Garret Haines wrote a thorough review of this UAD plug-in in Tape Op #106. You should read it. Here are a few of Geoff Stanfield’s thoughts on a plug-in that he has come to use and love, not only for its sonic closeness to the original, but also for its convenience!
I have been a longtime owner of the Manley Laboratories’ Variable Mu hardware. It was my first real high-end compressor, and it has imparted its lovely sonic glue on countless projects. It is simply one of those pieces of gear that makes some sources sound better when you run them through it, even when only nominally compressing. Over the years I have had to replace the tubes and do some minor adjusting, but it is ultimately a workhorse I couldn’t imagine not having at the studio.
But sometimes I work at home, on a scaled back system using only plug-ins. It used to be a real step backwards, but now there are so many impressive emulations of the classics that it is a viable option. It’s a tad ironic that Universal Audio, a company known for it’s incredible hardware audio processing devices, is now a software company. How many budding engineers can afford to get their mitts on a real LA-2A [Tape Op #26] or an 1176? Not many! Being able to get the sound and spirit of these audio classics via well-crafted plug-ins is a real boon. You all know this!
Not only does Universal Audio make great plug-in versions of their own classic hardware, they “go deep” when emulating other hardware manufacturer’s “best of breed”– one of my favorite examples of this is a software version of one of my favorite hardware pieces. Yep! You guessed it; the Manley Variable Mu.
In use, the hardware version may be more forgiving than the plug-in, but the compression onset characteristics and sonic color is pretty darn close. The tubes in the real deal make things a little more spatially robust than the software and there is a color my hardware imparts that is missing from the plug-in – plus it’s always my preference to spin a dial rather than move a mouse. That said, I sure like having more than one instance of these compressors at my disposal!
I use my hardware unit almost exclusively, if not entirely on the mix bus. Occasionally, if the song calls for it, I’ll use a more aggressive compressor on the mix bus, but I will use the hardware Manley on a bass or vocal track where appropriate. With multiple instances of the UAD plug-in, I can have it all. Even with the slight trade-off of the software version not sounding exactly like what is now considered my “vintage” Variable Mu, it is close enough for government work. Plus, with all its extra bells and whistles the UAD version is useful on more than just the mix. But, word to the wise, just because you have the ability to use many instances of the plug-in version, doesn’t mean you should.
Hot tip: The original hardware Variable Mu was, and is best on, program material (or a bus). Indiscriminant use of this plug-in on different tracks, without a solid understanding of how this particular compressor responds, can easily muck up your mix if you’re not careful.