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Cakewalk's CA-2A Leveling Amplifier plugin

Cakewalk’s CA-2A Leveling Amplifier plugin

Sound Clips

Time to listen to all of the LA-2As in action and demonstrate some of the strengths and weaknesses. Note that with all of these sound clips there is no attempt to show that the compressed version sounds ‘better’ than the uncompressed version, or that anything has been improved. Compression is an artistic tool, and as with all things art, everything is a matter of taste. Many of you may prefer the uncompressed sounds, and many will love the changes brought by the processing. The only point of these sound clips is to give you an accurate picture of what these tools can do, and maybe train your ears to some more nuanced and subtle uses of compression and distortion. If you think these colours could be useful in your approach to art, excellent. If not, that’s equally cool, but either way I can guarantee that there’s great value in listening critically, learning to hear what’s happening, and drawing your own conclusions.

Prog House (dry first, then wet)

This clip features the LA-2A Grey model plugin on the big bad bass, 4 bars in Bypass followed by 4 bars in Comp mode. The compressor is doing about 3-5 dB reduction, and the Gain knob is cranked fairly high to get a healthy amount of harmonic distortion injected into the otherwise flat, dull bass tone.

What to listen for: the compressed bass has more presence due to the harmonics produced by the tube-and-transformer-modelled distortion, so the tone is the first thing to change. The distortion-generated harmonic overtones, which are by definition harmonically related to the bass (usually octaves and/or fifths) allow the ear to infer the lower fundamental notes with more ease, which allows you to mix a bass (or any instrument) in at lower volume but have it cut through more thanks to the increased mid-range energy. This adds clarity and definition to the part as well, making the articulation of the individual notes easier to hear. It also makes the deep bass audible on small speakers that can’t physically reproduce the actual notes.

The compressed bass also has more well-defined, evened-out transients. In other words, the initial attack of each note has a clearer, shorter ‘pop’ that adds punch and, like the distortion, allows you to increase audibility while tucking a sound deeper into the mix. In particular, pay attention to the last two notes of the eight-bar phrase; on the uncompressed version they lose energy and fall away, on the compressed version they ring as strong as the rest.

One of the easiest ways to really hear how the transients of a sound are shaped, how they’re moving air, is to turn your monitors down to the threshold of hearing – so quiet that it’s almost silent, but not quite, and you feel like you have to lean in and strain to hear. At that volume, only the loudest things in a mix make it to your ears, and the transients (if they haven’t been crushed to death by too much limiting) will reveal themselves. This is also a fantastic way to get a true picture on what’s loudest/brightest in your mix. The louder you turn up the music, the more the acoustics of your room come to dominate what you’re hearing, so unless you’ve spent a good deal of time and money on bass trapping, broad-band absorption and diffusion, odds are good your monitoring is more accurate at whisper volumes.

One of the easiest ways to really hear how the transients of a sound are shaped is to turn your monitors down.

Prog Bass – Plugin vs Hardware (plugin first, then hardware)

Here we have my hot-rodded, real life LA-2A put side by side with the LA-2 plugin, which has the most similar attack and release character to my hardware. For those interested in what hot-rodded means, it means I hand-selected tubes for their distortion and compressive character, I put transformers in that have the kind of colour shift I like in my LA-2A (less subs, more mid-bass, neutral mids, gentle air boost), and I put a custom T4 cell in, which changes its attack and release characteristics to be more like the original LA2s, which were slower, thicker compressors. These changes make the box stunning on female vocals, dirty vintage bass guitars, and Rhodes electric piano, which is exactly what I tend to use it on.

Anyway, in this side-by-side comparison you should be able to hear a couple of things: first, the hardware has a bit less weight in the deepest sub frequencies (40 Hz and below) and a good bit more oomph in the ‘chest’ frequencies (60-80 Hz); that’s my transformers at work, which serve me well when dealing with organic instruments, but it’s an open question whether that’s a desirable thing with synth bass.

What is most striking to me is that the real hardware has significantly more punch than the plugin. It moves a lot more air a lot more quickly, so it has a tighter envelope and faster here-and-gone sensation; you can probably see this just by watching the movement of the woofers at decent volume – study the degree and speed at which they move in and out.

The plugin, on the other hand, has a heavier, slower feeling overall, which for this particular track is a nice thing to my ears. Both processors add nice overtones; the hardware sounds (surprise) more analogue to me, like the source was a physical Juno rather than what it actually is: Logic’s stock bass synth from the GarageBand Instruments menu. I like the plugin’s colours equally, I just wish the compressor added more solid movement rather than just adding tones. On the flip-side, the sound does go deeper down. If I were producing this track I’d probably go with the hardware for its punch and sheer girth, and use a clean, fast EQ to restore the subs. But many of you will prefer the plugin exactly as it is and I can’t argue the wisdom of that. Vive la différence!

Prog Bass Solo – Plugin vs Hardware

Same exact sounds as above, but with the bass soloed to make it easier to hear the overtones added.

Shimmering Arp (dry first, then wet)

This is the Silver LA-2A plugin doing about 5 dB of reduction on the topline synth, which is a simple melody line I created using an Absynth patch. The topline processing is bypassed for four bars, then engaged, and repeats in that pattern for the duration of the clip. This is a very subtle example of compression used as a musical enhancement rather than an obvious, over-the-top cartoonish effect, so if it’s hard to hear at first don’t sweat it. Two things are happening: first, I’ve slightly overdriven the sound to add a bit of (you guessed it) harmonics, which makes the second half of this clip sparkle just a bit more. Second, the crisply defined attack of the the comp evens out all of the notes in volume, while the medium release has the effect of ‘pulling up’ the tail or sustain of the sound, making it sound fuller and richer as it occupies more space floating on top of the mix rather than decaying away into the drums.

The biggest clue to what’s happening here comes from notes 6-8 of each 2-bar melody, i.e. the first notes to descend in pitch. On the unprocessed loop, those notes drop noticeably in volume compared to the first 5 notes. On the compressed loop, they’re just as even, and overall the tone of every note is thicker, slightly softer and more plush/organic sounding. Again, it’s subtle, but in my experience the most magical productions are made through a series of hundreds or thousands of subtle but important choices. I recommend studying this loop until you can clearly hear the difference – it’s great ear-training.

Upright Skank (dry first, then wet)

This was a fun little joint and one which really shows the strengths of the LA-2A as a tool for softening the sharp edges of digital sound. The instrumentation is simple: upright bass, drums, and skank guitar. I’ve grabbed the Gray LA-2A plugin and put it on the upright bass and skank guitar; for the bass I used it strictly for levelling, as the third note of each 3-note phrase felt weak compared to the first two. In the Wet half of the clip, you can hear that third note popping through with the same authority as the first two. Simple.

The skank guitar is really where this plugin shines, and in general electric guitars of all shapes and sizes tend to love LA-2As. The effect here is neither subtle nor cartoonish, but somewhere nicely in between. You should be able to hear two things: first, the sharpness of the guitar sound is significantly softened; it has a rounder, more easy-going attack. Second, the tail is longer and the reverb, which is printed as part of the track, is pulled up, making it sound wetter and more lush. Again, whether these changes are improvements is a subjective call, but in this example I have a strong preference for the treated guitar because it not only has a sweeter tone but, more importantly, it enhances the groove of the part – it makes my head bob a few extra inches in response to what I’m hearing. Listen for that as you play the loop; listen for the ‘bounce’ factor and how the groove deepens as a result of the slower release/longer sustain of the compression.

Attack-Release Tests

These sound clips are different than the others in that they’re not designed to be musical or pleasing in any way. Instead, I’ve seriously overcompressed the clip with two UAD LA-2A plugs, the Cakewalk CA-2a plugin, and my hardware LA-2A. The goal here is to exaggerate the compression to the point where the attack and release characteristics of each model become extremely obvious. As with all things transient related, I find the easiest way to hear these things clearly is to turn the volume very low, down to the point where you instinctively lean in to hear better.

The UBK-1 clip is clearly different; like the LA-2A, the UBK-1 is a preset compressor with fixed attack, release, ratio and knee settings, but rather than one it has five different preset compressors to choose from, each of which grabs and releases in its own unique way. Unlike traditional ‘levellers’ such as the LA-2A – which focus on dynamic control – the UBK-1 is tuned to accentuate the movement or even redefine the groove of the source material, and as such has a ‘wetter’ sound with more obvious personality.  The clip here features the Squish preset, my take on the Abbey Road tube compressors of yore. It’s set fairly aggressively, but it can actually get quite a bit more aggressive to the point of ‘reverse compression’ and unique forms of pumping. I included this clip to show that just because a compressor is preset doesn’t mean it wears a tie and extends its pinky while drinking tea; depending on the UI and choices made by the designer, preset compressors can do things no other tools can while freeing you from the need to enter ‘left brain’ mode while trying to make compelling works of art.

Author Gregory Scott
28th October, 2013

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