Several months ago, I noticed the Dramastic Audio Obsidian compressor on the Mercenary Audio website. The units had not shipped, so I had little to go on. After a while, I started to think it was just an SSL bus compressor knockoff with a blue VU meter. Then I heard that it was a feed-forward compressor with extensive side-chain options and transformer-balanced I/O. Hmmm... that didn't sound like a reproduction in purple lipstick. So when the review unit was ready for Tape Op, I wrapped my grubby hands around it before anyone else had a shot.
The outside of the unit is impressive. The labels are clearly marked in white and royal blue. Other than the actual knobs and rack holes, the entire front panel is protected by a 2 mm thick, clear, gel-like armor. It reminds me of those puffy stickers we used to collect as kids. (You know-the ones you push and push and push.) The cold-rolled steel chassis is not going to let stray RF interference bother the internal electronics, and every pot changes position with the heft and precision found in the finest instruments.
At this point, I was pretty excited. The first thing I did was open the chassis, which users are not supposed to do, but magazine reviewers should. Talk about smart design-this thing is laid out logically, with extensive labeling. (If the manufacturer fails to exist 40 years from now, a tech should have no issues servicing the unit.) Immediately, I noticed the completely overbuilt, top-shelf power supply with 115/230V selection. I smiled. Without solid, clean power, you're dead in the water. Meters draw power. Relays and LEDs draw power. Compression draws power. The Obsidian delivers. Examining the audio path revealed four bulbous Jensen transformers (two for input and two for output). Rather than pulling a standard model from the line, Dramastic actually sat down with the team at Jensen and hand-selected the best transformers for their custom TXIO circuitry. I'd estimate that there's about $300 in the transformers and $100 in the power supply, and we haven't even made it to the heart of the signal chain. The custom PC boards are loaded with audiophile-grade capacitors, VCAs from THAT Corporation, and high-end components that are hand-picked to be within 1% of specification tolerance. Now, if you know anything about engineering, you know that electronic components often vary by much wider margins-say 10%. You also know that for audio purposes, even 1% is a little loosey-goosey for experienced ears. Dramastic also knows this. That's why there are 25-turn adjustment pots at every key area. Bingo! No wonder the stereo and center imaging on this box are so rock solid. But I'm getting ahead of myself. The XLR connectors are top-of-the-line, gold-plated Neutrik, mounted on an immersion-gold backplane. Examining the switches from the inside confirmed my suspicions; these are top-of-the-line, custom-made, gold-plated Elma hardware. Even the meter is custom fabricated for the job. There goes another $350. (Have you tried to buy an off-the-shelf VU meter for audio? Good luck. Even the $60 ones stick or vary in terms of ballistics. There's a reason Requisite, Manley, AMS Neve, and similar makers utilize custom meters. It's the only way to know they'll meet your standards.) After closing the patient up, I took her to the studio for further study.
I first added the Obsidian to my mastering chain. I was immediately reminded of the API 2500 (Tape Op #52), a device loved by many mastering-types that own them. However, the Obsidian is even more aggressive than the API (which can do both feed-forward and the more common feedback-type compression) as well as having lower ratios
and longer release times. The high-pass filter on the Obsidian was immediately useful; in fact, I almost always left it in for tests. With a 12 dB per octave slope at 125 Hz, the Obsidian was able to let the lowest end of the spectrum have a little more leeway before it triggered any compression. At this point, I should mention that the high-pass filter can be used in place of or in addition to the user provided side-chain. That's right-the HPF is post-side-chain, which means the HPF can actually equalize the key signal of the side-chain. For example, the Obsidian could be strapped on the bass guitar bus but keyed off a send from your kick drum. Every kick hit could cause the Obsidian to duck the bass guitar bus. However, you might want the effect to be more subtle, so having the HPF to pull sub-lows could be the ticket to a more realistic result. Getting back to mastering, I found that the Obsidian sounded great, especially on material that needed a good deal of compression to make it sit. However, I mean no disrespect when I say this unit would be ideal as an additional piece for the mastering engineer who already has transparent compression covered. This would be a very nice spice unit, but without lower compression ratios (1.5:1 or even 1.1:1) and longer release times (noting that the auto release worked very well in my tests), this would not necessarily be a primary mastering compressor.
So, I tried the Obsidian as a mixdown unit, and I'll cut to the chase; this is a first-call box. What do I mean? Well, you know how raw tracks sound jumbled and all over the place? Running just about anything through the Obsidian made it sound like a record. I'll use some examples. On the drum bus, the Obsidian adds a level of punch that I would describe as being hit in the chest with a ball peen hammer-impact, impact, impact. Even with a high threshold and low ratio, this box smacks the living daylights out of kick and snare. It's seductive, and you can quickly overdo it. If you want to run a copy of the drum bus into the Obsidian, feathering that behind an uncompressed track, there are several options for crushing your audio. Simply outstanding is the option of choosing the lo-fi release time, and using conservative settings everywhere else. The lo-fi setting, rather than adding noisy distortion, actually causes the unit to self-distort via an almost instant release/clamp/release operation. You immediately get a pinch of overdrive that is the sound of real transformers working overtime-not some IC-based fuzz. If this is not enough, increasing the compression ratio makes the effect more pronounced. By the time you reach the skull setting, you're at full nuclear-blast mode. This isn't something you may use everyday, but it sounds better than any other crushing-analog-type unit I've heard.
For other instruments, the Obsidian was no less impressive. Keeping the release on auto and the ratio at either 2:1 or 4:1, I was able to take nearly any source-djembe, cello, blues guitar, vocal, bass-and turn it into a glassy-smooth professional-sounding layer. I about lost my mind when I ran a trumpet solo through the Obsidian. The sustain and gloss sounded like Carlos Santana playing a solo on a brass guitar. It simply sang. (And out-of-pitch note tails were deemphasized, an unexpected plus.) I quickly found myself printing Obsidian-processed tracks so I could use it on more than one instrument. On a Hammond B3 with vintage Leslie, the complex L/R signals became laser-tight while maintaining stereo spread. Likewise, the harmonics changed from untamed savages to a refined, listener-presentable performance. Literary types might call the Obsidian the Pygmalion of compressors; I call it an A-list unit.
I didn't have a chance to track with the unit, but my sources tell me a 500-series version is on the horizon. And if it is true to the original, I suggest you scoop one up as well. Running bass guitar through this compressor (just for the transformers) adds articulation while reining in any wobbliness in the performance. I found the same for male and female vocals. Purists be damned! Strap this on everything.
If Dramastic set out to rebuild the cherished SSL, it would be one thing, but they set out to make major improvements to an already classic design. From the transformers, to the ratio and release settings, to the filtering, the Obsidian has as good or better measurement specs, provides significantly more flexibility, and has reference-quality stereo imaging. Given that the street price of the SSL is over $4000, the Dramastic is even more of a steal; not to mention it's handcrafted in the USA and RoHS compliant too. I'm sorry, Andy, for blowing way past my wordcount, but this is one compressor that many Tape Op readers need to demo in their studios. ($2795 street; www.dramasticaudio.com)
Tape Op is a bi-monthly magazine devoted to the art of record making.