Alesis 3630 COMPRESSOR by omnialinx
Perusing the Alesis 3630's page, it's introductory sentence claims the 3630: "has become the most popular dynamics processor ever made." Really? Was this done by a third party survey? Or was this claim made because there are so many used 3630's for sale on Ebay that the dual channel comp/limiter could have its very own category? Has any artist/producer/engineer honestly ever endorsed this product? And if it was so popular then why have they discontinued it, replacing it instead with the newer 3632?
Admittedly, I suppose if you were to search on any Craigslist across the US you would probably find a few 3630's for sale as well, which indicates someone bought them (or you could even draw the conclusion many people have bought them), BUT why then are they are selling them? In most cases the posting pic has an Alesis unit sitting all alone in a room or with other 3630's (like some sort of package deal) or next to some plastic Behringer (cringe, shudder, spit,) unit the seller had also wasted their money on. Only worse. And yes it can get worse than Behringer.
I wanted to write this review to clear up a few things regarding the "legendary" 3630.
It is in MY opinion that this is an awful compressor.
If whatever audio enters a UA 1176 and just sounds better coming out; the contrary applies to the Alesis 3630. It is the anti-thesis of dynamic compressors. *I might go as far as say the “anti-christ of all compressors”*
Really one would actually be better off with some Behringer (cringe, shudder, spit) ultra-pro-super-duper-multi-max-compressor if one wanted to either tame a signal or play with dynamics because the 3630 has a hard time doing either.
I do not say that lightly because I dislike Behringer's cheap gear about as much as the next Gearslut while (like many other Gearslutz) also owning (or having owned) one or two or three of their less offensive products e.g. BCF 2000's, Ha400, px3000, etc...
*On a side-note I actually like the way the Behringer 2030p reference monitors sounded when I tested them against other higher end monitors although I'm sure that they would break in a year or two, but that's my opinion and has nothing to do with the lousy compressor I am trying to write a review on* Ahem...
I have been doing sound for a little over a dozen years. I have done everything from festivals to clubs to tracking and mixing demos and full lengths to a few commercials and soundtracks. I am not famous. In all likelihood I never will be. I have another job and work in audio part time because I love it, people tell me I am good at it, and it is what I am supposed to do -if that makes any sense at all. I am first and forever a musician. I also have a good handful of lower end outboard gear scattered around my home studio and live rig so this is not just a knock on low end gear. I love me some low end. Hey, if it works? Use it!! Or mod it!
But you can't use the 3630.
If pushed it crackles, so what's the point of the gate or limiter? It doesn't take much to make these units distort sound in very bad way. Not a cool harmonic flavor but more a bad radio frequency mistake.
Not very long ago when screwing around in the studio -aka working- I decided to take the 3630 from its recent job as a rack shelf and throw it up on the desk to see if there was anything I could really do with it. I had just picked up a DBX 166 and wanted to compare it to some of my other comps, and the 3630 seemed the perfect first candidate.
Setting the threshold on the 3630 in comparison to the DBX I had fed the two units the same signal via a separate Aux on my A and H GL3300. The threshold settings on the DBX (as well as the ART VLA II and FMR RNC that I also decided to “test”) gave me relatively the same results every time and never allowed audio to travel below or above what I had set it as. The 3630?
Well it was all over the place. It really depended on what kind of audio was going into it. Loud drums began clipping when pushed, and the kick and snare sounded like a bad video game through a broken laptop speaker. Guitars were hardly kept in check and it seemed certain frequencies just bypassed the comp completely. I switched the channels, flipped signals, and tried a variety of other tasks to see if it was something else. It wasn't. Like I said the VLA II (which by the way I highly recommend) and the RNC (recommend recommend) both gave me the same results as the DBX; complete control of the audio signal.
Now was that a perfect test? Hell no! I don't work for SOS and I wasn't really trying to perfectly AB the units -I know the 3630 is junk and don't care enough to absolutely prove it. To be honest I had just bought the DBX for a little more than I had wanted too and was trying to determine if I had made a mistake when I decided to “test” the Alesis.
Now sure the 3630 does compress audio signals; but to the point of such an artificial transient mess which completely muddies the signal so bad that whatever had gone into the unit has lost any flavor or semblance of life or clarity. One is way better off just leaving the signal alone, even if its dynamics are clipping and your forced to ride the faders for the entire length of a song or show. Both the attack and release times seem highly inaccurate and I swear that it just sometimes outright ignores any ratio setting I have applied making the difference between 2:1 and 6:1 hardly noticeable if even at all. I have also compared the unit side by side to a Presonus acp-88 during a few live shows I was recording (it gets boring behind the board sometimes) and while the Presonus gain reduction meters aren't 100% accurate the 3630 was completely off or highly delayed or something. It definitely was not inline with any source, and this was at various attack and release times.
Most importantly the inside out vacuum black hole effect it does on whatever audio one puts through it (especially when pushed) is probably the farthest thing from desirable I could think of when using a compressor.
Then there's the idea of using it as an effects unit... .
I've read that various popular musical artists (usually in the electronica genre) have used the 3630 as an effects unit. First off; I am sure that at one time or another they had a 3630 in their rig but I highly doubt that it was there go-to for whatever effect they were trying to achieve. Why? Why use that piece of junk when there are a hundred other comps out there that can do the same thing but way way better (e.g. side-chaining a kick for an 808 effect) while also being able to do a hundred other wonderful effects as well.
But let's suppose they did use the 3630 cause that's what did it for them.
Okay. That's cool.
The drummer in my band used a 5 gallon bucket as a snare once in a song for an effect and it was pretty cool too. But it doesn't men he plays the five gallon bucket now. Why would he? I guess if we were strictly busking as a jug band on some Lower East Side NY street corner it would make sense, but I prefer (as does he) his full and beautiful kit. For one; it's fuller. Two; it comes with a whole bunch of other components that if you hit make cool noises and also afford the benefit of sounding way better than a bucket.
And so the 3630 is very much like that five gallon bucket and almost every other compressor on the market is at the very least a three piece drum kit.
Now I've always been under the impression that Alesis gear for the most part is kinda junk with a handful one trick pony diamonds in the ruff i.e. Monitor 1 MK2, Hd24, adat, Ai3, etc... but for some reason the 3630 was thrown in there by a few people who needed to justify owning them. Why they needed to do this only the great gods of outboard gear will ever know.
I have been forced to use shady gear like Alesis, Behringer, and Phonic live and cringe, shudder, and spit upon seeing them in whatever rack I'll be using that night. Yes, in a pinch it works if you use it very very subtly. It is very far from transparent and if pushed will always reveal its true colors which are not nearly as pretty as its green and red lights. I would never ever use it for tracking or mixing. Never. I know no one who has or would ever consider it as a serious option.
I believe it is important to clear the air regarding the 3630 as a warning to newbies who are looking into getting their first piece of outboard compressor, and are scanning through the Ebay used rack gear section searching for that budget compressor that is gonna help them in their voyage through the wonderful world of pro audio enjoyment. I believe this review could save years of frustrated befuddlement for that potential neophyte engineer who may very well one day be the designer of the next 1176, or the future-producer who because of the pain involved in trying to use a 3630 was dissuaded from producing great mixes and never had the opportunity to hear the sheer beauty of unarguably good quality low end comp/limiters (like the FMR RNC, DBX 166, ect...) This review may save the beloved home studio owner who is scratching his head wondering what he was doing wrong that had made that acoustic guitar track he had just recorded then applied some compression on sound so bad. All along little did these prospective Gearslutz ever realize that it wasn't JUST them. That the shiny 19 inch black piece of plastic with pretty lights was actually making things worse -or at least shared a great deal in the responsibility. For this I not only deserve a rack space filler to replace my 3630 but it is in my humble opinion that such reviews may be worthy of the Noble Prize!!! Just think of all those countless hours of ruined mixes and artificial discordant garbage leaking into the aether of online music. Could the 3630 be a significant component of the loudness war? Did it all start with some dude in his basement who was trying to use the 3630 on the stereo buss (he had read the manual) but after hearing how awful it sounded gave up on dynamic compression altogether?
Don't get me wrong it very well could be that the green soon-to-be-someday-famous-producer is setting his attack and release times all wrong with a ratio of 20:1 and doesn't understand why its sounds like the bass ate a pillow and is barfing it back up, but there's also a good chance that it's the 3630.
And yeah some people have modified these things. I can't believe people actually bothered. Why? Why not just get a decent affordable compressor? Then modify that! Is it because the Alesis looks cool being all shiny and black with pretty red and green lights? Is it because other home hobbyist have claimed wonderful results with the 3630? Is it because Alesis says so on their page so it must be true? Why purchase such a questionable piece of gear whose performance is as elusive as a Higgs Boson?
Unfortunately there is no deep philosophical answer to those last few questions. The answer is simple and it has ruined many an amateur audio hobbyist's mix and finances since the dawn of the DAW. The damn thing is cheap. The problem is; it sounds it too.
The few pros
*I haven't ever broken one when touting it around on tour or in my mobile live or recording rigs. Writing this review I am actually shooting myself in the foot as I can't get rid of the 3630 that I've owned and have lugged around the country for over ten years. It won't die. So to this I have to give it credit even though its mostly made of plastic. Honestly, it has been used for everything from a paperweight , to a door stop, to a rack shelf, to a decent pry bar, to a measuring tool when building studio racks (cause I don't care if I send a circular saw through it by accident). Coincidentally it hasn't been used as a compressor since I was pushing faders on a Mackie 32-8 over ten years ago and just cutting my teeth.
*It's light and small enough to make a decent rack space filler -I should know I'm using one between a power conditioner and an Aphex 207 .
*If in a pinch using it only as a side-chain unit with very low settings it can just keep the sound from clipping if you really need it to. But I mean really need to.
So all in all the Alesis 3630 might just be the worst if not one of the worst compressors out there. I am sure others with years more experience than me will disagree with this critique and say that the 3630 is a "great little box for the money" and they are entitled to their opinion like I am mine. But IMO If possible avoid this compressor. There are a ton of better and equally priced compressors out there, just maybe not as shiny and pretty. Other very affordable units that I can personally attest too and are vastly superior if one needs a decent low end compressor are;
The Ashly SC-50 -great budget compressor that has been used on guitars in pro studios for a good many years now but do not pay a ton it is indubitably a budget comp that is somewhat a one trick pony IMO.
ART VLA II – Unarguably a good affordable compressor with many people (including myself) loving and using it in the studio daily. Others contest it is over-rated and one will find a gazillion arguments on the GS forum regarding this compressor. I say change the tubes and get to work.
DBX 160 – Classy classic mono compressor. Crazy easy to use. I've seen these go for a decent amount of cash these days which I feel is a little crazy. There are various versions with an X, XT, or A that each have a subtle difference. I've used the XT and A and both were good.
DBX 166 – Affordable all around decent compressor. While not as easy as the 160 it offers more control over the signal. Beware of the 166a. And definitely beware of some of their other compressors like the 266 which is akin to the 3630
FMR RNC – This is what one should save up for and get if one is looking for a good quality compressor for an insanely low price (between $75-$150 used) I now take these in my live recording rig and use them on guard duty as they offer amazing transparency yet are incredibly effective. Not my number 1 choice in the studio but a great option and back up. Hardly a soul on Earth who has done pro audio will not say for the money these are the best bang for the buck compressors that have probably ever existed with the exception of the VLA. While not as cheap as the 3630 or nearly as pretty and a bit awkward with their 1/3 rack size they are amazingly effective. I have two that go with me in a Funk Logic rack everywhere I do live sound. I absolutely trust them.
Dramner MX-30 – Not as versatile or effective as their other mid and high end compressors I feel these guys are in a league with the DBX 166 and the SC-50
Orban, Valley People, and Symetrix also make some pretty decent affordable compressors for roughly around the same used price, and although I have used a few of their outboard comps, I rarely see them in live rigs very often or used them as much in the studio as I have the little list I had written prior.