Let's come clean right from the beginning: I'm a gear snob. I like gear that feels robust and solid. I like gear that sounds beautiful and inspiring. I like it when the gear I use gives me the sensation of sitting in the driver's seat of a proper German automobile. That being said, when I find a piece of studio kit that is brilliantly unique, solves a studio issue like no other, or has an amazing price point for delivering what it sets out to accomplish, I become one of its most devout proponents!
Over the past five to ten years we've seen many mainstream audio companies deliver products that attempt to emulate vintage or high-ticket hardware at a fraction of the original's price. At the same time, there are relatively unknown companies that hand-make their offerings on a much smaller scale, competing for the same (albeit a more informed) deal-seeking audience. One of these companies is Florida-based AudioScape Engineering. With the substantial buzz they've attracted on social media, as well as their "boutique-quality analog hardware for a reasonable cost" credo, I've watched them with interest over the past 20 plus months. When I got word that Tape Op was considering a review for their Buss Compressor, I jumped at the opportunity to find out what this team was bringing to the marketplace.
AudioScape's Buss Compressor is a VCA stereo compressor that pays homage to the G Series bus compressors used in certain British consoles. These have been used on more records than we can count over the past three decades. While purchasing an original unit could set you back close to $4500, there are a handful of pro audio companies that manufacture their own versions for a bit less cash. Few, however, have set out to deliver this exact sound for a fifth of the price.
AudioScape's compressor shares the same specs as the original SSL G Series' and incorporates a very similar looking front panel design. From left to right, you'll find an original-inspired analog dB Gain Reduction meter, followed by Threshold, Ratio, Attack, Release, and Make-Up gain controls. Ratio, Attack, and Release controls are stepped, with the same values as the original hardware. To the right of the Make-Up pot are two toggle switches. The first switch engages an internal 160 Hz sidechain high-pass filter; the second toggles the compressor On or Off. The last control on the unit is a backlit power button. While the VU meter is tastefully illuminated, and all pots feel relatively solid, the power button feels fragile at times. Also, both toggle switches on the unit I was sent were very loose. Opening the unit and tightening them from the inside fixed this problem.
I set up the unit in a loop: stereo outs from my interface into the Buss Compressor, then out of the Buss Compressor back into a pair of stereo inputs. Cable runs were very short to ensure that I was getting a super clear representation of what this compressor was doing. Initially, I ran complete stereo mixes through the unit – its intended use: A sparse jazz piece, a punchy hip-pop track, and a guitar-driven rock mix. Depending on the source material, I was only taking off about 3 to 6 dB of compression, but each time I was really impressed with how "alive" and more present the compressor made each tune feel. The low end seemed a bit rounder, and things like reverb tails became more noticeable (in a good way). It was the expected and iconic glue that we seek out when using the original G Series hardware. While I personally believe this VCA compressor shines on complete mixes, I still ran other instruments through the unit to see what I could get it to do. I next used it on a stereo drum bus. When treated somewhat subtly, the drums seemed to sparkle and act as one cohesive instrument – plus the handy sidechain was a welcomed feature when I didn't want the kick to pull the life out of my drum bus. I tried to really slam the compressor and then blend it back in with the original dry drums to give a bit more bite and energy. But, like the original unit, I was never satisfied with the result when using it this way. Running a beautiful Pimentel & Sons acoustic guitar through the unit (with a 2:1 ratio, a long attack, and a medium release) made the instrument sound full and present, without taking up too much sonic space. I really liked what the Buss Compressor did when subtly kissing both acoustic guitar and acoustic bass.
While I didn't have the "famed compressor" on hand to do a proper A/B comparison, I did my own comparison with plug-in emulations (not quite fair) from McDSP, Native Instruments, Waves, and UAD. While I have used software with satisfying results many times over, I was surprised at how disappointed I was when I put them up against the AudioScape unit. A few of the plug-in versions were quite good, but none of them sounded as present, urgent, or all-around engaging as AudioScape's analog Buss Compressor. This a fantastic piece of gear that any studio should welcome. From many years of using an original unit, I can clearly say that the AudioScape Buss Compressor emulates the famed British bus compressor accurately. I may not choose to use this for dirty or aggressive compression (for color or effect), but I would always keep one strapped across my mix bus. At less than $700, AudioScape has delivered an amazing compressor that affords the masses access to that sought-after British mix bus sound.