I love stompboxes as much as the next studio rat, but if we reviewed all of them there'd be no room for the other swell recording gear we chat about in Tape Op. But when respected pedal builder Union Tube & Transistor builds something like the LAB, an optical compressor stompbox, I have to take notice. I've had the LAB around the studio since before it was actually released last year, and I've used it on a lot of songs for guitar and bass tracking, in the traditional "before the amp or DI" fashion. In every case, the simple two knob (In and Out) style made it easy to set, like using a Universal Audio LA-3A [Tape Op #49]. We'd look for the right amount of grab and reduction with the In, and then boost the Out to compensate for the gain reduction. One of the smartest features is the multicolor LED, which not only lets you know the pedal is on but goes from green to yellow to red as more gain reduction takes place. Who needs a VU meter? The custom built (yep) optocouplers (two in the detector circuit, one for the LED) work great, and is set to grab pretty quick (Roger McGuinn's Byrds chime) and level out notes (Peter Hook's Joy Division bass grind). So yeah, the LAB pedal made it onto a lot of albums while tracking guitar and bass.
But being that this is Tape Op, what about using the LAB as an outboard processor in mixing? I hooked mine up through a Radial EXTC [#100], a 500 Series re-amp/DI all-in-one interface between +4 line level and pedals that I use all the time. This allowed me to pretend the LAB was a pro audio compressor, and it acted like it thought it was one. Union claims a frequency response of 20 Hz to 20 kHz with plus or minus 0.1 dB. This may sound crazy for a stompbox, but I found it to pass full frequency, 96 kHz sessions no problem; I even examined before and after tracks in spectral view. I tried it on vocals, and it could really squash out in a fun, punchy way (they say it has 30 dB of reduction) but could also add a light compression to reign in and focus the vocal for a "proper" mix. On upright bass guitar I could get more overt and really put that sometimes difficult instrument in one place and keep it working with the drums; it kinda felt better than many of my hi-fi units in the racks. On a mono grand piano mic, it did well and didn't dull out the detail of the strings, hammers, and overall tone as I mentioned earlier. I could see any studio rat pulling this out for mixing and tracking all the time. If Union Tube & Transistor built a little 500 Series unit, I bet people would go nuts. But adding in two transformers would certainly make it cost far more than this $300 pedal! I know I'll be using mine forever, and it's already one of the few things I take on the road for non-Jackpot! sessions. I think that says a lot! Welcome to LAB.