"Hardware versus plug-in? Hardware versus plug-in?" Wring hands. Repeat. In the early days of digital emulations of classic pieces of hardware, the argument could easily be made that the digital side of things was simply not on par with the original hardware. Now it is a much more balanced argument with each having benefits and drawbacks. I'd like to have a giant stack of LA-2A and 1176 units racked up to the ceiling, but do I have $30,000 to drop? Nope.
I always know when a plug-in is a good fit for me when I return to it again and again, even when there is a long list of candidates available. Waves CLA-2A is one such tool. It emulates one of the most famous compressor/limiters of all time, the Teletronix LA-2A, while adding Chris Lord-Alge's personal presets.
Quick and dirty history: The LA-2A was (and still is under the Universal Audio brand) a tube electro-optical compressor that uses the T4 cell (an electro-luminescent panel and a light- dependent resistor) to achieve its gain reduction. It has a fast 10 ms attack time, and a characteristic two-stage release that has a medium fast onset and then a very slow tail. The unit is known for its low harmonic distortion. When pushed hard, however, the tube will get crispier on the top. Big, fat, and warm are common words used to describe the unit. When you hear it, you know it. It's a vocal and bass sound you've heard on records for years — up front, and stuck there with its edges bleeding into the rest of the mix in the perfect way. The original units were made for broadcast but soon found use in studios on everything from vocals to drums to entire mixes. As more specific flavors of dynamics processors have emerged, I have seen the LA-2A used mostly on vocals and bass. The controls are bonehead simple — Gain and Peak Reduction knobs and a switch for compression or limiting.
I was mixing Seattle band The Dip, an eight-piece retro-soul outfit, and I found myself using CLA-2A frequently as part of the vocal treatments to achieve a "classic" sound that fit the style and vibe of the music. The vocal was originally tracked through a hardware LA-2A to catch peaks and capture the "sound" to tape (literally!), but I found the plug-in useful when inserted into different parts of the chain to take that sound a step further.
As with the original hardware unit, you can get the plug-in's (virtual) tubes to sizzle a bit when you increase the gain. (Use this effect to taste.) I liked 2-3 dB of reduction in the compression setting on a vocal, locking the vocal right into place. In some cases, I combined the plug-in with a hardware compressor and was able to push and pull the vocal around while still maintaining the signature sound of the LA-2A. In addition to vocals, I used the plug-in on bass and liked the grit it brought when driving it a bit. Again, this compressor just sticks the bass right where you want it and keeps it there. On other sources, I ran through the presets and adjusted accordingly. It was not my cup of tea for everything, but it was certainly usable across the board.
A real-deal hardware unit goes for over $3000 for a single channel of this magic, and I wouldn't argue with the cost versus what it brings to a mix. But let's be honest, that is a lot of bread, and for those just dipping their toe into the studio gear acquisition pond, $3000 buys a lot of toys. Friends, fear not. You too can have this same classic sound in a snappy skeuomorphic display of software bliss for a mere fraction of that $3000. One lovely thing about well-done emulation plug-ins (and this is one) is that you can put these classic pieces of gear on more than just that one lead vocal or bass track!
Also in the CLA Classic Compressors series is CLA-76. The original UREI 1176 was the first solid-state peak limiter, relying on a field-effect transistor (FET) for its gain control. What's unique about this compressor (and the Universal Audio reissue) is that the attack, release, and ratio characteristics are program dependent — compressing or limiting true to the selected ratio, but then increasing the compression effect after the initial transient in a manner dependent on the program material. It's known to add brightness and exciting character to whatever it's compressing. Equally as famous as the LA-2A, the 1176 has been used and revered by engineers on everything from vocals to entire mixes. It can be dialed in as a functional gain reduction tool and conversely as a tone-shredding beast — aggressive and spitty on a vocal, vibrant on guitars, great on drums. The famous "all buttons in" setting (labeled ALL on CLA-76) works like the hardware version for slamming a drum bus or anything else you want to mangle. In this mode, the compression curve becomes extreme and the tone overdriven, with a lag in grabbing the initial attack. The 1176 (and this plug-in) has a simple but expanded control set: an input pot to set compression amount; attack and release knobs; an output pot; and pushbuttons for selecting ratio and metering options.
The plug-in emulates two versions of the original hardware units. Revision B is the silver-face, blue-stripe model, known in the plug- in as "Bluey"; and revision D is the LN (Low Noise) black-panel version, called "Blacky." CLA-76 has good presets as starting points. I found the plug-in effective and additive everywhere I used it. It's great for adding a good deal of meat and clarity to a kick drum, or helping guitars present themselves better in the mix; and it's fun with a variety of options for vocals, and the list goes on. The 1176 and this emulation are simple, great tools that do the job and bring something special to the music.
I found tracks that benefitted from CLA-76 on every mix I did for The Dip. I especially liked what it did to kick drum in front of an older hardware Summit Audio EQF-100 tube EQ. This combination brought out detail and thump with a nice aggressiveness.
Both the LA-2A and the 1176 have found themselves on a billion records and with good reason. They achieve dynamic control with recognizable sonic signatures that have become classic sounds in the realm of record-making. Both Waves CLA versions of these classics are great sounding and have quickly become go-to plug-ins. Even if you didn't know the legacy of the original hardware, or the plug-ins' graphics and controls were laid out differently, you would think these were plug-ins with a lot of attitude and vibe.