This 500-series device is a line-level JFET limiter, modeled after the Shure Level-Loc PA limiter, which I will tell you all up front that I have never used. I tried to borrow one to test against the Level-Or, but the couple of friends that used to own Level-Locs sold them because they were too noisy and too much of a one-trick-pony to justify keeping around their studios. Well, let me report here that the Level-Or is no one-trick-pony. Its style of compression is of the aggressive ilk, to be sure, but it can be dialed in subtly as well. It has a few extra features that the Level-Loc lacked - namely, a switch for a faster release setting, an output level trim, and Crunch mode, which, by slamming the input transformer, turns the unit into a distortion box with a wide range of sonic mangling potential.
The first thing I wanted to hear through the Level-Or was drums, since adding character to drums is an application the Level-Loc is widely known for. As an insert on kick or snare, I found the Level-Or mainly useful in Crunch mode. The Level mode could be used as a special effect, if you want to turn your close kick or snare mic into a room mic, but in Crunch, I was able to add some presence and girth to the snare drum that I really liked. As I received two demo units, my next application was as a stereo parallel compressor on the drum subgroup, and oh my! My absolute favorite limiter for this application is the Chandler Limited TG1 (Tape Op #37), but the Level-Or just may have dethroned that king, at a fraction of the price per channel. On a mid-tempo song with a slow release, the drums settled into the mix really nicely. With the fast release switched in, they got a little more explosive and lively, and the room surrounding the drums felt four times as big. Yum. Since I rarely stereo-link compressors when using them this way, not having linking on the Level-Ors wasn't an issue for me, but it might be for some.
On bass, guitar, and vocals, using the Level-Or was fun, if not totally utilitarian. The compression artifacts (pumping, breathing, etc.) were always unique but not always fitting. I could see using it to heavily compress one vocal on a record, for instance, as a signature sound to set that song apart. Again, on inserts, Crunch mode felt more useful, as the noise floor in Level mode generally prevented me from wanting to keep the box running on a main instrument throughout a whole mix. (And the Level-Or is reportedly way quieter than the Level-Loc!) One notable exception was on a stereo string section; the client wanted the strings to sound "vintage, like they're on an old 78 record." Level mode with a slow release was just the ticket for an old-school sound, and the added hiss certainly helped.
In addition to the parallel drum usage above, I also got the Level-Or to shine when adding unique distortion in Crunch mode to instruments like saxophone, hand percussion, and marimba (think Congotronics!). Varying the input level, you can dial in exactly the amount of harmonic distortion you want, from slightly hairy to crispy-fried cracklin'. Using Crunch on the 1/4'' balanced line input on the front of the unit is also really great for easily tracking line-level devices like synths and cheapo keyboards, if you want to add a little texture on the way in, although the gain structure isn't right to use a guitar or bass in Crunch mode. You can get enough gain for a guitar with Level mode, but I found the noise floor when doing such to be prohibitive. In Level mode on a cheapo Yamaha keyboard, however, I was able to really shape the envelope of the note drastically, getting a ton of extra attack when the input was cranked up. This opens up new sonic possibilities for the arsenal of keyboards I (and most engineers) have scattered about.
My only real complaint about the Level-Or is that there is no bypass switch. Everything else about the Level-Or is peaches, especially if you're into gear with character. This box has character up the hoo-haa and will no doubt find its way onto most, if not all of the records I work on from now on, since at least one of these fellers ain't getting shipped back to Standard HQ. If you're looking for a utilitarian, transparent compressor for your 500-series rack, look elsewhere, but if you're looking for a piece of gear to help you make bold sonic statements, definitely check out the Level-Or.
by Mark Owen
During my time as an engineer I have used some of the world's finest compressors, and at the same time, I've heard some of the worst. Having grown up in a studio, pretty much my whole life, I've been...