Empirical Labs Distressor EL8X
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Empirical Labs Distressor EL8X

Distressor EL8X, Studio compressor from Empirical Labs.

briank 07/19/2012

Empirical Labs Distressor EL8X : briank's user review

« A masterpiece »
5

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The Distressor EL-8X is a digitally controlled analog compressor. The stereo Distressor model ships as two matched Distressor units along with a short pair of good quality stereo link cables intended to connected between the two units' Stereo Link TRS connections on the rear panel. Additional connections are parallel 1/4" TRS and XLR balanced input and output connections. The power cord connection is a detachable IEC socket and of course standard power cords are included. The Distressors also come with a short yet helpful manual which, in addition to covering utilization basics, also has suggested settings and "pet tricks." The fun, laid back style of writing makes the manual enjoyable to read and indeed, I keep a manual on my rack for occasional reference even though I've had my Distressors for years and am very comfortable with their operation and characteristics. Of note, the "X" and stereo designations in the model number indicate the presence of the Brit Mode and Stereo Link features which are optional on the basic, mono versions of the Distressor. The Distressor also has a very nice color coded 20-segment LED bargraph for gain reduction, and does not have any input or output level metering. You also get true Bypass selectable with a pushbutton switch on the front panel.



UTILIZATION

Empirical Labs lay their equipment out similarly across their model range, but differently from other gear manufacturers. If you've used other EL gear, the Distressor's front panel layout should be familiar if you haven't, you'll want to spend some time getting the hang of how they do things. Scrolling through the compression ratios (1:1, 2:1, 3:1, 4:1, 6:1, 10:1, 20:1) are familiar territory for anyone who's used a compressor before. In 1:1, you use this unit for its filters rather than compression. There is also a special "Nuke" ratio which creates an extremely aggressive, heavy, radical compression characteristic that works especially well for super-compressed room mics. Another area where EL differs is in their Input, Output, Attack and Release knobs. The I/O do not have your typical markings referenced to dB levels (there is not 0dB unity marking, for example), but I think this is good because if forces you to listen to what you're doing. Of course you can reference your I/O levels to any metering you might have on your signal source or destination as well, which, again, is just as well since those are really the important reference levels. Likewise, the attack and ratio knobs do not have the usual markings in seconds and milliseconds, but instead arbitrary numbering from 0 to 10.5 as with the I/Os, which, again, happily force you to set the units by ear rather than sight. I love that the knobs are large and easy to read, with hash marks that make it easy to recall settings as tight as half a tenth of a point. You use the input knob to drive the compressor. The more you crank the input knob, the harder you're compressing and the more gain reduction you're going to get.

One catch when operating a pair of Stereo Linked Distressors is that it's the compression that gets linked--one unit's compression settings will slave to the other, but you must still take care to set the ins and outs just the same to avoid shifting the stereo image. I'm sure EL did this to make linked operation more flexible, but for the sake of efficiency I would have liked perhaps a toggle switch to allow the I/O's to get linked along with the comp circuits, especially since there is no 0dB unity reference marking on those big ol' knobs. Let's be honest, if you're stereo linking compressors, you probably want to retain a stable stereo image along with the compression characteristics!

In addition to the excellent compression facilities, the Distressors have two great filter banks: Detector and Audio. The Detector filters are an adaptive high pass filter which really cleverly follows the signal characteristics and works brilliantly with heavy compression where you don't want the signal's low freqs to get too weird or pumpy; also in this bank is a band emphasis setting that can help smooth over the upper mids so they don't get too shrill as you compress more aggressively, and finally, there is a "Link" mode which, along with the Stereo Link toggle switch, links two Distressors together. The other filter bank, Audio, features a different high pass filter which functions like any other HPF like you'd find on a mic or preamp, with a rollof frequency of 80hz. Then you have two Distortion filters: Dist2, which adds second order harmonics to the signal, which can help digital signal sources sound a bit more like they're passing through analog tape or classic transformer gear and is more or less a very subtle, general purpose filter; Dist3 takes things a bit further with more aggressive third order harmonics which can add a little "hair" to your signal. It's especially handy for rock bass sounds. Common to both filter banks is the ability to select between one filter, or to stack multiple filters on each other, so for example you could have the Detector HPF and band emphasis working together to keep weird modulations out of a heavily compressed signal, of you could have the Audio HPF and Distortion modes working together so that you're not adding too much THD under 80hz.

The last feature to discuss on the EL-8X model is the special "Brit Mode," selectable by a toggle switch on the front panel. This setting is intended to evoke and extremely fast, aggressive compression characteristic similar to the classic 1176 "all buttons in" trick. The Brit mode is, in my opinion, of limited use. I've used it a couple of times on rock bass for a certain, super-quick "clamp down and let go" type of characteristic, but this is the one feature on the Distressor that I could take or leave. I really like having it as an option on the pallet, but I try it a lot more than I end up using it. This feature can be used along with any ratio you want, but even in 1:1 when you're letting it do its own thing, it's still very aggressive, and if you're wanting the "all buttons in" emulation, you'll want to keep attack and release settings under 4 on the dial. That said, you can get a clearer sound and less aggressive clamp-down by keeping the attack higher than that and not hitting the compressor so hard with the input.

SOUND QUALITY

Well, let me say that I normally don't believe in "perfection" when reviewing a piece of audio equipment, I mean, there's ALWAYS going to be something that leaves a tiny scrap to be desired with any gear, and generally speaking, the best I ever believe in rating some aspect of a piece of gear I'm criticizing is a 9--to me, that's just about as good as it gets...but the Distressor is the exception and I want you to know that I don't take my rating of a "10" here lightly. The fact is, what EL really knocked out of the park with the Distressor is just how incredibly MUSICAL this freakin' thing is, practically regardless of how you set it. Once you get the hang of how the compressor and filters handle, you really can't go wrong with this unit in terms of sonics. While a given setting may be the right one for a given source, hence all the ratios and filter options, it's almost impossible to make a signal completely unlistenable with the Distressor. This is what makes these units truly general purpose, and indeed, I have yet to encounter any signal source that the Distressor simply couldn't flatter! It's really that good. You can SLAM a signal in nuke mode right off the meter, we're talking past 20dB of reduction with a super thick, brutal, massively hairy, pumpy, breathy sound, and if it's the right setting for the source, it will STILL SOUND AWESOME. If all your source needs is a tender little kiss in 2:1 with a dB or two of reduction tops, say maybe on a vocal with a pretty good dynamic range but you just want to smooth it out and get it a little silkier, that will sound wonderful as well--and really anything in between. If you want a classic DBX-ish sounding comp characteristic, try 6:1, this is a great ratio for snare drums and sometimes vocals or bass. If you want a good, smooth characteristic that can still push things forward a little, 4:1 is a good one. 20:1 is my least-used setting, mainly because I don't use full-on limiting all that terribly much, but of course you can still get a good sound with it, something that takes 10:1 up a notch or two but doesn't have Nuke's maniacal, over-the-top insanity.

My favorite setting bar none, and my most common go-to setting for just about anything from vocals to bass to guitars to percussion to kicks or snares or even drum overheads would have to be 10:1 "opto mode" which is a relative emulation of the classic opto compressors such as the venerable LA-2A. What you do is set the ratio to 10:1, attack all the way up, release all the way down, and you get this special circuit. Keep the input lower and you can a really nice, clear sound that clamps down late to just keep the signal in check, but if you want, you can crank the input just about as far as you want and the characteristic gets more aggressive, more in your face, more muscular--you can take the gain reduction meter into the yellow or red, and doggoneit if the thing doesn't just stay so completely musical sounding.

I'm sorry to gush here, if you've read my other reviews then you know I like to stay pretty balanced and critical even on gear that I really like because, as I say, you can suss out the pro's and con's of anything no matter how good, but the Distressor sonic abilities really are a 10 out of 10 in my book. Hey, there's a first time for everything!

OVERALL OPINION

There's really nothing I'd change about the top of the line, fully optioned Distressor EL-8X save maybe for a switch that allows slaving of the I/Os in Stereo Link mode as mentioned above. That's really it. Everything else about the Distressors is just as I like it and I never go wanting otherwise. My Distressors get used literally on just about every session I do. If there's only one thing I'm compressing, it's probably through a Distressor. Also currently at my disposal are the Empirical Labs Fatso Jr (a different animal completely) as well as classic compressors from DBX, Altec and JoeMeek, FMR Audio RNCs, and more, the Distressors are bar none the kind of my racks. If I had a rack full of Distressor and nothing else, I'd a) be a happy camper and b) not be wanting for compression characteristics, thanks to the huge variety of sounds that can be attained by all the compression options and filters available. This is my desert island compressor without question, bar none my favorite compressor for tracking with comp on the way in, and hugely versatile come mix time (in fact, I routinely serial compress a given signal with Distressor on the way in, then a little more on the mix perhaps in a difference setting, say 2:1 or 3:1 kisses on one round, then 10:1 opto on the other). It's a jack of all trades, master of many compressor, certainly worth every penny, and comes with my highest recommendation.

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