A must-have live/recording sound processor
By Daniel Vincennes
You know what they say in Hollywood about special effects: the best ones are those you don’t even notice—they help you enjoy the scene or action taking place without drawing attention to themselves. And for many music effects, the same rule usually applies. When phasing first became popular in the 1960s with the advent of psychedelic music, the swirling sound helped create pictures in your mind as you listened to songs such as The Byrds’ “Wasn’t Born To Follow” or The Jimi Hendrix Experience’s “House Burning Down.” But, like any fad, the appeal of phasing faded and the effect often became tiresome. On the other hand, the judicious use of compression has been a time-honored effect that has enhanced many great recordings. You hear it being used almost all the time on most radio and TV programs because they often have to compete with a noisy environment in which softer passages would get lost. The Beatles used compression to great effect on many recordings including Revolver and Sgt. Pepper. In fact, professional musicians use it in just about every recording and live performance. Compression can be used so subtly that most listeners wouldn’t know it’s being used unless it was suddenly removed.
Now you can upgrade your home studio and PA with the same kind of compression used in famous recording studios. Best of all, you don’t have to make a major investment to acquire this powerful technology. That’s why I was eager to try out the MaxCom Dual-Channel Compressor from BBE Sound with my PA and home studio. (The MaxCom also includes BBE’s Sonic Maximizer which you can read about here.) Quite simply, the MaxCom acts as an automatic volume (or gain) control that increases gain for soft passages and reduces gain for loud signals. Good recorded and live vocals require a lot of dynamics, so only a little bit of compression should be used.
I was recently reminded of the value of having compression on your vocals when I performed at a small club using a PA that did not have a compressor. An experienced singer can compensate by working the mic carefully to avoid excessive peaks and distortion, but for me—a singer playing an instrument—having to pay extra attention to mic technique is a distraction. At a more recent gig I used the MaxCom with my PA. I took the output of the mixer through the MaxCom and into the amp that powers the speakers. I experimented with setting the Threshold Control—it determines at what input level the compressor kicks in and starts automatically adjusting the volume. During setup, I played around with the MaxCom settings and decided only a modest amount of compression was needed. Too much compression can result in a dull sound with all of the dynamics squished together. More extreme compression settings put an intimate breathy vocal—the kind that you hear on so many pop vocals these days—right in your face. When it came time for the show, the MaxCom produced a smooth, steady signal level without sudden jumps in volume. One benefit of having vocals or instruments without excessive peaks or distortion is that I put them more prominently in the mix—more upfront, which meant I didn’t have to strain my vocal chords by having to sing louder to compete with the other instruments.
“Squashing” acoustic guitar
The MaxCom helped provide a professional touch when I recorded a demo of a new song in my home studio. I had an acoustic rhythm guitar part that was being overshadowed by the other instruments. I used the MaxCom to reduce the dynamic range and “squash” the guitar’s signal to get as much ringing sound as possible from the acoustic guitar body. Paul McCartney used the same squashing effect for the acoustic guitar in The Beatles “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da.” To give you an idea of how the MaxCom works, here are the settings I used. I set the MaxCom’s Threshold control to –6dB, a more sensitive setting compared to the –3dB gain reduction setting for a normal (i.e., non-squashed) guitar part. Whenever the guitar signal went above the threshold the compression kicked in. I set the Ratio control on the MaxCom at 4:1, which meant for every 4dB increase in input level, there would be an output increase of only 1dB. Finally, I increased the Attack control time to allow the pick sound to come through. I increased the MaxCom’s Output control to compensate for loss of gain (volume) from the compression. While recording the guitar part, I used the Gain Reduction Meter to measure when and how much gain reduction was happening (it’s good to have visual reinforcement that an effect is working). A little compression from MaxCom helped smooth out the bass part as well. I backed on my initial compression setting that made the bass sound muddy. For my demo, I set the threshold at –3dB and the ratio at 4:1. The result: no more bass notes jumping out of the mix. McCartney would be proud.
As a D.I.Y. recording artist, I’m not the most consistent drummer. I tend to hit the snare drum a little too loudly on some beats. The MaxCom evened out my performance so I got the steady snare part my song needed. One part of my tune featured the drums and I decided it would be a good place to use the MaxCom’s Expander/Gate to create gated reverb. The gated reverb drum part was first heard on the Peter Gabriel song “Intruder.” To achieve the effect, I set the MaxCom’s attack to about one-half second to allow the initial drum hit. A very quick release time of about one-tenth of a second cut it off. When I hit the toms, the striking of the drum, enhanced by reverb, was quickly followed by silence. A very dramatic effect—when used sparingly.
There are some other cool applications for the MaxCom. You can route your PA’s equalizer through MaxCom’s Sidechain connector to identify and suppress feedback-causing frequencies, reduce noise in effects paths, and protect active or passive crossovers. For recording narration, the MaxCom can create voice-over compression to automatically reduce music to a background level when an announcer starts talking (“ducking”) and “de-ess” or remove excessive sibilance from the voice.
Features & Specs
- 2 channel compressor/expander unit with gate function
- BBE Sonic Maximizer adds clarity and definition
- Auto mode for easy setup
- Dual bar-graph meters for input level and gain reduction
- Stereo link for phase-coherent stereo compression
- Dynamically controlled, program-adaptive gate for noiseless and seamless operation
- Peak limiter to prevent clipping
- Balanced XLR and unbalanced 1/4" I/O
- Sidechain I/O via 1/4" TRS (Tip-Ring-Sleeve) connector
- Frequency response: 20Hz-20kHz
- THD.: Less than .05%
- S/N ratio: More than 94dB
- Threshold: -40dBu to +20dBu
- Compression ratio: 1:1 to 11:1
- Attack time: 0.1-200ms
- Gate threshold: Off to +10dBu