I have a lot of compressor plugins. They’re easy to come by. Many are included for free with my D.A.W. of choice, Logic.
Many others are freeware offerings that are surprisingly great quality. Some are industry standards, like my Waves compressors, but the one I find myself reaching for in many projects I tackle is The Rocket by Stillwell Audio.
The Rocket is somewhat based on the hardware classic Universal Audio 1176 FET (field effect transistor) compressor leveller.
The 1176 is known for it’s ultra-fast attack time (20 microseconds) and combined with the sound of the FET’s and transformers in the circuit, which can give a very “cuddly” result, it’s always been a favourite in top studios. The other characteristic of the 1176 is that it can also be pushed into super aggressive territory, which is not so cuddly. This is because there are 4 choices of compression ratio on push buttons, at 4,8,12 and 20dB and it was discovered that all 4 buttons could be engaged together, so combined with the right attack and release settings and all buttons in there’s some serious squashing and distortion going on. In a mostly “musical” kind of way.
These qualities mean that the 1176 can be used as an artistic tool for it’s sound character , as well as a more conventional and very handy leveller that can jump on naughty peaks quicker than anything else. Faster than anything except The Stillwell Rocket, that is. The attack time of the Rocket can be set as quickly as 5 microseconds, which is so fast it’s virtually instantaneous.
Bear in mind that most compressors’ attack times are measured in milliseconds, not microseconds. Different ballpark altogether.
You can buy a current model hardware UA 1176 for around $3,500 in Australia and a vintage one could set you back thousands more than that. The Rocket, however, I bought for $49 US.
The other advantage of a plugin, apart from cost, is that I can use as many instances in a project as my computer can handle, whereas I can’t afford even one 1176.
Yes, there are differences between the Rocket and an 1176. One I have already mentioned. The Rocket is faster. The other difference is that to put an 1176 into overdrive, you simply turn up the input control until it starts to grunt. The Rocket achieves the effect by including a control labelled “Impetus”, which adds some breakup, sometimes called saturation to the signal. This is a very useful control when dealing with anaemic sounds that need some help to cut through in a mix.
The Rocket is very capable of achieving that 1176 super squashing effect and has the added bonus of a mix control, which is lacking in a real 1176 and means that you can use it for parallel compression without having to put it on an auxiliary send.
Apart from the usual Attack and Release , Threshold and Makeup Gain (here called Compensation) controls, there is also a button labelled “Decadence” which switches on oversampling mode, an auto compensation switch as well as a tunable high pass filter control for the side chain signal and the ability to access the side chain circuit from any other track. Very handy when balancing kicks with basses, for example.
The thing I like best about The Rocket is that it always sounds great! There is a stack of factory presets that are extremely good, and while a compressor is the one unit where using presets can be dangerous because it’s action is totally dependent on the level of the signal on your track, meaning that you have to adjust at least the threshold control to make it do it’s thing, it’s surprising how most of the presets work straight away and need very little tweaking to be ideal for the job. The Rocket can easily add brightness and clarity when used nicely, which is not always available with other compressor plugins. On the other hand, a preset like the one labelled “Sex and Drugs and Rock’n’Roll” (remember the late Ian Dury?) does exactly what it says on the can. It squashes the living daylights out of the signal and makes a drum kit breathe fire.
As I said earlier, I have a lot of compressor plugins that have their uses and sometimes are more appropriate for a situation than The Rocket, but if I had to choose one compressor plugin, my “desert island” comp would probably be this one. For now.
You can get yourself an evaluation copy for free here http://www.stillwellaudio.com/plugins/rocket-compressor/
If you like it, please buy it because you’ll never regret it and it really is a bargain price for such quality software. Another nice bonus is that your license will be good for 2 computers.
More good news – If your DAW of choice happens to be Reaper, you will get it for half price (for non commercial use).