If your experience with audio processors is mainly using plug-ins, it can be a challenge when you encounter an analog hardware device. There's no menu full of one-size-fits-all, celebrity engineer presets to get you started. The truth is if you want to grow as an engineer you're better off without presets. It forces you to jump into uncomfortable territory, do some research and use your ears to make decisions about what you like, or don't like, and if it works, or doesn't in any given situation. In this feature, we're going to explore hardware advantages and dig into the workings and setup of the revered 1176 compressor.
What's The Big Whoop?
Why analog? Because each unit is unique and operates near the speed of light. You're moving electrons when you patch a signal through an analog device – there is no latency. This means you can freely use them in a tracking or overdub session without worrying about the delay or using any other software on the way to the DAW. While every instance of an 1176 plug-in emulation from a single manufacturer sounds exactly the same, an analog processor has layers of sonic color because of differing components, quirks, flaws, and generational design changes that make each device a one-of-a-kind tone shaper.
This is especially true of the 1176. Universal Audio say...
The initial units released in 1967 were A’s, followed within months by AB revisions, and B revs in 1968. Rev C came in 1970 and sported the familiar all-black face panel. These were badged 1176LN after a redesign by Brad Plunkett lowered the noise and increased linearity. The D and E revs from 1970 to 1973 are widely considered to be the best-sounding units. Additional gradual design changes were made to the audio circuitry from 1973 onward.
At Blackbird Studio we have dozens of 1176s, and each one sounds different in some way. I have my favorites for cutting vocals, guitars, and other uses and help my students at the Academy train their ears using the good, the bad, and the ugly 1176s. Next, we'll get into how you can expand your audio chops and get comfortable around an 1176.
Getting Started With An 1176
The controls on the 1176 compressor are simple. There are separate controls for input and output level, attack and release time controls and five ratio choice buttons – that's it. To the right of the VU meter, four push buttons are offering +4 dBm, +8dBm, and GR (gain reduction) metering choices and an off switch.
There are a few things to note about the controls:
The Attack control has a detented "off" position when the rotary is turned completely counterclockwise. This does not turn the unit off but instead routes the signal around the compression circuit. The input and output controls still work and the signal does pass through the input/output audio circuit's transformers and amplifiers. This can be used to add level control and color to your signal.
If the meter is set to +4 or +8, there will be more distortion than if the meter is set to GR. This is because at +4 or +8 the meter is part of the audio circuit.
The meter selection button marked "off" is a true on/off switch, the unit will not pass a signal if it's set to "off."
The Ratio buttons can be ganged in groups of two, three, or all buttons (British Mode.) British mode sets the ratio between 12:1 and 20:1, increases distortion and varies the attack and release times resulting in a shifting compression curve and tone that is only found on an 1176.
The Attack and Release controls go from slow to fast when you move the control clockwise – this is different from most other compressors.
Whether its a vocal, guitar, kick or snare I always start by setting up the unit the same way.
Set the meter to GR
Push the "4" Ratio button (for starters)
Set the Input and Output controls to the 10 o'clock and 2 o'clock positions respectively
Set the Attack and Release controls to the 10 o'clock and 2 o'clock positions respectively
At this setting, a track cut in the DAW at a peak of -8dB should move the GR meter about 3-5dB at the peak. The 1176 has a fixed threshold meaning you can drive more or less signal across the threshold with the input knob. If you want less compression back the input down and for more ramp it up. If you're hitting the return too hard, use the output rotary to adjust the level.
Going To The Edge
Once you get the unit in the ballpark, you can experiment with the many colors available. For example, to bring out the attack in your snare drum, set the attack to 10 o'clock and the release to 3 o'clock. Boost the input for more aggressive compression or peel it back for less. A faster attack will flatten the transient while a slow attack will accentuate the hit. If you go aggressive, you can blend the "crushed" snare with the original for a parallel approach. If you need more body, use an EQ after the 1176 and boost somewhere between 200Hz to 400Hz to bring out the booty. Listen to the examples below with, and without compression.
To improve a poorly played bass track with a weak attack, I got excellent results by pushing the 4, 8, and 12 ratio buttons and then set the attack to the slowest and release to the fastest setting. This brought the bass to life by lifting the attack and adding some sonic grit due to the multiple ratio buttons being pushed. If you don't like the more aggressive approach, blend the crushed track in parallel with the original.
Try your own combinations of the settings mentioned above and experiment for yourself. Once you get a sound you like, write it down and store these in your analog memory banks for future use. This is how many great engineers worked their craft when making classic albums from artists you know and love. Join the club and learn to love analog processors, it will pay off with unique sounds you can take to the bank.