5 – Empirical Labs Distressor
It was always inevitable that this list would contain a lot of vintage gear. The simple reason for that is that there really haven’t been many major developments in the world of compression for quite some time. Empirical Labs’ Distressor is one of the few exceptions.
A true modern classic with a sound all of its own, Dave Derr’s striking big-buttoned box, first introduced in 1995, has already assured itself a place in hardware history – and probably has a ubiquity in studios worldwide enjoyed previously only by Teletronix’s LA-2A.
The Distressor features a unique combination of digitally-controlled analogue circuitry, which offers users the best of both worlds: exacting control and a warm, chunky, sometimes vintage sound. Sound-wise, the Distressor is probably most often used to add heft and weight to basslines, snares and kick drums. But it’s a wildly capable beast: it can add excitement and energy to vocals and synths.
Flexible, powerful and with rock-hard balls when required, the Distressor is a modern-day desert island compressor; if we were allowed to choose just one unit from our list, the Distressor would be a strong contender. It’s an in-your-face, aggressive all-rounder which is ideally suited to electronic music. There’s even a stereo link option if your wallet’s fat enough to buy a pair.
Special mention also must go to the Fatso, which offers a near-unique combination of analogue tape simulation and compression.