Golden Age Project Comp-54: This is a line-level half-rack unit that is based on the Neve 2254 diode-bridge compressor (designed by David Rees). Golden Age Project (GAP) is a Swedish company that has recently been "cloning" a few of the more famous Neve units at a much lower price. It sells for under $400 USD, while AMS-Neve's own new reissue of this design goes for well over $2000, and other modern remakes/variations by brands like Daking and Chandler cost around $1500. GAP achieves the lower price by having them made in China, and cutting corners where possible.
The Neve 2254 is known for a creamy, smooth tone with some color and character. People like it for bass, cymbals, string or horn sections, and vocals--anywhere some harshness in the high frequencies would need smoothing down. I haven't used the original or the high-end remakes, so I can't compare the sound of the GAP; however it does have a nice bit of character, not an exaggerated effect, but it does add "something good" to the sound. It's the kind of thing where if you are comparing against an utterly transparent studio track, the GAP's coloration is quite noticeable; but if you are comparing against something super thick and effecty like the Snake Charmer or the Dyna-Mite, the GAP will sound clean and nearly transparent; it's all about context. The noise level is not bad, but not as low as some of the cleaner VCA or opto units. It's inherent to the design--even the original Neves were known to be slightly noisy. There is no loss of highs or lows.
It has a good, useful set of controls. The threshold knob covers a very wide range, suitable for a variety of input levels or amounts of squashing. The ratio knob selects between five settings from 1.5:1 to 6:1, so it is really meant for light-to medium compression, not hard limiting. The attack and release knobs cover a relatively long time range; it can be fairly fast, but it may be better suited to users who want a slower comp action. The release knob also has two "auto" settings you can experiment with. The low ratios and long times, combined with the ability to drop the threshold fairly low, make this unit ideal for tracks where you want the signal to stay smoothly "inside" the compression action; not so great for percussive/abrupt playing.
One neat feature is the HPF (high pass filter), which attenuates a certain range of the low frequencies in the sidechain, meaning your lows won't trigger the compression as much. This can bring back a sense of power and depth to compressed signals--but of course the flip side is if you wanted the compressor to rein in a boomy low end, you would want to switch off the HPF. It has three frequency settings, for a variety of effects.
It has two bypass switches. One is a hardwire "true bypass", and the other turns the compression on and off while still running your signal through the rest of the circuit for its gain and tonal qualities. There is a VU-style meter that can be toggled between showing your signal level (labeled "output") or the amount of gain reduction (labeled "comp"). It's a decent meter, but not precise; I found it more useful in gain-reduction mode.
The metal housing, the circuitboard, and most of the discreet components inside have an appearance of very high quality. They honestly put a solid effort into giving this unit the same caliber of "guts" as the higher-priced competition. However the pots and switches feel cheap, and some of the ribbon cabling inside is quite flimsy. So that's where they cut corners, at least from what I can see. There are companies and individuals who perform upgrades on these units, so that may be worth looking into if you have a bit of extra cash.
It uses a wall-wart power supply. It can accept both balanced and unbalanced input signals, but it will not work properly with your guitar/bass plugged straight in, as there is no gain stage at the input. Like most other half-rack units, it's surprisingly awkward to fit in a stage-rig rack. It's best used in the studio, and if you are pursuing a smooth vintage-flavored recorded tone then this is a very good tool for that job.
Price in USD: new $350, used $250-$290.
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