Don’t tell my wife I just bought another compressor. She thinks I have “enough” or maybe even “too many,” and I have to admit, I’ve been pretty lucky on the compressor front. I’ve got a bunch of great stuff — old and new — but I don’t have anything that does what this one does.
The AMTEC 852 is a transformer-balanced (in and out) tube compressor with the usual controls and a few new ones. The usual: input and output gain, threshold, attack, and release. There’s a hardwire bypass (hooray!) and a link function which I didn’t test — I only had one unit.
Fair warning — I have no idea what’s going on inside this thing, and I don’t particularly care. Things may be feeding forward or backward, or maybe even double-reverse. But it’s got tubes and trannys, and it sounds good — that works for me. And I’m sure the geek shit is available somewhere... except on AMTEC’s website, strangely. [Information can be found on the website of the US distributor, DSPdoctor <dspdoctor.com>. –AH]
The 852 sounds good — really good. It’s got a nice transformer thing going on, although not as radical as I would have guessed. Vocals receive a nice fullness and a little high-end sparkle that reminds me of a really good old Altec, or even a Telefunken V 76. Drums can snap or slam, and there’s no low-mid buildup or haze that you sometimes get with older tube gear. In that, it reminds me of a really nice condition, vintage UA 175/176.
In use, the threshold seems to increase the ratio as you slam the needle to the left — which is fun, especially at the extremes. There’s no ratio control, but it feels like something around the 8:1 setting on an 1176.
The fun is in the other controls. They’re doing some really cool things with the sidechain in this puppy. First, there’s the sidechain filter knob with four settings — Line, Flat, 80, and 160. The Line setting disables the compression circuit, and the unit becomes a really nice line-amp, although at extremes, there seems to be a little bit of compression still in there — which is great! I feel like this would be a really cool line-amp for mix bus or mastering... if the controls were stepped. (They’re not.) One can only hope that this is an option later down the line.
Flat, 80, and 160 are the usual sidechain EQ settings, allowing the compressor to progressively ignore low frequencies — something I love to use on drums. It works as expected and is a greatly appreciated option. What’s not expected is one of the coolest functions on this unit — its killer app — the Lag/Distortion control.
Lag is absolutely my favorite new thing ever, and I wish that every compressor had this feature. To my ears, it simply adjusts how long the compression waits to kick in. In real life, this means you can dial in some delicious drum crush, and then... add the leading transient back into it. Or, get a great vocal going and then reclaim the front attack of the words. I used it to even-out an acoustic bass and get the snap back. It’s literally The Most Useful Thing Ever.
Distortion... adds distortion. Duh. I’ve used it to dirty up a guitar that needed some attitude. It’s brilliant on bass and piano, and yet another great color for voice. I discovered that this is the perfect second compressor, in a series, for cutting vocals. (Ever try this? It’s great. Run the vocal through an opto-limiter, like an LA-2A or an Inward Connections Brute [Tape Op #84], and then run it through the 852. The first compressor controls, and the second shapes and adds character.)
Fear not, purists — the 852 is entirely capable of being quite mannered and clean as well. In fact, I like the fact that this box allows a useable range, from pristine gain control, to distortion and destruction. It’s kind of like a tube cousin to that great 1RU box with the big white knobs, the Empirical Labs Distressor [Tape Op #32].
Did AMTEC get everything right? No, of course not, so here’s my wish list. I’d love a 10× button on either the distortion or the input gain, in order to more easily destroy some audio. I felt like I was cranking the input gain a little too much sometimes, and I love to really destroy tube gear with level when called for. I feel like this would be great if it could happen in-between the transformer stages. Also, the meter shows gain reduction only — no input or output, which can make some accurate recalls difficult. Ditto on stepped or detented controls. The front face has a plastic-y look to me and doesn’t aesthetically aspire to the level of the sonics in this unit.
In this day and age, having a versatile tube compressor that’s able to cover this many bases is a real boon. I feel confident that this unit will find its way into a lot of racks to deftly deliver versatility, fun, and color, as well as straightforward workhorse utility. I think that if I only had the AMTEC 852 at a session, I’d be just fine with that. Just don’t tell my wife.