In this bundle, they added new features like a variable sidechain filter and a headroom control trimmer, while retaining the legendary Fairchild tone.
Kotelnikov Mastering Compressor by Tokyo Dawn Labs – Free!
This is a remarkably transparent compressor that models nothing in the real world, and is free.
The “Gentleman’s Version” is €40 and adds a few useful features like an external sidechain, “insane quality” mode and equal loudness bypass and more.
MJUC by Klanghelm – $25.50
This incredibly affordable software compressor from Klanghelm includes 3 separate and distinct models:
The Mk1 is a model of the Fairchild 670 with a few unique features added. The Mk2 models the UREI 175 or 176, also with a few unique features added. The Mk3 is Klanghelm’s proprietary take on vari-mu compression with a more modern twist.
Test A: Transparent Level Control
I started with the mode that was most comfortable for me, which is where the compressor is barely working.
When used this way, I rely on compressors that have a clean signal path and a transparent way of controlling the mix that is subtle yet effective. For the most part, I am using a low ratio of 2:1, or less if available.
I find that tube compressors are usually better for this task, simply because of the gentle rounding of transients that occurs when you drive a tube circuit even slightly. This tube “shaping” works like having an almost-invisible compressor in front of your compressor. It’s similar to the way that tape can add RMS level to your mix without apparently changing the mix. (Though of course, it is changing it.)
For the first test, I used a song from The March Divide, with whom I just completed a record. It’s acoustically-driven, singer/songwriter type of music, which is dynamic and clear, with lots of acoustic percussion. The song is called “I’m Not Sorry” and you can check out the band at their website, themarchdivide.com. This record is slated for release sometime in mid-2017.
On this song, I was careful to not clamp down much at all on the loud parts, particularly because the verses are quieter, and I still want the chorus to “lift”. Too much compression would have the reverse effect.
For the most part, during the loudest section of the song (in this case the chorus) I am only compressing about 1dB, with an occasional bump to 1.5dB. Subsequently, the verses are barely compressed at all.
Here are the standout performers of this test, in my personal order of preference. (You can also click here to download the full resolution files.)
Elysia Alpha Master (A1)
This one sounded stiffer and more high-fi than the others—though not by a lot. Since I’m only compressing slightly, it was more about the clean signal path than the sound of the gain reduction circuit. The mix seemed slightly clearer with this compressor, which allowed me to hear more detail within the stereo image, specifically on the percussion.
Shadow Hills Mastering Compressor (A2)
This compressor seemed a bit thicker and slightly more forward-sounding. This could be attributed to the output transformer I selected (“Iron”) and the fact that there are actually two compressors running in series here. Even though neither gain reduction meter was moving much, the mild compression was still pushing things together nicely.
Manley Variable Mu Compressor (A3)
This one sat somewhere between the previous two, with a slightly creamier sound and a smoothness to the high end compared to the Alpha Master; but it was perhaps a bit less thick than the Shadow Hills. It had a nice “glue” to it as well, which is probably attributed to the numerous tubes in the signal path it recreates to convincingly.
Kotelnikov Mastering Compressor (A4)
This was the most transparent of them all, seeming not to add any color to the mix, while lightly touching the loudest hits. Because there is both a “peak crest” and a “soft knee” adjustment, it was quite easy to optimize it for a kind of dual operation. Without the gain reduction meter, I’m not sure that I would have noticed it working at all.
[If you want to go deeper and hear the runners-up in this category, you can download them here.]
Test B: Heavier Song But Light Compression
This test was probably more indicative of how I would go about processing something that is hard-hitting and aggressive. While the compression can help add some color to the tone of the mix and keep things “glued”, I’m still just looking for a little bit of general level control and averaging. In other words, this is not overly-squeezed at all.
In these samples, the compressors were each applying about 1-2dB of gain reduction most of the time. To my ear, this is a fair amount of compression and is quite noticeable compared to the un-compressed mix. Even still, I set them up to add something musically beneficial, and in all instances, the compressed mix was subjectively better than the unprocessed mix.
The song for this sample is from a band called New Language. I mixed and mastered the record Come Alive for them late last year. This song is the title track from that record and is heavily guitar-driven rock with big drums and bass to go along with it. You can hear more of their music and download the record for free by going to their website: newlanguageband.com
Here are the standouts again, presented in my order of personal preference. (You can also click here to download the full resolution files.)
Universal Audio Fairchild 670 (B1)
The Fairchild 670 really seemed to help this mix “come alive” (pun intended) by accentuating the aggressiveness of the band and their playing.
Instead of compressing more by lowering the threshold, I drove the input of the Fairchild slightly harder for some slight rounding of the transients, while still keeping them mostly intact.
The hint of added distortion that this technique gives the track made it sound more intense and muscular. This one felt “loud” regardless of how loud I was actually listening.
Brainworx Vertigo VSC-2 (B2)
The VSC-2 was brighter than the Fairchild and somewhat cleaner as well. It seemed to accentuate the kick and snare transients nicely.
Some of this can be attributed to the availability of a slower attack time than the Fairchild has, but is also due to the sound of the VCA gain reduction circuit.
Instead of pushing everything together the way the Fairchild did, it spread things out nicely making the mix seem wider and clearer. This has the hallmarks of what most people love about the SSL buss compressor, albeit in a much cleaner, more hi-fi way.
Manley Variable Mu Compressor (B3)
The Manley shows up again…not surprisingly. This one made the mix a little bit smoother but also kept the thickness that the Fairchild added so easily.
Using the slowest attack time available kept the transients intact while the slight drive on the tubes made it fuller and polished sounding. Using the sidechain filter also helped keep the big hits “big”.
Klanghelm MJUC (B4)
This one is the most colored sounding compressor of the bunch by a long shot, but it adds some low end girth that is remarkable. I used it in “Mk 2” mode, which is a model of the UREI 176. It made everything seem bigger and deeper even while only gently compressing things.
I don’t really trust the gain reduction meter because it wasn’t moving, but there was definitely some compression being applied. No matter; it really added something that I don’t even think could be achieved if you paired a compressor with a good EQ. There’s nothing transparent about this compressor, but when it’s right, it’s hard to beat.