UAD Empirical Labs EL8 Distressor Review
With the launch of the UAD 9.4 software comes the release of possibly one of the most requested emulation, the Empirical Labs EL8 Distressor!
While every engineer and producer working in the box was looking for that sound, up until recently, there wasn’t any option that delivered the incredible flexibility and particular tone of this modern classic. Then last year everything changed. From SKNote releasing the Disto, Slate Digital announcing (and releasing at last) FG-Stress to Empirical Labs themselves releasing the 'Arousor' it would seem that everyone was ready to release their take on the Distressor. Now Universal Audio has also released their version, and as it is often the case, this emulation is fully endorsed by Dave Derr.
The reason for such demand is clear to understand, the Empirical Labs Distressor is often called a modern classic and for good reasons. Designed in 1993, the Distressor was Dave Derr’s attempt at creating the ultimate vintage-sounding compressor capable of recreating all the most revered compressors such as 1176, LA-2A, DBX160 and even Fairchild. While it is foolish to think that the Distressor will give you the exact sound of these much sought-after pieces of audio equipment, it will indeed provide some of the most wanted characteristics which, combined with the two distortion circuit offer a wide array of tone.
The Distressor achieves to be this versatile thanks to to the different knee and curves that are dependent on the chosen ratio and the inclusion of the distortion circuits mentioned earlier and high-pass filter.
Like many others, I was very impressed by their emulation of the FATSO which is a mainstay of all my mixes. So when I was given the opportunity to review it, I was extremely excited. I wanted obviously to test it as a plug-in but also compare it with a hardware version to verify their claim that the Distressor was “one of UA’s tightest circuit models to date”.
But first, let me give you an overview of the plug-in. The UAD Distressor plug-in instantly looks and feels familiar with the large white knobs and precise settings, grey buttons and LEDs. Unlike their emulation of the FATSO (and the actual hardware), Universal Audio has chosen to split the plug-in into halves stacked on top of each other allowing them to make the plug-in much larger and comfortable to read even on small screens. The left section contains the Gain reduction meter, ratio and Bypass as well as the Sidechain and Audio circuits stacked on top of the four large white knobs. The lower section also houses two additional control not found on the original hardware, namely a Mix section with a Dry/Comp knob that allows you to use the Distressor in a parallel configuration and a small HR (headroom) control. The latter lets you change the amount of gain going into the compressor without the colouration that the input gain would add. This function could be useful to reduce or increase the amount of compression applied to the signal or provide a convenient way to match the level between the processed and unprocessed signal for easy comparison.
Straight upon opening the plug-in, everything feels comfortable and true to the original compressor. Pressing the different buttons cycles the various ratios, side-chain and audio circuit modes, although clicking on the corresponding LED will give you the desired setting immediately too.
While the GUI of a plug-in is essential, ultimately what counts is how it sounds, so as I mentioned earlier, I proceeded to test it against a hardware unit as often most emulations fail against their physical counterparts when we start to use the more extreme settings. That’s not to say that they do not sound good, but it seems to me that the sound seems to flatten and there is a loss of depth when compared to the units they emulate.
Personally, I never felt the original Distressor was for subtle compression (after all it’s implied in its name), and I tend to find that it shines in heavy compression mode (even at lower ratios) so I thought it would be great to test that aspect. Full disclosure: The hardware unit was an EL8X which adds the Brit mode for much more aggressive compression. For this review, however, it was switched off.
I started with the kick drum, which is my favourite source to use it on, I always feel that they benefit from the added thud and click that this unit can provide. So I went for a fairly compressed sound with a 6:1 ratio with a fast attack (set at 2) and an even quicker release (set 0.75). I also engaged the high-pass filter in the side-chain circuit to leave some of the low-end untouched. I was in familiar territory with a locked and punchy kick drum with tight low-end and short click. I replicated those settings on the plug-in to see how it would fare. I was amazed; I was getting 12dB of gain reduction on the hardware and in the plug-in, and both sounded close. Both the physical unit and plug-in shaped the tone of the kick similarly no matter how brutal I was. I couldn’t help a grin on my face and was eager to try it on other sources.
Many people say that the Distressor shines on snare drums, but I’ve never really used it like that, usually preferring an 1176, but I thought I’d give it a try. After playing with it for a while, I settled for a much lower ratio of 3:1 long attack (set at 6.2) and a fast release (set a 1.1). I also wanted to clean the low end, so I engaged the 18dB Bessel high-pass filter in the audio circuit and added the Dist 2 mode which added a nice pleasing crunch. The gain reduction was quite heavy, reaching 7 to 8dB. While I certainly enjoyed the added punch and bounce it gave, I felt it was too much, so when replicating the settings on the plug-in, I took the opportunity to dial it down just a little with the Mix control.
For the bass, I wanted to test the “Opto” Mode and so I set the ratio to 10:1, Attack to 10 and release to 0 (these settings are marked on both the hardware and plug-in) and turned the input until I reached a gain reduction of around 7 or 8dB. I then matched settings on the hardware unit, and unlike the previous tests, the gain reduction differed and reached -9dB. Soundwise, however, it was hard to tell the difference between the two.
I then tried it on vocals. While I usually use the Distressor in parallel combined with other compressors, I wanted to hear its effect directly on the vocals and there used it on the insert. Here both managed to bring some of the details lost on the singer and again switching between the two; it was hard to hear a difference.
Finally, I decided to try it on guitars see how it would work on less aggressive and source and try to bring out some of the detail. After a while I settled on a 4:1 ratio with a medium attack (set to 5) fast release (set to 2) and used the high-pass filter in the side-chain and no distortion. Both the plug-in and hardware managed to bring some of the detail out nicely, although, to my ears, the hardware unit sounded a little darker and in this instance, I preferred the plug-in.
Having access to only one unit I wasn’t able to compare some of the stereo behaviours on buss tracks, but these examples gave me an excellent idea of how the plug-in worked compared to the hardware.
I have to confess I’m very impressed by the UAD Distressor plug-in. It manages to capture the sound of the original unit like nothing else I’ve tried (Disto by SK Note, Deflector by Sly-fi, and FG-Stress by Slate Digital. I didn’t have the opportunity to test Arousor). It holds up to the original even in some of the most extreme settings (12dB+ gain reduction and ultra-fast attack). The original Distressor has always been for me the compressor to have, offering incredible versatility in tone and behaviour sounding great on anything you throw at it. I never had the funds to buy all the Distressors I’d want (or need), but with the release of this plug-in I can now have as many as my UAD-2 system can handle (which is a lot more than what my wallet or bank will let me purchase).
If I have to add a negative, I have to confess I’m surprised at the omission of the of British Mode. This mode opens up so much more possibilities and punch that it seems to be a shame not to have done, especially when they created the FATSO Jr and a FATSO Sr… They could have easily done an EL8X version adding the Brit Mod in.
But don’t let this minor negative put you off this plug-in. It’s nothing short of amazing, and it will be used (and abused!) everywhere on my mixes and production from now on. I’ve been waiting for this plug-in for many years, but it was all worth it. Universal Audio has delivered its best compressor plug-in to date. Get it now!