Andy Hong: When the Dangerous Compressor was first announced, I knew that it would be something special, like all of its sibling products in the Dangerous Music line — despite its seemingly simple set of controls. I heard quickly from veteran reviewers Garrett Haines and Eli Crews, both of whom wanted to sign up for the review. So our demo unit did some traveling before GH and EC sent me their words. I also asked esteemed mastering engineer Greg Calbi to contribute, knowing that he owns one of the first units off of the assembly line, and his thoughts close the review below.
Garrett Haines: Everyone at the 2013 AES show talked about the new "Dangerous Music mastering compressor," but in my experience, this is a stereo compressor first and foremost. While I could see it being used on mastering sessions, I think mixing and tracking engineers would find this as attractive as any bus compressor on the market. I would describe it as a transparent dynamics processor. I tried to abuse the unit in a mastering environment but could not get it to distort under reasonable circumstances.
My two-sentence summary: It sounds like one of those $8,000 digital mastering compressors was created in the analog realm — kind of like reverse modeling. This is a high-headroom, high-speed, high-fidelity analog unit. And once you hear it in action, you'll understand how useful that kind of design can be.
AH: That's three sentences, not two; and you originally gave me four.
Eli Crews: I have long been a fan of Dangerous Music's excellent product line, so I was intrigued when I saw the Dangerous Compressor come to market. With its mastering product pedigree, I had a feeling it was going to excel in 2-bus duties.
Physically, the Dangerous Compressor is sleek and compelling — a marriage of modern and classic aesthetics. The black faceplate is accented by variously colored, self-lighting pushbuttons and large edgewise meters (think Neve 2254 or API 525), and you've got your standard compressor controls on large, machined aluminum knobs. Tactilely, I find the buttons and knobs on the Dangerous pleasant and easy to use. My only reservations about the functionality of the controls have to do with recall. I was frankly surprised that the Gain, Threshold, Attack, and Release controls aren't stepped or detented. (The Ratio control is stepped, with eight positions between 1:1 and 20:1.) In addition, the orange-on-black color scheme and backlit buttons don't easily photograph with a phone, which is my preferred recall method for my stereo-bus processors these days. This is a unit better documented the old-fashioned way, with a template or simple o'clock settings.
AH: I spoke to Dangerous Music's Bob Muller about recall, and his explanation was enlightening:
"With an analog stepped attenuator, you can have a maximum of 23 positions, which would not allow fine enough steps and would limit the versatility of the unit. I think we have all felt the frustration of 'one click is not enough, but 2 is too much' — especially in the sensitive realms like threshold, attack, release, and make-up gain. We looked at the 'quasi-stepped' method employed by some manufacturers of using a regular potentiometer with a toothed plastic ring underneath, but we didn't like the feel at all, and the repeatability when measured is sometimes not all that precise.
"We opted for the middle road, which was to gang Gain and Threshold while in stereo mode so that both channels track exactly, and to give enough range to the controls so that the box could handle any situation, while at the same time limiting the scope of the controls so that everything falls in the useful range. No 5 second release time for example — I never understood the usefulness of that!"
EC: On the stereo bus, the first thing I noticed is how little inserting the Dangerous changed the sound of my mix. Bypassing the unit (via the Engage button, which employs a true hard-wire bypass) confirmed what I wasn't hearing. The headroom and transparency of the Dangerous put it into a different category than the other stereo compressors I regularly use. I can say without hesitation that the Dangerous Compressor is the most hi-fi compressor I've ever had in my mix chain. Thing is, I don't always favor the most hi-fi gear for every duty. On a mix for Eric + Erica, a band with an airy singer, sparse instrumentation, and lots of ambience and dynamics, the Dangerous excelled at keeping the dynamic range in check without changing the vibe I'd created in the mix. In other words, it did exactly what many people want from a 2-bus processor of any sort: it made the mix sound better in a subtle, intangible way without any indication of a strong sonic stamp — and I happily and readily printed my final mixes through the Dangerous. However, on a mix for Zun Zun Egui, a loud British psych-dance band with a ton of energy and many overdubs, switching in the Dangerous left me missing a little of the sound of my current main stereo compressor, the Smart Research C1LA [Tape Op #98]. Although they are both based around VCAs, the two compressors have completely different sounds — that is to say, the C1LA has much more of one. I can really hear it working, in a way that I like, to give the mix a "tougher" sound. If loud rock is your bag, you may or may not find the Dangerous too transparent for your tastes.
None of that is to say that the Dangerous Compressor is a one-trick pony. In fact, it's extremely versatile, with the ability to tailor the sidechain via Bass Cut and Sibilance Boost buttons, as well as XLR inserts for external sidechain processing if you need more precise EQ'ing or filtering of your control signal.
There is a Smart Dynamics switch, which I found myself leaving on all the time. Apparently, it allows the detection circuit to address peaks and averages independently, assigning a specific slope for each, which definitely sounds pretty smart. There's also a Soft Knee switch, as well as a switch for keeping attack and release values automatic or giving yourself manual control over them. Finally, there's a Stereo button, which gangs the Threshold and Gain knobs of the left channel to control both sides. I found the Stereo setting way, way more useful than on most stereo compressors, since it still uses the independent left and right signals to trigger the compression. This means that mixes through the Dangerous Compressor won't suffer from over-compression of centered elements and under-compression of panned or out-of-phase ones, which is often the case with stereo compressors that use a single shared detector. Moreover, the dual-detector scheme is also better suited for mid/side processing if that's how you've set up your mix bus. (The Dangerous doesn't have a built-in M/S matrix itself.) Interestingly, the Attack and Release controls remain independent in stereo mode, giving you finer control of transients that are panned (or allowing you to adjust the dynamics differently for mid/side).
GH: After going through a range of uses, I focused on two areas: using the Dangerous Compressor to smooth out uneven mixes, and adding punch to slightly dull tracks.
For smoothing, I found that the auto attack and release did a nice job either as a starting point or a final setting. I'm normally skeptical about auto settings, but whatever Dangerous did under the hood made sense to my ears. This is a box that sounded like a big-board bus compressor, but with less sonic imprint. That's actually good. Some 2-bus boxes give you glue in exchange for a reduction in clarity. I appreciated the "do no harm" nature of this unit. I often left the Dangerous Compressor patched to give a haircut for any wandering transients. And I didn't feel guilty either, because the unit is quiet and did not diminish any mix run through it.
For punch and smack, I went manual all the way. Anyone with a lot of compression experience will tell you that attack and release are the high stakes section of the casino. If you get those settings right, the payoff is significant. From hip hop to classic rock, I was able to bring a more aggressive back beat out of a variety of sources.
EC: To see if the Dangerous Compressor could indeed imprint a serious sound on an individual track, I ran a few different single instruments through the Dangerous at 20:1, with a hard knee and a fast release. I could certainly push it into areas where I could hear heavy compression artifacts, most noticeably on short, percussive sounds. On a vocal, the Dangerous Compressor never quite got pumpy and breathe-y the way a Distressor [Tape Op #32] or an 1176 can, but it did give the vocal a nice thick heft that would be very useful in the right context. On drum overheads, the "abused" sound actually worked quite well to even out the elements of the kit, and never got overly harsh on the cymbals. Fine-tuning the attack allowed me to find the perfect balance of impact versus ambience. Again, I have other compressors that can get a much more extreme sound; if the Dangerous has a fault here, it's only that it remains fully musical even when pushed hard. I know that doesn't sound like a fault — it only is to somebody that sometimes likes their gear to crumble a bit under pressure. But at the end of the day, I found many ways of using the Dangerous on single elements that sounded great to me.
The takeaway here is that the Dangerous Compressor is an excellent product at a fair price, especially for a device in its class. Its versatility and sonic stealth should make it very attractive to anybody looking for an alternative to their current 2-bus squeezer, or for two more independent channels of tracking or mix compression. I put it squarely in the category of "does its job without calling much attention to itself," which every serious studio should certainly have as an option. Even if you think of yourself as somebody who favors compressors with a sound, I'd recommend checking out the Dangerous to see if it can fill a hole in your toolbox — perhaps one you didn't even realize was there.
Greg Calbi: The Dangerous Compressor was sent into my studio early this year for a demo, and I never let it leave my studio after hearing what it could do. The most remarkable feature is its uncanny ability to push the melodic elements of the mix forward while maintaining all the separation in the low end, which always seems to collapse when hitting other stereo compressors. In my setup, the Smart Dynamics button is in all the time, and it seems to enable me to get just a little more level on my mastering for all those level- hungry clients without sacrificing the sense of dynamics. Chris Muth should be congratulated on creating an essential tool for my mastering projects.