Empirical Labs EL8 Distressor Compressor
Digitally Controlled Analog Knee Compression
The Empirical Labs EL8 Distressor is the product that started it all for Empirical Labs. Born of founder Dave Derr’s love of classic compressors like the 1176, LA-2A and Gain Brain (among others), the Distressor incorporates his favorite sonic characteristics of these, along with other unique and interesting features that have made it a staple for audio engineers all over the world. With over 28,000 units in the field, it’s safe to say that the Distressor is one of the best selling high end compressors of all time…
Besides providing a wide range of control and a unique feature set, the Distressor offers a warm, vintage sound by using a custom designed gain control circuit. This “warmth” or “vintage sound” has become a major issue in the last few decades, as the super clear and linear digital technology does next to nothing to soften “harsh” sounds, nor emphasize the bass frequencies in music sources. Conversely, older analog tape, vinyl records and tube equipment could not be prevented from coloring the sound, often to the frustration of recording engineers. However, many people now realize that this coloring can be extremely pleasant and musical. Digital technology is often referred to as “cold” and “brittle” among other terms (although we prefer “unforgiving”).
All eight of the Distressor’s curves are unique and distinctive, from the 1:1 mode that simply warms up signal with low order harmonics without intentional compression, to the “Nuke” setting – a brick wall limiting curve that shines on live drum room mics. Each curve has its own personality and several actually use different circuitry, and are effectively different compressors. Most exceptional is the 10:1 “Opto” ratio which uses separate detector circuitry to emulate the oldest (and valued) “light controlled” devices, such as the LA-2A.
Another large part of the Distressor’s personality and power derive from three modes that color the signal, even without compression. These extended audio modes were designed to allow emulation of some very old and expensive vintage compressors & limiters, and let the Distressor deliver a classic “knee” sound all its own by providing user programmable, warm harmonic distortion. In addition to the basic distortion mode, Distort 2 emphasizes tube-like 2nd order harmonics, while in Distort 3 setting the distortion becomes dominated by 3rd harmonics more closely resembling tape. Two HP filters – one in the audio path, one in the detector path – are also available to help with low frequencies that can cause pumping and breathing.
The concept of British Mode came from an unusual setting on the classic UREI LN1176 limiter. The unit was designed to have only four ratios, each ratio being engaged by selecting one of four buttons. However, as early as 1980 (or before), renegade recording engineers, always on the lookout for something a little more “over-the-top”, found that you could make all four buttons stay in if you pressed them just right. What resulted was a very aggressive sound that had some elements of the unit’s 20:1 ratio, but with an unusual knee and new envelope shape. Somewhere along the line, someone called it “British Mode”, and the name stuck.
The EL8-X has the advantage of being able to selectively apply this aggressive characteristic – not just to the new “British” ratio (1:1) – to any of the ratios, simply by engaging the dedicated “British Mode” switch.
The original Distressor stereo link function used a summing and phase detection method, which allowed slight stereo image shifting. Although frequently desirable for its phase correction, and its “thickening” on open room mics and other stereo sources, this approach can sometimes be a problem on stereo program material where the producer/engineers want to maintain absolute left/right balance at all times. With the new “Stereo Image Link” option, the EL8-X now has three link options – the original “phase” link, the new Image Link and the combination of the two, phase and image linking – something never before offered on any compressors or limiters.
For many Distressor owners, one is never enough – in fact, one extremely successful engineer has twelve of them! For those who want (at least) a stereo pair, ELI offers the EL8-S, a pair of Distressors that are matched at the factory, and come with the cables you need to lock them together.
A True Modern Day Classic
“Every once in a while a product comes along with “classic” written all over it. And in a certain sense of the word, this product actually is a classic already.”
– Barry Cleveland, MIX Magazine
“The most impressive and versatile compressor I have ever used”
– Michael Brauer
” The Distressor would be the last piece of hardware many engineers would relinquish; you’d have to pry it from their cold, dead hands, as the saying goes” – Pro Sound News
“A really good sounding vocal compressor. Guitars, Drums. Everything. You can’t have too many Distressors.” – Tchad Blake, Tape Op Magazine
” The Distressor is the one thing that I know I can put on everything… anything… and it’ll sound better than ever.” – Recording Magazine
“The unit is really awesome! I’ve used it on guitars, bass, room mics, vocals it works great on everything. I’ve used it on records I’ve made with Beck, U2, Etta James, Hole and lots of others. I’m about to buy a second one.”
– Joe Chicarelli, Producer/Engineer
“I also like the Distressor. I have two of them, but I should have six of them. I’m going to get some more” – David Kahne, Producer
“It’s one of the most user friendly easy to read, best sounding compressors. I’ve had for ages, There’s nowhere I wouldn’t use it!”
– Mike Keating, FOH Engineer-Sting Tour