or the amount of gain reduction. Other buttons account for power on/off and linking of the detection circuits of two Comp 54s for stereo operation. In/Out allows you to bypass the compression facility while passing signal through the rest of the circuitry, and there's also a true bypass.
On the rear, the inputs and outputs are presented both on balanced XLR and quarter-inch jack, while there's another jack for linking two Comp 54s, and a power inlet for the supplied 24V AC supply. With such a small case, there are good reasons for keeping the power supply external, but three GA products in my rack means three power supplies and an unsightly weave of cables. It would be nice at least to be able to drive a stereo pair off a single supply, and correspondence with GA suggests this option may appear in the future.
Speaking of stereo operation, Golden Age sent me a pair of Comp 54s, along with a 'Unite' rack kit, which can accommodate any two of their units (the Pre 73, Comp 54 or a forthcoming EQ module — and probably more...). Mounting them was easy: the screws were supplied and it only took a moment to secure the devices to the rack shelf and side‑braces, both of which are painted in the same burgundy-brown livery as the Comp 54 and Pre 73. If I have one minor criticism, it's that there's a small gap between the two units, into which dust will no doubt creep over time. This would not inhibit the sonic performance, but it would certainly look nicer if they were flush or if a plate masked the gap.
Enough of the construction: what does the Comp 54 sound like? To answer that question, I ran several different mono and stereo sources out of my DAW and through the two Comp 54s. I also used it with GA's Pre 73 to track some vocals. Alas, I didn't have the luxury of a real 2254 to hand, but to check that it offered roughly the right sort of compression characteristics, I used the Neve‑sanctioned 33609 plug‑in model on the Universal Audio UAD platform as a reference point.
The first thing to say is that the sound was always silky-smooth but slightly coloured, in a nice way. The attack and release settings behaved in much the same way as those of the plug‑in, and although I needed to set the thresholds differently, the behaviour at different ratios seemed close. Of course, it's perfectly possible for plug‑ins to model compression characteristics, but what tends to make hardware gear sound different from software (and hopefully, for the manufacturers, worth buying) is all the subtle but complex colorations that result from passing audio through real analogue circuitry, and through audio transformers in particular.
So how did the Comp 54 perform in this 'analogue warmth' role? Actually, it did very well indeed. With the compression bypassed, I balanced the level of the signal sent to the Comp 54 with the output level to achieve saturation of the stock transformers without any overall gain in level. I didn't have Carnhill models fitted, but the sound was pleasingly familiar — smooth but warm, thick and distinctly analogue — and worked really well, particularly on electric guitar tracks and on the drum bus for rock/pop/blues material (a role in which I often use the UA 33609).
The results I achieved were very good. Even with 'cheap' transformers such as these, as long as they're well enough made, there's something about the sound that I don't feel has quite been captured accurately in any software I've used — to the extent that I slightly preferred the GA Comp 54 in this role to the UA 33609. Of course, these things are quite subtle in the context of a mix (more subtle than, say, differences due to mic selection or placement), but in an exposed vocal recording in a minimal arrangement, they could be quite noticeable. That said, the Pre 73 already coloured the vocals nicely, so I found that I wanted rather less of this effect from the Comp 54 in that application.
The stereo linking, in practice, worked fine. It was a simple matter of plugging in the (not supplied) jack cable and engaging the Link control on the front. It's a shame that this function doesn't enable you to match the output gains of the two units precisely — only the threshold and time constants are linked, so you have to set levels by ear. To do so, though, isn't difficult, and implementing more complex linking would probably have been prohibitively costly.
Having a stereo pair for testing also enabled me to check for (in)consistency between the two units. As you'd expect at this price, although the two devices were built to the same specification, they weren't perfectly matched. Indeed, on one, the detented threshold control pointed to the gaps between the legend markings, whereas on the other it pointed directly at the dots. GA say that this is a known issue on the first batch and will be addressed. GA also told me that on this initial batch, the meter reading for output level was not trimmed well enough in the lower range. However, they are publishing instructions on their web site to correct this using the two meter trimmers inside the unit. At the end of the day, though, both units sounded alike, and caused no audible problems when used on stereo material.
As you can probably tell, despite a couple of compromises that keep the price down and enable GA to fit the electronics into a half‑rack box, the Comp 54 impressed me a great deal.
Firstly, although in these days of 24‑bit recording, compression while tracking is no longer strictly necessary (the noise floor in 24‑bit digital audio is so low that you can afford to leave lots of headroom) a good‑sounding compressor like this can still make sense if you plan on using it to add coloration. There are some very affordable clean‑sounding hardware compressors for even the tightest of budgets, but this is a nicer 'character' compressor than any other I've heard at this price point. Secondly, the upgrade kit should get you quite close to the sound of the 2254 — although I didn't have the opportunity to test that in practice, and was happy with the factory setup. Thirdly, the side-chain filter is a very useful addition. Finally, having previously arrived at the conclusion that in 2011 a hardware compressor at this sort of price could no longer be a match for a decent analogue-modelling plug-in, Golden Age (with more than a wee bit of inspiration from Rupert Neve) have forced me to reconsider that opinion. To compare hardware with software is like comparing an elephant with a porcupine. They're different creatures: hardware is usually easier to use while tracking, and is more hands‑on and immediate, whereas plug‑ins offer recall, stereo operation, automation and multiple instances. In my studio, there's still a place for both, and if you're looking for a nice outboard compressor to fit a project-studio budget, the Comp 54 is a bit of a no-brainer choice.
As I've mentioned in the main body of this review, various transparent‑sounding hardware compressors, from the likes of the affordably priced FMR RNC to models by Audient, are available, but they're not really comparable. AMS Neve produce the 2254R, which also includes the limiter circuit, and Chandler make a high‑end take on the 2254. I've not tried anything in the same price bracket as the Comp 54 that offers the same quality and colour, though for an alternative flavour, you could try compressors by Joe Meek, TF Pro and TL Audio.