New Gear Review: BAE 500C FET Compressor

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BAE Audio aims to put the classic sound of the original UREI 1176LN into the hands of today’s engineers via the new 500C.

Since the 1990s, BAE Audio has made a name for itself by putting out new equipment based on much-beloved vintage audio gear.

Many of us have become familiar with their hand-wired preamps, but more recently, they have leaped headfirst into the burgeoning market of 500-series compressors.

One of their newest products, the 500C, strives to mirror the defining characteristics and functionality of the most iconic FET (“field effect transistor”) compressor of decades past, the UREI 1176LN Peak Limiter.

Features

The first thing I noticed upon taking the 500C out of its box was the module’s all-metal full enclosure, which is not present on many 500 series units.

As fun as it is to have a peek at the “brains” behind our signal processors, the handling is so much easier and worry-free this way. It was a breeze securing the single channel, single-module-width unit into my lunchbox, and took just a few seconds.

If you’ve used a FET compressor before, you’ll definitely know what features to expect here: Instead of the threshold knob often found on other popular compressor types (especially VCAs), it works with a “fixed threshold” driven by easily accessible input knob.

Moving down the unit, there’s the Output, Attack, Release, and Ratio knobs. Buttons on the right-hand side are aligned in a vertical row: “Bypass” (a hard bypass relay that connects the input directly to the output), “HPF” (a side-chain high-pass filter, that slopes 6dB/octave at 125 Hz), and “GR Off” (which allows you to turn the gain reduction off or on).

On the left, the gain reduction meter displays twelve LEDs. The first is a red peak LED for when the input signal clips. The second is a green LED—this remains on even with no input signal present so that you know the hardware is working. Then, there are ten additional lights that run down the unit indicating .5dB to 20dB worth of possible gain reduction.

On the topic of metering, it’s also worth quickly mentioning the meter adjustment trim pot. Unexpectedly, this is something that I actually ending up needing to use. After a long day of trying out the 500C, the .5dB LED would illuminate despite no signal being present. Using a jeweler’s screwdriver, I was able to adjust the meter circuit through an access hole between the Ratio and Release knobs on the faceplate. This corrected the issue immediately.

The upper knobs operate with a wonderfully smooth motion. The “Ratio” knob has a stepped control that solidly locks into place with each turn. The options here are 2:1 (light compression), 4:1 (moderate compression), 8:1 (severe compression), 12:1 (mild limiting), 20:1 (hard limiting), and ABI (“All Buttons In”). Occasionally referred to as “British Mode”, such as on Empirical Labs’ EL8 Distressor, the ABI option gives off a very unique and often aggressive characteristic, considered to be a secret weapon for more in-your-face energy.

As with its predecessor-in-sound, one of the 500C’s most prominent attributes is the ability to dial in very rapid attack and release times. The controls are simple to follow, with the slowest position marked with an ”S” and the fastest with an ”F”. You won’t find any numbers (routinely 1-7) marked in between—the same is true for the input and output.

Another interesting function found on the faceplate is the “GR Off” button. Engaging this button will disable all gain reduction while still adding color to your signal.

For those more technically conscious, you can find all additional specifications on the 500C’s product page.

In Use

The 500C is an extremely musical compressor. Punch and attitude can be achieved with great abundance when desired.

I found it most fun to use when tracking, as the FET-based design always gives an extra edge to my playing. It responded well to everything I threw at it, including electric guitar, acoustic guitar, bass, vocals, and drums. While recording, I paired it with RND, API, and Burl preamps for variety. To my ears, it helped accentuate the nuances of each.

This is not—nor was it crafted to be—a truly transparent compressor. It’s built to be driven, slammed, and give off a tasty richness.

In addition to being a great tool when recording, the 500C works very well within a mix. Although there are numerous plugins that claim to emulate the 1176, there’s something magical about running audio through the 500C’s high-quality circuitry. It retains all of the speed and character many of us desire, and it tames spiky transients with a familiar flair.

As I don’t have an original UREI 1176 around, I wasn’t able to do a direct comparison. However, I did put this unit up to the test against several plugin emulations and found the 500C to match or beat the vibe of many software counterparts. I will admit that it can also be more psychologically enjoyable to twist your way to finding that classic, appealing sound.

To Be Critical

After working with the 500C for a few days, my biggest complaint is merely an aesthetic one. The knob spacing feels a little cramped. Although not a deal breaker, my preference would be to have the 5 knobs placed evenly in a row, similar to that of other 500 series FET compressors on the market.

Additionally, I couldn’t help but think how nice the arrangement would be if the output switched places with the release knob; then the attack and release knobs would, in turn, move up one position. This, of course, has no effect on the sound of the hardware—it would simply be a nicer layout in my mind.

If you were to purchase two 500Cs, there’s also no way to properly stereo link the modules. So, if you do want two in your rack, you’ll have to run them in dual mono. Personally, this isn’t a huge issue when it comes to my particular workflow but I can think of times when it might be convenient to have the added feature.

Summing it Up

It’s easy to wonder whether these units—shrunken down into small but precise packages—can perform as powerfully as their vintage rackmount counterparts. To my ears, the answer is a resounding “Yes.”

Are there slight sonic differences between the 500C and other 1176s? Of course. However, one could also argue that there are always differences between two original 1176s—not to mention its many subsequent revisions and the most recent UA reissue.

Furthermore, the great thing about a small company like BAE Audio is the fact that they’re only one phone call away if you have any trouble or questions. After receiving the 500C for review, I called their office and BAE Audio owner Mark Loughman answered my questions himself without hesitation.

The bottom line is that living without a FET compressor is almost considered a crime by many audio professionals. The 500C is an excellent, lightning-fast compressor full of analog warmth and tone-shaping abilities. For those starting out, the price point may appear a bit much, but the 500C is actually situated quite competitively for everything it offers: Bite, edge, punch and definition. In fact, at $950, it’s at least $50 less than most comparable 500 series modules.

With all of that in mind, I could confidently see myself using this compressor during every session. During a mix or multitrack recording, the only difficulty would be deciding which instrument deserves it the most this time.

Michael Duncan is a record producer, engineer, and writer who lives in NYC.

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