The same day that Empirical Labs, Inc. (ELI) announced the availability of Arouser, a dynamics processor plug-in that looks like a suped-up, virtual version of the hardware EL-8X Distressor [Tape Op #32], a number of Tape Op writers volunteered to review it. We gave the assignment to two seasoned reviewers. Dave Hidek's examination opens the review below, and opinions from Eli Crews follow. And finally, comments from ELI founder and designer, Dave Derr, close out the review. –AH
When ELI releases something new, everyone pays attention. From the makers of the acclaimed Distressor comes a compressor plug-in inspired by (but not a clone of) the hardware legend. I'll refer back to the hardware Distressor in this review for the sake of a familiar reference point.
At first glance, the interface of Arouser appears very familiar to ELI veterans, with its classic white knobs, the tiny white text crammed into every nook, the horizontal compression-ratio layout, and the black faceplate cordoned off by rectangles with rounded corners. But there are a few key, very exciting additions.
The first and most curious is the Attack Modification knob. This changes the character of the attack to allow for some really interesting takes on what you already know as that snappy Distressor attack. The default value is 2.00/10, so I assume that ELI wants this feature to be core to Arouser's persona. The easiest way to understand what's happening here is to dial up a very aggressive setting with a snare drum. For example, I tried my input at 10.0 (as high as possible), my attack at 0.0 (as fast as possible), and my release at 7.0 (to isolate the character of the attack). With these settings and a 6:1 ratio (not too much, not too little), the meter was showing −23 dB of gain reduction, which is pretty heavy-handed. As I turned up Attack Modification, the snare drum transient was allowed to poke through more and more, but only for a split second before the compressor clamped down. It was very clearly different than just making the attack slower. I would say you could easily label this knob as "Snap," and it would make a lot of sense for this example. Regardless, this feature allows for some crazy flexibility in the way that you compress. Other scenarios for Attack Modification could be heavily compressing vocals, but wanting more "spit" in the sound, or compressing a palm-muted clean guitar, but wanting more "bite."
The other features are already found on a Distressor — to a degree — including a detector sidechain, detector high-pass filter, and harmonic saturation options. The difference is that now you can choose their values, which is very handy, particularly in the case of the Saturation knob. Arouser's Soft Clipping section can really create some havoc — and quickly. It's not subtle unless you want it to be. You can't specifically choose between even or odd–order harmonic distortion, but being able to put the "pedal to the metal" — regardless of the compression settings — makes up for that. ELI has thoughtfully included a wet/dry knob on Arouser, which is useful for such instances.
At the end of the day, everyone wants to know if Arouser sounds like the Distressor. I'll say this: If you dial up the same settings, it will not sound the same. I found that I had to be more aggressive with Arouser to emulate the Distressor. The good news is that I got pretty darn close at lower ratios — close enough that my interns wouldn't be able to tell the difference. At higher ratios, above 6:1, the hardware unit started to pull away in terms of flexibility under pressure. Arouser needed slightly more fidgeting to keep up.
So, if you want to absolutely wreck something, the hardware Distressor is still king. Even in normal use, there's a slight thickness and weight to the Distressor that I am not able to get from Arouser, but this is by no means a dealbreaker in any way, shape, or form. Arouser is incredibly fun to use, and I have no qualms saying that it has fully lived up to the hype. It's easily one of the best sounding plug-in compressors that I've used, and I strongly recommend trying out the demo to hear for yourself.
–Dave Hidek firstname.lastname@example.org
I'm sure it will come as no shock to anybody reading this that the first plug-in sold directly by ELI — and only the second with their brand stamped on it (the first being the UAD FATSO) — is nothing short of completely bad-ass. At first glance, Arouser looks a lot like a Distressor, which for the three people out there who don't know, is the closest thing to a modern classic piece of studio hardware that has been made in the last two decades. (For the record, I really don't think this is hyperbole. I honestly can't think of a more ubiquitous pro audio processor. Can you?) In my opinion, the Distressor became famous and beloved for three reasons: its overall sound quality, its ease of use (including recallability), and its versatility. Not only does it sound amazing when pushed into sonic extremes, it has been my first-reach compressor for well over a decade when the utmost subtlety is called for.
Arouser has these same three attributes, with even more versatility. Dave Derr, founder and chief brainiac of ELI, clearly wasn't content merely porting his best-known product into the digital realm. Some of Arouser's extra features include variable control over the amount of soft clipping (saturation), a dial for the sidechain HPF frequency, and a fully parametric EQ for the sidechain. (The Distressor only has one or two settings for each of these functions.) There's also a wet/dry Blend control for onboard parallel compression. My favorite new feature is the Attack Modification control, which allows you to easily dial in more attack on an instrument once you have the compression characteristics set to your liking. The feature is a little hard to describe, but it achieves different results than backing off the attack time, especially when used with extreme amounts of gain reduction. It's a little like having half of an SPL Transient Designer circuit modded into your Distressor's signal path.
Overall, working with Arouser is quick, partly thanks to scroll-wheel support, which I always appreciate. Plus, for a plug-in, it sounds incredible. Although I won't be selling my Distressors any time soon (since I love them for tracking, and I still mix mostly in analog), Arouser has immediately found its way into my workflow. As a side-note, I think Derr made a smart move in choosing a different name for the plug-in, even if the powerful name recognition of the Distressor could likely have moved a few more units, so to speak. This allowed him and his team to incorporate and expand on the best parts of the hardware, without being overly beholden to it. The result is a unique tool for those of us who are always looking for better ways to make our recordings sound vibrant and exciting.
For years, I have told budding engineers, without hesitation, that their first serious compressor should be a Distressor. Now, when I get asked the same question about a plug-in compressor, Arouser is the ultra-clear choice. And I'm not just saying all of this because my name is on them.
–Eli Crews www.elicrews.com
Here are some final notes from Dave Derr: "When Dave Hidek was directly comparing Arouser to the Distressor, part of the reason why the plug-in was hard to match to the hardware at high gain-reduction settings was a faulty Gain Reduction bargraph in the software. The Rev 1.0 Arousor bargraph was missing lots of transient peaks. That has now been fixed, and I personally have tested if it makes matching easier — and it does.
"Eli Crews nailed why we used a different name for the obviously Distressor-like plug-in. We thought we could expand on what the Distressor does — and do a few things that are easy to do in the digital domain, but prohibitive in the analog domain. Besides, I have learned a bit about compression since 1995, so why not apply that knowledge? Then to ignore what plug-in compressors have brought to the table in the last five years — the product would have been uncompetitive and outdated. Plus, the name Arousor puts it right at the top of the pull-down plug-in lists!
"Arousor is expensive, but we really spent a lot of time trying to make something sonically superior — and infinitely upgradeable. There are over 16 new features planned that should continue to excite our customers for many years. With that in mind, we will be giving Arouser customers free and extremely cool upgrades until at least 2020."
After reading these statements from Dave, Eli, and Dave, I'm heading to the ELI website to download the 14-day, fully functional demo, so I can try Arouser myself.