I can't remember what I did with the first compressor I ever purchased-an Alesis 3630. But the second compressor I bought is still in my rack-an HHB Radius 30, the purple-colored rebadge of the original Ivory-series TL Audio 5021. It's been used on just about every session I've done since buying it. And other engineers who visit my studio always ask about it when they see and hear it. Recently I decided I wanted a second one. HHB no longer distributes TL Audio products, so I went directly to TL Audio and one of its U.S. dealers, Vintage King (www.vintageking.com), to buy myself an Ivory 2-series 5021.
TL Audio's Ivory range is based on hybrid-tube circuitry incorporating some solid-state amplification. The 5021, in particular, utilizes a solid-state, electronically-balanced input amp followed immediately by an ECC83 (12AX7A) tube stage fed from a 150 volt power supply. A second ECC83 stage is in the gain make-up circuit. Because processors in the Ivory range are affordably priced, potential buyers often mistakenly group them with low-voltage, starved-plate designs from other manufacturers that employ tubes for gimmickry and overdone effect. On the contrary, the 5021 isn't meant to sound woolly or treble-less (um... what's commonly called "tube warmth" by marketers). At normal operating levels it actually sounds relatively clean, and it's only when you hit it hard that you hear some tube character. Unlike starved-plate tube effects, which tend to give you a particular sound that may help one or two tracks stand out in a mix-but may not be appropriate for stacking lots of processed tracks into a mix-the 5021 just plain sounds good and you needn't fear using it on everything. You could easily record all of your tracks through the 5021 and still end up with a mix that's clear and coherent. Which is why the 5021 is a great first (or only) compressor, and why it's also a great go-to compressor even if you have a bunch of other, more specialized compressors in your rack.
In my studio, I track all main vocals through the 5021. Sometimes it's the only compressor in the chain. Sometimes I use it as a full-band compressor while I employ a Drawmer Three-Sum (Tape Op #52) with an ESE Lab 2176ULN (see the Slovenia article in #61), Studio Electronics C2s (#36), and/or Empirical Labs Distressor (#32) for single or multi-band compression, in parallel with the 5021. And sometimes I'll use it to really squash the midrange (utilizing the aforementioned Three-Sum) while a Retro Instruments Sta-Level (#55) or Universal Audio LA-3A (#49) handles full-band leveling. But no matter how I patch the 5021 into my recording chain-or what source I'm processing-the input and output gain controls, as well as handy LED indicators for "drive" and peak levels of the tube stages, allow me to set up the compressor for clean, transparent gain-riding; sweet, bigger-than-life presentation for an up-front sound; or a bit of textured distortion for subtle aggression-and this vast range of behaviors is available at low or high compression
ratios. Plus, a make-up gain knob, independent of the output knob, makes it easy to A/B the compressed versus uncompressed sound.
Moreover, with high-impedance 1/4" inputs on the front panel, the 5021 is a highly-flexible DI. On bass for example, I prefer to use a longer attack time while turning up the 5021's input gain just enough so that transients are gently limited without the life being mushed out of the instrument. DI'ed guitars tend to benefit from extra gain to bring up the "drive"-and the resultant even-order harmonics from the tube stage-especially if I'm using a slow attack and fast release for a percussive, strummed guitar part; or I can soften the guitar part by reducing the attack time. (But again, the 5021 is not a tube effect per se, so it's not going to give you anything approaching the sound of a tube-based guitar amp.)
On the Ivory 2-series 5021, the attack and release controls are four-position switches-labeled "slow" and "fast" at opposite ends-while the same controls on the original 5021 are limited to only two positions. By design, attack and release times are program-dependent to some degree, so a quick transient won't end up punching a hole in the signal. (The controls are also not completely independent, as turning up the attack time will add time to the release.) This automatic nature can be attributed in part to the vintage-like feedback layout. The 5021 uses a detector that follows a transconductance amplifier circuit for gain control, as opposed to a detector in front of a VCA as in many modern designs. In use, having four positions per control with vague labeling works just fine, as the results tend to be very musical (but I wouldn't use the 5021 to make a mix pump or bounce to a beat).
The 5021 also includes a simple gate in front of each compressor. I've used it to quiet a noisy keyboard part, but without its own release control, it's not very useful for anything percussive or long-tailed. Moreover, the gate lacks a sidechain facility (although there is one for the compressor), so you can't tune it to the sound you'd like to let through. An optional DO-2 S/PDIF output card (24-bit, 44.1 or 48 kHz) can be plugged into a slot in the back of the unit. Also in the back are selectors to change the standard analog input and output levels by 14 dB. That way, if you're using the balanced I/O and you need to feed a particularly pesky digital recorder with more than +4 dBu-calibrated level, you can switch the output to +18 dBu operation, even if you keep the input level at +4 dBu. If you're working with unbalanced signals, the selectors give you the choice of -10 dBV or +4 dBV operation. And even if your setup changes and you mix and match balanced, unbalanced, analog, and digital gear, you'll have no problem configuring gain structure-yet another reason why the 5021 is a great first compressor that grows with you. And for those of you who are new to compression, the manual is well-written and explains every aspect of the 5021. It also covers the many ways you can connect it to your other gear and includes a step-by-step guide for compressor newbies.
But if you're a veteran engineer, don't let my recommendation to compressor rookies stop you from checking out the 5021. The 5021 sounds great and is very flexible. It can give you clean, or it can give you character. And more importantly, it never sounds pinched. I own $30,000 worth of high-end compressors, but the affordable 5021 is still my favorite all-around compressor. I don't hesitate to use it on just about everything-which is why I own two now. Like all TL Audio products, the 5021 is manufactured in the UK. ($1079 MSRP; www.tlaudio.co.uk)
Tape Op is a bi-monthly magazine devoted to the art of record making.