Samson's latest dynamics processors deliver quality sound and features that belie their affordable price tag.
The cut‑throat market in analogue signal processing has resulted in some astounding bargains for the home studio owner wanting better‑than‑average signal processing quality at a significantly less‑than‑average price, but now Samson have joined the fray and seem determined to push prices even lower. Their two S•Com compressors are elegantly constructed in 1U rack cases with blue anodized front‑panel extrusions and illuminated buttons. Servo balancing is used on the quarter‑inch input and output jacks, doubled up on regular XLRs, enabling both balanced and unbalanced connections to be used with switchable ‑10dBV or +4dBu operating levels. Power is via an IEC mains connector rather than the customary budget wall‑wart, and there's side‑chain access plus stereo link switching, just as on more expensive units.
Both units feature comprehensive metering, plus an in‑built expander/gate, but, in addition to that, the S•Com has a single‑knob enhancer circuit while the S•Com Plus features both de‑essing and an independent peak limiter.
The compression circuity in both models is based on the latest generation of low‑cost, high‑performance VCAs, and incorporates Smart Knee Detection (SKD), which automatically changes the compression curve from soft knee to hard knee depending on the level of the input signal. A switchable automatic attack and release adjustment is provided in the form of the Automatic Envelope Generator (AEG), and the S•Com model includes a Spectra circuit that can be switched in to help attenuate sibilant high/mid‑range frequencies when compressing vocals.
Ergonomically, although the panels are quite busy, the compact, 41‑detent knobs are reasonably spaced, and the integral status LEDs in the buttons economise on panel space. Separate LED meters show the amount of gain reduction plus the input/output level (switchable) while the S•Com Plus also has a meter to show the amount of de‑essing taking place.
The S•Com is the simpler of the two models, and its signal path starts with a switchable gate/expander which can have a fast or slow release time. A pair of LEDs indicate whether the gate is open or closed.
Immediately following the gate is the compressor section, which is almost identical to that of the S•Com Plus except that the S•Com also has a Key Listen button as well as the Key switch that feeds the external key input into the side‑chain circuitry. The usual Threshold, Ratio, Attack, Release and Output (make‑up gain) controls are in evidence, and each channel has its own In/Out switch. When the Spectra switch is engaged, a dynamic high‑frequency anti‑sibilance/harshness contour circuit becomes active when compression is taking place. Heavily compressed vocals can sound harsh and aggressive, and the dynamic filter, which switches in only when compression is happening, can help to take the edge off the sound.
The Auto button automates both the attack and release time constants according to the input signal dynamics while the I/O button switches the level metering between input and output. A Stereo Link button gangs both side‑chain circuits for stereo use — in linked mode, the left‑hand channel controls govern both channels, though the Output controls remain independent.
The Enhance knob brings in a 'high‑frequency recovery' circuit to help compensate for the loss of high end that can occur during compression. This behaves much like a conventional high‑frequency enhancer, though the manual is rather vague on the details of exactly how it works. When the enhancer's control is turned fully anticlockwise, the enhance effect is disabled.
The S•Com Plus dispenses with the variable Enhance control and instead provides a switchable, preset Enhancer function in place of the S•Com's Spectra switch. Spectra isn't needed in this model, because there is a one‑knob de‑esser plus a one‑knob peak limiter. A single LED shows when the limiter is operating, while de‑essing is monitored by a five‑LED meter that shows up to 12dB of gain reduction.
De‑essers vary in their means of operation, the simplest being based around a compressor with a frequency sensitive side‑chain system that causes it to react more to sibilant sounds in the 2‑6kHz range than to the rest of the spectrum. This results in the de‑esser pulling down the gain of the whole signal whenever a sibilant sound triggers the compressor, so non‑sibilant sounds occurring at the same time will also be affected. This can give rise to an unnatural lisping effect, which is why more elaborate methods have been developed.
Perhaps the best form of de‑esser is the one that only causes gain reduction to occur in the band of frequencies where sibilance is a problem, without affecting the rest of the spectrum, but a good compromise is the system that seems to be employed here. Again, a compressor is used to reduce the gain when triggered by sibilant sounds, but the circuitry is arranged so that only high‑frequency cut is applied, leaving low frequencies unaffected. The result isn't quite as transparent as produced by 'sibilance band only' compressors, but it is a lot better than the basic 'squash everything' system. Using the de‑esser is simply a case of increasing the Level setting until the desired amount of de‑essing occurs, while monitoring the high frequency gain reduction via the meter. In practice, the best setting is generally a compromise between the most effective sibilance removal and the introduction of distracting side‑effects. The de‑esser comes after the compressor, but before the Output control, so adjusting the compressor output level doesn't mess up the de‑esser operation.
While compressors can often be set up as limiters by choosing a high ratio setting and a fast attack time, it's often useful to be able to apply limiting after more moderate compression, to take care of the occasional signal peak that sneaks past the compressor. This is particularly important when you're feeding digital systems where clipping is unacceptable. Here the limiter threshold can be set anywhere between 0dB and +18dB, and any signal trying to exceed that threshold is subjected to gain reduction to prevent it from doing so. A single limit LED shows when the limiter is doing its thing and, as a rule, it's best to adjust your levels so that the limiter LED only blinks briefly on signal peaks — unless of course you want to use heavy limiting as a deliberate effect.
Clearly the operation of the compressor section is the most important thing here, as that's the main processing function of both these units. Despite the low cost, I found it to work very well. The compression is tight and positive sounding without significant side‑effects and, although you can make it pump by getting very heavy handed with the settings, I'd say the units would be best employed looking after levels rather than creating heavy compression effects. The Auto circuitry adapts effortlessly to complex mixes and, even without the Enhance function, the high frequencies remain pretty much intact at all sensible settings.
The expander/gate section is identical for both units and works quite effectively to clean up pauses. The fast release time works well with percussion, while the longer release setting seems fine for pretty much everything else. You do need to be careful to set the threshold so that it's only just above the noise you're trying to mute out, otherwise you can find yourself gating chunks out of the wanted sound. As expected, the expander setting is a little more forgiving than gate mode, due to its more progressive action, but I experienced no problems in either mode.
The variable enhancement function of the S•Com produces the classic high‑end sizzle to help spice up mixes as well as to compensate for any compression treble loss. As with all enhancers, over‑use can result in a somewhat aggressive, artificially fizzy sound, but, used with care, it can help add life to a recording that is suffering from a loss of high‑end detail. Having a fixed on/off enhance option on the S•Com Plus is a little more limiting, but the setting has been sensibly optimised so that only a hint of extra high end is evident.
The Spectra button of the basic S•Com is quite limited compared with the fully adjustable, dedicated de‑esser of the S•Com Plus, though it is a useful bonus and can help smooth out moderate sibilance and harshness without making its presence too obvious. Subjectively, it just seems to attenuate the upper mid‑range when the compressor is applying gain reduction, but it is reasonably subtle.
The S•Com Plus de‑esser is simple to set up and it does make a worthwhile difference to sibilant material, though it won't provide a complete cure where the sibilance level is excessive. If too much is applied, the material being processed can lose some of its high end, so you need to find a good compromise setting. Having a meter helps, as you can see exactly when the de‑essing is being applied, which means you know when to listen out for audible side effects.
Another benefit of the S•Com Plus is its limiter, which is again simple to set up and surprisingly transparent in use, providing you only use it to catch peaks. If you push it harder, so that the LED stays on for longer periods, you can hear the action of the limiter quite clearly, but, as touched upon earlier, this can be a useful effect when working on rock vocals or drums.
It seems that in launching this range of aggressively‑priced rack products capable of delivering good sound quality and simply bristling with extra features, Samson are trying to out‑Behringer Behringer! Certainly they offer a lot of functionality and quality, and any minor criticisms relating to their performance or flexibility are swept away in the light of their unbelievably low UK price. What's more, if you fill in the warranty registration card, Samson extend the warranty to three years.
If you spend more, you can buy compressors with more character (or more transparency come to that), but what you get for your money is solid, predictable performance that gets the job done without fuss. What can I say — workhorses for the price of ponies?
- Very affordable.
- Simple and predictable in operation.
- Very respectable sound quality and performance.
- Lots of features.
- None at this price.
Both units represent a good performance-to-cost ratio and include competent metering plus useful extra features.