Revive Audio is a small company based in Boise, Idaho, that makes boutique audio gear under the Vintage Audio name [MSL VCA Bus Compressor, Tape Op #102] and also modifies a wide range of moderately priced gear. I first learned about the Revive mods when I was looking at some high-end, and rather pricey, optical compressors. I love my Universal Audio LA-2A [Tape Op #26], and was intrigued by the idea of an opto compressor with a bit more control over the attack, release, threshold, and ratio, but I was less excited about spending $2000 or more for a single channel unit. Then I stumbled across the Revive mod for the ART Pro VLA opto compressor and thought, "Hmm, I already have a Pro VLA, and for about $500 I can get it modded and have a stereo boutique opto compressor!" We have reviewed the Pro VLA comps before [#37, #74] and I think they are the best compressors you can buy for under $500. I first heard about them at one of the TapeOpCons we used to hold, when Dave Fridmann [#17] and Craig Schumacher [#10] were both waxing about how they liked these and used them all the time. I bought a Pro VLA, and have used it on quite a few mixes over the years. I've seen plenty of "cool guy" engineers poo-poo the Pro VLA because it's not vintage enough or expensive enough, but if you use your ears, you'll find plenty of uses for it. Sure, it's not going to sound quite as hi-fi as a $2000 to 3000 boutique compressor, but it really does come close.
There are several aspects in the design and construction of any piece of audio gear. First you have the design of the audio circuit. Then you have the build, and this encompasses the quality of the housing, the ergonomics of the gear, and of course the individual components chosen and used to implement the electrical design. There's no way a big company like ART can build a compressor that retails for around $300 and put in NOS tubes, high-end capacitors and resistors, and USA- or UK-made audio transformers. That the stock Pro VLA sounds so good is a testament to how smart the electrical design is – even though the components are not that great, it still sounds pretty damn good! But I wondered what it might sound like with better components. Well, that's exactly what Revive Audio does! All of the Revive mods follow a similar path, so while I'm outlining the Pro VLA mod here, most of their other mods are similar. They have a huge list of gear they have developed mods for, so I strongly suggest you check out their website, because you probably already have some of the gear they work on. For the Pro VLA, their mod addresses several sections of the unit. First, the attack and release times are increased, so you have options for faster times. The input, output, and buffer stages are upgraded with Burr Brown op-amps, which are a big sonic upgrade. Next, Panasonic capacitors are added in coupling and de-coupling functions that results in better frequency response, lower noise, and will help the unit last longer. The Vactrol (the opto component) is upgraded, and the tube plate voltages are increased. Finally, NOS Vintage American tubes replace the OEM offshore tubes that the Pro VLA ships with. All of this for only $350! For an extra $200 you can add output transformers to the originally transformerless circuit design. There is an option for Carnhill transformers (classic UK transformer used in a lot of the original Neve designs) or CineMag transformers (the classic American-made transformer used in a lot of Universal Audio gear). I went with the CineMag transformers, figuring the LA-2A was an American design, so why not keep it local? I also ended up sending my dbx 166 and Chameleon Labs 7602 (SSL bus compressor clone [#51]) to Revive for modding last year. The total cost for all three was just under $1000. On the Chameleon, I opted not to add transformers to the output, although that is an option. I figured the original design of the SSL was transformerless, so I'd stay true to that design.
When the units got back, the dbx and Chameleon went back into the racks at Panoramic. We've been pretty busy, so I haven't had a chance to really put my ears on them. But the modded Pro VLA went over to Coyote Hearing in Oakland, CA, a studio run by Jeremy Black that I've been working out of over the past year or so. I recently met up with Jeremy there and we pulled up a mix of a track by Forrest Day, an artist that Jeremy's been working with, and ran various elements of the mix through the modded Pro VLA. It was impossible to A/B it against the un-modded Pro VLA, of course, but in every instance, we were both very impressed with the sonics of the Pro VLA. In no way did it sound cheap, and I wouldn't hesitate to put it on a track next to a high-end boutique compressor. In all cases it sounded like a piece of gear you could run critical tracks through – lead vocal, drums, etc. In fact, on the drum bus with some really heavy compression the Pro VLA sounded awesome. It added a nice bottom-end sustain to the kick drum but didn't wash out the cymbals or make the track sound dull. It was really hi-fi but also added a lot of character to the drums. Squishy in a good way was one comment. So, for about $850 all in, I have an amazing stereo opto tube compressor that I will never want to part with.
If you're on a budget, or even if you're not, I'd strongly suggest you check out the Revive Audio site. They have a massive list of gear they mod as well as their own line of gear they manufacture. The process of communicating with them, shipping the gear to them, and getting it back was very professional, and the turnaround was fairly quick – just a few weeks for all three pieces.