Extensive compressor reviews and FAQ

Origin Effects Cali76: This newly-arrived pedal is based on the legendary Urei 1176 FET compressor. Other pedals have used similar FET designs, and the MXR M87 even has the same controls, but the Cali76 is a high-end attempt to actually cram the "real deal" into a pedal. So how well does it succeed? I already had an M87 for comparison, but obviously I had to buy a real 1176 in order for this review to mean anything, so I did. The review of the Universal Audio 1176LN is now posted as well.
Comparing directly between them, I felt the 1176LN has a more even sound across the entire frequency range, neither hyping nor reducing any part, while the Cali76 seems to have more "pop" and energy in the mids and upper mids. It's hard to describe, but I could really hear the harmonic content enhanced in that range with the Cali76, as more of an "effect" compared to the neutrality of the 1176. On the other hand, while technically the Cali doesn't roll off the lows at all, the 1176LN has an amazing "bottomless pit" low end quality that the Cali76 does not. I believe this is because the 1176LN doesn't limit the low transient peaks so much, and their unrestrained strength gives a sense of great spaciousness down there; while the Cali reacts to those low-frequency transient spikes in a more "normal" full-range-response way, tightening up the lows and sounding less vast. On the plus side though, this also means the Cali is better at peak limiting, and could be less muddy in a band mix. So these are examples of where it is not identical to its inspiration, but maybe better depending on context. For another example, the Cali designer intentionally chose a narrower range of release time than the original 1176, just because the very very long release times of the original are better suited to mix mastering, and not so well suited to individual instruments, which clearly is how a pedal-format unit will normally be used.
Compared to the MXR M87, the action (envelope of compression), the controls, noise level, and frequency response are all very similar between the two pedals. However the Cali has much fuller and more exciting tone, and its huge knobs make it a lot easier to dial in the threshold "sweet spot" (notoriously difficult with the tiny knobs on the M87). The MXR has four preset ratios, while the ratio knob on the Cali is adjustable throughout the range. Also, I've been hearing more and more reports of M87's on the market with functional defects. The one in my hands doesn't have any problems, but apparently some do, and this sort of mass-manufacturing issue may help justify the difference in price between the MXR and the Cali.
The basic quality of this effect is smoothness, much like a classic optical design. It is capable of fast attack times, but its action is organic and liquid, not hard or clinical/precise. There is no loss of highs or lows, though the highs do get darker (attenuated a bit) under heavy compression. The noise level is very low, but not dead silent. Controls include input level, output gain, ratio (from 4:1 to 20:1), attack, and release. All of the controls have a usefully wide range of operation. It has a large, easy-to-read line of LED's for metering. While it is capable of strong peak limiting, anyone looking for a transparent "brick wall" might prefer a VCA comp with a more surgical response. This one is more for character and charm, with your signal flowing over the threshold much of the time.
It is available in two versions, with or without a custom-made output transformer. The designer originally made the Cali without it, but enough people suggested that a transformer is a big part of the "magic" of the real 1176 that he went ahead and developed it as option at additional charge. The transformer only engages when the pedal is powered by 18V, so I was able to directly A/B the pedal with and without, by swapping power supplies. Honestly it really does make a noticeable difference, sounding sweeter and richer in the upper harmonics with the transformer engaged. It's subtle, and hard to put into words, but it just sounds "nicer".
The transformer version also has some jacks and switches not found on the standard version. It has a balanced DI/line output (TRS 1/4" jack) with a switch to toggle between mic/DI level (low) and line level (high). At the high setting, with the output volume turned up, the pedal can directly drive a power amp. So for example on "low" you could send the main output to an amp head and the DI output to a PA/recording mixer; or on "high" you could connect the main output to another DI box to the PA, and send the line output to a power amp. The DI jack also has a useful ground lift switch, for avoiding hum from ground loops. Lastly there's a switch for high or low headroom inside the pedal's amplification circuit. This allows you to choose between a very clean and dynamic sound, or a very squashed and dirty sound. Note that you will get different results from the headroom switch depending on which output you are listening to, and how strongly you drive the input. It's a confusing function, but it has a lot of creative potential. One thing to bear in mind is that these features only work when powering the pedal with an 18V supply; they shut off at any lower voltage, automatically reverting the pedal to the "standard" version.
The construction quality is excellent both inside and out. The housing is HUGE, larger than the Markbass or the Vox, about the same size as the Retrospec. The bypass footswitch can operate as either true bypass or a great clean buffered bypass, with an internal toggle switch to select between them. The pedal can run on a 9V battery, or any DC supply between 9 and 18V with a standard Boss-type barrel plug. At 18V, the transformer stage buffers the output regardless of the bypass switch selection. The pedal sounds quite good without the transformer, and compresses equally well; but if you are going to spend a decent amount of money on a boutique compressor anyway, I recommend you go ahead and pay the extra for the transformer version.
Obviously the large size, high price, and 18V requirement for certain features will turn many people off. But if you can appreciate the quality, performance, versatility, and TONE it offers, you won't mind at all! I know I should write up comparisons against my other top picks like the FEA and Markbass, but honestly I like them equally, and the differences are in the features/functions they offer, and subtle tone qualities that can only be discerned and chosen by your own personal taste, not really describable in words.

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