I just got a new knife. It's Japanese, ceramic. I can use it for damn near everything I need to prep and cook a meal. I have other knives - boning, chef, serrated. So why do I use my new one for just about everything? Because it works - every time.
The Daking Comp 500 is like that knife. A very simple, well laid out 500-series VCA compressor/limiter that controls dynamics in a simple, clean, elegant, and musical way - and works for just about everything just about every time. As you might expect from a VCA-type compressor, the Comp 500 is fast, clean, accurate, and transparent. These compressors do have a "sound," but it is not invasive or one that puts it in the "effect" category.
Controls are simple. One knob controls the amount of compression ("Less"/"More"), and a second knob sets output level. There are switches for attack (slow/fast), release (fast/auto), ratio (4:1 compression or 20:1 limiting), bypass, stereo link, and metering (gain reduction or output). The meter is an 8-segment LED that displays peak as well as true VU ballistics. Geoff Daking recommends a starting point of knobs at 12 o'clock and auto-release engaged. A caveman could operate this compressor and get great results, which makes it a perfect choice for me.
When a pair of these modules arrived, I was already mid- mix on a song, but I took a moment to unpack, pop the units into the 500-series rack, power them up, and patch them across the stereo submix of six background vocal tracks, since that was where I was in the process. (Dividing up a mix into groups of instruments that are similar in tone/frequency and processing each group separately is a great way to gel similar elements of a mix together and to maximize the use of outboard gear. This technique also lets you take advantage of the characters of different compressors and shape the mix dynamically in ways you otherwise could not. In addition to the sonic benefits, I find that grouping simplifies the mix process and workflow.)
At first, I was wondering if I had the units patched correctly because I expected to "hear" the compression on the background vocals. But the meters were showing reduction, and the tracks were sitting nicely and sounded well-glued together. I soloed the group and really cranked up the compression knob to verify that I was wired up in the right way. When the compression level was cranked, the tracks were, as expected, audibly compressed, but even at this extreme it didn't sound bad. When set to a reasonable level, I was impressed by the Comp 500's clarity and how it stayed out of the way.
For this background-vocal stereo group, I used the stereo- linking feature, which is as simple as engaging the stereo-link button, as long as the rack supports linking of neighboring modules (most racks do, via pin 6 of the edge connector). The L/R levels were well balanced, and no additional tweaking was needed to match the side-to-side image. Recurring theme - simple, easy, works.
I had a really hard time making the Comp 500 sound bad. I tried. I wanted to break it, push it into un-usable. It was a difficult task. Limited controls sometimes prohibit mistakes. I tried it on all sorts of sources - drum submix, mono drum room mic, acoustic guitars, electric guitars, lead vocals, Wurlitzer - and it just worked and worked well. An "effects" compressor this unit is not. It wouldn't be my go-to for smashing a drum room sound or for deliberate pumping, but I did find that it did a lovely smoothing of the top end of tracks, reducing the need to go for EQ. For simple utility compression on secondary mix elements, I often use plug-in compressors, but when compared back-to-back with the Comp 500, I'd go for the Comp 500 every time. It is the sort of compressor I can see wanting on every channel of a console for general-purpose nips and tucks.
Just for kicks, I replaced my Manley Vari-Mu on the mix- bus with the Dakings in stereo-link mode. The auto-release setting worked seamlessly for this application, and I liked what I heard from the Comp 500 in both the compression and limit modes. Both models were very clean and transparent sounding, even when going beyond my typical 3-4 dB of reduction. The Daking pair had a wisp of similarity to an SSL center-section compressor in that it seemed to elbow things aside in a nice way when other elements entered the scene, but without the signature sound attributes of the aforementioned. Things stayed punchy sounding and maintained their life. To be fair, the Comp 500 is not touted as a program-material compressor, therefore I did not go the distance in running it through its paces in this way. If a pair of Dakings was your only option for compression or limiting, it would do the job on the stereo mix, but for my taste, I like my mix-bus compressor to be additive in the fairy-dust department - and for this, there are better choices. Sometimes you need the serrated knife to cut a baguette.
Although not an entry-level product by any stretch, the Comp 500 would be a fantastic first compressor for someone looking to get into learning and understanding compression and limiting without having to ruin tracks via trial and error, due to its operational simplicity and great sound at virtually any setting. I think with a small amount of guidance and a few rules of thumb, a new user would be able to improve his or her mixes right out of the gate.
The only mildly negative thing I can say is that, out of the box, these units felt lacking in heft. They are so light, in fact, I was wondering if there was anything at all in the boxes before opening them to find a faceplate and attached circuit board, which I might note looks like a beautifully miniature aerial view of an oil refinery. However, once in place in the chassis, the feel of the knobs and buttons is satisfying and solid. There was no manual or user guide included with the Comp 500s, but the few questions I had were answered right away by Brad Lunde at TransAudio and Geoff Daking himself.
I have had the Daking Mic-Pre IV in service for many trouble-free years now, and they have provided great vibe and punch with tons of headroom. They are very musical and are used on every tracking session in some way. I have no doubt that the Comp 500 will deliver the same reliability.
Here are the CliffsNotes: Musical, clean, and elegant dynamics control for almost anything you can throw at it. Compression newbies will be successful. Veterans will use daily. Caveman can operate. Works well.
($725 street; www.daking.com)