The Distressor is a compressor that hardly needs an introduction. The embodiment of a modern classic, you can find at least one (if not a pair) in every studio from LA, to Nashville, to Germany. Not just a brilliant Pulse Width modulation-style compressor – but the Swiss Army knife of saturation units as well. Pulse Width modulation, or PWM compression is an element used instead of the opto cell, VCA chip, or tube of other compressor designs and yields invisibly clean compression on its own most of the time – making it ripe for emulation circuitry to be placed after it. This is why the Distressor responds so well to a wide range of saturation and ratio options, allowing it to emulate units such as the revered LA-2A and 1176, as well as unique tonalities of its own. Other famous PWM compressors include the Crane Hill STC-8, Dave Hill’s Titan, the Great River PWM-501 and even vintage Pye units. What do these all have in common?
They are of the utmost quality and borderline dangerously high-end in nature. The Distressor takes this compression style and runs incredible distances with it, making it feel like you have a dozen different units in one box. However, with the surge of home and project studios, not everyone can shell out a few thousand for a Distressor. So what is the next best option? Well, Dave Derr and the rest of the ELI (Empirical Labs Inc.) team set out to design a world class plugin to fill a gaping void in many engineer’s and studio owner’s hearts. While the Arousor isn’t marketed as a 1:1 clone, the similarities, whether they are in functionality, sound/tonality, or aesthetics are unmistakable. There are a great many software emulations but Arousor is the only one created by the actual company who makes the Distressor hardware. It’s already renowned for being the most authentic and recently received a comprehensive face-lift with Revision 2.0.
“There are a great many software emulations but Arousor is the only one created by the actual company who makes the Distressor hardware.”
What’s it do, Mister?
“it adds a beautiful sense of life and aggression to the track which really helps it cut through the mix”
Naturally starting with a drum bus, I couldn’t help but smile when I got my settings where I wanted them. Anyone who has ever used a Distressor will be right at home here. Using it as a limiter on my drum bus by setting the ratio to 20:1 with a medium release and medium-fast attack, I was able to add tons of Distressor style punch to the track. I also drove the Soft Clipping section to around 8, which had the THD somewhere between “Hot” at 3% THD and “Toasty” aka 8% THD. That is a lot of total harmonic distortion but, just like the hardware, it doesn’t get harsh or brittle. Rather, it adds a beautiful sense of life and aggression to the track which really helps it cut through the mix. I love how much control you get over the saturation itself, even in comparison to the hardware. Next you have one of the features not present on the Distressor, the Attack Modification section.
This lets you further tailor the attack of the compressor, therefore giving you even more control over the compression behavior as well as the transient of the source. This quickly became one of my favorite sections, as it was similar to the attack section of many famous transient processors, but didn’t seem as rigid as many of them can be at times. I ended up setting it to around 3 or 4 to just get a tiny amount of extra crack from the snare and thud from the kick drum. What was a lot of fun though was throwing the Arousor on the parallel track of a snare, using the blend knob on the bus, or sometimes even in the actual snare chain and CRANKING the attack modification to add some earthquake inducing snap.
“What was a lot of fun though was throwing the Arousor on the parallel track of a snare.”
On the drum bus I also turned the sidechain HPF up to around 180Hz. I’m thrilled they included this in the design being that it’s one of my all-time favorite compressor features. Dave Derr at Empirical Labs has always been an innovator, which is obvious if you look at their product line. Keeping things in line with this mentality, they did one of the smartest things you can do when emulating hardware – including features possible “in the box” that would otherwise be impractical in the hardware unit or that they were unable to include at the time of release. While the hardware Distressor has a HPF and bandpass in the sidechain that you can activate, the Arousor lets you fully control the high pass filter to select the exact frequency where you want the compression to “stop”. From 12Hz it’s fully variable all the way up to 1,000Hz. In addition to that, what they’ve done in place of a fixed, high mid band emphasis feature is intricate enough that I’m going to have to touch on it later in this article.
“Dave Derr at Empirical Labs has always been an innovator, which is obvious if you look at their product line.”
The first time I tried out the Arousor plugin was actually over a year ago, when I first became aware of its existence at Summer NAMM 2016. I remember downloading a demo license (well before this magazine existed) and comparing it to a pair of Distressors that one of my session guitar players always has with him. I remember having to drive the Arousor harder than the Distressor, and use more gain reduction than the Distressor to get similar results, though once I found the sweet spot they were damn similar. Well, with the new Revision 2.0 this is no longer an issue. The metering has been adjusted so that it lines up much more accurately with a flesh and bone Distressor, so no more fiddling around trying to match your favorite settings. The new revision also only uses 1/3 of the CPU that Arousor 1.0 did, which is miraculous, and to me, a big deal as I often have to work at 96K. Arousor also got a graphical and interface upgrade which is nice because, truth be told, we all love working on the coolest looking plugins possible, even if sound is obviously king.
Next up, there was the classic vocal application. For this, I used a hip-hop track from an artist named Owen Stuart. Due to the nature of this style and the fact that it always takes focus and effort to get hip-hop vocals as up front and personal as possible, I knew it was appropriate. I also included some RnB vocals from Jamiah Hudson. It was when I was setting up my parameters that it really struck me how much each ratio affects the behavior of the compressor – just like the Distressor.
1176 + LA-2A Combo Trick
A 4:1 ratio is actually much more aggressive sounding than the opto (LA-2A) inspired 10:1 ratio. to emulate the classic 1176 followed by an LA-2A Combination take these two steps:
- First, put one, clean 4:1 instance of Arousor in the chain (with a cranked attack modification to emulate an edgy 1176)
- Follow this with a heavily saturated Arousor set to 10:1 in the chain to get that classic 1176 + LA-2A combo.
“…it really struck me how much each ratio affects the behavior of the compressor – just like the Distressor.”
The 10:1 ratio setting with added saturation (and no attack modification) was, much to my surprise, closer to my LA-2A (NOS tubes, carbon comp resistors, vintage UTC transformers, etc) than many dedicated LA-2A emulations and it certainly served as an awesome, infinitely more fine-tunable alterative (I included an example of this in the female vocal examples). This really conveys the Swiss army knife mentality of the Distressor into computer form, which is great, ‘cause I often only have a max of 2 Distressors on hand and almost never get to allocate them to applications such as this, since they regularly live on guitar and drum duty. That’s why, even as a guy who loves his hardware, it’s always fun to have a quality plugin emulation of a piece I already own or have access to. Anyways, after using a single 4:1 Arousor instance on the vocal, with the saturation turned up so that it was going back and forth between “Warm” and “Hot” settings, I realized how much I missed it when bypassed, which is something I always look for when making processing decisions.
“it’s always fun to have a quality plugin emulation of a piece I already own or have access to.”
Treating the vocals also allowed me to explore a practical situation to dive into another new feature added for Arousor 2. The “expert panel” of the wet/dry section. While a normal mix control is already invaluable for things like vocals, the ability to fine tune the level of the dry signal is a nice option to have, and I enjoyed the results when turning down the dry signal by about 2.5dB, and then turning the mix knob down some to let some more of the quieter dry signal in. This is perfect for the stage of mixing where you’re literally sitting around for hours making minute changes that on their own no one can hear, but after 17 of them it makes a big difference. You all probably know what
I’m talking about. Owen’s vocal really sat up in the mix, and the enhancement to the mids was easily counterbalanced by the low order harmonics keeping the sound from getting astringent and fatiguing.
“…the enhancement to the mids was easily counterbalanced by the low order harmonics keeping the sound from getting astringent and fatiguing.”
Back to me writing about Empirical Labs replacing the Distressor’s upper mid enhancement feature with something special, this is the first place that it really shined. Owen, having a very deep voice is often troubled by sibilance around 3.5KHz (even on a neutral microphone, angled down) right in the presence range. In addition to a de-esser (or multiband compressor) I was able to use the Detector Sidechain EQ of the Arousor, dime it in around 3.5KHz with a high Q (Rev 2.0 now allows you to adjust Q to .01), and boost. This made the compressor much more sensitive to that range, therefore applying more compression around 3.5KHz.
It isn’t every day that you get a compressor that can be both surgical and colorful, but this seems to be one of the few exceptions. With the promise of free upgrades till at least 2020, I am personally praying for a Detector Sidechain EQ “expert panel” allowing you to apply separate EQ and filtering to both the sidechain and the EQ… which would be fantastically versatile. I would also love a Soft Clipping section “expert panel” which allows you to fine tune exactly what kind of saturation you want. Even order? Odd order? Both? Variable blends between the two? Or even simply “Tube Style, Tape Style, Transistor Style”, etc. I believe if there was a set of “expert panels” to really take this emulation to the next level, those would be it. As it stands though, this is already in many ways an upgraded Distressor in terms of function, so the ground floor is already very high. It goes as far as to have the input gain affect the rest of the parameters, which is exactly what makes this type of unit so difficult to model, as so many parameters affect one another. In this case, you get a slew of extra parameters that are also co-dependent, like input gain affecting the Attack Modification.
Electric guitars are probably the instrument that I use Distressors on the most, and therefore, was likely the part of the test that I was most excited for since I myself do not own a pair – though I almost always track electric guitar through them. I do have regular access to them, which has delayed the purchase (even 4 full racks later) I know I’m going to make sooner or later. Unfortunately at the time of this review, Chris Condon (the session guitar player who owns the Distressors I regular use) was out of town since he is the bandleader and guitarist for Billy Ray Cyrus, of all people.
Luckily, I had about a dozen electric guitar tracks either tracked or printed through them that make referencing here very easy. Starting by putting Arousor 2.0 on the entire guitar bus, consisting of 4 stereo guitar tracks and one mono guitar track, the difference the ratio makes instantly became very clear once again. This is probably the most enjoyable part about the Distressor and therefore the Arousor. It’s like playing Russian roulette with great tone as you flick through varying possibilities and saturation amounts. So far with this test I have enjoyed at least some saturation
on almost every single application. The electric guitar bus was certainly no exception with a sweet spot between “Warm” and “Hot” levels quickly becoming apparent. Using the very moderate ratio of 2:1, I pushed the unit to compress by about 5-6dB with a medium attack and slow release to stick things in place, and then backed the mix knob down to about 70-75%. I also went for an attack modification value of around 5 or 6, and when I bypassed the compressor, I could hear this wonderful sense of three-dimensional space and lively coloration dissipate.
Not only this, but I dialed in some increased overall clarity by targeting the mud around 460Hz with the Detector Sidechain EQ on a medium Q, boosting around 3dB. This drastically cleaned up the busy electric guitar parts without actually sculpting that frequency range completely, which would have thinned everything out too much for my liking. So the guitars not only sound richer and larger, they also sound more detailed and end up with a tighter low end response that doesn’t cost them any body. Though I don’t think my use of Distressors will ever get fully replaced, this result (due to the parametric Detector Sidechain EQ) is a result I would not have been able to get with the hardware… which at the end of the day, is the reason I also love software. Again, especially when designers and developers utilize what software has to offer in ways that hardware cannot.
Never during my tests did Arousor 2.0 get ‘digital’ or spitty sounding, which seems to be the hardest part for ITB saturation processors. Maybe fully maxed out with a dimed saturation knob, far past “Pinned” (easily 20%+ THD… an INSANE amount), it doesn’t break up quite as prettily as an actual piece of hardware, but it’s darn close and much more musically pleasing than the vast majority of plugins. Don’t quote me, but it seems as if Rev 2.0 improved the oversampling or something of that nature, ‘cause based on my recollection, completely obliterating something with Arousor sounds way better than I remember with Rev 1.0. What this equates to is Pinned (14% THD) plus even a few notches actually sounding incredible – like way nicer than a digital saturation unit should sound. But it seems to have a tipping point where literally, if you go just the slightest amount past this point, things go into fuzz box mode in a variable fashion. Granted, to make this happen requires an absolutely stupid amount of THD that there is pretty much never a place for in a mix besides certain special FX, and even then, Arousor can gracefully hit 14% THD and beyond better than a lot of hardware can. And, I want to add that to simulate such extreme THD is probably the hardest thing you can possibly emulate, ‘cause it is taking the whole philosophy of using a perfect and linear system like a computer and using it to emulate a nonlinear, imperfect source like hardware. And THD is the literal embodiment of imperfect nonlinearities that just so happens to sound nice.
Though many of you may never even think to use a compressor/saturator like this on an acoustic instrument so, based on the great tracking sessions I’ve had with Chris Condon in the past, I wanted to briefly stick Arousor on acoustic guitar to see what would happen. And just like with the Distressors we are so familiar with, the opto (10:1) ratio is what I ended up sticking to and really enjoying. I normally use a compressor/saturator like this for pretty blatant tonal and dynamic manipulation, but in the case of acoustic instruments, this is a perfect example of how the Arousor like the Distressor (sorry to reference it a million times now, but look at those knobs) can be really great when used subtly. I bussed two dry acoustic guitars for the sake of this demonstration, and you can hear how just a tiny bit of saturation with a modest amount of gain reduction can really add some energy to the tracks. It isn’t in your face by any means, but in the case of an ultra dense mix where you want the acoustic guitar or other acoustic instruments to poke out some, this can really be a secret weapon to add both sustain and emphasis. Because at the end of the day, so much of this job is a series of very subtle changes that make a massive difference when they’re all combined.
Also worth noting is that I got no noticeable latency when recording with Arousor on the channel, meaning this is also a fantastic solution for recording sessions, and one I am going to use often when I don’t have access to a pair of Distressors… and likely even when I do. I can only imagine how insane the R&D cost was to emulate so many characteristics of such a complex piece of gear, and then adding all of these brilliant additions without having it alter the original sound. ELI regularly runs $100 sales on this (including until 09/30/17), so you can match that UAD mentality if you so wish. I think we’re spoiled nowadays with $75 emulations and $300 or less channel strip plugins, but I’ll admit that is an easy thing to get used to.
If you’re in the market for a compressor/saturator of this style though, keep in mind the old rule of thumb – that means infinite channels of Arousor for $350 (or $250) versus 2 channels for $3,000 (still completely worth it, as you all know). Arousor 2.0 not only has its own unique tool set, but it isn’t lacking a single Distressor feature either. If you are a studio owner or audio professional, I think this price is a no brainer, and is easy enough to justify.
If you’re just easing into a production career and you don’t yet know your arse from your elbow, well then it may be wise to wait for a sale to see what all the excitement‘s about. We can but hope that once some of the R&D cost is recouped that the price may fall and settle, as with so many other premium brands. When that day comes, I can easily see this being one of the top-selling plugins in the industry. For right now though, this versatile and valuable tool is a must have for career engineers.
“…this versatile and valuable tool is a must have for career engineers.”
Price and Availability
Empirical Labs Arousor weighs in at $349 USD ($249 Until 9/30/17), 290 Euro (210 Euro Until 09/30/17) and is available to buy from here.
**Arouser requires an iLok 2 or 3 USB Dongle
Compatible on Mac:
Mac OS X 10.7 or Higher, 32/64-bit AAX, 64-bit VST2, 64-bit VST3, 64-bit AU
Rev 2: Mac Only
Compatible on Windows:
Windows 7 or Higher, 32/64-bit AAX, 64-bit VST2, 64-bit VST3
Rev 1 (Rev 2 coming soon)
Pro Tools 10.3.5 (minimum Pro Tools Version)
Cubase 6 (minimum Cubase Version)
Logic Pro 9 (minimum Logic version)
- Every feature of the Distressor and then some
- Authentic hardware sound with digital versatility
- Free updates with new “expert panels” on the way
- High Price
- Parameters occasionally seem to skip in a non-variable way
- Revision 2.0 fixed the rest