Alright so here I am reviewing the wonderful Empirical Labs Distressor.
If you're wondering about my credibility, you can rest easy - I have two of them and use them daily, and have for years. Just finally getting around to writing a review for this blog. They are very versatile units that have lots of different capabilities. If you look through the manual you can learn plenty of what this baby can do and how. I'll talk a little bit about what it does and why I love it and why you should get one.
The General Idea
I think the Distressor is the BEST compressor under $1500 that money can buy. If you were to just buy one compressor for all of your tracking duties, I believe the Distressor would be it. It can be mellow, it can be ridiculously over the top. You can lightly tap a signal or crush it to all oblivion. You can emulate tape saturation, emulate tube optical compressors, emulate an 1176, or do super clean high fidelity transparent limiting. Really a surprising piece of gear. I wish I had five more.
The Distressor is a very hi-fi piece of equipment, boasting a frequency response of something like 20hz-300khz accuracy with all of the "Distortion" modes turned off. It can sound quite transparent, which is something a lot of people are worried about before buying - they think "eh, it may be too aggressive for me." The 2:1 ratio has something like a 30dB knee! Very wide! Very mellow. The attack and release times are quite variable, so you have lots of options for super mellow compression. However, if you want to get a little bit dirty, Distortion mode 2 emulates second order harmonics, which is generally associated with tube like saturation. Distortion mode 3 emulates second and third order harmonics, which can closely emulate the sound of magnetic tape saturation. Keep in mind these Dist modes are emulating saturation, not any specific pieces of gear.
The Distressor, however, CAN be used to emulate certain pieces of gear like the LA2A, 1176, etc. The different attack, release, and knee curves of the various ratios provide different compression sounds, and the different attack and release times can provide that classic sound. The Dist modes may be used in conjunction to further accentuate the warmth of the source. I find that while tracking, it's an absolute go-to. I like it on 4:1 or 6:1, fast attack and fast release, Dist modes off, just tapping 1 - 3dB on kicks, snares, etc. This helps prevent any clipping, and also keeps the source a little more consistent in level. You know how drummers always play quieter while checking the mics...
Set with a low ratio, fast attack and fast release, with Dist 3 mode on, the sound somewhat resembles analog take saturation, which can nicely warm up guitars and give them some edge. I know "giving them edge" and "warming them up" may sound contradictory, but that's really what it does...it's like turning up the sharpen control on a photo - looks better, more defined, but quickly can look bad if overused.
The Distressor can in general is a very pleasing soft knee compressor that is quite transparent at lower ratios. Once you get into 10:1 and higher, it becomes more obvious compression. For tracking or mixing, you'll be amazed what it can do to a vocal, a bass, kick, or snare, or a drum bus. Throw it on "Nuke" and destroy your drum room mics - it really sounds quite special on that setting.
WHY YOU NEED ONE
Okay, so the truth is, you don't really "need" any single piece of gear, but I will say, this is a GREAT compressor for you. It's very intuitive to work with and really helps you understand compression. You turn the knobs, you watch the lights, and you hear the difference. You can really learn a lot from using this device, and if you already know quite a bit, you'll surely have a good time exploring all that you can do. I use it while tracking, I use it while mixing, Ive even used it live! Bass, vocals, drums, guitars, percussion, it REALLY does it all, and not in the way that it "does 20 things okay as opposed to one thing great." It really sounds good most of the time. May not be the best, but it always works. I love pieces of gear that always work.
What can be said about the Distressor? It's a modern classic with good reason. It rocks. I've NEVER said to myself "man that sucks." The Distressor seems to find its way onto every project that I record, whether that's jazz, rock, metal, or funk. It's got a lot of attitude, a LOT of settings, and it's a lot of fun to work with. Very easy to learn, lots of great info in the startup manual they include, and tons of great info about it online.