I would like to start by saying that this review will hopefully be the first of many. Having been a long time fan of ‘outboard gear’, but not really having many pieces of my own, I decided that I would step outside of the digital-only safe zone and take the leap into the analogue domain by purchasing the hardware equivalents of the plugins that I had grown to know and love. By focussing only on equipment that I am already familiar with (albeit in software form) I figured that I would not only be able to improve the quality of my mixing and production but also provide side by side comparisons between said pieces of equipment and their software plugin counterparts, which may prove useful to other people in a similar position.
So without further ado, on to the review of my first hardware purchase, the venerable DBX 160A Compressor…
Originally introduced in the 1970s, the DBX 160 and its subsequent variants have proven hugely popular over the years and still take pride of place in a great many professional and home studio setups to this day. Often utilised on drums, the 160 is renowned for being able to improve the punchiness of transient sounds, adding a characteristic ‘snap’ and ‘crack’ that helps kick drums and snares cut through a mix with ease.
I have to admit to being largely ignorant of the DBX 160 and its legacy up until fairly recently, whereby I learned about it courtesy of a few episodes of Pensado’s Place on Youtube. Intrigued and keen to try it out for myself, I discovered that I actually already owned a plugin version, in the form of the Softube/Native Instruments VC 160, which had come bundled with Komplete 10 Ultimate. I was instantly hooked.
Up until this point I had pretty much exclusively used Urei 1176 or SSL Buss Compressor variant plugins for drum duties, but the effortless way in which the 160 added it’s own flavour of punchiness to the source material pretty much instantly assured its place as one of my go to software compressors. In fact it impressed me so much that, for the first time, I set out to buy a version of the real thing, and after a quick visit to a popular online auction site I was the proud owner of my first hardware compressor, the DBX 160A.
The 160A comes in standard 1U rack size, with a predominantly black faceplate with white lettering, and a number of small LEDs that illuminate to show which functions the unit is currently undertaking; this includes a useful metering section that can show the audio input/output levels and the amount of gain reduction that is being applied at the given time.
The controls on the front consist of three different coloured, medium-sized rotary pots that control the threshold, compression ratio and output gain, and four small buttons that allow you to put the unit in bypass mode, ‘slave’ to another 160A unit (for stereo pairing), switch in/out the ‘Overeasy’ mode (essentially a soft knee option) and switch the LED meter to display either the input or output level. The rotary pots are non-detented and provide just about the right amount of resistance to allow you to make quick changes without worrying about overshooting your mark.
On the back of the unit are two balanced input sockets (one 1/4″ jack and one XLR), one balanced XLR output and one unbalanced 1/4″ jack output. There is also a meter calibration option and 1/4″ jack ports for ‘Stereo Strapping’ to another 160A and for a ‘Detector Input’ (side chain signal). It is worth pointing out here that if a jack is placed into the ‘Detector Input’ port then this will automatically cause the unit to use the signal from the external side chain (even if no audio passes through it) to trigger the compressor instead of the internal audio signal; I had not realised this when connecting the unit to my patch bay and so I now have to send out a duplicate signal of the audio that I wish to process into the Detector Input in order for it to work. Although this is only a small gripe, it certainly had me scratching my head for a few minutes trying to figure out why it wasn’t working.
The 160A is very simple to use owing to the fact that there are only three rotary pots to play with, and as such I found that I could very quickly dial in the sound that I was after. The attack and release times are program-dependent, with the attack time decreasing and the release time increasing as the gain of the input source increases; some may argue that this limits the degree of control that you have over the amount of processing applied, but I found it to be quite refreshing to essentially just let the 160A ‘do its thing’, only tweaking the input gain where I felt it necessary.
Even with all the controls set the ‘neutral’, just passing a signal through the unit seems to imbue it with a certain pleasing character, adding a touch more body through the addition of some subtle low mids.
In order to help demonstrate my findings during this review, I have included a number of audio samples so that you can essentially hear what I was hearing; I realise that by the time you do hear them they will have been re-encoded and likely downgraded in terms of quality (thanks to the upload process) but you’ll hopefully get the gist.
Given that the 160 is often used on drums I decided to follow suit and (in the absence of a real drummer) knocked up a quick two bar rock pattern using Native Instruments’ Studio Drummer. I exported each of the individual drum elements (kick, snare, stereo overheads, mono overhead and room) onto separate tracks, gave them a quick tweak using Waves’ ever reliable SSL E Series EQ plugin and ended up with the following:
The drum sample sounded OK but I wanted to add more snap to the kick and snare, so I set about feeding the kick and snare tracks through the 160A to see what I could get; of course I had to do this individually as I only have one unit. I worked on the kick drum first and found that by setting the threshold to -2dBu, the ratio to 1:8:1 and output to +1dB it removed some of the boxiness and added just the right amount of ‘click’, helping it punch through the mix. For the snare I wanted a slightly more presence, so I set the threshold to -2dBu, the ratio to 4:1 and the output to +3dB, which added a pleasing amount of extra ‘snap’ to the sound but without it being too ‘in your face’.
To offer a direct comparison between the hardware and software I also processed the kick and snare tracks using the VC160 plugin, attempting to achieve a sound that was as close to the hardware as I could get. Of course not knowing which exact variant of the DBX 160 the VC 160 is based on meant that there was always going to be a certain sonic disparity between the plugin and my (14 year old) 160A, and the fact that the plugin’s threshold setting is measured in milivolts as opposed to dB resulted in it taking me a fair while longer to come close to the sound I had achieved with the hardware. To replicate the kick sound I set the threshold to 135mV, the ratio to 1:9:1 and the output to +0.9dB, and for the snare I set the threshold to 128mV, ratio to 5:4:1 and output to +3.8dB.
For direct comparison, here are the results of the kick and snare in isolation:
Kick Sample – No Compression
Kick Sample – 160A Hardware
Kick Sample – VC 160 Plugin
Snare Sample – No Compression
Snare Sample – 160A Hardware
Snare Sample – VC 160 Plugin
To my ears the hardware just edges past the plugin, providing a more solid, present sound. With the snare in particular, I found that the 160A added a little more body, whereas the VC 160 added a slightly airy character and retained more of the ambient tail, which in turn made it sound a little more washy. The VC 160 still proved effective though and it was initially hard to distinguish between the two kick variants.
How well did the kick and snare variants fare in the overall mix though?
Drum Sample – No Compression
Drum Sample – 160A Hardware on Kick and Snare
Drum Sample – VC 160 Plugin on Kick and Snare
Pretty darn well I think, on both counts. The VC 160 definitely provided the presence and punch that the kick and snare needed to stand out in the mix without being too dominating, which is why it has become one of my favourite dynamics processors, and I felt that the 160A went slightly beyond by adding an extra subtle clarity and sheen that helped to give the overall mix a more grounded sound.
I also tested the unit with some bass and electric guitar samples and found that subtlety was definitely the order of the day, as with only a couple of dBs of compression applied, both sources sounded fuller and more defined, with the electric guitar also sounding slightly less harsh than before. The ‘Overeasy’ mode came into its own here too as it seemed to produce a slightly more transparent effect that sacrificed a little bit of punch for an overall smoother sound; ideal for when you’re just looking for simple transient smoothing rather than up front presence.
So overall, would I recommend the DBX 160A? Definitely. You’d be hard pushed to find another hardware compressor that provides as impressive results within the price bracket (especially when you can buy a stereo pair for less than the price of most mono compressors), and the relatively simple interface allows you to achieve repeatable results fast.