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Tube Compressor -Is it really necessary? Dynamics Processors (HW)
Old 12th September 2011
  #1
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RedBaaron's Avatar
Tube Compressor -Is it really necessary?

Hello Gear Slutz, first time poster here.

I'm a guitarist and singer who's been struggling with getting a professional sound for many long years now. I recently came to the conclusion that I was going to forget trying to do polished, multi-layered recordings for the time being and just cut a barebones, one-track "live" acoustic album so I can go back to focusing on writing new stuff.

My decision to do an acoustic album was partly because I finally hit on a combination of gear that works for me for this type of setup: I use a Rode NT1000 2 feet in front of me and a Shiny Box ribbon two feet to the right of my shoulder, off axis. I run them through Mackie Vlz3's and through the Sonalksis Stereo Imaging tool, using the Mid-Side setting.. Occassionally, I'll also bring in an SM7b and put it right in front of me to better pick up the voice over the guitar.

Everything sounds lovely, except...out of curiousity, the other day I ran my Mackie mixer into a Behringer Composer Pro just before going into the soundcard, and discovered I loved it! The only problem is, it adds an audible hiss to the chain.

Now, I know compressors generally do this a little, since they allow you to raise the overall signal level, but I'm sure too that Behringer's stuff is made with cheapo parts, which I fear might also contribute to it. Still, this little box makes all the difference for me and I'd hate to give it up unless I knew of a better choice. It really brings out the presence in the guitar and my voice. It doesn't seem to really "compress" all that much though; I'm wondering if I wouldn't like something with a little more oomph to it.

I'm wondering if anyone knows of a reasonably-priced substitute that's less noisy. I've been eying the Art Pro VLA II, which seems to be universally well-regarded, but I'm curious if that would actually make things better or just muddies since I'm already getting a clear, full sound as it is. I'm also just not quite sure about this whole tube business. They seem to be all the rage, but I've tried running the mixer through my Presonus tube pres and all I get out of it is more hiss.

As far as software compressors go, I do use Kjerhause Golden Comp and the psp mixpack the chain, moderately. They have their place, but in my opinion, outboard compressors just do so much more.

If anyone has any experience with the Behringer Composer or the VLA Pro II in particular and can point me in the right direction, I'd be grateful. Will I see an improvement if I get the VL Pro II in terms of sound quality or hiss or both? Will the VLA allow me to drive up the overall volume and get a "fuller" or more saturated sound? Is having a good outboard tube compressor really all that important?
Old 12th September 2011
  #2
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Compression and eq is something that the computer does very well.

Budget compressors and eqs are horrid.


There is a software compressor in Samplitude/Sequoia that has some nice acoustic emulations. Others like the ones from Sonox or UAD or Waves.

I have outboard compressors, and I have not even turned them on for 10 years. I sold my 1176s and 1178s and 160s, because I did not use them after I discovered that a software compressor mixed with a little software eq did what I wanted.

Is it the sound of the compression (reducing the dynamic range) or the sound of the distortion that you are liking?
Old 12th September 2011
  #3
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If you like it if it's not that much hiss nobody is realy going to care to much about it but you. I use a lot of outboard comps only have one tube one but I rip them all apart and recap them so they are pretty much noiseless..

Having a tube in a compressor is not necessary. Some tube and some solid state comps sound really good and I like and use both. I think the only way your probably going to get a compressor with out any noise on a low bodget is if you know how to do some soldering. An rnc really has low noise or almost zero noise but I really hate the compression and they leave an artifact that I think really makes mixes sound bad I wouldn't know how to say it with out being politically correct So I will just say it and hope nobody takes offence it sounds kind of gay. (I don't mean that derogatory and see nothing wrong with homosexuality) I just don't know any other way to say it.

You could use plug ins I just don't have any experiance with them. So could say anything good or bad about them or make any suggestions.
Old 12th September 2011
  #4
Gear nut
 

It's not necessary per se to have any outboard gear, but the general consensus is that it can't hurt to have a couple select pieces of outboard. If you want to venture into tube land, take a look at the Drawmer 1968ME, it's an extremely versatile comp.
Old 12th September 2011
  #5
I own a VLA II and I like it. I did, however, have to change the tubes for something much better; the factory tubes were noisy for me. It's now a top-notch compressor. It's not as "squishy" as the DBX 166 or the MDX2200 (Composer Pro) that I own, but those units work well for different reasons.

I really like the VLA II on the drum buss or even on the master buss.
Old 12th September 2011
  #6
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silentsky's Avatar
Are you certain that it's the compressor that's adding the noise? Have you tried different patch cables? Are you using balanced cables, or unbalanced? Balanced cables are a must. Have you tried a different power cable for the unit? If you've already treid all of this, you could always try a de-noiser plugin of some sort to reduce or eliminate the noise.

You should also remove any silent passages from your tracks, which should help. I typically use the "Strip Silence" tool in Samplitude or sometimes do it manually, depending on the material. I know that other DAW's have similar functions.
Old 12th September 2011
  #7
Quote:
Originally Posted by [email protected] View Post
Compression and eq is something that the computer does very well.

Budget compressors and eqs are horrid.
While I will agree with the latter part of that statement, software compression is nowhere near on the same playing field as nice outboard gear. Software EQ is very good and certainly usable if there is no budget for higher end outboard EQ, but when you compare the differences between a software compressor and a nice hardware tube compressor, the end results aren't even close.

This is not to say that plugin compression is terrible. It's not. In fact, it's very usable and unless you have a high end large format console like an SSL you won't have all the outboard dynamics processing you'll need for a proper mix. That being said, when it comes to your 2-Bus and/or your most important mix elements (lead vox, kick, snare, bass, etc.), having the nice outboard gear makes a huge difference.
Old 13th September 2011
  #8
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popmann's Avatar
Quote:
Compression and eq is something that the computer does very well.

Budget compressors and eqs are horrid.
Don't agree with either. Digital EQ may be less of a sin, in terms of fidelity, but it takes me FAR longer to dial it in. Seems much more tweaky.

But as to "tube compression"...there's no such thing...there are compressors tha have tube input and/or output stages. The biggest diff in compressors, and factor you need to understand are the topology of the detection unit--VCA? Opto cell? These, IME, make more difference in the use and usefulness in a given situation than what the IO amps' color might be.

See side bar here: Understanding Audio Compressors and Audio Compression
Old 13th September 2011
  #9
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Jeff Hayat's Avatar
 

Quote:
Originally Posted by [email protected] View Post
Compression and eq is something that the computer does very well.
There are some comp and eq plugs that are very good, but nothing in the sw world will compare to the high end hw stuff.

Quote:
Originally Posted by [email protected] View Post
Budget compressors and eqs are horrid.
If you are talking Mackie/Behringer and the like, yes. I would definitely go with a good sw plug before I went with hw with either of those names affixed.

To the op > budget gear is going to have a good amount of hiss, whereas a good peice of gear will have considerably less. So, if you are using a Mackie and a Behringer and notice a good amount of hiss, bear in mind that if you replace those two peices of gear with good gear, the amount of hiss will go down more than a little.

Cheers.
Old 13th September 2011
  #10
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cdog's Avatar
The compressor is just raising the existing noise of your other gear to an audible level.

Anyway, I think its best to pay for pro mixing if you arent experienced and want to release a product for mass distribution.
Old 13th September 2011
  #11
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If you like the sound of the Behringer unit, it may be worth experimenting to see if you can minimize the hiss. Sometimes you can eq it down if it is not too broadband without detracting from the sound. I have a Behringer Tube Composer as well. It was my first compressor, but I have upgraded since then. I do still use it sometimes, and one way I have found to minimize the noise is to get the strongest signal possible without clipping the unit going in. This allows you to compress without using makeup gain (which is where I find most of the unit's self generated hiss comes from) and still gets you a strong signal at the interface inputs with minimal added noise. You may indeed be generating hiss elsewhere in the signal chain, to check for that you can bypass the unit and check your noise floor first, then reconnect the compressor and see how much noise it is adding. Adjust the input levels first (since it adds very little noise unless you start amplifying the incoming signal), then compress to taste and try not to add any makeup gain if possible. Setting the unit to compress only the loudest peaks will help keep the signal strong. i use the limiter as well to tame the absolute loudest peaks. Next I would also set the expander section up to noise gate when there is no signal coming in. This will make the unit go virtually silent when you aren't playing and that is where the noise will be the most noticeable. The "tube section" (as I understand it anyway) is not part of the compressor at all on the Tube Composer. It is merely used to run the signal through a tube to add "character". This "character" includes some hiss and distortion, so I use as little as I can get away with, usually none. Don't trust the meters, they are for spectators benefit only, trust your ears. All of this for me this makes the Behringer Tube Composer almost usable from a noise stand point. No, it isn't the best or quietest compressor, even on the low end of the market, but it has it's own sound and if you can make it work for you it's better than using it as a doorstop! Also if you can use the Tube Composer effectively, almost any other compressor will be a walk in the park for you.
Old 13th September 2011
  #12
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Unclenny's Avatar
Don't get hung up on that whole 'tube' thing.

I went through that when I was setting myself up to do pretty much what you are doing. I went through Tube Pre's and Blue Tubes and....well you name it.

I eventually settled on a decent non-tube, good quality channel strip with a compressor that I now know and trust for going in. But, hey....don't get hung up on compression on the way in either. If it's hissing at you it may not be your friend. At best remember that with lesser quality gear you may not want to push it as hard.
Old 14th September 2011
  #13
Gear maniac
 

Quote:
Originally Posted by Jeff Hayat View Post
There are some comp and eq plugs that are very good, but nothing in the sw world will compare to the high end hw stuff.....

really now?

I have inserted a cl1b (hardware insert) across a track (vox and bass) ITB followed by the Logic Compressor and A/B'd them and the STock Logic compressor beat it more times than I care to admit...so you are completely WRONG.

Cl1B is $3000 is that high end?



Tubes don;t matter really...there is some nice tube stuff but there is plenty of no tube non transformer stuff that absolutely kills...a hard tube comp to beat though is the retro 176...that thing kicks some arse
Old 14th September 2011
  #14
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Tapeworm's Avatar
 

Quote:
Originally Posted by ivmike View Post
I own a VLA II and I like it. I did, however, have to change the tubes for something much better; the factory tubes were noisy for me. It's now a top-notch compressor. It's not as "squishy" as the DBX 166 or the MDX2200 (Composer Pro) that I own, but those units work well for different reasons.

I really like the VLA II on the drum buss or even on the master buss.

I like the VLA II on master buss as well. Just a "smidge" of reduction, and I mean a tiny, tiny smidge (or I find that it gets way too "squishy" for my liking), often adds a really nice glue-like cohesion to the mix. It seems to favor the mids over the low end as well. I too changed out the tubes. My only complaint is that it's wise to run a test tone through it for left-right balance. The knob setting at center is not accurate (at least on my unit).
Old 14th September 2011
  #15
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Quote:
Originally Posted by LisaSmile View Post
really now?

I have inserted a cl1b (hardware insert) across a track (vox and bass) ITB followed by the Logic Compressor and A/B'd them and the STock Logic compressor beat it more times than I care to admit...so you are completely WRONG.

Cl1B is $3000 is that high end?



Tubes don;t matter really...there is some nice tube stuff but there is plenty of no tube non transformer stuff that absolutely kills...a hard tube comp to beat though is the retro 176...that thing kicks some arse
really now? I Have AB the retro 176 against my wavez plugins and it totally FAILED more times than ever!! So you are completely WRONG!!!! In you face, I win!
Old 14th September 2011
  #16
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jono_3's Avatar
Quote:
Originally Posted by popmann View Post

But as to "tube compression"...there's no such thing...
To be fair, variable mu compressors (Fairchild, Vari Mu) are tube compressors that achieve compression by using dynamic voltage/re biasing of the tubes. Alternately, tube saturation could also be considered as a type of tube compression.
Old 14th September 2011
  #17
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jinksdingo's Avatar
There is no doubt that hardware compression has more fluidity than software.

Even you can hear it on a cheapo and all you need do is get a better comp without the hiss to get even better results.

It doesn't have to have tube stages.

But you get what you pay for.
Old 14th September 2011
  #18
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Quote:
Originally Posted by RedBaaron View Post
Hello Gear Slutz, first time poster here.

Now, I know compressors generally do this a little, since they allow you to raise the overall signal level, but I'm sure too that Behringer's stuff is made with cheapo parts, which I fear might also contribute to it. Still, this little box makes all the difference for me and I'd hate to give it up unless I knew of a better choice. It really brings out the presence in the guitar and my voice. It doesn't seem to really "compress" all that much though; I'm wondering if I wouldn't like something with a little more oomph to it.

If anyone has any experience with the Behringer Composer or the VLA Pro II in particular and can point me in the right direction, I'd be grateful. Will I see an improvement if I get the VL Pro II in terms of sound quality or hiss or both? Will the VLA allow me to drive up the overall volume and get a "fuller" or more saturated sound? Is having a good outboard tube compressor really all that important?
I've never used the Behringer unit, but I have the VLA 2. I think it's a great comp, especially for what you pay for it, but it's effectiveness really depends on what you ask it to do. It's really only got a couple of things I think it does well in terms of compression styles, but it does them quite well. It cannot have attack or release times as fast as what your behringer does (which is part of it's sound as an especially slow opto compressor). I find that if you ask it to do too much gain reduction, or work on particularly complex material, you can get some unwanted artifacts due to the slow and irregular attack and release characteristics. That said, it's great for adding a subtle cohesion and touch of intimacy to vocals, ac guitar, bass, and other sources. It can also emphasize percussive elements with it's slow attack, but this can be hard to control. You should be able to get one for not much over $200, maybe less. I got mine for $220 as a bstock from a seller on ebay. You can also get a sense for what it does and how it compares to some other comps (but not the behringer) on this awesome page:

Clip-A-Lator: Audio and Video | Studio Gear Shootouts @ ZenProAudio.com

As for needing tube gear, two things need to be said.

1. Unless you have total control over your tracking environment and the rest of your signal chain and are going for a very specific sound, you do not need tube gear. There are plenty of tube and solid state pieces that are only vaguely distinguishable in sound. Not to say that if you can buy some pieces and try them out, you won't fall in love, but it's really far from a necessary thing.

2. Most tube pro audio equipment below at least $300 operates using plate voltages far below what the tubes were designed for in order to make the power supply easier and cheaper to design. This tends to have subtle to not-so-subtle effects on frequency response, harmonic distortion, and transient response. There is nothing inherently wrong with starved plate design, it just has little to do with the vintage tube sound. Both the pro vla and the composer fall into this 'starved plate' category.
Old 14th September 2011
  #19
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Quote:
Originally Posted by LisaSmile View Post
really now?

I have inserted a cl1b (hardware insert) across a track (vox and bass) ITB followed by the Logic Compressor and A/B'd them and the STock Logic compressor beat it more times than I care to admit...so you are completely WRONG.

Cl1B is $3000 is that high end?



Tubes don;t matter really...there is some nice tube stuff but there is plenty of no tube non transformer stuff that absolutely kills...a hard tube comp to beat though is the retro 176...that thing kicks some arse
Can you quantify why you liked it better. I am not a fan of tube tech gear generally. Too soft typically with the sound.
Just curious. I tend to find I like the outboard more but use both.

Mike



Sent from my LS670 using Gearslutz.com App
Old 15th September 2011
  #20
Gear maniac
 

Quote:
Originally Posted by Kling Klang View Post
really now? I Have AB the retro 176 against my wavez plugins and it totally FAILED more times than ever!! So you are completely WRONG!!!! In you face, I win!
Listen Ding Dang...I was rebutting this NEVER business...right here...read..

Quote:
Originally Posted by Jeff Hayat View Post
There are some comp and eq plugs that are very good, but nothing in the sw world will compare to the high end hw stuff.



.
And yes IMO too the 176 will be very hard to beat, but there are a lot of situations where a plug is preferable
Old 15th September 2011
  #21
Gear Maniac
 

Someone else mentioned this but I'll expand on it. Possibly what you are hearing is the compressor bringing up the hiss during the uncompressed softer parts of the music. As mentioned, better gear will result in a quieter signal but before you go and spend bucks needlessly, make sure you are driving the front end of your board at a decent level (use the PFL meter function to check each channel). Even with budget gear, proper gain staging can go a long way in getting a good sound. Actualy gain staging is more crucial with budget gear (less room for error).

I'm not a big fan of eithe Mackie or Behringer but FWIW I'd bet the noise isn't from the compressor but from slightly off gain staging.

If you like what the "B" comp does you will LOVE what a good dynamic processer does like a DBX or Drawmer (I'm guessing Fairchild, Urei & Teletronics LA2A are out of your budget and not part of "low end theory").

Fix your gain staging first.
Old 15th September 2011
  #22
Love my Handcrafted Labs 'Solution 2' tube compressor. Used to own an Behringer Tube Composer but sold it for the 'Solution 2'. The difference is amazing. Still got my original Behringer Composer which i brought back 16 years old but i don't really use it much now.
Old 17th September 2011
  #23
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RedBaaron's Avatar
Quote:
Originally Posted by [email protected] View Post
Compression and eq is something that the computer does very well.

Budget compressors and eqs are horrid.


There is a software compressor in Samplitude/Sequoia that has some nice acoustic emulations. Others like the ones from Sonox or UAD or Waves.

I have outboard compressors, and I have not even turned them on for 10 years. I sold my 1176s and 1178s and 160s, because I did not use them after I discovered that a software compressor mixed with a little software eq did what I wanted.

Is it the sound of the compression (reducing the dynamic range) or the sound of the distortion that you are liking?
Hi, Thanks to you and the rest for responding. I'm not sure exactly what it is about the outboard comp that I prefer over the plugin varieties. On a basic level, it just makes the voice and guitar a little bit clear on the highs and easier to hear. Almost like a saturation effect. Also, while plug-in comps seem to be able to drive up the overall volume, I haven't had a lot of luck in controlling the loudest peaks without hearing some audible clipping. So maybe it's the difference between the analogue and digital distortion. Not sure.
Old 17th September 2011
  #24
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RedBaaron's Avatar
Quote:
Originally Posted by Synchronix View Post
It's not necessary per se to have any outboard gear, but the general consensus is that it can't hurt to have a couple select pieces of outboard. If you want to venture into tube land, take a look at the Drawmer 1968ME, it's an extremely versatile comp.
Thanks for the suggestion. I'll check out it out and do some price comparison...
Old 17th September 2011
  #25
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RedBaaron's Avatar
Quote:
Originally Posted by ivmike View Post
I own a VLA II and I like it. I did, however, have to change the tubes for something much better; the factory tubes were noisy for me. It's now a top-notch compressor. It's not as "squishy" as the DBX 166 or the MDX2200 (Composer Pro) that I own, but those units work well for different reasons.

I really like the VLA II on the drum buss or even on the master buss.

I'm glad you like the VLAII also. It's only 300 and I just got paid yesterday, and the Guitar Center down the street stocks them, so I'll probably cave and go by one later today.

What sort of tubes did you put in there? I've only ever upgraded with Rubys, and that was in a PreSonus Tube Pre, and to be truthful I actually preferred the originals. I know the tubes sort of have to be selected for the gear, so I'm curious what has worked for others with the VLA-II.
Old 17th September 2011
  #26
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RedBaaron's Avatar
Quote:
Originally Posted by silentsky View Post
Are you certain that it's the compressor that's adding the noise? Have you tried different patch cables? Are you using balanced cables, or unbalanced? Balanced cables are a must. Have you tried a different power cable for the unit? If you've already treid all of this, you could always try a de-noiser plugin of some sort to reduce or eliminate the noise.

You should also remove any silent passages from your tracks, which should help. I typically use the "Strip Silence" tool in Samplitude or sometimes do it manually, depending on the material. I know that other DAW's have similar functions.
I've tried different xlr cables, but there seems to be a little bit more hiss regardless. It's really not very audible once I start playing, so it's not a huge concern; it's just that it's annoying since there is virtually no hiss going from the Mackie Mixer straight into the soundcard, and I fear it could bleed into the mix if mastering compression is later added.

More to the point, if I can't get rid of the hiss through better cables or gain staging--if it's the Behringer comp itself that's doing it--then on the principle of the thing, I want to ditch it. See, I've spent years of acquiring gear for what is really for me just an expensive hobby, and by my standards, most of the items I own are high-quality, even though obviously "budget." Except for the Behringer, I dd a fair amount of research with each of the mics, the mixer and the soundcard, and I'm really pleased with the way it all sounds together. The Behringer adds a nice touch, but both because of the hiss and because it's Behringer, I suspect that I could spend a little extra cash and get something that does the same thing only quieter. And perhaps in the process, also get something that even sounds "better." This has me eying the VLA II or another, reasonably-priced unit.
Old 17th September 2011
  #27
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RedBaaron's Avatar
Quote:
Originally Posted by Jeff Hayat View Post
There are some comp and eq plugs that are very good, but nothing in the sw world will compare to the high end hw stuff.



If you are talking Mackie/Behringer and the like, yes. I would definitely go with a good sw plug before I went with hw with either of those names affixed.

To the op > budget gear is going to have a good amount of hiss, whereas a good peice of gear will have considerably less. So, if you are using a Mackie and a Behringer and notice a good amount of hiss, bear in mind that if you replace those two peices of gear with good gear, the amount of hiss will go down more than a little.


Cheers.
The Mackie VLz3 pres are actually very quiet and clear--much more so than any other budget gear I've used. I'm quite pleased with that and the Lynx soundcard I'm going into. The Behringer unit...not so much.

That said, I just went and checked and realized that, coming out of the mixer and into the compressor, I'm using unbalanced outputs, because I was a cheap @$$ and got the two mic input model a few years back that doesn't have XLR outs. From the comp, I'm going into the soundcard with XLR. That may have something to do with the hiss factor. Although if it's just that, I don't see why I wasn't getting any hiss from the Mackie alone going straight into the Lynx without the Behringer comp. The Behringer seems to bring out the brightness, which is both a good and bad thing.
Old 17th September 2011
  #28
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RedBaaron's Avatar
Quote:
Originally Posted by cdog View Post
The compressor is just raising the existing noise of your other gear to an audible level.

That was kind of my thinking too. It's raising the signal, but the signal is always going to be part noise, because microphones--especially condensers--pick up some ambient hiss, no matter how quiet the mic pres. But then there is going to be some added hiss for each piece of gear and each cable unless it's really high-end stuff.
Old 17th September 2011
  #29
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RedBaaron's Avatar
Quote:
Originally Posted by Dogoth View Post
Someone else mentioned this but I'll expand on it. Possibly what you are hearing is the compressor bringing up the hiss during the uncompressed softer parts of the music. As mentioned, better gear will result in a quieter signal but before you go and spend bucks needlessly, make sure you are driving the front end of your board at a decent level (use the PFL meter function to check each channel). Even with budget gear, proper gain staging can go a long way in getting a good sound. Actualy gain staging is more crucial with budget gear (less room for error).

I'm not a big fan of eithe Mackie or Behringer but FWIW I'd bet the noise isn't from the compressor but from slightly off gain staging.

If you like what the "B" comp does you will LOVE what a good dynamic processer does like a DBX or Drawmer (I'm guessing Fairchild, Urei & Teletronics LA2A are out of your budget and not part of "low end theory").

Fix your gain staging first.
I've been going in at it pretty high, but perhaps not high enough. Thanks, I'll give it a shot.
Old 17th September 2011
  #30
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foldback's Avatar
Greetings from a desert isle in the Caribbean (I'm on vacation lol).

I have many compressors including the ART and the Behringer Composer Pro which we use on our broadcast microphones.

The Composer is not inherently noisy. I think the hiss you're hearing is the hiss of your mic preamps being brought up by the compressor.

Ribbon mics are very low output, I'm guessing your mic preamps are hissing because you're running a lot of gain and the compressor is bringing up the hiss. I use a Grace M801 for ribbon mics but that's an expensive unit. I don't have a Shiny Box ribbon mic but I do have several Royer ribbon units and they require a lot of gain.

I'm not sure about the output level of the Rode mic you have, I don't have one of them but since it's a LDC it probably has good output level so you don't need as much gain on it as the ribbon.

Without being there to evaluate your knob settings it's tough for me to advise you how to set your gadgets or where exactly your specific noise floor is coming from.

Balanced wiring does not cost more than unbalanced, especially if you make the cabling yourself. If you're inserting the compressor on a channel of a Mackie mixer, that insert point is unbalanced and a balanced connection does you no good in that situation.

I love hardware compressors. At our main studio we use an 1176 on most vocals. We have an LA-2 also (which is tube) and I personaly prefer the 1176 because it is a lot faster and catches peaks better. With that said, I think you can set your Behringer Composer pro to achieve 98% of what I do with an 1176, I know it's a sin to say this but I do believe it's true based on actual experience.

As for whether you NEED tubes to sound good, that is utterly false. Tubes don't have an inherent sound, they can be very fast and cold or slow and warm, it just depends on the design of a particular unit. TV sets had MHz and very fast slew all of which was handled by tubes or solid state design. Different units sound different because they're made differently. None is right or wrong inherently, just different.

Don't get hung up on brands or input/output topology, everything matters.

Before you invest in more hardware maybe consider a recording "bootcamp" to improve your understanding of how to set up and adjust your equipment.

As for software vs hardware I love hardware, EQ and compression, but many people can get pro sound with either, this is much more of a personal issue and I hate arguing about it. I like hardware. It costs more and it's more expensive to wire up but I like the sound more than any plugins I've ever used and I've used a lot, not all, but enough to know I like hardware better.

I wish you all the best of luck in your quest, keep working on it. Practice is what you need. Don't be afraid to experiment and DO what works for you.
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