ART's Pro VLA (Tape Op #37) is one of the best compressors
ever made at its price point. You can pick one up new for under $400. It's an electro-optical compressor with a 12AX7 tube gain stage. You could call it the poor man's stereo LA-2A, but the funny thing is, lots of engineers who can afford to spend more still use the Pro VLA. Rather than run a review of this new box as a new piece of gear, we thought it would be more interesting to send it around the country via FedEx truck and see what some engineers who were familiar with the original Pro VLA thought about the new upgraded version. First we had Kirt Shearer of Paradise Studios (Cake; Toni, Tony, Tone; Tesla) here in Sacramento give it a listen. -JB
Being very familiar with the original VLA, I was glad to see that they didn't screw up this new version. It's hard to get the original to sound bad unless you hit the front end too hard, and the same is true for version II. It can be just as unobtrusive as the original without being boring. The difference is seen when you mess with the variable attack and release controls. Put this on a drum submix and crank the attack and release to full fast. Now set the ratio to infinity, and all of a sudden, this thing gets nasty in a way the old one never could. It can get some of that abusive "British" sound. Since I believe that the circuitry is the same, this means that the original wasn't taking full advantage of how fast the opto could operate. Other than the rather silly and sometimes redundant metering (do we really need six meters?), this is an improvement on an already great compressor, adding a degree of versatility that the original was missing.
-Kirt Shearer, www.paradisestudios.net
Next we shipped it down to Los Angeles for Thom Monahan (Vetiver, Devendra Banhart, Alela Diane) to try out.
It's hard not to imagine that the new Pro VLA II was designed by people that didn't really understand why the first one was so successful. Gone is the auto attack and release function that made it a great "set and forget" box, and added is yet another set of input/output led meters, making three separate ways to monitor your signal visually -totally unnecessary to the point of ridiculousness. I don't think that the weirdo, paired VU and step LED meters were a real selling point for the original. I think that most people used their ears to evaluate it because it was an ugly device that has now only gotten uglier. But who really cares if it sounds great! The original Pro VLA had incredible bang-for-your-buck, and thankfully, the newest version retains most of the original's sonic character. In use, swapping between version I and II in a mix on a drum subgroup, the Pro VLA II couldn't match the original for transparency on the kit, but it did add a midrange punch that the original lacked. The attack and release controls were useful, but it was difficult to keep the newer version from overcompressing. It was either barely touching the signal or stomping on it. But the sound of the compressor was extremely engaging -just not the same as the original's. It isn't just the Pro VLA with added attack and release controls, it's another beast altogether with more midrange detail and a much more aggressive sound. What you get for the money seems well worth it.
Then Thom started it on its journey back east to Craig Schumacher (Calexico, Neko Case, Devotchka) at Wavelab in Tucson, AZ.
I've made no secret about how much I believe the ART VLA compressor is one of the best bang-for-your-bucks out there. Now, with the release of the Pro VLA II, ART has made it even better by adding some new and better knobs and metering. All the knobs are now click-stop, and the layout is even more intuitive. The best improvement is how it processes stereo program material. The left gain knob is now a master gain when in stereo link, and the right knob is a balance control. This feature really comes in handy for getting a consistent left/right signal on stereo material. It's now an even better tool for use on console groups and bus routing. Plus, with its affordable price point, it is a great "first purchase" compressor for folks on a budget and still learning what compression does. I love that ART added dedicated control knobs for attack and release instead of the pushbutton two-setting feature of the original model. I'm going to sell my old pairs and replace them with the new model this month.
-Craig Schumacher, www.wavelabstudio.com
On its longest journey yet, Craig shipped it to Dave Fridmann (Flaming Lips, Sparklehorse, MGMT) at his Tarbox Road studios in Fredonia, NY.
I had the chance to use the Pro VLA II for a little while and tried it on a lot of mixes primarily as a final mastering tool, which is a function that I have used the two VLAs that I have many times. I A/B/C'ed all three and found that the new one was consistently the best. In particular, I thought that the II was more present and had a wider stereo image. Tarbox Road Studios technical wizard Greg Snow popped the top and thought that the layout was much improved, especially in regards to the power supply, and we both were glad to see that there were still XLR and 1/4" connectors and a new switch for -10 dBV or +4 dBu levels. I didn't do much with the new attack and release controls besides try to make them like the auto setting on the originals, but it's cool to have this new feature. I was concerned that they might have cleaned up the sound too much, but somehow all the cool crunch that is there on the old ones when I put waaaaay too much level into them (standard operating procedure), is still there, and the crazy low-freq freak-out is even a little better! Time to buy another rack!
-Dave Fridmann, www.tarboxroadstudios.com
And finally, Dave sent it to our very own Garrett Haines in PA for its final workout. We should note at this point that the unit must be fairly well-built as counting the original shipment from ART to Tape Op, the unit was shipped by FedEx Ground five times and worked fine when it got to Garrett.
I'm a fan of the original PRO VLA. It's an affordable compressor/limiter that is great in many applications, especially bass and drums. However, our unit is a touch noisy, and the stereo balance can be off sometimes. So, I was excited to try out the Pro VLA II. Right out of the box, it looks like the love-child of the original Pro VLA and a piece from Millennia Media. All of the controls are upgraded, with a thick, smooth front plate, illuminated pushbuttons, and stepped control knobs. The VU is just gorgeous, providing a rich, warm glow and very smooth ballistics. There are actually three sets of meters: VU and two LED arrays. This means users can monitor input, gain reduction, and output on the same piece of hardware. (Hey, is this a rare time when hardware is mimicking a feature found on plug-ins?) This is one of the few rack units with that ability, making it a timesaver for experienced engineers and a teaching tool for those just entering the world of compression.
There are also many improvements on the inside of the box. First, this unit has a much lower noise floor than the original. I would not hesitate to use this on sensitive sources such as strings, arias, or classical guitar. Second, in bypass mode, the box is very transparent. (Readers should know that bypass on most units is not a full bypass; it just takes the effect of the chain but leaves the unit's I/O engaged.) Connecting the PRO VLA II to my mastering rig via the Manley Backbone (review forthcoming), I had difficulty picking out the bypassed unit in and out of the chain. That's impressive, as I have very expensive tube gear that can't make that claim.
In use, the PRO VLA II is very smooth, with a soft, buttery sound. In the same way that Neve 1073 EQ filters are hard to "make sound bad", I was hard pressed to get poor results out of the ART. Clearly, this is a design choice. The Pro VLA II is a more of a broad-stroke unit. It's optimal for shaping, coloring, or smoothing out tracks. ART's Vactrol approach to compression is forgiving and well suited for many sources. On backing vocals, drum overheads, and guitar bus, this guy was money, adding that polished compression sound that we often strive to obtain.
My only issues with the PRO VLA II are very minor. The XLR female jacks are a bit tight, making it fussy to patch and unpatch. And there are no side-chain inputs. Again, these are minor and would not stop me from buying this unit.
We don't often go into depth about price in our reviews, but I am gob-smacked that this box streets under $300 USD! I could see this at a street price of $1000, and would have raved about it at $500, but at under $300, readers need to set this review down, go order one, then get back to reading the rest of this Tape Op. I'm blessed to have a number of great compressors at my disposal, and I still want to use the Pro VLA II on all kinds of things. Dear ART, please invoice me; I'm not returning the review box. ($379 MSRP; www.artproaudio.com)
Tape Op is a bi-monthly magazine devoted to the art of record making.