Empirical Labs Arousor Plugin by Diogo C
The scope: The Empirical Labs Distressor is one of the most famous compressors ever made and an ubiquitous piece of gear around studios everywhere in the globe. With almost 30,000 units sold, Distressor collected many awards and accolades since it was first introduced in 1994 and even had the honor of being inducted into the NAMM TEC Hall of Fame. With such a background and history behind their names, a plug-in version of the Distressor seemed like a no-brainer for ELI when they announced intentions of developing a software compressor, but Dave Derr and company opted instead for a new design that is not a 1:1 emulation even though it is largely based on their most successful piece. After much anticipation, the Arousor was born, boasting the signature sound character of the Distressor but adding a few twists of its own. Arousor is a fixed (or internal) threshold compressor, meaning you just have to dial the input until it crosses over the line and starts to compress. Once that is provided you have a attack parameter that ranges from 0.05 to 40 ms, a release control from 50 to 3000 ms and a ratio selector with ten options from 1:1 all the way up to 20:1 and beyond with "Rivet" ratio, which is utterly smashing like the "Nuke" setting on the Distressor. On the 1:1 setting you can use the Arousor as a pure saturation unit, without any dynamic manipulation. Further down we're offered a well-featured internal sidechain that affects the detector with a LPF and a variable-Q bell band, which can really help it respond more (or less) to certain frequencies. Arousor also features an entirely new parameter, the Attack Modification control (or AtMod), which extends the attack parameter over time, allowing for more transients to go through without being smashed, with three LEDs to highlight its action. Arousor also features a soft-clipper with variable control and indicator LEDs as well. Last but not least there’s the "Blend" parameter, which should not be taken as a traditional "mix" or dry/wet knob - it works a bit counter-intuitively, dialing compressed signal to the dry signal as you crank it up, turn it fully clockwise for the 100% compressed sound. Dry signal is also affected by the output knob, so keep that in mind when making your checks. All-around Arousor stands out as an elegant and very effective compressor that has a good set of tricks on its sleeve, and well-programed to perform well on a number of situations. I can understand the frustration shared by some that it's not a Distressor, but I wouldn't get overly attached to that and would rather simply enjoy it for what it is.
Sound quality: Arousor sounds exactly like what one expects from a Dave Derr-designed tool. It's precise, crisp, controllable and capable of doing some very powerful dynamic interventions. It's really hard to find a compressor that is as capable as this one and the amount of gain reduction it can do with crazy envelope definition is just amazing, I can't really get that kind of vibe and taste on my other compressors. It's really that hard to match it and I'd likely resort to a combo of saturation and compression and a ton of tweaking in order to achieve something near it. As someone once told me: what sets the Distressor apart is the attack and release clarity, you can really distinguish the two apart and hear it attacking and letting go of the signal. The same can be said about the Arousor. This plug-in also filled a gap which is the "high gain reduction with fast settings and some good grit" type of compression. At least to the ears of this humble reviewer, Arousor falls in the "agile and potentially aggressive" category and works better when tougher compression levels are desired. Other plugs have delivered wonderful representations of many types of compression, but there was this particular area where plug-ins kind of stalled and that's where I think the Arousor fits in. It can also do some clean, precise and crisp compression and the range of use is quite vast, making it one of the finest compressors plug-ins out there, but it does shine brighter on some some applications where it might just be the very best. My personal favorite applications were smashing lead vocals with high doses of gain reduction, making them dynamic-less but totally in your face, followed closely by bringing out a room sound with very fast envelope times and shaping a snare drum using the attack mod. I also found it great to distort bass guitar tracks with heavy amount of soft clipping and to spice up electronic drums.
Ease of use: If you're used to compressors like the 1176 and of course the Distressor, then you'll find Arousor pretty easy to use, and it actually is a rather easy to use plug-in. You just have to dial the input gain and it starts compressing - then work the ratio, timings and so on. It's quite straightforward to operate it and having all parameters readily available on a single window helps a lot. Interface-wise Arousor is clean and uncluttered and resembles a bit the Empirical Labs rack gear (minus the size proportions), with the big white controls and black background. It’s easy enough to visualize it on my 24" 1080p screen but it’s not exactly photo-realistic and it's a little on the low-res side of things, with a drawing that recreates the brand’s hardware design. That's not a "problem" of course, but I won't mind a greater-looking GUI. What I really like about is that it's very mouse-friendly since you can click and drag to any direction to adjust settings and has good mouse wheel resolution, and it supports a lot of control surfaces, which is always a great thing (in my particular case the Avid/Euphonix Control). I also enjoyed the gain-reduction indication LEDs, which are very responsive and provides a great representation of what's going on with 18 red-to-green lights plus a clipping indicator, although I think that they could have been a bit more brighter and a small tweak to the interface contrast would be good to make them more prominent and stand out more - it feels like they're in a very bright room right now. Despite that particular aspect, Arousor is well-thought, uncluttered and provides a very fast workflow, although I'd say it's not a very forgiving compressor is the sense that you can utterly smash something in a bad way of you overplay your hand. It can take "heavy handed" but like no other, but it does take some time to get used to its character and make the best out of it. It's also important to say that this is very lightweight plug that can have dozens of instances on a session and it’s zero-latency, which is never a bad thing and shows how great its optimization is. Arousor also comes with some good documentation that is accessible from the plug-in itself - the lower right corner features a "Help" button that gives the user some quick info on the main parameters and also provides a link for the user manual, a nicely written PDF file that further explains how the plugin works and also gives the user some good insights and examples.
Features: As it stands right now, Arousor isn't exactly vast with features but it features most of the right things. I'm saying "as it stands" based upon Empirical Labs' promise that this is only the first iteration of this plug-in and there's a roadmap with new features along the way. Besides the usual compressor controls, the AtMod and the sidechain EQ are what stood out to me as interesting and extremely useful, with the saturation being the icing on the take - it's good have saturation here but more for workflow reasons than for actual sonic advantages as there are lots of great and well-featured saturation units out there. AtMod works very well to micro-adjust the attack part of the envelope, while the sidechain EQ allows the detector path to be nudged around the spectrum and therefore respond more or less to a certain frequency area. Both give the Arousor a lot more versatility and to me are great highlights which helps it to step out of the (immense) shadows cast by the Distressor. On the other hand, the release part of the envelope is basic and could use a auto-release mode, so there's one wish of this reviewer for future updates. I'd also like to be able to shut down parts of the plugin, that would make comparisons a bit easier to do than turning knobs to zero, and a dual-mono operation mode would be a good addition. More options for metering and interface sizes wouldn't hurt as well. Last but not least, Empirical Labs has plans to include the Distressor-missing features, such as the opto mode and British mod, so the future prospects are looking good, especially since they stressed (!!!) a lot the fact that purchasing this plug-in now warrants updates until 2020. I'm not really fond of the idea of judging something based on promises for the future, but given Empirical Labs' reputation and Dave Derr's personal commitment to the project it's very hard not to consider this aspect. Nevertheless, I have to score this aspect based on the present state of thing and for a compressor in the year 2016 Arousor is not exactly one rich with features, but it does features most of the right things and the features it brings to the table are very effective.
Bang for buck: Now here comes the hard part. Arousor is quite an expensive tool and it's hard for some people to justify spending such money on a compressor. There are tons of bang for your buck here, make no mistake about that, but the bucks required are indeed a bit high when you take into consideration the current landscape and how plugins are priced these days and how much bang for the buck they can deliver as well. In this regard, Arousor just shows how far software development has come and how good plug-ins are in 2016. Nevertheless, Arousor is one excellent compressor capable of handling most tasks and it shines where most have failed (i.e. high gain-reduction territory), it's very versatile and well-optimized enough to take over nearly all compression duties and in that regard it will definitely reward the investment.
Recommended for mixing and mastering engineers who are not entirely satisfied with the compressor plug-ins they already have and anyone still looking for "that" compressor to rule them all.