12 – dbx 160
Widely considered to be one of the finest VCA compressors ever built, the diminutive DBX 160A, first introduced in 1971, is all about the ‘knock’.
The solid-state 160 (sometimes referred to as the 160 VU in reference to its prominent front panel VU meter) is unusual for a VCA model in that it displays distinct nonlinearities, making it a character piece, and like many of the other early compressors, the 160 has a very simple front panel, with only three dials – for threshold, compression and output gain.
Sound-wise the hard-kneed 160 isn’t exactly flexible, though what it does it does very well. Which is, specifically, a rough, warm and grainy punch which can be highly effective on bass parts – synthesised or real – reinforcing both intelligibility and presence. In electronic music production, the 160 has found uses to bring out the ‘knock’ and thwack of drum sounds – particularly kick, snare and clap – for an unmistakably punchy sound. Sure, it’s a bit of a one-trick pony, but it performs that trick almost perfectly.
Original 160s appear on the second-hand market fairly regularly, but be sure to track down the original model if you’re looking for the classic sound. Dbx have made numerous similarly named products (the 160X, 160XT, 160 SL, 160 A…) over the years and all of them sound slightly different. The 161 is virtually identical to the 160 but has unbalanced inputs and outputs.