Gem Audio Labs is a Polish company specializing in high-end recording gear. The Preceptor model-A (for Aggressive) is a two- channel, class-A compressor/limiter aimed at tracking and mixing applications. Gain reduction is handled by a discrete VCA design. The 3RU-height unit is impressive, with sturdy black knobs, most of which are stepped, and a wet-black panel finish. The VU meters illuminate with a warm beige light when engaged, and the light turns reddish when a channel is bypassed.
Operationally, each channel has its own audio path; therefore, the unit can be run as dual-mono or linked-stereo. In compressor mode, the ratio is 2:1, but the limiter is a variable-response design similar to the Fairchild 660. A comprehensive side-chain provides a lot of flexibility. First, internal mode allows the user to select a range of high-pass filters to de-emphasize bass triggers. Second, an external device can be attached via rear- panel TRS jacks. But a third, semi-secret feature is so cool. Selecting EXT and not connecting an external device turns the Preceptor into a harmonic distortion generator. The amount of added distortion depends on the Z and Input switch settings. This is similar to a guitar amp - the larger the input signal, the higher the distortion.
Opening the chassis revealed top-shelf components, including Elma stepped-rotary encoders, Carnhill transformers, and a pretty large toroidal power transformer. Trying to build a clone of the Preceptor would almost cost as much as buying one from GEM audio, that's how good the components are.
In use, the Aggressive moniker proves to be a good description. This is a very colored device. In general terms, I was reminded of the Rupert Neve Designs Portico 5043 [Tape Op #59], but with even more character. When I put this on a drum bus, I was so happy. A combination of tight and wooly - although apparent opposites - is what you get with a rock drum kit. I also put just a mono room mic through the first channel, which I set to limit, and then through the second channel, set to compress, but with the side-chain in the secret harmonic-distortion setting - and I crushed the daylights out of it. Wow. The sample recording I used was a multi-mic setup. I would love to hear a three-mic Glyn Johns-style recording plus the Preceptor on a fourth room mic. I also liked the Preceptor on male lead vocals. I achieved usable results in either compressor or limiter modes, but you have to spend time setting up the gain structure. Re-amping a DI bass signal through the Preceptor model-A made for one fine bass sound. Depending on the style, you could go for a squashed bass or just gently touch it with the 2:1 compression ratio. On distorted electric guitars, the results were usable, but not outstanding. On acoustic guitar, the Preceptor thickened strummed rhythm parts, but proved to be heavy-handed on solo picked pieces. Of course, the box would probably live mainly on drums, bass, or vocals anyway.
I was really hoping this would be a mastering box, as I'm trying out different colored compressors. The stepped switches, side-chains, and noise floor of the unit combine for a mastering-grade box on paper. However, even in mild settings, I found the unit to be too much. I'm sure for occasional projects, I might be able to use it, but dare I say there is too much of a signature for the mastering stage. I know - it's hard to imagine writing that, but that's the truth. I find it funny that people often repeat that tube gear equals color, when one of my most transparent compressors, the Pendulum Audio OCL-2, is tube-based, and the Preceptor, which is one of the most colored units I've encountered, is not. So much goes into the design and component selection.
With my decision to not use the Preceptor model-A for mastering complete, I hurriedly boxed the unit up before the mixing and recording engineers could try it. I knew if didn't return the demo unit immediately, it would never leave my studio. And I want to try out other offerings from Gem Audio. In fact, there is a brother to the model-A, the Preceptor model-T, a more transparent unit designed with mastering in mind. The Preceptor model-A earns a high recommendation if you're in the market for a character compressor. But have the money in hand before you demo. I doubt you'll let it go. ($2999 MSRP; www.gemaudiolabs.com)