Kush Audio’s Gregory Scott uses new LA-2A compressor emulations from Universal Audio and Cakewalk as the starting point for a discussion of modelling, emulation and the use of vintage studio hardware for dance music production.
One of the key growth areas in music software over the last decade has been the market for emulations of classic hardware. And by emulations, we really mean painstakingly accurate modelling of the behaviour of those classic units – a huge step up from some of the lacklustre imitations passed off as emulations over the years.
It’s not so long since most of us were happy if a plugin compressor, synth or drum machine emulation looked like the original hardware and sounded, well, vaguely similar.
There are, of course, still countless plugins which take that approach, but over the last decade a much more authentic type of emulation has emerged. Companies such as Softube, Universal Audio and D16 go to extreme lengths to model the characteristics of analogue circuits then recreate them as software. The net result is that we can all now get our hands on incredibly realistic emulations of units as diverse as the Roland TR-909, Tube-Tech CL-1B and Studer A800.
When Universal Audio announced three new emulations of the classic Teletronix LA-2A compressor, it raised a few questions. How many emulations of subtly different versions of the same unit are necessary? Is emulation now so accurate that it really warrants this kind of approach? Then, to compound matters further, software development veterans Cakewalk released another new LA-2A emulation in the form of their CA-2A plugin. And still an old nagging doubt played on our minds: are emulations of 40-year-old analogue units really the best tools for dance music production?
We realised it was time to call in a self-confessed LA-2A fan whose all-round knowledge of production and engineering, compression, analogue hardware and audio software development is second to none: Gregory Scott of Kush Audio. The brief? Not a traditional review as such, but an invitation to go into some serious detail about the various LA-2A models, teach us a few things about compression and discuss some of the strengths and weaknesses of modelled compressors in general.
are emulations of 40-year-old analogue units really the best tools for dance music production?
Gregory Scott writes:
When I was asked by Attack to write about the latest LA-2A plugin suite from Universal Audio, my eyebrows went up in surprise, because I’m not a professional reviewer; what I am is a designer and manufacturer of boutique analogue hardware. But I also create the kinds of spendy plugins that get reviewed, and while my company is one tenth the size of Universal Audio, I’m nevertheless a direct competitor.
A feature written by a competitor of the product being tested? I was intrigued! But I love a challenge so I said yes to writing the feature as long as I could be honest about the fact that I’m a competitor and share the full truth of whatever I discovered as I explored the possible uses and applications of these plugins in dance music production. Attack said yes, so I bought an Apollo (short review: love it) and Universal Audio gave me one-year licences for the LA-2A suite.
So I invite you now to join me as I recount my journey of rediscovering an old familiar friend and learning that, while many of my doubts about using this tool for dance music were justified, many were not, and depending on the kind of music you make and sounds and textures you favour, these plugins could be an indispensable and inspiring part of your toolkit.
What’s an LA-2A anyway?
The simplest answer to that question is: a compressor – a signal processor that reduces the dynamic range of a signal. That’s great, but for those of us who’d rather make music that has sounds than process signals that have dynamic range, perhaps the better question is: how does a compressor help me with my art? Now there’s a question I can sink my teeth into.
A compressor, viewed from a more artistic perspective, is a tool we can use to change, among other things, the movement, energy, intensity, focus, size, density, depth, and tone of a sound. It can also be used to ‘glue’ multiple sounds into a more coherent whole by unifying their different tones, and coordinating their disparate movements into a more collective, singular motion.
The LA-2A falls into the category of hardware compressors known as ‘optos’, short for ‘optical’. Optos got their name because there is a contraption inside them which literally has a light bulb next to a light-detecting material; the more you turn up the compression knob, the louder the sound that’s fed to the compressor’s brain (aka the ‘detector’). The louder that sound, the brighter the bulb gets and, in response, the more intense the effect of the compressor becomes, the more it ‘clamps down’ and reduces the difference between the softest and loudest parts of a sound. This optical mechanism was simultaneously crude and ingenious, and to this day it produces some of the most natural, pleasing, easy-to-use compression anywhere.
And of all the opto compressors past and present – I can count at least 20 different brands and models off the top of my head – the LA-2A is undeniably one of the most famous, most ubiquitous and (for some of the vintage units that are older than I am) most coveted pieces of high-end analogue gear in existence.
The LA-2A is undeniably one of the most famous, most ubiquitous and most coveted pieces of analogue gear in existence.
Why? If you’ve ever used the hardware, you already know the answer to that. There’s a magic to its sound: a thick, quintessentially warm, slightly hazy cloud of analogue goodness that makes things sound better just by passing through the tubes and transformers; the compression is just a bonus, and for many sounds it’s quite a bonus indeed. Not every sound works or is served by the magic of LA-2As, but when it works there’s nothing that does quite the same thing.