My take on the results
The hardware LA-2A is the reference, the thing all these plugins are claiming to model. What I hear is a very clearly defined, weighty thwack on the front edge of the sounds, and the volume is even for both the kick and snare. The release is slow, which makes it transparent, meaning the hats and ghost notes in between the kicks and snares don’t pump or jump around (medium release that’s musically unrelated to the tempo), nor do they get pulled up in your face and sound like they’re exploding (fast release). To me this makes this compressor a very safe choice when tracking because it’s unlikely to do anything to the sound you don’t want, and it’s also likely to work as a transparent-to-thick leveller in the mix on any sound where you just want controlled dynamics and whatever amount of density you desire without things sounding aggressive or in-your-face.
Note there’s no ‘A’ on the end of this plugin, because it’s UAD’s model of the original LA2 compressor that predated the LA-2A. The LA2 is slower than the LA-2As, both the attack and the release. The slower attack makes the ‘thwack’ of the drums closer to the hardware than the Gray and Silver plugins, but you’ll probably hear that they don’t hit quite as hard. Punchy attack is still one of those areas where hardware makes me smile more, call me a snob. What gives this plugin away is the release, which you can hear is pumping a bit. The hi-hat on the ‘3’ of the measure gets noticeably louder until the kick hits just afterwards, pulling the comp back down. I took great pains to get this plugin to behave like the hardware, but when I got the attack hitting right the release pumped, and if I got the release steady then I lost that punchy attack. Still, the slow attack and medium release make this a great plugin for smoothing out things like female vocals where you want the clarity to pop through but you don’t want it to sound hammered or effected, just evened out. The solid attack also makes it a good choice on drums when blended in parallel; just a kiss, tucked underneath the uncompressed sound, will add a tight smack to the whole affair.
The ‘dark horse’ contender here. The CA-2A is a very useful tool, but I’d have to respectfully say that of all the things it’s not, it’s not an LA-2A. You can clearly hear that the attack is fast, fast enough that it reminds me of typical plugin comps that behave like classic VCA comps (SSL and DBX being the most ubiquitous). It makes the drums sound ‘spanked’ and aggressively punchy… this is a very cool sound, but it’s not an LA-2A, and tests on various other sources confirmed that it’s simply a fast-ish limiter with a nice punch. Also, much like the original LA-2A plugin released by UA many moons ago, it makes no attempt to model the distortions, so turning up the Gain knob simply makes things louder. Again, this is a cool tool, but if you’re after the geniune LA-2A magic, it’s not in the same vein as the other models here.
Clearly the attack of this comp is the fastest of the bunch, and the release is in the medium range as it’s also pumping. This makes it a good choice when you want to hear the compression artefacts a bit more, and when you want to soften the edges of a sound that’s too harsh, thin, or spiky. I liked it on peaky male vocals with aggressive delivery, high frequency percussion, and wiry guitars, sitars and kyotos. For most other things where an LA-2A is called for, I tended to favour the LA2 plugin.
To bring it all home, this is what I’ve found: UAD has done an impressive job of creating plugins that can add a healthy amount of very useful, pleasing colouration to sounds. The compression character of the plugins is definitely what you’d expect if you’re used to LA-2As. In comparison with the hardware, they have a more neutral, flat frequency response, which can be exactly what you need if you don’t want the spectral balance of your signal altered. On the flip-side, if you need added heft, silky air, and increased depth and dimension (things I’m generally looking for when doing more acoustic-based music), the hardware still offers a clear advantage.
If you need added heft, silky air, and increased depth and dimension, the hardware still offers a clear advantage.
Whether the extra colours and punch the hardware brings are worth £3k is very much a personal choice. At the same time, these plugins only work if you own a UAD system, and those require a decent chunk of cash to get into, so there’s more investment required than just the price of the plugins.
But if you buy into the UAD platform, the bang for the buck factor is exceptionally high with these plugs, assuming your ‘bang’ is compression of the slower, thicker, more musical variety. If you want to make drums or mixes pump or explode, or leads scream with aggression, you need to look elsewhere. But if you’re after things like ‘smoothness’, ’roundness’, ‘thickness’… these are the closest thing to the real deal that I’ve heard in the realm of software. Lots of plugins slap the classic two-knob GUI on and call themselves emulations, but UA also modelled the distortion character of the hardware and what they come up with, while not exactly the same, is still an extremely useful and sweet-sounding form of grunge that I’d characterise as ‘hairy’ rather than ‘dirty’ or ‘gritty’.
In all, I think most producers of dance music would find plenty of uses for these plugins, even if they’re not the first-line weapon of choice. More colours on the palette is generally a good thing, so if you’ve got the scratch, you owe it to yourself to take them for a test drive. Enjoy!