Ok, I know that last issue I reviewed a really nice high-end compressor (and I still love those Geoff Dakings), but compressors to me are the equivalent of spices to a chef. Therefore, you need a lot of them and many different varieties. The compressor panel at this year's TapeOpCon was quite informative, and a lot of different compressors were discussed. One of the units brought up by yours truly as well as Dave Fridmann as an affordable, good-sounding unit was the ART Pro VLA. All of the panelists admitted owning and using the Pro VLA. We have had one here in our rack at WaveLab since they first came out a few years ago, and it is one of our favorites. For those of you not familiar with it, the Pro VLA is a two-channel opto compressor that uses a 12AX7 tube in the signal path to help "warm" it up a bit. The Pro VLA falls into the under $500 category, so don't expect all Class-A design or (expensive) transformers. But what it does have is a great sound.
The VLA is housed in a 2U black chassis with two backlit VU meters that can be set to show input or output levels. Compression is measured by a ten- segment, horizontal LED bar graph below the VU's that reads from zero gain reduction (on the right) to a whopping 30 dB of gain reduction (on the left). Knobs on either side of the VU's control Threshold, Ratio and Output. None of these knobs are detented. Below the knobs are buttons for the VU meter, Attack (Fast or Auto), Release (Fast or Auto), and Bypass. A Stereo Link button is provided as well. Fast Attack is 2 ms and Fast Release is 300 ms. Auto is a big mystery-but the most musical. I generally use Fast Attack and Auto Release without paying any attention to those bar graphs.
So, why do I like the Pro VLA? Because it's simple, reliable, affordable-and it sounds good. This is not a punchy compressor at all. With that tube in there, it's a great unit for reducing harshness with things like violins and horns. It's also a great compressor for stereo Leslie tracks and strident acoustic guitars. I also use it all the time as a limiter on kick and snare during basic tracking. Its non-VCA based design makes it very forgiving; it's really hard to make it sound bad. If you don't own any opto-based compressors-especially if you're on a limited budget-this unit is a great buy.