DBX 160VU Compressors Pair (Vintage) 1970’s
The Father of the VCA
Originally founded by David Blackmer in 1971, dbx (shorthand for “decibel expansion”) was the birthplace of many groundbreaking and enduring technologies and designs. Originally employed as a device to restore transient loss due to the negative side effects of magnetic recording, Blackmer’s patented VCA (Voltage-Controlled Amplifier) and RMS (Root Mean Square) detection technology soon found a home in many audio products such as compressors, noise-reduction devices, and subharmonic synthesizers, which have made the dbx brand one of the most recognized in the audio production world. Blackmer’s patented VCA designs even found heavy use in many audio products not necessarily sporting the dbx brand. Like Bill Putnam, Blackmer eventually sold his company to a larger entity, but the products and technologies he designed during this era endure to this day as a working testimony to his brilliance.
Birth of a Legend
Of all the dbx designs, Blackmer’s first compressor design is one of the most enduring, and has spawned the greatest number of iterative products for dbx, even to this day. The dbx 160 has been a staple in studios since its inception. “VU” is the common nickname for this widely regarded first-generation tool, famous for its simple control set and firm compression characteristics. A bit of a one-trick pony, the dbx 160 produces a sound unlike earlier compressor technologies, and exhibits hard knee compression characteristics with subtle program dependencies different from an LA-2A or 1176.
The solid-state, transformerless design set new standards for performance and affordability, and for better or for worse brought the decline of older compressor topologies. It really ushered in a new wave audio technology, and was one component in the birth of home recording, along with the original Teac 4-track recorders and other “pro-sumer” devices of its era.
Sonically, the 160 is in a league of its own and has a distinct ability to grab virtually every transient thrown its way.
The original dbx 160 unit is still considered the very best in a long line of VCA compressors that continues to this day. Unlike later monolithic IC units, the VU uses a series of components for gain reduction, and therefore has unique nonlinearities not found in its later cousins—giving it a sonic distinction and a higher value. On a purely speculative note, the product was probably also popular in the era because of those fabulously ’70s wood sides. The wood sides could of course be removed for a single or dual rack kit, not unlike the LA-3A. Tragically, many of those wood sides were discarded in the process, which tends to devalue the original unit—but I digress.
In addition to the 160, the 161 was a lower cost, yet functionally identical, version which offered unbalanced -10 RCA connections and was likely targeted at the home recordist. Happily, the 161 can be converted to a +4 input and output with relative ease if so desired. There was also the 162, a two-channel version of the 160, which favored stereo use. Similar to the UREI 1178, the 162 was not very practical for using the individual channels on separate sources due to the lack of separate controls.
Courtesy of Will Shanks UA