We take a look at the first in a new, more affordable range of products from BAE.
UK Sound is a new brand of outboard gear from boutique manufacturers BAE, and was launched at last year's Winter NAMM show. The company have long offered an enviable range of preamps and outboard processors, inspired largely (but not exclusively) by classic Neve circuitry. Their no-compromise approach to construction, with hand-wired discrete components throughout, has led to premium-quality products with, inevitably, a price tag to match. The UK Sound range is intended as a vehicle to deliver the company's design and construction expertise at a more competitive price. It's not aiming to be the cheapest gear out there but instead, through the careful selection of some less‑expensive components and use of PCBs and some surface-mount devices, to cut costs without compromising the sound.
Like the BAE products, the UK Sound range is built in California. At the time of writing, the range listed on the UK Sound website comprises only two models: the 176, which aims to deliver the compression and sound of the classic UREI 1176 FET compressor (not UREI's earlier 176 vari‑mu compressor, despite the name!); and the 1173, which pairs the 176 compressor circuitry with a Neve 1073-inspired mic preamp — such preamplifiers are a familiar part of the main BAE line, of course. More products were announced last year, including a dual‑channel compressor and some 500-series modules, so I'll be interested to see what follows. The first product sent to us for review was this, the 176 compressor...
The 176 comes in 1U 19-inch rackmount format, in a nice, solid chassis, and with a matte-black front panel. This panel plays host to black control knobs with white legends. The only elements to depart from the black-and-white livery are a couple of metal toggle switches, the creamy yellow, circular, backlit gain-reduction needle-meter, and the BAE part of the UK Sound logo, over on the right-hand side.
While the 176 makes no attempt to mimic the 1176 aesthetically (more on that later), most of the controls you'd expect of an 1176-style compressor are present. The Input level pot, which is at unity gain in around the 10 o'clock position, allows you to boost or attenuate the input level to make the signal exceed the preset threshold by as much as you wish. A Ratio switch offers 4:1, 8:1, 12:1 and 20:1 ratios, the last effectively being limiting. An adjacent toggle switch, labelled simply '!' enables you to switch in the famous 'all buttons in' mode of the 1176. I'm not sure why this mode wasn't included as a fifth position on the ratio switch, which I'd have preferred, but the facility is there nonetheless. Beneath this toggle switch is another, this time to engage a 100Hz side-chain high-pass filter (a feature still not found on the official Universal Audio 1176, but commonly found on other clones). This makes the compressor less sensitive to low frequencies, helping to avoid unwanted pumping with the kick or other LF-rich sources, or making the compressor more responsive to, say, the mid-range of a vocal than to unwanted bumps and pops when recording. A third toggle enables you to engage or bypass the compressor. The Attack and Release knobs are variable pots rather than switches and, as on the 1176 but the opposite behaviour of most other compressors, have the slowest settings in the anti-clockwise position and the fastest at the opposite extreme. The last control is the Output level control, which allows you to restore the peak level after compression, and/or to set the audio to the appropriate level for the next stage in your signal chain.
Curiously, the controls and meter are all bunched up, occupying only the left-hand half of the front panel, and leaving the rest of it blank. This is presumably a cost-saving move — it means that the same control PCB can be used in this device, on the aforementioned 1173 (with the 1073 on the left and the compressor on the right), and on a stereo version, with one channel occupying each half. This doesn't bother me in principle, though it's worth mentioning that in practice I found the attack and release knobs to be frustratingly close together; when, for example, turning the attack knob clockwise, I often nudged the release one accidentally. You soon get used to working around this, so it's not a huge issue, but this half-rack layout could have been a touch more user-friendly in this respect.
Removing the lid (not a trivial operation, as it's secured neatly and firmly in place with 10 countersunk screws) reveals that the circuitry comprises a mixture of through-hole and surface‑mount devices, and is mostly laid out on three PCBs. The first, which hosts the control circuitry, is firmly mounted vertically on the front panel, with the control switches and pots soldered directly to the PCB. This and the meter (mounted adjacent to the control PCB on the front panel) are joined via neat clip-in wire looms to another PCB, which is screwed onto risers and connects to the rear panel via the audio in and out XLR connectors. On this board are found the balancing transformers for both the input and output. These are made by OEP, a subsidiary of the better-known and well-respected Carnhill, who manufacture both in the UK and in the Far East.
The internal power supply occupies the third board and connects, via a smaller fourth board which steps down the AC voltage, to the outside world via a standard IEC inlet with associated on/off switch. On the review model, this operated on the appropriate 230-250 Volt AC mains supply for the UK, but it is not switchable for use on other voltages overseas (I assume it's configured appropriately for the territory in which each unit is sold). The PSU circuitry is separated from the rest by a metal barrier, and connected to the compressor PCB via another mini loom. These looms all clip securely in place on the boards.
So, on a first examination, everything appeared pretty much as I'd expected — BAE build quality, but with some layout compromises and sensible component choices designed to bring the price much lower than a typical 'full-fat' BAE product. But what's all important is the effect those choices have on the sound and the gain‑reduction behaviour of this compressor. I tried it on a number of sources, including kick drums, drum loops, electric guitars and vocals, and was greeted by precisely the sort of results I'd expect of a compressor based on this technology: its fastest attack is swift enough that you can clamp down on wayward drum transients, but you can relax it enough to let what you want through unscathed; and with more generous attack and release times, it's great for smoothing vocals (and pop/rock vocals in particular).
I could go on, but we've written about 1176-inspired designs enough times now that I'd be wasting space — in terms of gain reduction, it does what you'd expect an 1176 to do. And when paired with a nice preamp, it makes for a great tracking tool (yes, I know we often tell you that you don't need a compressor to track with 24-bit recording, but sometimes it's useful nonetheless to hear the source compressed broadly as you intend while recording!). The side-chain filter is useful, and the turnover frequency is a sensible choice to allow, for example, a drum mono overhead or room mic to be processed without doing too much damage to a kick drum. Being picky, I might have preferred a variable filter that I could tune more precisely, as is found on some other 1176-derived designs, but nine times out of 10 this will do the job you want.
One of my favourite techniques with FET compressors is to smash a signal and mix it in with the dry source in parallel. You can do that with any compressor (including this one), of course, if you rig it up on a duplicate of the source track or use it as an aux effect, and there are advantages to working that way — not least being able to EQ or otherwise tweak only the compressed part of the signal. But some of the competition include a dedicated wet/dry blend control for instant parallel compression, and I sometimes found myself wishing UK Sound had done the same. On the plus side, there's some nice character to be found in the 176's input and output transformers; as I mentioned earlier, these aren't the big-name transformers found in some of the competition, but the manufacturer has a good pedigree and, most importantly, my ears tell me that they can be driven to add a nice touch of low-end weight, or some gritty attitude where desired.
I did notice one small quirk, which thankfully didn't affect the sound or operation of the 176 in any way — the needle on the gain-reduction meter settled at a different zero point for each ratio setting. For example, if the meter is calibrated so that when there's no gain reduction the needle rests at 0VU with the 4:1 ratio selected, and I then switch to the 20:1 ratio, the needle moves to rest at +5dB. Of course, the amount of gain reduction is still indicated perfectly well by the needle's movement, it's just that you have to do a little mental offset to read the numbers. As I said, this doesn't affect the sound, and there's a strong argument that the amount of gain reduction is in any case something you should be judging by ear!
There's really very little more to say. If you're in the market for an 1176-style compressor, this one is well worth considering. There are cheaper 1176 clones out there, but this one is neatly and solidly built by a manufacturer with a strong reputation. It does what you'd want a FET compressor to do in terms of gain reduction, and it offers the very popular 'all buttons in' mode at the flick of a switch. Admittedly, it lacks some of the bells and whistles offered by some (not all) of the competition, and that may or may not be important to you. But there's nothing mission-critical lacking, and the sound — including that of its transformers — is a real plus point. I'd very happily record through this compressor, or use it as a processor for adding a little colour or aggression when mixing. And having already paired it with a nice 1073-style preamp to record a few things, I have a sneaking suspicion that I'd like its sister product, the 1173, very much indeed...
Universal Audio continue to manufacture the 1176LN, but a number of other companies also make compressors based on that design and its earlier iterations. At around the same price as the 176, you could try the Warm Audio WA-76 or the more feature-rich Black Lion Audio Seventeen, each of which would occupy an extra unit of your 19-inch rack, as would the Stam Audio SA-76ADG. If you're looking for a pair for stereo applications, IGS Audio offer the two-channel Volfram Limiter for roughly the same price per channel. There are also various options in the 500 series. If these are all beyond your budget, you might also consider Klark Teknik's 1176-KT.
- Sounds like a FET compressor should.
- Nice, characterful transformers.
- Side-chain high-pass filter.
- Solidly built.
- Could have more finger space around the controls.
- Odd meter behaviour.
The 176 might not be able to boast BAE's usual hand-wired, all-discrete approach to construction, but it's nonetheless a solidly constructed, great-sounding 1176-style FET compressor — and it's keenly priced too.
£792 including VAT.
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