The (almost) simultaneous launch of the 1176 and LA2A software versions by IK Multimedia and Native Instruments is a good opportunity to make a quick comparison. Let’s go!
Some hardware products —instruments, signal and effect processors— have a kind of Holy Grail status. Among studio processors —and regardless of their denomination: limiting amplifiers, leveling amplifiers or just compressors— the Teletronix LA-2A and Urei/Universal Audio 1176 LN, as well as the legendary Fairchild 660 & 670, which are extremely rare to find (we saw a unit sold for $42,000 on ebay…), are highly regarded pieces of gear you’ll still find in big studios either as original or reissue versions. Many recording studios also use more or less faithful replicas of the originals designed by manufacturers ranging from Studio Electronics to Purple Action that (mostly) have a great sound quality. It’s simple: these legendary tools can be heard on almost every album ever produced since they were first introduced.
As expected, the software world also has its own interpretation of these legends. Since the early attempts by Bomb Factory to the latest products by IK Multimedia and Native Instruments in collaboration with Softube, and including the existing Universal Audio, URS and Waves products, the market is packed with software simulations.
We do not intend to review all software versions (they are too many) nor to compare them with vintage or modern hardware products. We just want to compare two manufacturers and use the same plugins for Universal Audio’s platform UAD-1/2 as a reference, without neglecting the performance of the original processors and some hardware replicas. Note that Native Instruments’ Vintage Compressors bundle also includes the famous dbx 160 compressor, which we won’t take into account for this review.
Introducing the Plug-ins
MacPro Xeon 3.2 GHz
IK Multimedia T-RackS3 Black 76 and White 2A v.3.5.1
Native Instrument Vintage Compressors VC 76 and VC 2A
UAD-2 UAD 1176 LN and UAD LA-2A v.5.9.1
Native Instruments decided to collaborate with Softube, a manufacturer that has launched quite exceptional plugins — I can’t seem to get enough of — like the Acoustic Feedback and the Tubetech CL 1B. I haven’t had the opportunity to try out their reverbs and amp simulations yet, but other user’s feedback is very promising. So let’s start with the Urei 1176 LN and Teletronix LA-2A emulations (VC 76 & VC 2A) conceived for Guitar Rig 4, like the other Studio Effects of the manufacturer. The good news is that the Guitar Rig 4 player is free. The bad news is that you can’t use the plugins unless you have the manufacturer’s guitar multi-effect. Available for Mac (Intel only) and PC in 32-bit and 64-bit versions, the bundle —including the host (GR4 or GR4 Player) plus the plugins— supports AU, VST and RTAS formats and includes a standalone version. As always, activation is done via the Service Center.
As their name already implies, IK Multimedia’s T-RackS Black 76 and T-RackS White 2A were conceived to work within T-Racks 3, but also as individual 32-bit or 64-bit plugins to be used directly in any DAW that supports AU, VST or RTAS. As usual, to activate them you’ll have to use the Authorization Manager.
As for Universal Audio’s UAD 1176LN and UAD LA2A plugins, they are only available for the DSP cards developed by the manufacturer, from the UAD-1 to the UAD-2 Quad. Our card uses OS 5.9.1. The plugins are Mac and PC compatible, they support 32-bit and 64-bit operation (only the card drivers actually work in 64 bits, the plugins still operate at 32 bits and require a bridge), and work with AU, VST and RTAS.
Did you ask for the 1176…?
All software manufacturers took their inspiration from the LN version of the FET 1176 compressor. LN (for Low Noise) means that the product includes a modification made by Mr Plunkett, engineer at Urei, who wanted to reduce the noise. You can recognize it by the famous black front instead of the traditional burst aluminum front with blue stripes around the VU-meter. These versions, referred to as C, D and E, are the most venerated. From a technical and audio standpoint, FET compressors contributed the principle of adjustable ratio, as well as much shorter attack and release times compared to competitors using Vari-Mu or optical designs.
IK Multimedia designed its plugin based on an E model. Neither Native Instruments nor Softube give any information on this matter. However, Softube’s experience developing the FET Compressor was certainly an advantage for Native Instruments. UA doesn’t give any information about the model either. Anyway, all three have a very similar sound character, just like signal processors that use only analog components (don’t forget that every unit sounds slightly different than the other, even if it’s the exact same version).
As for the features, except for the major innovation in the form of a stereo version (we’re talking about the 1176, not the Urei 1178 stereo version), UA stays faithful to the original. Thus, you get all the original features users like so much for their ease of use: a pair of big controls for input and output adjustment, two smaller Attack and Release knobs, four Ratio buttons (4:1, 8:1, 12:1, and 20:1) including an All-Buttons mode, and four VU-meter buttons (Off, +4, +8, and GR). However, you don’t have the possibility to set the Attack control to Off, which would switch the compressor to ratio 1:1, meaning you could process the signal without compression in order to get only the device’s sound character. All three manufacturers reproduced the (confusing, at least in the beginning) operation of the controls: the fastest attack time is not hard left (1) but hard right (7). The same applies to the release. Attack times range from 20 to 800 microseconds (yes, micro!), while release times range from 50 to 1,100 milliseconds.
Native Instruments and IK Multimedia added some modifications. IK Multimedia added four snapshots, taken from T-RackS’s architecture, plus L/R and M/S buttons allowing the user to choose between one of the two operating modes (well done!). Three additional buttons (L, R and =, where L and R become M and S in M/S mode) allow the user to process the two channels of a signal separately or together. IK Multimedia’s version also displays the setting values, but they don’t quite match reality, at least for Attack and Release, which is a pity. What’s the use of adding values if they have no meaning… The All-Buttons mode is accessible via a dedicated knob. Ratio 1:1 is available clicking the Off button under the Attack control. You also have Bypass and Reset buttons.
In Native Instruments’ version, a Ratio slider replaces all four original buttons but offers all usual values (4:1 to 20:1 plus All-Buttons mode). The 1:1 ratio replaces the bypass button under the Attack control. The VU-meter management also changed: you can display the input level, output level and gain reduction. The plugin comes with a preset menu accessible via the advanced settings. The side-chain input (great for techno/electro fans) comes with a slider that allows the user to adjust the amount of direct signal so that parallel compression is possible by adjusting the output level (which has no effect on compression itself). Unlike Softube’s FET Compressor, note that you get no continuous Ratio setting.
Now let’s take a closer look…
So, what should you choose, Native Instruments or IK Multimedia (UA doesn’t count because it was only used as a reference)? It’s a difficult question because both options provide advantages and good sound results. Will these plugins replace real 1176LN and LA-2A hardware processors? No. Does their performance match the original hardware versions? Yes, except for some applications (All-Button mode, transients management in given situations, settings and/or VU-meter calibration). Is it possible to do a good job with them? Yes. Software manufacturers benefit from the ever-increasing computer performance and offer more authentic emulations every time. Take for example the 24/7, which was considered a really good plugin when it was launched…
And these tools are affordable, which is not the case of the hardware gear they are based on. Each IK Multimedia module is sold for €89.99 and can be used in T-Racks. The Native Instruments bundle (including the three compressors) is sold for €199, while single plugins go for €99; and Guitar Rig Player 4, which is required for their use, is free. Moreover, both manufacturers offer fully-usable demo versions, which is an excellent way for you to expand on this comparison.
To read the full detailed article see: Vintage Compressors Review