Empirical Labs EL8X-S Distressor Pair
ANALOG KNEE COMPRESSION
if not THE best selling. A prominent recording engineer recently wagered that there probably was not a top 40 record made in the last five years that didn’t have at least one Distressor on it.
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”).
A TRUE MODERN DAY CLASSIC
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 Distressor is available in either its original form (EL8), or in a modified version (EL8-X) with two additional functions – British Mode, and Image Link.
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. If you want the Brit Mod and Image Link options, an EL8X-S package is also available.
“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
STEREO IMAGE LINKING FOR THE DISTRESSOR
A HARDWARE OPTION FOR YOUR DISTRESSOR
Basic Description – The original Distressor stereo link implementation used a summing and phase detection method which allowed stereo image shifting. “Image shifting” occurs when the interchannel balance (the relative volume between Left and Right channels) changes during compression. Although known for its phase correction, and its “thickening” on open room mics and other stereo sources, this approach has sometimes been 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 Distressor user now has three link options – the original “phase” link, the new Image Link and the combination of the two, phase and image linking. This has never before been offered on any compressors or limiters. There can be very slight differences in the metering between the two units. Due to the high resolution of the Distressor’s metering, 1/10th dB can make an LED on one unit go on or off earlier than the other unit’s. Also, don’t readjust knob alignment – the output pots especially. They are often offset around “0” to allow for “dead spots” at the lower extremes.
How to use the new Stereo Image Link Option for the first time:
You must now use two stereo phone plugs in the link cabling. This means standard TRS phone plugs. They are supplied when you purchase the option. Plug one unit’s Link Out to the other’s Link In, and vice versa. Both units must have the “Stereo Image Link” switch on (both switches should be in the up position and the LEDs should be lit). The engineer must still match the units’ front panel controls usually, but the units will now always match in their gain reduction amount – eliminating image shift. The most important thing the user must do is match the left and right input and output levels. If no change is going to be made to the left/right balance, using a tone to set the left right I/O levels is very direct and useful. See below.
Setting I/O levels – It is suggested that you set both units to their general expected settings, with Stereo Image link engaged, apply an identical tone to both Distressors, and adjust the inputs nearly the same, then “tweak” the outputs so that the output levels are identical. Use the meters on your board or recorders. This will ensure that the interchannel levels remains unchanged. Also, with the new linking, it is not as critical to match either the input or outputs, since the gain reduction between the two channels is locked, and therefore once the overall throughput levels are matched, they will remain that way. However, the units can respond more to the louder channel if the input levels are not matched closely.
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* First, there is no limit to how many units can be linked – in theory. However, you must avoid long link cables since they will cause noise and degradation of operation. To wire up more than two units, go from the link output of the 1st unit’s link to the next units link input, then take that units link out to the next ones input etc. Finally, take the last units link out and feed it back to the first units link in. Again, your must use stereo phone plugs for the new “Stereo Image Link” to work.
* Try putting the lower unit into 1:1 mode with attack and release on 10. Then still matching the I/O levels, use the upper unit to select ratio and attack/release times. This will allow a longer attack time then otherwise available, since the top unit must drive both units timing circuitry. The down side is that the units will only respond to the top units signal, unless the original link is engaged (see below). There are a few well known compressors that have a master/slave mode that only looks at the “master units” audio – so this is not unheard of. You may switch the units and have the bottom one control the top unit (which is in 1:1 mode). Also, using the original link will sum both channels partially, so that there is some response to the “slave” units audio. This longer (slower) attack time is sometimes very useful on program material – a la SSL type compression.
* By not matching the units front panel controls – whole new ratios can be obtained. For instance, putting the left channel on 2:1 and the right channel on Nuke (pretty radical but..), then setting the left and right levels differently, you can get a combination of two ratio curves. Usually the lowest attack/decay settings will override the higher settings, i.e. if one channel has the attack set to 10 and the other to 3, the units will generally react at the faster 3 setting.
* If for some reason no TRS stereo link cables are available, one may use a regular guitar cable to enable the new link. But you only insert the cable part way into the rear Link connectors – so that only the ring is in contact with the tip of phone plug. The normal EL8 link will be sacrificed, however, since it relies on the tip of the link connectors to be connected. It is probably best not to put the unit in normal link (in the Det area) since it will make the unit operate with more distortion without the tip connections – then again this mite be the perfect spice for your gumbo!
Suggested retail price is $200 per Distressor for both mods ($400 for a stereo pair). This includes a brand new EL-8X front panel, turning your EL-8 to an EL-8X.
Schedule your modifications now! Click here to schedule
THE DISTRESSOR “BRITISH MODE” OPTION
WELCOME TO ANOTHER UPGRADE & OPTION FOR YOUR DISTRESSOR
Basic Description – The original concept of the “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, very aggressive sound that had some elements of the units 20:1 ratio, but with an unusual knee and new envelope shape. Somewhere along the line, someone called it a “British Mode” and the name has stuck. It is also called “all buttons in” and some other intuitive names.
The Distressor has the advantage of being able to apply this “aggressive” nature not only to the new British ratio (1:1) but also to all the ratios since a separate switch is installed, which can be enabled with any ratio. One should keep in mind however, that an attack below 3 or 4 is required to maintain the LN1176 character. If you go above an attack of 3 you will also incur a rise in some grunge (distortion) and see the THD indicator lites come on a lot more. The Distressor will no longer behave smoothly, nor like an 1176.
How to use the new British Mode Option for the first time
Put the unit in the 1:1 ratio and turn on the British Mode Switch (flip it up and the LED should be lit). That enables it. To sound like the 1176 the only constraint is to keep the attack well under 4 on the Distressors – their attack can go much longer than the 1176. Now you will find that the unit has a new attitude! The attack and release will generally be more aggressive and the unit will get in and out of the way very quickly. Interestingly, the unit will be slightly less colored when not compressing.
Use this ratio to “skim” peaks. This means that most of the time it may not be doing anything, but when it does “hit” the signal, it will smoothly push back the signal and then get right out of the way again. If you are hitting the Gain Reduction all the time with the British mode on, you are going to be really “squashing” the signal. On the other hand, the Distressor will sound fairly subtle when compressing all the time in 2:1 mode, especially with a slower attack (>6).
* Vocals! – This is a great final compression during mixdown. When not working it is very transparent, but when a vocal pops out and hits the compression, the British mode will get in and out of there quickly and smoothly. When you are really compressing a lot, breaths and background noises will become very loud (pushed up). There is not much you can do with this except gate before compression maybe or, mute or erase the noises and breaths out that you don’t want to hear. Remember that breaths are natural and can add a lot of excitement sometimes, so don’t gate or erase them by default. If you can, back up a vocal track before you start trying to punch out breaths and noises etc.
WHAT PEOPLE SAY ABOUT THE BRITISH MODE MODIFICATION
For those who have come to love and depend on the sound of the Distressor, the new British mode turns it into a new fun loving animal.
At the flick of a switch, the Distressor becomes more aggressive and stressful on any instrument you desire.
Dave Derr should win the “t**s” award for coming up with such a nice but nasty box. – Michael Brauer
A short while ago, I spoke to Judy there about the Stereo Image Link & the British Mods. Both are major enhancements to the Distressor, the British sound being a kind of hard drug! You hear it once, & then you can’t imagine using a Distressor without it… J