I’ve been looking for a one channel, high-end tube compressor for a few years – mostly for vocals. When Austin, Texas', Electric & Company announced the EC5B, their take on Universal Audio’s legendary 175B, I was immediately interested. The 175B is a well-loved tube compressor, and Electric & Company makes seriously nice gear. I have a pair of their EC3 tube preamps [Tape Op #142] and I fucking love them – and I’m on record as barely caring about preamps.
First, like the EC3, the EC5B looks and feels great. Huge knobs and a handsome faceplate with a big VU meter. With five transformers and six tubes, it’s heavy and runs hot. (Leave an empty space above it in your rack!) A detailed user guide is included – no schematics, which would be a nice addition at this price point – and a Bourns trimpot tool for calibration. The calibration process seems intimidating, but it’s a piece of cake
The controls are simple: Input Attenuation, Attack, Release, Output Attenuation (there is no active makeup gain), and a sidechain high-pass filter (yes!) with 100 Hz and 200 Hz settings. The Attack can click off to remove the gain reduction circuit, which lets you use the EC5B as a nice coloration box. Attack ranges from a fairly slow 2 ms to a fairly fast 0.1 ms; release times from an extremely fast 27 ms to a moderate 500 ms.
Instead of doing any tests, I just started tracking and mixing through the EC5B. Mostly vocals. Tons of vocals. For Oakland’s No Lights, we wanted a very hot vocal chain, like delicately playing guitar into a dimed Marshall amp. With a Neumann U 47 clone, EC3, Purple Audio MC77 [Tape Op #136], and EC5B all moving the needles pretty good, the result was a super “touch sensitive” mic that pushed back at Matt O’Brien as he sang. Really cool. And with the EC5B sitting on top of a rack next to me, those big input and output knobs were in easy reach. I could quickly and confidently ride the input gain during dynamic phrases.
What I found was that it was hard to make this compressor sound bad. Gentle amounts of compression? Yep, great. Hitting 10, 15, 20 dB of gain reduction? Still sounded great, controlled, locked in, and sort of pushed forward, I assume thanks to some added harmonics. You might hear “tube compressor” and think this unit is a fuzzy vibe machine, but no. Its sonics are more subtle and classy.
Finally, I did do some tests. I started with the “parallel bible,” a Pro Tools session I’ve been keeping up for years. It’s one 30-second drum print from a record I worked on, which friends and I have smashed into dozens and dozens of compressors. Do this! It’s fun, and educational to hear what sounds cool on its own versus how it sounds in parallel with the original drum track. When I have only one unit I do two passes, one for each channel, and that was the case here. Put across drums the EC5B sounds pretty different from all 38 (!) of the compressors I have archived – tonally closest to the UnderTone Audio UnFairchild [Tape Op #125] and maybe the Drawmer 1978 [#130], but with a compression characteristic that is its own. Pushed hard with the sidechain filter off, wow. Transients absorbed into the Borg, everything thick and wide, really interesting and nice – and effective and interesting when blended in parallel with the original drum print.
Then I did the more typical tests. Individual vocals, drums, bass, guitars, and comparisons with a half dozen other compressors. For vocals, I checked against lots of nice stuff – the Tree Audio LC/1 opto, BAE 10DC [Tape Op #91], Tonelux TX5C, 500 Series FMR Audio RNLA (Did you know that these exist? They do!) – and the EC5B never lost. Did it work on smooth, melodic vocals? It sure did. Did it work on guttural death metal vocals? I’m afraid so. Those other compressors often sounded great as well, but the EC5B managed lots of gain reduction with fewer artifacts and arguably more “musicality” than the others. As for sources besides vocals, the EC5B sounded stellar on kick drum (added weight, perceptually louder, and a nice transient shape); intriguing on snare (a little went a long way – barely moving the meters still added weight and brought up ghost notes); toneful and dramatic on chimey clean guitars; and right at home on bass (less “congested” than the solid state compressors I was comparing with, and more growl and character). There are lots of promising paths to take, but while something such as vocals or bass are light work, dialing in sources like guitar or snare can be finicky and doing so while tracking carries some risk. But hey, how many of these boxes will you own? Commit!
Finally, I took the EC5B to my friend and chief enabler Jack Shirley’s [Tape Op #115] Atomic Garden Studio to get his thoughts. Jack has been through a number of tube compressors over the years, and he uses an UnFairchild daily. After an hour of compressing sources, he said, “Man, you should buy this.” I did. I’ve been using it regularly since. I tried it on kick drum (!) while mixing the new Covet LP, and it sounded great. Most recently, I’ve been tracking lots of Evelyn Davis’ beautiful vocals, running a Heiserman H47 FET mic into the EC3 and EC5B, both running hot. Basically, rectangles coming into Pro Tools. It sounds goddamn great.
I don’t have many concerns or complaints. One observation is that this beast is no joke inside, and I wonder about service in years to come. It’s beautifully built, but there’s a lot going on. I count nine separate circuit boards. I have a couple of dumb cosmetic gripes: I don’t love the VU meter backlight – too white – and the numbers on the input and output knobs are so small that they look like dots. I should add that Electric & Company founder Mattie Smith has been fantastic with support, answering my dumb questions with long, detailed emails. An expensive piece of gear for sure, but classy as hell and hand-built in the U.S. with love. I suspect it will be on every vocal I record for years. I am thrilled.