Warm Audio only recently began making some noise with their affordable, well-built WA12 [Tape Op #91] and TB12 [#97] mic preamps, and at the 2014 NAMM Show, Warm dropped a bomb by releasing the WA76, a FET compressor based on the legendary UREI 1176. The catch here is that the WA76 hit the streets with a price of $599. The original UREI 1176 cost almost $500 when it debuted in 1967, and today, the Universal Audio branded model retails for just under $2,000. Warm Audio's take follows the circuit design of the Revision D version of the 1176. The Rev D, one of many revisions, can be considered the "standard" 1176 and incorporates UREI's low noise (LN) circuitry and improved circuit board layout. Similarly, the currently produced Universal Audio 1176 reissue takes after the D and E versions, where the E version simply allows for both 110 and 220 V operation.
The WA76 mimics the look of the blackface 1176 with very similar knobs and switches, but also sports Warm's signature orange logo. The rear panel drops the 1176 barrier strip connections and instead provides XLR and balanced 1/4'' inputs and outputs. An external 24 V wall- wart power supply connects to the rear panel, and a thoughtful input pad switch also lives on the back panel.
The WA76 follows the original 1176's design very closely, even sourcing the original input and output transformers from CineMag. So the form factor and the critical elements resemble the original as closely as possible with two minor changes. First, the attack knob on the original had an "off" position that allowed the unit to be run as a line amp without any compression. The WA76 loses this feature, but you can still bypass the compressor by simply deselecting all the ratio buttons. Second, like the original, the WA76 provides tons of gain (over 50 dB), but the WA76 provides an input pad switch (-23 dB) that effectively allows more control over the amount of compression, which I find especially helpful when used with modern mic preamps that don't provide an output trim.
The controls of the WA76 resemble those of the original with input gain, output gain, attack, and release knobs, as well as pushbutton selectors for ratio and metering functions. Also like the original, the attack and release times range from crazy fast to moderately fast: 20 to 800 microsecond attack times, and 50 millisecond to 1 second release times. Interestingly, the input knob is finely detented, but the output knob turns smoothly. Ratios can be set at 4:1, 8:1, 12:1 or 20:1, and the "all buttons in" mode also works. Threshold varies automatically with ratio, and the input control determines the drive into the compressor while the output control provides makeup gain after the compressor. This is a completely discrete circuit with a Class A output amplifier, and the unit's noise floor stays very low with proper gain-staging. Like the original, the illuminated VU meter can display gain reduction or output level referenced to either +4 or +8 dBm.
In use, I found the overall compression to be slightly more grabby than a very good example of an original Revision D, which seemed to have a slightly softer knee — possibly due to aging components. The WA76, however, provided a subtle but very nice low-mid push which helped vocals and bass come forward in a mix. I attribute the sonic color mainly to the CineMag transformers, which impart their flavor even when the compressor is bypassed. I found that I typically ran the input knob only at about 9 o'clock to provide a few dB of compression at 4:1, and the output knob lived around 1 o'clock. I also tended to use the middle positions of the attack and release, whereas on the vintage unit, I particularly like the slow attack and fast release settings. I often use an 1176 just to add a bit of presence to a vocal, with its slightly edgy tone, and I could get the same effect with the WA76, but also with the smooth low-mids that the transformers provide. Overall, the WA76 stands up extremely well to my collection of compressors, which include Summit, UREI, Inward Connections, Focusrite, and a few custom pieces. The entire build quality belies the low price, and some may even overlook the unit for fear that corners were cut. I don't see anywhere that quality was compromised, but some clever cost-saving processes were used, and the external power supply helps trim costs, as well.
With vintage and reissue 1176 units costing almost four times as much as the WA76, it's an easy call to check one (or two) out. I know Warm Audio will have trouble keeping these in stock.