Leveling the playing field
It doesn’t get much easier than the good ol’ LA-2A. Being that it’s technically a leveling amplifier, meaning the attack, release, and ratio is fixed and program dependant, all you need to do is twist the two main knobs on the LA-2A, and the unit essentially does the rest – like driving a Tesla.
So far, one of the best days of my life was the day I received my Teletronix LA-2A in the mail. It was like a dream come true – one that I had been working towards from the very beginning… until I realized that FedEx broke it in transit, of course. The seller was kind enough to cover shipping and fix it for free. But my local FedEx driver must be a drunk, because it broke again on its way back from getting fixed. So come to think about it, maybe one of the best days of my life was driving back from my tech’s shop, mended LA-2A in hand. As much as I love my hardware, it’s always nice to have kickass plugin emulations to use in tandem.
Let’s say I’m using my LA-2A on lead vocals – as I regularly do, but man, it would sound killer on bass too. This is where plugins come in, and though the 2A has been modelled to death, the second I received my LA-2A, none of the plugins did it for me anymore. They may sound somewhat similar, but they just lack that wow factor I experience with the real thing. Maybe it’s the NOS tubes, carbon comp resistors, particular transformers used, or that little bit of magic stuffed inside every unit… Something was always lacking in comparison. Luckily for us, a team of former Plugin Alliance members started a new company, Black Rooster Audio, and hopped in to save the day with their VLA-2A.
The first thing I noticed about the VLA-2A versus my Teletronix LA-2A that got me really excited was that the compression characteristics were almost identical! All the way up to the point where I had the gain reduction set the same on my hardware unit and the VLA-2A. They were both performing the same amount of gain reduction.
This is incredibly uncommon as far as plugins go and I normally have to crank the plugin a little more to achieve the same level of gain reduction. Not in this case. In both instances, the compression itself stayed smooth and transparent, whilst the unit (or plugin) imparted the character – just how I like my LA-2As! The gain on the other hand was a little hotter using the plugin and, while I had the gain on the hardware unit set to 55, setting it to 40 on the plugin achieved unity gain. This can most likely be attributed to Black Rooster modeling an LA-2A that had a different set of tubes in it other than the NOS GEs I’m using and, certainly is by no means a bad thing. Naturally, the first thing I tried it out on was lead vocals and bass (DI) for a rock track. I was shocked at the amount of similarities versus the other, subpar LA-2A styled plugins I’ve previously auditioned (and that’s damn near all of em). They both added that overall “polish” to the source material due to the beautiful saturation imparted, with the differences lying in what frequencies were accentuated.
The VLA-2A seemed to bring out the mids more and had an airier top end, while the LA-2A had a thicker low end and more low mids. Again, this is neither a good or bad thing, and there are many cases in which I may actually find that the VLA-2A fits the mix better. I recently was recording vocals using a very low-end heavy ribbon microphone, and strayed away from the LA-2A since it made the vocals too thick to the point where they would get a little muddy in the mix. I did not have that problem with the VLA-2A, but I still got all of that LA-2A goodness. This leads me believe there’s a good chance that the VLA-2A modeled an LA-2A reissue, which is just as fantastic of a compressor, just slightly different in which frequencies are brought to front and center. Being that my LA-2A has all original parts, this could attribute to these subtle differences, but through and through, the VLA-2A is unmistakably still LA-2A in nature. The reissues are still selling like hot cakes, and for good reason. I actually prefer that it resembles a different sounding LA-2A, and does so extraordinarily well, since it is almost like owning two different units! Well, one and then infinitely many as far as the VLA-2A goes, which is another benefit of software.
Even if it wasn’t modeled after a reissue, and was modeled after a different sounding vintage unit, I think this tonal variation is fantastic and it certainly has a home within my studio. The true deciding factor was when I opened up the gain and drove the VLA-2A into heavy distortion. It sounded so similar that I actually had to double check that I didn’t accidently enable my hardware unit by mistake. This is one thing that plugins seem to always fall short on as far as analog emulations, so it is really incredible that Black Rooster Audio was able to replicate this so well where a small army of programmers have failed before. Upon further listening, my hardware LA-2A’s distortion seemed to showcase some frequencies slightly lower than the VLA-2A, but maybe only by 1000Hz or so.
Again, there is a slew of reasons why this would be the case on the unit they were modeling, and this is one more area that it gives me some added versatility. Also, I kept with the rule I established earlier in testing where I kept the VLA-2A’s gain knob down by 15, and man, it was spooky close. Turned up to 100, the VLA-2A breaks up into a really fuzzy distortion that I wasn’t able to do with the hardware without feeding it significantly hotter input levels, and I bet it would kick ass on some electric guitar parallel tracks, or even directly as an insert (depending on the genre).
This is without a doubt the best LA-2A plugin I have ever used. It gives that same ‘wow’ factor I’ve been searching for since SDII files were hot. If you don’t have thousands of dollars to drop on a real unit, this will get you as close as I’ve ever heard in the digital world. No longer are these authentic tonal possibilities locked away from all but the seasoned engineers or studio owners. It is a little different sounding, but so is one LA-2A to the next and, as I mentioned, I actually think this makes the plugin that much cooler. Just as authentic, but in a different way – like you’d expect in the real analog world. The one thing I would love to see as an update is the infamous screw on front of the compressor, (the more you turn it counterclockwise, the less it compresses the low end of what’s running through it). But, this is a very small detail and my only gripe. If you want some LA-2A character that’s impossible to break (twice) in transit, take the VLA-2A out for a spin. While part of me longs for thicker lows, not every LA-2A provides them the same way my personal unit does and, in the white hot world of software modelled Teletronix clones, the VLA-2A is the new king. It’s the LA-2A emulation we deserve and the first plugin version to ever turn my ice cold skepticism into genuine, unadulterated excitement.
“the VLA-2A is the new king. It’s the LA-2A emulation we deserve and the first plugin version to ever turn my ice cold skepticism into genuine, unadulterated excitement.”
- Most authentic LA-2A plugin I have used to date
- Incredibly realistic drive characteristics
- Spot on compression signature / behavior
- No “front panel screw” to control sensitivity to low end material
- Some may want slightly thicker lows
- I didn’t get hold of this plugin sooner