Created in partnership with Empirical Labs, these two emulations form a characterful yet capable strip.
Softube’s new Empirical Labs Complete Collection, which is a collaboration with Empirical Labs, aims to pack the sound and features of two of the latter’s classic hardware units into plug‑ins. Mike‑E Comp and Lil FrEQ are both emulations of their hardware namesakes. The Mike‑E hardware is a channel strip comprising a mic preamp and a saturator/compressor based on the company’s famous Distressor, while the less well‑known Lil FrEQ is, as its name suggests, largely an EQ but it also features a de‑esser/high‑frequency limiter.
Both plug‑ins are available individually but are slightly cheaper if bought as a bundle, and they come in the usual Mac and Windows formats. Owners of Softube’s Console 1 can also buy the Empirical Labs Track Pak, which puts everything here into a convenient channel strip.
The compressor does everything I’d expect of a Distressor.
The first stage of the Mike‑E Comp plug‑in is the mic preamp, which allows you to add up to 18dB of gain and there’s also an 80Hz high‑pass filter and a polarity inversion switch. It’s handy to have all of this functionality present alongside the compressor, but the main attraction is the CompSat section. This can be used to apply a lovely saturation regardless of whether or not the plug‑in is compressing the audio signal. Switch off the compressor (select the 1:1 ratio), and you can play with the preamp gain and the CompSat input knob to create some really pleasing effects. The compressor does almost everything I’d expect of a Distressor, with the ability to shape the attack and release curves for a range of compression styles, from smooth‑as‑silk to aggressive, all‑buttons‑in 1176. The emphasis control allows you to tune both the saturator’s and compressor’s sensitivity to high/low frequencies. This setup makes it easy to achieve pleasing results by shaping the sound of, say, vocals or drums before deciding how much gain reduction you wish to apply.
Lil FrEQ has an impressive eight sections: a four‑band parametric EQ with generously overlapping ranges, an eight‑setting high‑pass filter, ±10db low‑ and high shelf EQs, and a de‑esser/high‑frequency limiter. It’s an EQ I’d look to more to add character than for surgical correction; it was excellent at bringing a limp‑sounding snare drum to life, and adding more weight to a kick drum. A little ‘N’ symbol on some controls steers things in the direction of a Neve‑style EQ, with some well‑loved, fixed‑frequency bands. I find that cutting at the 350Hz range on a Neve‑style EQ often does something almost ‘magical’ to a drum bus and it was great to have this option here.
More impressive still is the de‑sser, whose controls may seem basic but whose results on vocals are very effective. It doesn’t just de‑ess: it can ‘round off’ the vocal, for a familiar ‘analogue’ sound that sits just right in a mix. It also worked great on my drum overheads, smoothing some overly bright cymbals in a lovely, almost tape‑like way.
Mike‑E Comp’s combination of preamp, saturation and wonderfully versatile compression means there’s plenty to like. If you already have a well‑stocked plug‑in folder, Lil FrEQ perhaps won’t add anything ground‑breaking, but it sounds great, the de‑esser is lovely, and the sheer amount of options mean it could do a great deal of the work in most areas of a mix.
A great combination of no‑nonsense problem‑solving and creative tonal options. Though easy to get started, it’s also well worth exploring the manual, so you can understand what the designers had in mind.