Dressed to Compress
Of all of the classic console designs, my absolute favorites are the vintage Neve desks. There’s just something magical about their sound – smooth, warm, full and massive. The 80 series consoles are no exception, epitomizing these qualities perfectly. Every part of the Neve 80 Series is incredible. From the rich yet detailed preamps, the powerful, forgiving and ultra-musical EQs, to one of the best compressors of all time – the 2254. There is a reason Blackbird Studios here in Nashville takes such pride in the Neve 8078 console that lurks in Studio A! I could go on and on about the history, but the short story is that it was derived from the 2253 broadcast compressor/limiter and, after a compression
sidechain was added to that design, the 2254 compressor / limiter was born. This unit came as standard equipment with both Neve broadcast consoles of the time, as well as their 80 series recording consoles. Unfortunately for us, great sound plus great history plus Neve almost always equates to big bucks. An original 2254 costs thousands and even a good reproduction will still set you back… thousands! Let alone an original racked matched pair (2254/E), which is so expensive that Vintage King has you contact them in person for pricing info. That’s never a good sign for the wallet.
Luckily for us, DIY hero Lindell and powerhouse distributor Plugin Alliance released, to much acclaim, the Lindell 254E which has been thoughtfully based on this classic design but sports a few added features. Their newest release based on this compressor, the 354E, takes that design and runs Forrest Gump-length distances with it, adding enough versatility to make your head spin. Having received a lot of mastering work recently, the 354E looked like it could be a dream prescription. A multiband, mid/side capable, sidechain HPF featured, mix knob equipped, 3 compression mode monster of a compressor plugin. Where do I even begin?
In Living Color
This test couldn’t have come at a better time, as I was currently mastering a country rock EP for a client. The first thing I noticed upon opening the initialized plugin is that untouched in either NIVEAU or even normal mode, the character is much more subtle than I expected. Until you start compressing and adding gain that is. This is great for mastering, since you aren’t immediately stuck with loads of color if you don’t want it, (but when you do, the unit lends plenty of beautiful, analog emulated color). The more you drive the gain and the more you compress, the more that beautiful vintage character becomes evident.
The unit also introduces no audible “virtual noise”, which is perfect for mastering and I’m glad the devs had the foresight to leave that aspect of the original units out. I’ve never understood this – one of the best things about software is that there’s no added noise, but many developers add a noise generator (normally louder than my actual hardware units) to ‘up’ the authenticity, which is fine, as long as I’m able to turn it off. This particular plugin saves you that step. Based on the initialized screen where each band had some gain applied, I immediately noticed something very cool. In addition to a compressor, you can also use this unit as a makeshift multiband and mid/side saturation unit, which simultaneously increases the gain of each band.
For instance, if I had a song to master, or a drum bus or bass to mix, where the low end was just, in general, way too quiet, I could set the low band to mid mode, set the frequency cutoff point, boost the gain, and boom, the low end’s level is brought up and gets a nice glaze of vintage style harmonic richness to it whilst keeping the low end from becoming overly ‘wide’ sounding. Of course, this isn’t the intended purpose of the unit, and it is far from surgical, but it sounded pretty cool as a tone shaping option. I can’t see myself regularly using it in this way, but I thought it was worth a mention due to the cool results I was able to get on a specific song from the EP.
“The compression itself on the other hand gives you everything you love about diode bridge compressors and so, so, so much more.”
Diode bridge compression is normally very colorful by nature, so Lindell giving us three compression modes to cover just about any situation you’d ever be in was a brilliant call. On the bottom right, you can select NIVEAU, which effects the sidechain by activating a filter that compensates for the typical -3dB an octave slope of music from the lowest to the highest frequencies. This offers an amazingly transparent (for this type of emulation) compression option reminiscent of the best mastering diode bridge compressors on the market today. To me, this compression mode is what really cements this compressor as a bonafide mastering-capable compressor, as well as giving the compression the subtlety I look for when processing vocals and acoustic instruments. Keep in mind that during mastering, unless the mix has serious problems the mix engineer is unable to fix, you want to keep the integrity of the original mix and not alter it too drastically, which NIVEAU mode really excels at. Above NIVEAU, you have NUKE, which is an overloaded, obliteration mode that squashes the hell out of anything you put it on, and lends a massive amount of coloration / harmonic distortion to everything it touches.
This is drum room, microphone heaven and can make drum room recordings absolutely jump out of the monitors. Another great application is on a parallel bus for rock or pop vocals, heavy electric guitars, etc, but they thoughtfully put a parallel mix knob right on the plugin so you can bypass the routing stage if you so wish, which also ensures tight phase. It’s features like this that really show you the devs aren’t just devs, but also engineers themselves. Below both of these is the option to link all three bands together; allowing you to control this unit as a pseudo stereo unit if full-blown multiband compression isn’t necessary on a particular application. With all three of these buttons disengaged, it is your classic 80 series style compression that we have grown to know and love over the decades. More aggressive than NIVEAU, but far less blatant and aggressive than NUKE, this makes for an amazing guitar, drum, and keyboard / synth compressor, or just about anything you want to add a bit of bite to. If keeping vocal compression as transparent as possible isn’t a priority on a given project, this mode is an excellent candidate for that as well. I absolutely fell in love using it this exact way on some female RnB vocals, where the 354E was able to contribute perfectly to the vibe of the song and added a bit of punch, top end clarity and removed some mud from the ribbon mic used.
When I bypassed it (set to unity gain), the vocals seemed flat and lifeless in comparison, which has me extremely excited to try out this mode and NIVEAU mode on tons of future vocal tracks. Even in NIVEAU mode, this compressor imparts a little something to whatever it touches, though far, far more subtly than I ever expected from an emulation of this type. What I (completely by accident) discovered last, even after I sent in the first revision of this review, is that you can engage both NUKE and NIVEAU modes at the SAME TIME. What this does is give you the crazy overload characteristics of NUKE, but smooth out some of the pumping. This is incredibly interesting and would come in handy when you want the extreme coloration of NUKE without the extreme compression artifacts. I’d say there is still room for ultra-transparent multiband compressor plugins in your arsenal (linear phase, etc), but when you want amazing tone and dynamic shaping capabilities with a bit of mojo, this plugin has you covered.
The 345E takes the best of the old and new, and presents it at a fraction of the cost of the less featured vintage units. As I started to dig deep, part of me longed for an option to have the ability to compress both the mid and side sections of each band separately, effectively turning this unit into a 6 band compressor. For instance, being able to set the middle band to mid mode, compress 3dB, and then switch the middle band to side mode and compressor the middle band by 1dB while all of the mid compression data/parameters stayed put would have been incredible. I would get stuck down the rabbit hole for weeks with that one, but you’re still able to do this by opening a 2nd instance of the plugin and having all the bands of one instance set to side, and all the bands of another set to mid if your CPU will allow it. I personally have what many would consider a monster CPU, but a great many systems may struggle with just a few instances of this plugin.
For mixing more than mastering, a dedicated drive control would have been very much welcomed as well, allowing it to fully be utilized as a multiband + mid/side saturation unit without having to affect the gain. Another amazingly intuitive feature that is included though is the option to adjust the gain pre or post compressor from within the GUI, allowing you to drive all bands at once and/or match the gain so that when you bypass the plugin there is no change in volume to trick your ears. This is absolutely indispensable for mastering, as well as just about any other application if you ask me. You can also engage oversampling to a higher extent than I have ever seen, which any engineer can appreciate. I typically work at 96K myself, but for projects where you are working at a lower sample rate or you are sent stems / mixes in a lower sample rate, you can engage oversampling up to a whopping 16x to ensure you don’t have any issues with the anti-aliasing filter due to the beautiful harmonics this unit produces.
The original 2254 and the similar 33609 are some of the most famous drum compressors of all time. You know what’s even better than that though? A version where you can separately target the kick, snare, and hi hat all within the same compressor, treating the compression of each drum entirely different. I took full advantage of this possibility… locking the kick drum in place to keep the mix from getting muddy, compressing the snare with a slow attack and fast release to get sound barrier breaking punch (or using the opposite settings for more body), and smoothing overly bright cymbals, all in one instance. And, I was able to do it QUICK. That’s another great feature of Lindell’s newest creation. Though it is overflowing with features and possibilities. The compression controls themselves are very familiar and extremely straightforward. The GUI is also beautiful and well laid out, allowing you to accomplish whatever you are going for with ease. If you’re not familiar with multiband compression, like any processor of this type, this compressor may take some time to fully learn. But I’m confident that if you know your way around a typical broadband compressor, you’ll enjoy every second of tweaking and experimenting. A manual is also kindly included with the plugin that you can access at anytime from the GUI. If you are well versed in this type of signal processing, this unit is a dream come true.
“That being said, it’s still likely going to take me weeks to fully explore everything the 354E has to offer, and that’s a great thing if you ask me.”
Compatible on Mac:
OS X 10.8 – 10.12, AAX, AU, VST2, VST3
Compatible on Windows:
Windows 7 – 10, AAX, VST2, VST3
- Mid/side, multiband and linked operation
- Runs the gamut of colors from transparent to filthy
- Set up for mixing or mastering
- Each band is limited to either mid OR side mode
- No dedicated drive control
- Somewhat CPU heavy, as expected