The Drawmer 1968 Mercenary Edition is a 1RU version of Drawmer's popular 1969 compressor, without the mic pres. For me, the unit defines punch. It can also provide smooth leveling for the stereo buss, but I'd much rather use it for its aggressive qualities.
In general, there are two reasons to use a compressor. One is for its gain reduction effect, the other is for its tone. The 1968 is great for both. It's two linkable or fully independent JFET compressors, each with a tube output stage. Each channel has its own metering, "Big" switch and patchable sidechain. The meters can display gain reduction, output level, or output level with a +10 dB scaling for when you've got the output cranked. The meters have an LED system that makes them glow red as you approach the maximum operating level (or what I like to call the optimal setting!). The "Big" switch is an internal side chain that stops the low frequency from being sent to the compressor's detector so that the low end does not trigger gain reduction. The result is more low end comes through for a bigger sound. The patchable sidechain allows you to to send an EQ'd version of your signal to the detector for frequency dependent gain reduction, such as de-essing.
The threshold and output controls are pretty standard. The attack and release controls are detented with six positions each. The attack times are 2 ms, 8 ms, 15 ms, 25 ms 30 ms and 50 ms. The first three release times are fixed, the second three are program dependent, meaning the release rate will vary within the release envelope - releasing quickly a few dB at first and then slower as it gets back towards 0 DB of gain reduction. The release times are 100 ms, 500 ms, 1 second, 200 ms-2 seconds, 500 ms-5 seconds, and 1 second to 10 seconds. I like having the detented controls. The attack times are all on the faster side, but they are well chosen. I probably would have made the release times a little faster for the second and third fixed times, but I mostly found myself using the fastest fixed release or fastest program dependent release.
How does it sound? The first thing I tried it on was drum room mics. The 8 ms attack and the 100 ms release did a great job of making the room mics explode. The tone, which I'll get to in a moment, was great for this too. I liked it on kick, snare, acoustic guitar and especially bass. The big switch was great for allowing heavy compression while still maintaining the full spectrum of the sound. I found it very easy to make things punchier with this compressor. I assume that's because it's a JFET, and it's really fast. I like setting it for a slow attack and then letting it clamp down hard, and nearly immediately with a lot of gain reduction. You can turn your waveform from a triangle to practically a vertical stick which will make a track punch through a mix and then become controlled and tight so that it's not cluttering the mix. While I love opto compressors on a lot of things, they're just not not fast enough to be this brutal. And vise versa, this isn't appropriate for every sound. Luckily, the 1968 is versatile enough that you don't have to set it this way, but being a JFET, it's going to allow you to get sounds that other styles of compressors can't get.
The other thing that sticks out about the 1968, besides how easily it makes things punchy, is it's tone. It's not a highly colored tone like certain compressors that immediately change the sound and make it say, dark and wooly. It doesn't automatically fatten the low end, which I liked. I found it to be pretty tight sounding, so that if I wanted to fatten a sound, I could with EQ and then rely on the compression to keep the low-lows in check. I usually EQ after I compress, but with the 1968 I usually EQ'd before. The tonal qualities that I liked were in the upper mids, especially when you drive the output tubes pretty hard. It got a nice little gritty crunch that gave some extra definition, a good distortion, like when you push a guitar just past clean, but not full on distorted. It's just more alive. That's one of the ways it makes instruments sound really good. It gave a bright reflective quality to the first room mics I ran though it, kind of like the drum tones on some of the early U2 albums. The gritty output tube crunch highlighted the the pick sounds on a big fat acoustic and the speed of the JFET tightened up the sound making it sit perfectly in the mix. But for me, bass was where it excelled. I found that the slower attacks gave such a nice definition to each note, and when I cranked it to where the meters glowed with the attack of each note it gave the bass a nice edgy growl that I haven't been able to get with any other compressor. This will definitely be my go-to compressor for bass in a mix.
I rarely use a compressor on a stereo mix. I have no problem with peak limiting in a mastering context, but mix with stereo compressors a different way. I did try it out on a stereo mix anyway, and I thought it sounded pretty good. It's circuitry sounds good enough that it won't kill the tone of your mix. I tried compressing the mix a little too much and then engaged the "Big" switch. All of a sudden the mix took on a whole new dimension and added depth. Of course there was now less gain reduction, but if you've got a good mix to start with, this is the way you'd want to compress it.
Overall, I'd describe the 1968 as very useful and easy to use, especially when going for a punchy sound. The tone can be left pretty neutral or pushed to aggressive and edgy. The external side chain and "Big" switch make it very versatile piece, guaranteeing it won't sit unused. ($2150 MAP, www.drawmer.com)