Paul White finds out about compression by numbers.
Compressors are an integral part of studio recording, but some users are still not entirely confident about setting them up, especially when it comes to selecting the best ratio, attack and release times for specific material. PreSonus have their own solution to this problem in the Blue Max compressor: it not only includes all the standard compressor controls, but also a rotary switch that selects from 15 presets designed to suit specific source material. It's an idea that's been bandied about by more than one manufacturer, but this is the first budget product I've seen that has put the plan into practice.
The Blue Max is a half‑width processor, and that in itself will alienate some users, but at least it does run from the mains, not one of those infuriating external PSUs. Rear‑panel switching can be used to optimise the operating level for ‑10dBV or +10dBu, and there's a side‑chain insert for de‑essing. Signal connection is via unbalanced jack, which is ideal for most consoles (as insert points tend to be unbalanced on project studio equipment). And why is the unit so small? Because the Blue Max is designed as a stereo compressor, so all the controls affect both channels.
Ranged across the front panel are six knobs, the first of which is the Presets rotary switch, offering 15 presets plus manual operation. Rather than a conventional Threshold control, the compressor uses a variable Input control, which has enough range to accommodate DI'd guitars and basses, though some may feel that the 100kΩ input impedance is a little on the low side for DI'ing guitars. Ratio goes from 1:1 up to a steep 20:1, and Attack is variable from 0.01‑100ms; Release covers 10‑500ms, and there's an Output gain control with up to 20dB of gain in hand. One button switches the compressor in or out, while another switches the leftmost 8‑segment meter from input to output. A second 8‑segment LED meter monitors gain reduction up to a maximum of 28dB.
When a preset is selected, only the Input and Output gain controls are active, and the degree of compression is determined by the Input setting. Everything else is looked after by the preset. There are three vocal presets: Soft, Medium, and Screamer (for loud vocalists who need firm control). For percussion, there's Snare/Kick, designed to emphasise the attack of the sound, and L/R overhead. For fretted instruments, there are settings for Electric Bass, Acoustic Guitar and Electric Guitar, the last two again emphasising the attack of the instrument. The keyboards section includes a setting for keeping pianos even and a fast setting for synth stabs. A third setting, Orchestral, is designed to decrease the dynamic range of string and pad parts.
For handling stereo mixes, you have Stereo Limiter, which is a simple hard limiter, and Contour, a gentler setting useful for fattening up mixes. The last group of settings is for creating special effects: Squeeze is suggested for electric guitar when you want that 'glassy' sound; Pump does just what it says on the tin — it's great for big drum sounds.
Because the Blue Max has no Threshold control, the amount of compression has to be set by increasing the Input gain control until the desired amount of compression is showing on the gain reduction meter. For mono use, only a single channel can be used, as the side‑chain always operates in a linked mode; if you want to set your own compression parameters, the Preset switch must be set to the Manual position. In general, everything works as expected, but the lack of a marker line down the side of the Preset switch had me sighting down the knob every time I changed settings. This really is thoughtless design — unless the box is set up at eye level, you're almost bound to select the wrong position.
The quality of compression treads a nice line between transparency and the use of compression as an effect, but if you want pumping, you can get it, as the Pump preset aptly demonstrates. There's nothing overwhelmingly clever about the compression, but the choice of preset values is, on the whole, good, and should really help out those who don't feel entirely at home juggling their own compressor parameters. You still have to use the Input control to determine the amount of compression, but that much can be done by ear. I was also pleased to see that the Output control doesn't affect the bypass level, so you can get your treated and untreated sounds at the same level for comparison.
This is a relatively inexpensive compressor, but it performs well, and the presets really do work well for their designated applications. What's more, the manual tells you what the settings are, so you can learn a lot about what's going on. The only poor design point is the lack of a marker line down the side of the Preset switch knob, and of course the inherent limitation of a stereo compressor is that you can't use it as two mono units. Whether or not you like the half‑width format is a personal decision, but, with the Blue Max, PreSonus have proved that the concept of preset compression settings is valid, and that it doesn't have to cost a lot. If you're looking for an easy life, this might be your ideal compressor.
- Easy to use.
- The presets seem well chosen.
- Mains power.
- Dedicated stereo configuration means you can only use one channel of the the unit for mono use.
- Preset knob not clearly marked.
- Half‑width format isn't popular with everyone.
A well‑behaved, nicely designed compressor which provides presets for most popular applications as well as full manual control.