This new Ivory-series preamp and compressor combines the ease of presets with the flexibility of manual operation.
TL Audio's latest Ivory 2 machine is once again based on a combination of things the company has done well in the past, packaged in a usable and affordable form — not a bad formula, come to think of it! Everything is very familiar, from the 2U ivory-coloured panel to the legending and the style of the knobs and switches. Power comes in via an IEC connector, not an annoying wall-wart, and the I/O levels are switchable to accommodate both pro and semi-pro audio levels. A circular VU meter, a circular mains switch, and milled ventilation slots give the unit a classy look without things becoming fussy.
At its heart, the 5060 is a stereo compressor using hybrid solid-state and tube circuitry incorporating a transconductance variable-gain element, but although it isn't designed primarily to be a 'voice channel' product, it includes one of TL Audio's very nice mic preamps with its input XLR tucked away around the back and with switchable phantom power. As a voice channel, the unit is strictly mono, and in stereo line or instrument operation it must function as a stereo unit, not as two mono units — there's only one set of controls and only one side-chain. Because the tube stages (half a dual-triode ECC83 in each channel) come between the input stage and the compressor, they can be deliberately driven hard by setting the input gain levels on the high side, if you want to add some of that old tube warmth. However, there's often a fine margin between the tube's Drive lamp flickering and the Peak clip LED coming on, so you do need to take care setting the input gain. As the tubes are properly run from relatively high-voltage supplies (100V stabilised), their overload characteristics are both subtle and authentic.
There are two high-impedance instrument jack inputs on the front panel, as well as balanced jack inputs and outputs around the back with switchable +4dBu and -10dBV levels. Two further jacks provide additional unbalanced outputs, and in computer-based systems these additional outputs may be used to set up a latency-free monitoring path for recording. Some users may be miffed that there are no 'professional' XLR line ins and outs, but I for one much prefer balanced jacks on any piece of equipment that's likely to be used in a project studio, especially via a patchbay, as jacks are more compact, cheaper, and more commonly used in small studio and instrument-based setups. An expansion slot is available to fit the optional DO2 converter board, enabling signals to be sent to an audio interface, soundcard, or recorder in the digital domain. The DO2 offers 24-bit resolution, has a word-clock input BNC connector, and can be set to run at 44.1kHz or 48kHz sample rates.
Another key ingredient of the 5060 is the option to use tailor-made presets for the compression settings, something that was first developed by TL Audio for their popular Fat Man processors a few years back. Now, I'm not a huge fan of presets as a rule, but I have to concede that a lot of users do struggle with compression and the settings here have been well chosen to cover the majority of requirements. Also, and very importantly, you can use the compressor manually, though the attack and release time constants are limited to switchable slow and fast settings only — they're not fully variable. If you find a preset you like and have the urge to tweak it a bit, all the preset control settings are shown in the handbook so you can recreate manually.
The input section of the 5060 features a four-way input selector (mic with 48V phantom power; mic; line; or instrument), with a further knob to adjust the mic gain in 20dB steps from -20dB to +40dB. The larger red input knob controls both the mic and line/instrument input gains and adds another 20dB of gain to the mic input. A low-cut switch brings in a 90Hz high-pass filter, and there are two status LEDs, a yellow one to show how hard the tube is being driven and a red one to warn of imminent clipping. Occupying a section all on its own is the Program knob, which offers 16 options if you include the Manual setting. The manual describes each preset and its applications in reasonable detail, but you can discern a lot from the names: Whisper Vox, Pop Vox, Rock Vox, Scream Vox, Keys, Bass, Ac. Guitar, El. Guitar, Snare, Kick, Loop, Pop Mix, Rock Mix, Dance Mix, and Slam Mix.
The more conventional compression controls for threshold, ratio, make-up gain, and switchable hard/soft knee are found in the next section, along with fast/slow attack and release switches. Whenever a preset is being used, all the physical compressor controls with the exception of the make-up gain are disabled. Clearly, a compressor preset only makes sense if the input level is exactly right, but fortunately there's enough gain leeway on the Input Gain control to handle this, otherwise you would have still needed manual threshold adjustment.
In the output section there's the usual moving-coil meter, which can show either gain reduction or output level, and there's also a -10dB switch that affects only the way the meter reads. This means that when you're driving into a piece of digital gear that requires a very hot analogue level the meter needle isn't forever pushed up against the right-hand end stop. This meter is backlit and looks neat, but I can't help wondering if a fast LED meter would show the gain reduction more accurately.
Also tucked away in the output section is the Fat EQ button, which functions not unlike a loudness control by creating a 'smile' curve, where 2dB of gain is added at 50Hz, 1.8dB at 10kHz and the mid-range at 720Hz is scooped by 0.9dB. This can sound quite effective on some material, particularly mixes, but it is perhaps best left switched off until you need it, as it's too easy to get used to the sound! This EQ curve comes after the compressor, so it won't interfere with the compressor operation.
Even though the compressor has only switchable attack and release times (both in the manual and preset modes), the presets work extremely well when used as directed, but can also work impressively on sound sources for which they were never intended. Overall, the sound is still typically TL Audio, by which I mean clear, solid, musical, and not at all gimmicky. I found the presets worked best with the input gain level set so that the Drive LED just flickered, backing off the input gain if the amount of compression was too much. As always, balancing the bypass level with the compressed level using the Gain Make-up control is a good idea when making comparisons, otherwise you tend to favour whichever setting is the loudest.
That Fat EQ button is interesting, because, even though it does thicken the low end slightly, what I found most noticeable was the impression of air that was added to the top end. Overall the effect is very sweet-sounding, but subtle enough to be useful, so although I first thought it might be a bit of a gimmick it actually worked very well, especially on voices and complete mixes.
The mic preamp also performs to a high standard, so you can use the 5060 as a recording front end as well as an insert processor in full confidence that you won't be compromising the signal quality. Indeed, I had to keep reminding myself that I was reviewing such an affordable processor. As a confirmed control tweaker, I would have appreciated variable attack and release knobs rather than switches, but being realistic it's not much of a limitation, and considering that the unit is aimed at those users who feel more comfortable with presets I think it might actually make the manual mode less daunting.
As well as being an ideal processor for compressor-phobic musicians, the TL Audio 5060 is actually a very nice-sounding piece of kit and has enough flexibility to be used as a serious manual compressor as well, despite the apparent limitation of switchable attack and release times. The inclusion of a mic preamp and instrument inputs means the 5060 also works as a mono recording channel and as a pretty fine mono or stereo DI box. And we mustn't forget the tube circuitry — you may only get half a triode in each signal path, but it really works to give you that 'larger than life' sound without having to worry about noise — all the sensitive preamp circuitry is solid state. On balance, the TLA 5060 is a great addition to an already well-respected range and it should do well, particularly amongst those users who want quality compression but are a little unsure about how to set up the finer details themselves.
- Easy to set up, with well-designed presets.
- Manual operation catered for.
- Includes a good mic preamp and two instrument inputs.
- The use of a moving-coil meter makes it harder to judge the amount of gain reduction being applied.
A great compromise between a fully manual and a fully preset compressor — you get both!