I am a fan of the 500-series format, but each time I see a new module enter the fray of over 200 different modules, I have to wonder what makes this one special. Phoenix Audio produces high quality, Class A circuitry in the heritage of vintage Neve-style designs, and I was eager to check out the N90-DRC/500 compressor/gate module.
The single-wide module's front panel boasts no less than seven knobs and six toggle switches, as well as a five-segment LED meter. That's a lot of controls in a small space, but Phoenix uses firm-turning, detented knobs and long-throw toggle switches, which provide positive feedback and the confidence that you are adjusting only the intended control. For the compressor section, the top three knobs control threshold, ratio, and release, while the top three toggle switches control compressor bypass, fast/slow release time, and auto-release mode. For the gate section, we have threshold, range, and release knobs, along with toggle switches for link, key trigger, and gate in/out. Additionally, the bottom knob provides 15 dB of Class A, transformer-balanced output gain. The LED ladder shows the amount of compression and the bottom light cleverly doubles as a gate activity indicator.
My first trials included using just the gate on recorded kick and snare drum. I am not usually a fan of gates on live drums, except as an effect on a parallel or doubled track for added attack or punch. The N90's gate provided extremely musical processing for both kick and snare - not so much as a "noise gate," but as a transient shaper for adjusting the attack, release, pump, and ambience of the drum tracks. Even without a dedicated attack control, I could play the threshold against the range to effectively adjust the attack of the gating action. While I could certainly use this gate on my typical parallel drum tracks, I did find this gate quite useful on the main drum tracks. Incidentally, up to eight N90 modules can be linked (so long as your 500-series rack supports linking), and an external gate key input is provided on the middle of the front panel in the form of a bantam TT jack.
As a compressor, I found the N90 reminiscent of the Neve 2254, where more compression adds weight and size to a sound, instead of thinning it out. After my review, I found out that David Rees, who designed the original 2254, also designed the N90 and the Class A output stage used by Phoenix Audio! The compressor provides very flexible controls, and I liked the auto setting for release on almost every source. The fast release mode drastically changed the action of the compressor, and severe limiting effects could easily be dialed in. Conversely, subtle dynamic control with a very gentle knee was also easy to dial in, allowing drums to be made to pump and thump much more easily than with almost any other compressor I can think of. I would describe this compressor as musical and thick. The 15 dB of makeup gain also proved useful for some subtle saturation effects, though it never provided what I would call overdrive. With +26 dBu of output level, you will never run out of headroom with the N90.
In the dense field of 500-series modules, the Phoenix Audio N90-DRC/500 compressor/gate certainly exceeded my expectations. Check it out if you're in the market for powerful, versatile, and musical outboard compression.
($799 MSRP; www.phoenixaudio.net)