Universal Audio Shadow Hills Mastering Compressor Plug-In by Glenn Bucci
The Shadow Hills Mastering compressor offers two compressors in series, per channel that can act in stereo, or dual mono. The hardware unit cost over $7,000 which might make it difficult for many to purchase. The unit’s first compressor is an optical compressor that has a set 2.1 ratio. It is then followed by a VCA compressor. There are six ratios: 1.2:1, 2:1, 3:1, 4:1, 6:1, Flood (past infinite). There attack settings: 0.1, 0.5, 1, 5, and 10 milliseconds, six release times selectable: 0.1, 0.25, 0.5, 0.8, 1.2 and Auto.
There are two VU meters which provide options to see the reduction of either compressor or output of the compressors. They also made the screen shot of the compressor fairly large so seeing the details and numbering on the unit is easy to see on your monitor.
There is an insert able 90 Hz side chain filtering which allows the compressor to bypass freq.’s below 90 Hz to limit pumping with heavy bass material.
There are 3 transformer options to choose from. Nickel, which adds a nice top end sparkle. Iron which adds a little character in the mid's, and steel which adds additional harmonic distortion. There are bypass switches for both compressors, and stepped controls that click to the specific setting to obtain precise settings as well as stereo link mode.
If that was not cool enough, there is a "Magic eye" light that follows the output meter to act as a peak meter.
Universal Audio worked with Brainworx who developed this compressor for the UAD Powered Plug-Ins platform. There is a video from Universal Audio that compares the plug in to the hardware. After some corrections were made with settings, the two sound very similar to each other. A video from YouTube of course does not give an accurate representation of how audio gear actually sounds. With that being said, I heard about a 5% difference when listening to the differences in the video with a pair of headphones. With the plug in only costing only a couple hundred dollars compared to over $7,000 for the hardware, many will find it hard to justify the small difference for the hardware version unless you have the ability to purchase the hardware unit without getting into debt.
The approach to mastering is quite different than how you work when mixing a song. Mastering is generally about subtle changes to your mixes. When you add several subtle changes from multiple compressors and EQ's, the overall difference can clearly be heard.
You can of course add an optic and VCA plug in compressors in a chain (which I have tried and compared to the SH compressor by the way) to try to achieve similar results. However I found the Shadow Hills compressor came out on top on for several reasons.
1. I like the way the 2.1 ratio on the SH optic compressor reacts. It does not soften the signal too much like some other plug in optic compressors.
2. The stepped controls are crucial at the mastering stage. Even when you have it linked for stereo the stepped controls are important as many times with standard controls getting that exact one step up is hard to do with a mouse.
3. The controls are very large making it very easy to see and work with.
4. HP filter is very handy to get smoother gel mixes unless you want the kicks and bass to make the comp react to.
5. Three transformer options add flexibility in the type of sound you want. More air use the nickel, more body use the iron, and steel adds more harmonic distortion.
6. VCA comp just sounds great with -2dv with slow attach and fast release.
This compressor has beomce my favorite mastering compressor plug in which has replaced the Ammunition compressor I previously used in my studio. The Shadow Hills is able to control the top tranients with the optic compressor and the VCA with slow attack and fast release with the sidechain activated, it can add some nice gentle character to a mix. Gentle threshold settings usually sound best at the matering stage. Along with the flexibilty of the transformer options this unit can offer very good results for vocal and drum tracks as well. Please note you need a UAD 2 card to use this plug in. I found the many presets to be a great starting point for many situations.