The classics. In the pro audio world there is an elite level of products whose presence in the recording studio, or on the stage is a given. Everyone knows what they are and how they should sound when you plug them in. Sometimes we even take them for granted.
Over the years, the transition from a piece of classic hardware to its software counterpart has become increasingly transparent as the replications in the box start to sound nearly identical to the ones in the rack.
As a result, there’s been a renewed sense of excitement over some of this gear, as we experience them anew as software emulations – and as they find a much wider audience with that increased exposure. The classics are becoming even more classic.
Among the products that many engineers consider elite is the Summit Audio TLA-100A compressor. Famous for its smooth sound and “set and forget” ease of use, the TLA-100A has become a consistent go-to for recording studio and live mixing engineers.
Softube has created the first and only Summit audio plug-in to date with the TLA-100A, and has done so faithfully and with a few added bonuses along the way.
TECH SPECS: The Summit Audio TLA-100A by Softube is a Native only plug-in for use on MAC and PC and retails for $279 USD. Formats available are VST, VST3, AU and RTAS and the new Avid AAX format at 32 and 64 bit where available. Authorization and use via iLok. A full 20 day demo installation is available at Softube’s website.
WHAT IT DOES: The classic Summit Audio TLA-100A program-dependent style compressor both in hardware and now software form delivers ultra-smooth, tube style dynamics leveling giving the user a unique flavor of compression not found anywhere else.
THE INTERFACE: Softube delivers a photo realistic interface mimicking the exact face of the TLA-100A down to the brushed metal face and familiar knobs and switches. Main controls are GAIN and GAIN REDUCTION. On the left are two 3-way switches for ATTACK and RELEASE (fast, medium or slow), and METER (output or reduction). On the right is a switch for side-chain.
Below the main controls for the compressor is a bonus section that features a 6dB/octave LOW CUT filter knob, low cut select (input or detector), a SATURATION knob and a PARALLEL INJECT knob for altering the wet/dry capabilities of the compressor.
IN USE: The TLA-100A plug-in made its way onto a number of mixes I’ve been working on over the past several weeks, all within Pro Tools 9, including – most recently – a new LP for Will McCranie’s new trio, WM3. I was struck immediately by the similarities to the hardware as far as sound and functionality.
I was able to inject a healthy amount of compression on Will’s vocal, peaking around -7 on the TLA’s VU meter. What comes back is that smooth, creamy TLA-100A sound that levels out the vocal perfectly with just a hint of analog distortion.
One of the great features of this plug-in is the status bar at the bottom which tells you exactly where your levels are dB-wise and where your switches are set, which is helpful as it can be a little difficult to tell by sight alone when the ATTACK and RELEASE three-way selectors are set to medium or fast. The vocals in my session all fell perfectly within the medium setting for attack and release allowing the compressor to tame the overall sound of the vocal without disturbing the transients.
On acoustic guitars, the TLA-100A lives up to its name as a “Tube Leveling Amplifier”. Acoustics come out sounding full and rich without being too spiky. I first started playing with the parallel inject setting on my acoustic tracks electing to back off the wetness of the compressor about 25% leaving me with a 75/25 ratio of compression to dry track.
This allows me to hit the compressor a little more than I normally would and then back off with the parallel inject, creating a powerful, punchy sound. The incredibly smooth low cut filter is a great asset here as well allowing me to easily sculpt a bit of woofiness out of the acoustic tracks right from my compressor while I’m dialing in a sound.
It should come as no surprise that the TLA-100A excels as a bass compressor. Over the last few weeks, in fact, it has quickly become my go-to bass compressor. As my tracks were a little on the dirty side going in, I elected to take out all saturation on the TLA with my bass tracks for a crystal clear, leveled-out sound that sits perfectly in the mix. As with vocals, this is a great compressor for cranking up the reduction and make up gain and letting it do what it does best.
I was also impressed at the attention to detail in the design – you can click and hold “command” while adjusting the output knob for fine 10th of a decibel control over the output gain just as you would with a Pro Tools fader.
As I mentioned above, the TLA-100A plug-in bears an uncanny resemblance sonically to its big brother in the rack. Because of this, it was no surprise to me that the compressor’s attack and release times were a bit too sluggish for my drum tracks. I find it refreshing that Softube and Summit elected to stay true to the modeling of their unit rather than attempt to sculpt something that could be easily modified to work on anything across the board.
TO BE CRITICAL: While a great feature to include, the parallel compression feature doesn’t tend to have as much of a kick with this particular type of compressor on percussive instruments as the attack and release times are too slow to achieve that huge, roomy parallel sound. For my tastes, the increased settings of the saturation knob tended to sound a bit too tape-like and tended to not be as musical as I’d like. I found it difficult to achieve a saturation sound similar to other units that focus on that effect.
IN CONCLUSION: Softube has outdone itself. The TLA-100A plug-in is a testament to what can be achieved in hardware modeling when attention is paid to the smallest details of design. Simply put, if you’d reach for it in the rack, you can feel comfortable reaching for it in your plug-in list knowing that the rich and smooth TLA sound we’ve all come to love will deliver.
This is not a plug-in that tries to tackle as many sounds as possible, but rather does the jobs it’s intended for and does them well. At $279 the TLA-100A is an impressive standout in the highly dense world of plug-in compressors.
Zach McNees is a Brooklyn-based producer/engineer/mixer and live recordist who’s worked with Björk, Rob Thomas, Julia Nunes, The Gregory Brothers, Pixies, Liars and Alice Cooper. Get in touch with Zach via http://www.zachmcnees.com.