Since around 2002, those in the know have held secret appreciation and employed covert application of the ART Pro VLA and Pro VLA II compressors. These 2RU-height, tube-based, optical compressors found themselves at home on rock drum and vocal buses, taming harsh transients and imparting their smooth mojo during tracking sessions. The Pro VLA compressors remained under the radar partly because who would take seriously a stereo tube compressor that sells for around $300? Admirers say that the Pro VLA is the most useful compressor under a grand — and it's way under a grand. Fast forward to today, and low- cost plug-ins and tasty 500-series modules have become de rigueur in our studios, so... ART thoughtfully reimagined the VLA compressor into an ultra-affordable, all-analog, 500- series module, called the VLA 500.
The VLA 500 retains the Pro VLA's signature vactrol-based compression circuit, but removes the tubes and adds two tone-coloring distortion circuits. For what it's worth, Vactrol is just a fancy name (and genericized trademark) for a resistive optical element which can be used as the sensor for an audio compressor. Optical sensors exhibit low distortion and musical, frequency-based response times for audio signals like bass, vocals, and drums. Common opto-based compressors include the venerable LA-2A, LA-3A, and LA-4A compressors, which are known for their just-right attack and release times.
ART's solid-black, single-wide modules sport five comfortably spaced knobs, alongside five small pushbuttons and a nine-segment meter. Although this may sound like a lot to pack onto a 500-series faceplate, the layout works well, and the controls prove easy to adjust and read. ART left off numbers on the hash-marks surrounding each knob — threshold, ratio, attack, release, and output — so it would behoove the user to take a glance at the manual to learn what to expect for each knob's settings. The unusually wide range of control for each knob results in a large sonic palette of compression styles. For instance, the attack time ranges from a super-fast 0.25 ms to a modest 50 ms, while the release time ranges from a moderate 150 ms to a very lazy 3 s. In use, I found applications for the full range of times, although the longest release times would probably only be used in rare cases. The low noise floor of the VLA 500 (-102 dBu) and its super-wide dynamic range will never limit the audio quality in any meaningful way, so no user should shy away from patching in this analog compressor for fear of noise or low- headroom processing.
The new features that the VLA 500 brings to the party are labeled as Punch and Grit. Punch uses a JFET to add even- harmonic saturation, which rounds off transients and seems to add some girth to many sounds. Grit adds musical harmonic distortion that complements the source, similar to overdriving a class-A console channel. The output level knob adjusts the amounts of both Punch and Grit, which can be engaged separately, together, and even when the compressor is bypassed. If both Punch and Grit are off, the VLA produces a very clean signal, with very little tonal coloration until compression becomes extreme.
In use, I quickly realized the VLA 500 wants to see a signal several dB below the typical +4 dBu, in order to stay within the sweet spot of compression versus headroom. Keep in mind that when using most DAWs, any signal averaging over -18 dBFS (on your DAW track meter) produces an analog output level at the converter of over 0 dB VU (+4 dBu). That means the bass track which consistently reads -6 dBFS on your DAW meter will look like +12 dB on an analog VU! So when using the VLA 500 (or many other analog outboard pieces) as an insert processor with Pro Tools, I find it useful to instantiate a trim plug-in before the analog insert, so that I can lower my DAW track's insert level to a level the VLA 500 can optimally handle.
In my sessions, I found the VLA 500 to be very useful on a number of sources, during both tracking and mixing. I compared the VLA 500 to 500-series compressors from Chandler, APA, and Inward Connections; and while the VLA 500 didn't provide the smooth and forward transformer sound or class-A sheen of those other compressors, it proved effective and unique in its ability to handle compression and tone-shaping duties. On rock kick, a slow attack and fast release easily added more smack and consistent dynamics to the kick, while the Punch and Grit could be used to dial in some analog overdrive character. Jack White would approve of the bombastic kick drum I achieved with a high compression ratio, fast attack, fast release, and Grit on. Alternatively, on upright bass for a jazz recording, a relatively high ratio with medium attack and release settings provided natural dynamic control, without any tonal coloration or saturation effects. I also used a pair of VLA 500s across a vocal bus of rapper Tyga. The vocal stem was already processed and premixed with Tyga's preferred EQ and effects, and the VLA 500s let me dial in just enough dynamic control, with a medium ratio, medium attack, and fast release, to help the vocal stem sit nicely in a dense pop/R&B mix, while still retaining the original stem's character and effects balance.
All-in-all, the VLA 500 shows itself to be a strong contender as a 500-series compressor — at any price. At $199, this box is in the "can't resist" class of gear.