(ED. NOTE: Lord Fader looked at this new offering from Waves in a studio setting, for the live take, see Erik “E-Rock” Rogers’ review from a few weeks ago.)
Back in the days when I was an Audio Padawan, every studio between here and Walin’or had dbx compressors in the control room. Some had the 165, others the 162 but the main one was the 160, which is now often referred to as the 160 VU to identify the presence of a VU meter, and distinguish it from the dbx 160x/160A/160XT (which are rather different animals).
Some of the semi-pro studios had the dbx 161. It looked like the 160 VU but had RCA jacks for the input and output and was (at the time) directed at the home hifi crowd, believe it or not. Sad to say those units didn’t see a lot of action and I’ll never understand why. They could crush overhead mics like no other compressor and cause pumping and breathing that would make Sith Alchemists jealous with rage. If you had a musician like Prozzen Fosky who simply could not play consistently, the 160 could flatten his takes like a Tima under Jabba The Hut’s rear end. Awesome.
Fast-forward to current times and those same dbx 160 VUs fetch 500 to a thousand bucks (Earth dollars) in good condition. Ahhh if only I could find a few at a Jawa flea market, but even the Jawa are hip to the market price. And of course when you buy something from a Jawa trader you never know if it might be an empty box filled with worthless rocks from Ord Cestus. There’s a rumor that Rayt has a stash of dbx 160s that he ‘liberated’ from an old analog studio on the StarForge Station but he won’t admit it (surprise surprise). That’s why it’s such good news that Waves — with the blessing of dbx — has issued the dbx 160 Compressor/Limiter plug-in.
Faithful to the original hardware dbx 160, the Waves dbx 160 plug-in has controls for Threshold, Compression and Output Gain. Threshold on the original was calibrated in milliVolts; the plug-in version’s Threshold control is scaled similarly. Two LEDs indicate compression status: amber means signal level is below threshold and red means signal level is above threshold. The compression knob is continuously variable from 1 to ∞ with marks at 1, 1.5, 2, 3, 4, 6, 10, 20 and ∞ : 1 ratios. Ignore these markings and turn the knob until you like what you hear. Output gain can be used to “make up” the loss of level that normally occurs during compression (remember: compression is also known as ‘gain reduction’).
Waves has added several controls not present on the original 160 which can remain in view (or not) by pressing the Collapse button.: Input, Mix, and Noise plus a switch to high-pass the sidechain circuit at 90 Hz so that bass content does not cause the compressor to pump. When the 160 plug-in is inserted on a stereo track you’ll also see Comp Mode buttons for Stereo (controls are linked between channels), Duo (left and right controls are independent) and MS which — as is all the rage these days —applies an MS encoding matrix, enabling separate treatment of the mid and side signals in a stereo image. YMMV on this one.
In stereo mode, you have the option of monitoring the left or right channel or you can listen to them summed in mono. When using MS mode, you may monitor the mid or side signal. A rather clever feature that Waves has added to the dbx 160 plug-in is the ability to calibrate the VU meter using the trim screw underneath the meter — just like the original. In the case of the plug-in, the meter can be set so that 0 VU is equal to anywhere from 0 to 24 dBFS. I left it set to the factory default of 18 dBFS. Three switches below the meter switch it between showing input or output level, or gain reduction.
To evaluate how closely the Waves dbx 160 plug-in emulates the original hardware device I paid a visit to Boles Roor’s Studio. He has two vintage dbx 161 VUs (the unbalanced version). One of them was a little flaky but the other was in good stead, enabling me to compare the hardware with the plug-in.
If you have never heard the original dbx 160, I feel sorry for you. It’s nothing like the later generation 160x/160A/160XT. The 160 VU makes kicks and snares pop, and even the most inconsistent of bass tracks sit in a mix with consistency. The Waves dbx 160 plug-in does exactly the same.
I A/B’d the hardware unit with the plug-in on kick, snare, overhead, bass, synth bass, electric and acoustic guitar and vocal and it was impossible to tell the difference between them.
The plug-ins ability to model the transient attack of the original was very impressive, as heard on vocal tracks where it behaved just like the original on “c” and “s” sounds. When used on drum overheads, the Waves dbx 160 made cymbals absolutely explode; turning off the plug-in made the drums sound more boring than Puttie.
The High-Pass sidechain filter is a nice option if you’d like to tame the onset of compression on signals with a lot of low-frequency content. I preferred to leave the HP SC off for drums but found it useful for avoiding pumping on male vocals and some guitars.
A stereo Waves dbx 160 was nice for a bit of compression on the stereo mix bus but when you try this be careful not to squash the life out of the mix. Speaking of mix, the Mix control is a welcome addition, because if you want to add just a taste of the 160 sound but want a taste of aggressive compression, you can dial up the compression and use the Mix control to ‘parallel compress’ i.e. mix in as much or as little of the effect as you want with the ‘dry’ signal — something that you can’t do with the original without a lot of bussing and patching. I found that 20 to 30% on the stereo mix bus worked very well, giving the mix a bit of punch (sorry) without being obvious.
I supposed the Noise control is supposed to dial up some of the residual noise characteristic of the original 160 but I did not really detect any difference in the noise floor, even with the Noise control at maximum.
Waves has certainly achieved their goal with the dbx 160 plug-in: they have successfully modeled the sound of the original 160 VU without trying to “improve it” while adding a few convenience features. The bottom line is that it sounds like the hardware unit — but the plug-in will never require service.