Paul White studio tests the Joe Meek Stereo Compressor to find out whether nostalgia really is what it used to be...
Before his tragic death three decades ago, Joe Meek had a profound impact on the way music was recorded and produced in the UK. Nearly everyone remembers Joe for the instrumental record 'Telstar', which was a hit in the early 1960s, but he was also a technical innovator, and used to build his own studio gear in the bedroom of his home in Holloway Road, London. If you read the review on the Joe Meek Voice Channel in the September '95 issue of SOS, you'll know that some of Joe's old compressor designs have been brought up to date by engineer Ted Fletcher, who worked with Joe in the '60s.
The model reviewed here is based on Joe's classic photocell compressor design, but updated using modern low‑noise components, and a new feedback circuit around the photocell and lamp to speed up the compressor's response time. As explained in the Voice Channel review, the original compressor design was rather unstable and apparently a bit of a pig to set up, so Ted has modified the control system to make the unit more predictable in operation.
All compressors create audible side‑effects to a greater or lesser extent, and in a creative context, generous helpings of benign side‑effects are what differentiate one compressor from another. The photocell design in the Joe Meek compressor affects the attack characteristics of transient sounds and vocals, making them seem more punchy than more technically 'correct' compressor circuits, yet the design also manages to retain the openness and transparency of the original sound, even when relatively high levels of compression are being used. This attribute means that the compressor can be used to add weight to complete mixes as well as to individual tracks.
The Stereo Compressor is packaged as a conventional 2U rackmount unit, and all the cosmetic effort has gone into the chamfered front panel, with its refreshingly simple layout and chunky black knobs. The inputs and outputs are provided on both TRS jacks and XLRs, and are electronically balanced using Ted's own 'Superbal' system, which was first published in Wireless World nearly 20 years ago. The balanced outputs are 'floating', which means that if you ground one side to unbalance the signal, you don't lose half your signal level or compromise the signal quality. The maximum output level is 28dBu, which means that the unit is optimised for the levels found at most console insert points. Mains power comes in via the usual IEC mains lead, but there's no access to the compressor's side‑chain and, strangely enough, no power switch.
The Joe Meek compressor uses a type of soft‑knee compression, so there are no hard and fast ratio numbers to worry about. Instead, the input Gain control is followed by a 4‑position Slope switch, where position 1 equates to a fairly gentle style of compression, and position 4 is the most aggressive.
A suitably 'yellowed' moving‑coil meter monitors the gain reduction taking place, while the Compression control adds gain to the side‑chain circuitry, effectively adjusting the threshold value above which compression takes place. This control works on the basis that the higher the setting, the lower the threshold, and the more the signal is compressed.
Anyone who has worked with compressors will know that attack and release times make a considerable difference to the way the compressor sounds, and the Stereo Compressor has separate controls for both attack and release times, both calibrated from Fast to Slow, but with no actual time values printed on the dial, though the attack range is specified as from around 1.5mS to 10mS. At very fast attack settings, the photocell control circuitry overshoots, which means that there's a slight dip in level immediately after the attack, which is particularly evident if the maximum ratio setting (Slope 4) is selected. This kind of creative pumping adds drive and power to both vocals and more percussive sounds, and is probably the main reason this compressor sounds the way it does. Both channels are permanently linked for stereo operation and a single In/Out button applies a hard bypass, linking the input directly to the output. When the compressor is active, a blue LED shows; when it is inactive, a red LED lights.
The manual warns that the In/Out button might cause a click in some systems, particularly where the compressor is being used unbalanced (and most budget desks have unbalanced insert points), but as you're unlikely to switch the compressor in and out during a mix, this isn't really a problem.
The fixed stereo linking system means that if you want to use mono compression, you can use one side of the compressor only, but what you can't do is use both sides at once for independent processing of two mono signals — rather a pity, in my view.
Like the Voice Channel, which is based on essentially the same compressor circuit, the Joe Meek Stereo Compressor has a very distinctive sound when large amounts of gain reduction are applied with high Slope settings. It's always hard to describe exactly what a compressor sounds like, but on vocals, you notice an increase in presence and richness, while excessive peaks and variation are brought under control in the usual way. The nearest commercial sound I can think of to compare this to is the well‑known Phil Collins vocal sound where Phil uses some obscure old compressor to really hammer his voice. In purely aesthetic terms, this type of compression makes the voice sound more intimate and more confident, and although rather different to the much‑vaunted valve sound, it does tend to lean in the same direction.
Due to the very simple control layout, the Stereo Compressor is very easy to use, although the lack of an Output Makeup Gain control means that you have to juggle the settings of the Input Gain and the Compression controls to achieve the desired output level. This isn't a problem, but what I do find very frustrating is that you can't switch the Gain Reduction meter to read the output level, which you can do on just about every other compressor on the planet — including the Joe Meek Voice Channel! Even a +4dB warning LED would have been useful. As it stands, the most practical way to work seems to be to operate the In/Out switch while setting up the controls, so that the peak compressed levels are subjectively similar to the bypass levels.
The fixed stereo format is obviously a limitation, as is the fact that you can't insert an equaliser into the side‑chain for de‑essing (although this is less of a problem). I can understand the lack of side‑chain access on the basis that you would probably always want to use this compressor to create its own characteristic sounds, and not as a general‑purpose gain reduction tool, but given the premium price of the Stereo Compressor, I don't think two sets of channel controls and a link switch would have been too much to ask for.
Despite its relatively high cost, this compressor has a unique and very commercial sound which will no doubt help prospective purchasers justify the asking price. On rock and pop vocals it works magnificently, but it can also be used to great effect on sound sources such as acoustic guitar, bass guitar, electric guitar, percussion, and complete mixes or submixes. I made a DI'd fretless bass guitar recording (via an active DI box), and used the Stereo Compressor with the Slope control set to 3, which gave a very warm, tight sound that was instantly usable with little or no EQ.
Any criticisms are relatively minor: for me, the shortcoming that has the most effect on day‑to‑day operation is the lack of output level monitoring. At the end of the day, it all comes down to what this compressor can do for you, and how much you're prepared to spend. If you like the effect of heavy compression, the Joe Meek Stereo Compressor has to be one of the more 'characterful' units around. It's a bit like choosing a large‑diaphragm capacitor mic, really — you have to pick one that suits what you do, and you can't make the choice based on spec sheets alone.
So far, the reaction to the Joe Meek range seems to have been very good, with Ted Fletcher working very hard to keep up with demand, but I would always recommend you hire products like this for a day or so to try out on a variety of your own sounds before you decide whether or not to buy. Personally, I liked the sound of the Joe Meek box very much. It's certainly not a compressor you buy for routine gain control jobs — it's most definitely an effect.
Like the other Joe Meek units, the Voice Channel and the new Pro Channel, the Stereo Compressor is seriously green. Legend has it that the original Ted Fletcher prototype was hand‑sprayed using the only can of car paint that happened to be available, and the response at its first showing was so positive that Ted decided to stick with it. Now the green panels are sprayed by a car specialist, and hand‑polished to give the kind of finish normally associated with quality cars.
- Maximum Gain 20dB
- System Noise Typically better than ‑94dBu 20Hz to 20kHz
- Distortion within 0.004% from 100Hz to 10kHz except at low frequencies, where the distortion will (quite properly) increase if fast release times are used.
- Freq Response Nominally flat from 5Hz to 30kHz
- Crosstalk Better than ‑60dB at 10kHz
- Input Impedance 20kΩ
- Output Impedance 100Ω
- Easy to set up.
- Wonderful, larger‑than‑life sound.
- No output level metering.
- Linked stereo operation only.
The Joe Meek Stereo Compressor has a powerful, compelling sound that works particularly well on vocals and electric instruments.