Review: Empirical Labs Distressor
Positives:* A swiss army knife, multitude of compressors and attitude
* Distortion circuits for adding crunch or subtle analog vibe to your recordings
* Sidechain abilities for advanced control
* Different ratios yield different results or characteristics
* Can imitate units costing three times as much very well
* You will, undoubtably, want a second one
* you can never make it sound bad (as stated in the manual)
* no output meters (which isn't really a problem)
The Swiss Army Knife of Compressors. A Modern Classic
The Empirical Labs Distressor is a one of kind. Its a monster of a compressor, yet it remains a chameleon. It can act like another piece of hardware does, or be unique on its own. It can be clean, but it can be dirty. There are so many inbetweens with the Distressor, that the learning curve is astronomical. At the heart of it, The Distressor is nothing more than a compressor, with Distortion characteristics that can be added. Distortion + Compressor = Distressor. Upon first glance/use, you see the typical controls of a normal compressor. Ratio, attack, release and input/output. If you notice, there is no “threshold” control like you would typically find, but the threshold is preset, and the more input you bring in, the more compression that takes place (somewhat like an 1176 or LA-3A). Now comes the interesting part, Each ratio has a different “Knee” Characteristic, meaning each ratio reacts and pulls the audio down differently than the next, effectively giving you different sounding compressors with each ratio. It also changes how aggressive it compresses, and it is very, very aggressive. If you still can’t hear or are confused about how compression works and what it is doing to a sound, this compressor makes it more than obvious. It helped me understand software compressors to where I know what to listen for and how they are supposed to react. The ratios are preset, and beginning from the lowest, they have soft knees (ideal for softer type materials like vocals, acoustic guitars) and then go to more aggressive type ratios until you hit “Nuke” which is brickwall Limiter which just crushes the heck out of everything. It was created for “Room” microphones and for parallel compressing and is based off the “All Buttons In” preset on an 1176. The manual gives you fantastically detailed tips and advice for imitating other known devices such as the 1176 and an LA-2A. The 10 Ratio, contains an “opto” circuit emulation, that when attack is set to its slowest setting and release to it’s fastest, It reacts very similarly to opto based compressors of the past like the famous LA-2A and it really solidifies things without obvious pumping artifacts of using such a high ratio. It smooths everything out and with only one or three lights lighting up, it can really make anything shine.
Now comes the advanced section of this unit, the detecter circuits and the distortion modes. These are the pieces that really sell this unit and what give it it’s unique name and reputation in the industry. The Distortion modes are simple enough to understand. Labeled as “Audio,” At the top you have a High Pass, marked HP, which causes the audio to “Saturate” the top frequencies in a musical way, in effect controlling and taming the high frequencies. This is helpful if you have a Sibilant singer or something harsh in the high mids like electric guitars. It adds just the right amount to keep things under control. Next is Distortion 2, Which is 2nd order harmonics, most commonly associated with tube distortion. Its a very subtle distortion that really warms up a cold, stale “digital” signal with no life to it. it can really shine on vocals and snares. then comes distortion 3, which acts like the characteristics of analog tape and can really add magic and weight to bass and kick drums. The modes can be combined or cycled through so you can audition them one by one or together. There is even a 1:1 Ratio which turns off the compression and runs the signal through the distortion modes instead. Although subtle, if you add “Link” in the “Detector” circuit you can push them to their limit and begin to crunch the distortion modes (even though there is no control for distortion amount) by fooling the unit into thinking you’re “Linking” two units together, which ultimately adds more input to the distortion circuits, allowing you to push it into the red to really make it add life and excitement. It’s what I do to add excitement to vocals, Link and Dist 2 engaged with a low ratio (2:1) or crunch/tape compression with bass (dist 3, Link, 6:1 ratio).
The “Detector” circuit is another incredibly useful trick up the distressors sleeve. Its a “sidechain” function that gives you further control on how you distressor reacts. At the top you have a HP, or high pass, again. Although this time the high pass, or low cut, is added to the sidechain of the compressor, allowing you to bypass offensive low frequency build up or muddiness that can cause the compressor to pump or react more. for example, if the kick drum on your drum buss is pumping down and controlling or receiving more of the compression, and not enough compression on the snare or the rest of the drums, adding the HP to the sidechain tells the compressor to ignore the loud kick drum and compress more the rest of the range. Also helpful with alot of plosives (B’s and P’s sounds) so they now don’t creat dips in level due to them triggering the compressor. Next is the midrange emphasis. adding the midrange emphasis tells the distressor to be more susceptible to harsh Midrange frequencies like edgy vocals or badly recorded midrange heavy instruments. Then Link is for linking two units together, but as we learned earlier, can be used to manipulate the distortion levels when two units aren’t being linked. As you can tell, there are hundreds of combinations and choices available for the distressor. It is nowhere near a “one trick pony” and can create some very interesting tone and envelope shaping abilities, like “nuke” for example. The learning curve is simple, yet can take a very long time to get familiar with all that can be done. It also does a great job of imitating other classic sounding units and could save you a lot of space/money. Yes, it is indeed a modern classic.