Extensive compressor reviews and FAQ

 
Universal Audio 1176LN: The Urei (originally Teletronix, now Universal Audio) 1176 is a legendary standard in recording studios worldwide. Its status is so well established that for me to review it may seem silly and pointless--after all, what am I going to say, that it's really not very good? The truth is I bought this unit in order to have a meaningful reference point for my reviews of the Origin Cali76 and the MXR M87, both of which take direct design inspiration from the 1176. Regrettably I don't still have the Distressor on hand for A/B comparison to the 1176, but many other people have done that already. The version I have is the current 1176LN reissue by UA. People may argue that certain older versions are superior; but from what I have gathered, a huge percentage of the difference that people hear is due to component values drifting over the years until the older units are well out of calibration.
 
This is a 2RU (3.5" tall) rackmount unit. One mono channel, line level only, and its only in/outputs are balanced XLR's and a barrier strip, no 1/4" jacks. The giant input level knob makes it easy to dial in the exact amount of response you want. It also has knobs for attack and release times; be aware that the numbers around these two knobs don't mean anything at all. Also it seems to me that the attack knob goes clockwise from fast to slow times, while the release knob goes from slow to fast. There is a row of pushbuttons to select between 4:1, 8:1, 12:1, and 20:1 ratios, plus you can push all four buttons in at once for "infinity:1" crushing. Another row of buttons select what will be displayed on the large needle-style VU meter.
 
The nature of this comp is for the amount of the signal over the threshold, and the strength of the compression, to change fluidly and organically. It is not the sort of clinically precise comp that can be set so only a certain part of the signal is compressed, by only a fixed amount. Instead, think of it as painting with a wide brush. People are often confused by the meter readings on this unit (and on comps inspired by it) because of the sometimes counter-intuitive interaction between the ratio and the threshold. The meter is useful, but for best results you really have to use your ears to make creative choices.
 
There is no loss of highs or lows, and in fact the low end has a sound or feel of "endless" vast depth. I get the impression that the 1176 doesn't hard-limit big spikes in the lows as much as other single-band comps often do, and this gives a sense of more power or spaciousness down there. You can set it to be more of a hard limiter, but at that sort of setting you will find most of your signal is being strongly squeezed as well, not just the big peaks. For many situations though, the most appealing range of action will be a lighter ratio and a long release, for general smoothing and adding a sense of "weight" to the sound.
 
The only potential disappointment is that the noise levels were not "$1000 better" than other compressors. It's not so noisy on its own, but it is vulnerable to picking up noise from other parts of your signal chain, and from room wiring, to about the same extent as any average comp. I only mention this because somebody might make an assumption that any compressor this expensive would be noise-proof.
 
The construction quality is very good. There is no bypass. It is powered by an AC cord, not an external supply. All in all, the reputation of this unit is fully justified by its buttery-smooth action and the great sense of depth and solidity it provides. Of course it is designed for use in the studio, not as part of an onstage gig rig.
 
Price in USD: new $2000, used $1200-$1500 (The old/vintage models may cost up to twice as much, depending on condition, source, and service history.)
 
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