The 9.4 software release sees Universal Audio add a modern classic to their plug-in range.
Universal Audio’s Powered Plug-ins range is now so comprehensive that it can be quite a challenge to think of classic hardware which hasn’t yet been modelled. However, UA themselves say that there is one missing unit for which their users have been clamouring, and it’s that product that is the highlight of the latest UAD 9.4 software release.
Along with the UREI 1176 and the Teletronix LA-2A, the Empirical Labs EL8 Distressor is a compressor you expect to find almost as a matter of course in any high-end control room. And, as usual, UA have gone the extra mile in recreating it. Not only is UA’s plug-in the only officially licensed software version, but their engineers apparently studied no fewer than four hardware originals.
Design-wise, one thing the Distressor has in common with both the 1176 and the LA-2A is a fixed threshold. To compress the signal harder, you increase the input gain, then back off the output gain if needs be to compensate for any overall level increase. Like the 1176, the hardware Distressor is also capable of incredibly fast attack times. However, whereas the 1176 and LA-2A are both relatively basic in terms of features, the Distressor positively bristles with options, and could be seen with some justification as several compressors in one.
For one thing, it offers no fewer than eight ratio settings. These run from 1:1 all the way to ‘Nuke’, its own take on the 1176’s apocalyptic all-buttons-in audio destruction mode. Each setting has its own knee characteristic, with the 10:1 mode designed to emulate the behaviour of an optical gain-control cell such as is found in the LA-2A. Just as significant in terms of the Distressor’s versatility are the High-Pass and Band Emphasis buttons, which apply different EQ settings within the side-chain, prompting the response to be more weighted towards energy in the mid-range. And in case you’re wondering why it would ever be useful to set a compressor to a 1:1 ratio, which won’t actually compress anything, the answer lies in the Distressor’s Dist 2 and 3 settings, which add different flavours of saturation to the input signal.
UA’s emulated Distressor sensibly reformats the original’s 1U front panel in two rows, in a plug-in window that’s much larger than some of the older UA plug-ins. As on the hardware Distressor, you can cycle through ratio and other settings by repeatedly clicking the relevant buttons, but you can also just click directly onto their respective LEDs to skip straight to the setting you want. UA have also added a master wet/dry control that allows their Distressor to perform parallel compression.
With so many options available, the Distressor can take some time to get to grips with, and the presets supplied by celebrity engineers Chris Coady, Chris Zane, Hector Delgado, Jacquire King, Jimmy Douglass, Joe Chiccarelli, Mike Larson and Vance Powell do a good job of showing off the unit’s capabilities. That said, presets can be a minefield with a non-linear device such as a compressor, and flicking through these ones suggests that some of the named engineers like to work with much hotter levels than others! Another slight gotcha is that none of the presets has the stereo link function activated, meaning that if you instantiate a stereo instance of the UAD Distressor, it’ll actually operate as a dual mono processor unless you click the Link button every time you load a preset. The reason for this is that UA have faithfully modelled the behaviour of the original, whereby if Link is engaged on a mono instance, the contribution of the ‘dead’ stereo link is added to the side-chain signal, changing the sound. Brownie points awarded for authenticity, but it would be nice if there was the option to lock the Link button, the input and output gain controls, and the wet/dry mix control, so that you don’t need to reset them every time a preset is recalled.
At least a third of the celebrity presets relate to drum mixing in some way, and indeed, it’s pretty hard to think of a way you’d want to compress drums that the Distressor doesn’t do. At the fastest attack and release times, you can completely obliterate transient attack, while at the other extreme, it’s child’s play not only to get room mics and overheads pumping, but to make them do so in a way that works with the tempo of your track. And if you just want to do some gentle smoothing or rein in an over-eager right foot, that too is easily achieved. Likewise, the Distressor can exercise its iron fist with or without a velvet glove on vocals, bass, keyboards and guitars of all descriptions. In fact, it’s probably no exaggeration to say that the Distressor is a part of the reason that modern rock music sounds the way it does, because there are contexts in which it produces a very characteristic sound, not only controlling dynamics but adding mid-range bite that pushes sources to the front of the mix.
The EL8 Distressor is the obvious highlight of the UAD 9.4 release, but there’s plenty else to savour as well. The Dytronics Tri-Stereo Chorus, created by Softube, models what is, apparently, the ‘Holy Grail’ of chorus effects. (I say “apparently” because I’ve never heard of it, but then Holy Grails are meant to be elusive.) Said to have been the secret weapon of many a 1980s LA session guitarist, it deploys no fewer than three separate ‘bucket brigade’ delay lines, each with its own LFO, and an internally fixed wet/dry balance, to create a particularly rich and dense chorus effect. I’m not sure everyone will have enough use for chorus in this day and age to justify spending the asking price on this recreation, but it does sound fantastic, and noticeably different from the Roland and Boss emulations that are already available for the UAD platform, with a much thicker and more complex sound.
Another relic of the 1980s is the Gallien-Krueger 800RB rackmounting bass amplifier, this time modelled by Brainworx. Launched in 1982, the solid-state 800RB pioneered a number of features that are now common on bass amps, including extensive tone-shaping controls and a DI output, and it also had dual power amps that allowed bassists to ‘mix and match’ two cabinets. The aforementioned tone-shaping features include a four-band active EQ and three different switchable ‘voicing filters’, plus optional Boost. The twin virtual power amps can be run in bi-amplified mode, whereby the full-range signal is sent to both, or as a main/sub arrangement with adjustable crossover frequency.
Clicking the FX Rack legend at the top of the GUI unveils two extra rows of parameters. The first row gathers together various non-original but useful functions, including high- and low-pass filters to remove subsonic crud and high-frequency hiss, and a noise gate. The second is where you choose separate Recording Chains for each of the two amplifiers. A Recording Chain consists of an impulse response of a particular speaker/mic/room combination, with the option to add a separately miked horn speaker for treble definition. There’s a total of 64 of these chains, and a particularly nice touch is that you can set them to cycle automatically after a set number of bars’ playback, for easy auditioning.
The 800RB plug-in also takes advantage of UA’s Unison preamp technology, so in theory, plugging your bass into your Apollo’s instrument input should sound and feel as close to the real thing as possible. This is a very powerful and versatile virtual amplifier, which has a role to play in pretty much every musical style. I don’t quite understand why it’s cheaper than the Dytronics chorus, which is a bit of a one-trick pony by comparison, but I’m not complaining!
The day is steadily approaching when the UAD plug-in library includes every piece of recording hardware ever made, and you could argue that things like the Dytronics chorus are nice but inessential additions. The Distressor, however, is very much an A-list product, and means the 9.4 release provides another compelling selling point for the UAD platform.
Of all the new 9.4 plug-ins, the one that most interests me personally is the one that I can’t test! The Ocean Way Microphone Collection is a UAD-only add-on for the Townsend Labs Sphere L22 microphone modelling system, which ‘samples’ 12 of the favourite microphones of Ocean Way owner Allen Sides. These include his personal Neumann U47 and M49 plus two AKG C12s, but also a number of mics that aren’t represented in the stock Sphere library such as an RCA KU3A, Sony C55P and Neumann M50, KM53 and KM54. Having been very impressed by the Sphere system when I reviewed it a couple of months back, I would love to try these — but it seems others want to get their mitts on it too, which is why the review model had to be returned post haste to the distributors. Prospective buyers can, at least, download test audio files from the UA web site to audition the different models.